Ben Parker is a 3rd year Psychology major at Dalhousie University.
He also enjoys dinosaurs.
And sailing, sailing is fun too.
Class raised a number of points I found interesting this week, which I suppose is the goal of these opening classes. The connection between language, thought, and brain anatomy is a fascinating one, perhaps because it is so readily relatable. One case I was surprised we didn’t cover, at least not yet, was that of Genie, the feral child from California discovered in the 1970s. She was deprived of and actively punished for any use of language for the first 13 years of her life. As a result, she showed drastic deficits on auditory neurological tests, to the point of resembling a left hemispherectomy. While she showed remarkable recovery overall and it is clear that she is capable of thought, emotions, and desires, her use of language has not recovered to the point of normalcy. I am curious as to whether this deficit would be noticeable as some form of anatomical atrophy that could be detected on a structural MRI or CT scan. It would be also be interesting to perform some of the neuroimaging tests we discussed in class, particularly an fMRI or PET scan, or perhaps a Wada test, in order to see what portion of her language functions remained localized in her right hemisphere after her speech therapy. It also raises an interesting question about speech lateralization in general. If such drastic environmental deprivation results in total neglect of the left hemisphere in the development of language, can a milder form of environmental deprivation account for the right hemisphere language lateralization we observe in the general population? However, none of the information I’ve encountered on Genie has ever mentioned her handedness, perhaps she was left handed and the right lateralization is less remarkable than it seems, although that would be a somewhat large coincidence.
This week we started speech perception, which is my topic that I will be dealing with for my chapter. Unfortunately I was unable to make class on Friday, but looking over the slides, I was reminded of a video that I found on my journeys across the internet that dealt with the interaction of speech perception as an auditory and as a visual process. You can watch the video here. Called the McGurk Effect, it's a really fun way to illustrate the complexities of human speech perception, and makes you question how much of our speech is actually "heard" through the ear and how much is a result of top down processing and contextual factors. This serves as just another illustration of why speech recognition programs can be more difficult to design and implement than we first expect.
The research involving spectrograms, sound splitting, and recreating sounds really piqued my interest. The idea of "playing" with sounds like that and examining the impact of different modifications to the sound on how that sound is perceived is intriguing. In the book, This is Your Brain on Music, I read about a study where they examined the perception of various instruments. They recorded the sounds, and then edited them, cutting off the initial sound, or the "attack" as they called it, of one instrument, and then attaching it to the rest of the sound from another instrument. If I remember correctly, the resulting chimera sounds wreaked havoc on the participants ability to identify the instruments, and they more often identified the chimera by the instrument giving the attack, even though that lasted only a matter of milliseconds, and the other instrument making up the rest of the sound played for several times longer. I'm curious to see if a similar effect could be produced in human voices and speech, or if the lack of distinct breaks between words would make speech too fluid and sustained to be able to maintain the effect past a word or two.
From an engineering perspective (or perhaps more due to my lack of one) I found the process of drawing sounds and then playing them back fascinating. Though the results were sub-par, I wonder if a more comprehensive and detailed printout of a recorded spectrograph put through this reverse sound generator device would be more recognizable. I'm also curious as to whether a detectable difference exists between spectrographs of a man's and a woman's voice on a spectrograph, or if most of the differences are too subtle to be detected by eye on paper and need to be heard instead.
Although we didn’t have much in the way of class this week due to inclement weather and Munro Day, the class we did have on morphology was interesting enough to keep me thinking for the week. What grabbed my attention most was how inflection can constitute its own form of morpheme. As soon as I was told this in class, it immediately made sense, but for some reason it had never occurred to me in previous classes on the topic. When conversing with people who all have the same native language as you , it goes almost entirely unnoticed, but when you are speaking with someone not as familiar with the rules, any violation becomes immediately apparent, not unlike the violation of some social norms, such as personal space. To me this implies that, though mostly unconscious, inflection is an absolutely critical part of the English language, and made me wonder what it would be like with that inflection mostly removed. I’m sure it could still be mostly functional, but it would certainly lose a lot of the subtlety that makes works of art in literature and theatre possible.
An interesting aside for the sci-fi fan, the folks at BioWare toyed with this idea in Mass Effect with their species the Elcor, who’s complex and subtle language based on minute gestures and different scents often led to misunderstandings with other species. Eventually, they learned to speak English in monotone, and simply preface every sentence with an emotional context. You can watch the often hilarious results here.
