Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dawkins warns against brain falling out

Watched Dawkins The Enemies of Reason, on astrology, water dousing and alternative medicine.  “We should be open minded but not so open minded that our brain falls out.” 
Dawkins is alarmed at a widespread turning away from science and evidence to mumbo jumbo.
An earlier episode examined religion, and he quoted Steven Weinberg : “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”  Too right! That’s told them!  But hold on.  Religion might be a sufficient motive for good people doing bad things, but is it actually a necessary one? Could not the same thing could be said of politics? Look at the French and Russian Revolutions.  We seem to have a propensity to believe so passionately that something is for the good (and sometimes it really is for the good, for example creating socialism), that any means to achieve it is OK, even the revolution eating its own children. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

•nd•rst•nd•ng t•xt w•th••t v•w•ls

In written language, consonants are more informative than vowels simply because there are more of them and each one occurs less often. You c•n •nd•rst•nd t•xt q••t• w•ll w•th••t v•w•ls, because the consonants carry enough information to determine the words.

But •a• •ou u••e•••a•• •e•• •ui•e •e•• •i••ou• •o••o•a••s? No you can’t! (That was : can you understand text quite well without consonants?)
(Ancient Hebrew was, I believe, written with consonants only, which leads to occasional ambiguities, in instances where a word could plausibly contain more than one variant vowel, yielding different meanings.  This has given rise to difficulties in interpreting early manuscripts of the Hebrew bible, though I don’t have an example to hand.)
But in spoken language, it’s the other way round. In contrast to text, studies of people listening to speech show a ‘vowel superiority effect’; that is, vowels seem to carry more information, because listeners perform more accurately when understanding sentences with missing consonants than with missing vowels.
The categories of vowels and consonants, however, are problematic as units of information. Researchers are looking for new categories such as using phoneme transitions, onsets and offsets, and other more fine-grained components. 
Did I understand that last sentence? No! I haven't a clue!  But the first bit about vowels and consonants was cool.   
It’s from an article in the 12th August edition of Nature, headed Information Theory, by one Michael S. Lewicki.   I visit the Boole Library at University College Cork once a week on average and I always make it my business to look through recent copies of Nature.  Often an article will catch my eye where I can only glean a few nuggets of information before having to abandon the enterprise entirely, but even so, it’s worth it!

Fruit on my trees! A real windfall!


90 years old?

First time in 15 years
Unreasonably excited about my apples and plums. None of these trees has ever fruited before.  

Red apples : I planted this tree 15 years ago (with 4 others) and till now they have proved a huge disappointment. 

Green apples : this tree is probably 90 years old and looks sickly. I've heard that a tree will fruit prolifically just before it dies, and I wonder if this is the case here. 

Plums : this tree seeded itself 5 years ago, along with half a dozen others. Or maybe they are suckers from a plum tree that I planted but which died.  A couple of people told me they were plum trees, but until now but I didn’t believe them.
Windfall is a strange word. The OED tells us that it has carried the meaning of a benefit which is unexpected and maybe undeserved, since 1542. Yet I'm told a windfall apple is actually a bad thing and not a good thing because it can't be stored due to bruising. How then did the word acquire its figurative meaning, and so early too?