This week in class we talked about Watson, the IBM supercomputer built to beat Ken Jennings at Jeopardy!. While fascinating in its own right, the possibilities for other applications I find much more interesting. For example, since a large percentage of Jeopardy! questions involve a "trick" of some sort (such as a pun or other wordplay), it is clear that Watson must be able to take a step back from the literal words themselves and contextually assess them for deeper meaning, detecting the "trick" and compensating for it accordingly. In that vein, I am curious as to whether or not some variation on Watson's programming would be able to function as a lie detector. What aspects of our vocalizations change when we lie? Anecdotally, it seems clear that our tone changes, and it seems likely that word choice and pacing could all vary. The problem I suppose would be a lack of consistency across subjects, but the possibility seems tempting. I'm sure that when initially proposed, the idea that a computer could successfully play Jeopardy! seemed virtually impossible, so I see no reason why this seeming impossibility would be any more impossible.
I spent the majority of this week curling in the Dominion Club Provincial's Championship, which is why I missed class on Friday, and thinking that I would have very little to write about as I had to miss class 2 times this week. However, I soon found that science truly is everywhere, as within a few minutes of being on the ice, I found myself pondering several speech perception problems. In curling, communication and precision are very important, and small changes can have a huge impact on the results of a shot. For example, when throwing a take out, there are a number of different weights (speeds) that you can throw the rock, which are (in descending order of force): peel, firm, normal, and control. However, at higher levels, some teams introduce up/down variations on each of those four levels, up peel, peel, down peel, up firm, etc. Which to me, having played at a very high level, I understand the need for such subtle distinction, but intellectually it seems somewhat redundant, and thinking of it psycholinguistically it seems that the added levels may have an undesirable effect, depending on how the thrower parses the instructions. With the call of "up normal" the intention is to DEFINITELY throw less than "firm", but to throw a bit more than "normal". I thought it would be interesting to collect measurements and see if this is what actually happens, or if people instead are primed by the initial modifier "up" and instead become fixated on throwing more weight than normal, which is more likely to result in a throw closer to "firm" than if they had been given the instruction "down firm" which, if the same effect is observed, would result in a throw more closely resembling "normal", despite the fact that "down firm" is technically considered to be a call for even more weight. This could potentially be complicated further by the individual team's choice of adjectives to use as up/down modifiers. For example, the team I just played with used solid/soft, as up/down respectively. Would these more semantically active and imagery/sensation loaded adjectives have a stronger effect?
Also of interest are sweeping commands. These need to be given, perceived and acted on in extremely short time slots. However, many of the terms commonly used which are semantically relevant to the order, eg. go/right up (DO sweep), no/right off (DO NOT sweep) are also very phonologically similar, which often results in confusion and incorrect responses, or at the very least potentially damaging hesitation. It would be interesting to see if training the team to use semantically arbitrary words that were more phonologically disparaging, e.g. grape(YES)/zebra(NO), would perform better than teams that used the seemingly more intuitive semantically applicable instructions.
One topic that has come up both in and outside of class this week has been the concept of universal aspects of language. Are there any components or constructs of language that can convey meaning even if the listener is not intimately familiar with the source language? In class, we briefly touched on this considering music as a language, and there was some data presented suggesting that there is a degree of cultural sensitization that occurs over time and with experience. Intuitively, I feel as though this sensitization must only be for more minor technicalities of the music that an untrained ear may not distinguish readily anyway, although that may not be the case. I would be interested in performing tests to see if their is any universality to the "affective state", for lack of better terminology, of music. For example, does Clint Mansell's Requiem For a Dream evoke the same feelings of unease and tragic urgency in other cultures in the same way it tends to in the Western culture it was written for? Does this excerpt of soundtrack stir up the same feelings of relaxation and contentedness as the scene it represents, even in people who have never heard it in context? If so, what elements of the music are responsible for that, and are those elements present in other more communicative forms of language? If that is the case, are there ways we could better use those elements to communicate with those who don't speak our language(s)?
I stumbled across a real-life example of how this information could be useful in watching the documentary, Into Eternity. The film discusses the creation of vast, underground, nuclear waste storage facilities which, once completed, must remain sealed for 100 000 years before the material becomes safe again. One major concern the designers face is how, or if, to warn future generations of the dangers inside. Should we mark them at all, or would the enigmatic nature of the warnings serve only to ignite the curiosity of future generations? If we do warn them, what is the best way to do so? How do you convey information to a listener, or reader, or viewer, without knowing what language they will speak, or if they will even speak at all. It is an interesting and important question to consider, and consensus has not yet been reached.
My blog this week stems from two places, the vast uncharted expanse of the internet, and the skipped over lecture of Math as a language. Having heard some brief mentionings of the concept in years past, I was intrigued to have the topic explored in a class about language. This became doubly disappointing when I happened across this great poster (in case the link doesn't work, here's the URL: http://i.imgur.com/nWVAK.png) which used the idea of math as a language to humorous effect. Warning: Expletives Present
In effect, the concept of first contact and communication with another species is similar to that of the warnings at Onkalo, merely extended to another extreme. How would we go about communicating with an intelligence entirely alien to our own? Like the author of that image, I believe that mathematics would be one of the few viable options. As discussed in the lecture from last year, math as we know it consists of abstract symbols, but the fact that those symbols represent fundamental qualities of the universe is what sets math apart from any other language. However, that same level of concreteness and heavy basis in logic may also limit math's potential to communicate more abstract ideas. I suppose the use of basic inequalities could be used as a means of conveying true and false meanings, which could then be used as a means of rough communication and perhaps serve as a way to share information about other images or objects. Fundamentally, true/false communication is basically the language behind all of our technology, and they are capable of "communicating" with each other in incredible ways, so it theoretically should be possible that similar communication could evolve between us and alien intelligence. That being said, I still feel that Math on it's own is an inadequate way to express more complicated and abstract material, such as colour, emotion, or historical events.
I am choosing this week to discuss briefly the concept of pidgins and creoles, as the I find the topic to be an interesting one, and it ties in well with my ruminations from previous weeks. Pidgins are, while still somewhat impressive to observe, really not particularly remarkable the more you ponder them. When two groups are forced to interact and cooperate to survive, they will find a means to communicate. This concept is briefly touched upon in the film District 9. The film uses the somewhat more dramatic example of the beginnings of a human/alien pidgin, but as it takes place in South Africa, I feel that this is mostly used as a symbol for the various mixed languages that have sprung up in that region from the interaction between the many various tribes that live there, each with their own language or very distinct dialects. As someone who finds travelling through northern New Brunswick occasionally taxing, I find it somewhat mind-blowing to imagine living and working in a place where there could be upwards of five different languages in use at the same time, possibly even in the same sentence.
But perhaps even more remarkable is the proposed ability of young minds to impose order on such chaos, resulting in the creation of these creoles. While I did feel that Dr. Newman's particular biases were coming a bit to the forefront in that lecture, the data he did present seemed fairly convincing, and the conclusions they reach about innate language abilities are very intriguing, in particular the development of Nicaraguan Sign Language. Anecdotally, the idea that children have some inherent ability to understand and apply rules to languages was appealing to me, as I can recall a number of times in my earlier schooling of not being able to know why a certain statement or manipulation was correct or incorrect, but nonetheless knowing that it was. Curiously enough, these experiences happened mostly in Math class, which as discussed in lecture, is often seen as a form of language. Of course, such personal experiences are likely not overly indicative of anything specific, but nonetheless spurs a personal interest in the topic and a desire to read some further research on the subject.
Of main concern and interest this week was the guest lecturer on aphasia. It was interesting to note that, having worked with aphasic patients for some time, I felt that she gesticulated at a much higher rate than most other professors I have had, perhaps as a result of needing to communicate in non verbal ways so often with her patients.
More academically, the main thing that I was interested in was the methods by which non-verbal assessment and testing for comprehension could be done. This is of particular interest to my debate, as if someone with a severely damaged language center can still think the same way, just not communicate those thoughts, than the idea of language having the ability to control thought would take a major hit. This concept of nonverbal testing seems of particular importance in the case of global aphasics, as it they apparently cannot receive any verbal input or give any verbal output, and yet they are not reduced to their base impulses so clearly they are still thinking and processing information somehow. The trait that some global aphasics possess in which they can speak only one word, just with different intonations and inflections to communicate different meanings struck a chord with me in that it reminded me very much of Pokemon. In that show, the pokemon characters, though clearly demonstrating intelligence, can only speak their names, or pieces of their names and with different intonations or speeds to communicate meaning. An interesting, though likely unrelated, little diversion.
This week was the beginning of the debates, and they certainly provided some interesting things to file under both the "Good to Know" and "Probably Shouldn't Do" categories while preparing for my debate. The main take away lesson that I gathered came on Monday from the against group. The lesson? There's nothing wrong with impassioned rhetoric (for those with link problems, http://www.youtube.com/user/MercerReport#p/u/36/lMBMcMf85ow), but when that slips instead unsubstantiated rant (for those with link troubles, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kkd4MMtYeoI), HUGE issues arise.
I am, of course, referring to the comment made during rebuttal that it was more likely that the increased drop out rates in Ebonic community schools was due to to children having Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder. While I'm sure the student who made the comment didn't intend it as an insult, it certainly came across as one, and an unsubstantiated one at that. There are so many factors that are blatantly ignored by making that statement. First, what is the drop out rate at the schools in question? This is a figure I don't have, but was implied to be quite large. Then you would need to compare that to dropout rates at schools across the country, to see if the school was even statistically worth noting to begin with. Supposing that it is, you could then begin to look for possible contributing factors. You could compare the proportion of races of students dropping out to the proportion of students dropping out over all and see if either race was over represented. Again, supposing that we found a disproportionately large number of Black/native Ebonics-speaking students dropping out, we would need to find some explanation for that difference. This is where the student jumped in, saying not only that most of these dropouts were likely due to ODD and CD, but that this explanation was in fact much more likely than any explanation linked to the defining difference between the two groups, whether or not they were native Ebonics speakers being penalized for the use of their first language.
It could still be possible, so let's entertain the notion temporarily. What is the prevalence of these disorders? Based on my Childhood Psychopathology course, about 1-5% for either of them, 10% at the most. I can't compare this directly to the dropout rated in question, as I don't have them, but in order to be newsworthy I feel like they are probably higher than 1-5%, suggesting that there would have to be some factor leading to a higher than average rate of diagnosis in that area. Given that the majority of the dropouts are black students, and that statement that these dropouts are mostly due to having one of these two disorders, and we are left with the implication that ODD and CD are diagnosed more commonly in Black individuals than White individuals, a strong, and as far as I can tell entirely unsubstantiated, statement with major repercussions.
Now, I understand that in all likelihood, none of this went through her head at the time, and was not her intended point. Nevertheless, in academic matters such as these, "I didn't think of that" should not be an acceptable excuse for such behaviour, and it has a clear (negative) impact on the listeners, e.g. me. It may even be the case that some of those suppositions/conclusions my little analysis made are in fact true, and she may also have the statistics to back it up. But if that's the case, her lack of any citation makes it seem like an aggressive and sweeping statement with potentially malignant connotations that thoroughly distracts from the topic being discussed.
/End Impassioned Rhetoric
This has been quite an interesting course. I quite enjoyed not having regular tests/quizzes/and exams, and these blogs, while sometimes hard to remember, were an opportunity to be a bit creative and get some feedback.
Having the notes and podcasts posted is a great help, but combined with never having any sort of assessment, it does negate most of the desire to come to class. This is a bit of a grey area though, as it is definitely convenient in situations when workload from multiple courses is piling up and academic triage needs to be practiced. That being said, I'm sure attendance suffers because of it.
I also felt that the debate should have been worth far more, and the learning exercise worth far less. Ideally, maybe swap their weights on the syllabus. I know for certain that I an probably everyone else in my group spent far more time on debate preparation than we did working on our learning exercise, and felt that this effort was necessary, despite the learning exercise being worth three times as much. Also, the way the learning exercise was presented, it felt like an add-on or minor addition to the chapter, but was actually worth nearly as much. This seems a bit odd, given their relative sizes and required workloads. Also, the debate was a lot of fun. having more than one round of them, or maybe just dividing them up more throughout the semester would be a good idea.
Overall, I felt that the Wikiversity course was a very cool idea, and I think it went relatively well, for me at least. However, there were several technical hookups, and perhaps it would have been beneficial to do an image upload walkthrough as part of the in class tour of the site we did at the beginning of the year, as that seemed to be something most people were having trouble with. Also, I'm not sure what exactly the problem was, but there seemed to be an issue with accessing the links that I posted within my blogs. I don't think I ever lost points for it, but there is no reason that they shouldn't be accessible. I think the problem might be that when viewing the wikiversity page within the OWL/BLS frame, external links don't work, so when viewing students' blogs it may be best to ensure that they are opened in a new tab/window.
In closing, a pretty solid semester.