Concepts I learned today: negative concord

People love to smugly point out that “I don’t got no money” logically means “I do have some money” — according to formal mathematical logic, which is very different from the logic that defines the grammar of naturally occurring spoken languages. But I would be very, very surprised if any competent native English speaker ever heard someone say “I don’t got no money” and genuinely believed that the speaker was claiming to have some money.

via the delightful Comics Curmudgeon I have learned the word for the linguistic concept of negative concord: in many languages, negatives do not cancel each other out but rather intensify the negation.

[Nerd alert: This means a language negative is an additive operation, not a multiplicative one.]

Quote: You are going to die.

A pessimist manifesto:

“First of all things are not going to work out. You are going to die. Your friends and family are going to die. Everything you care about and everything you ever worked for will be destroyed. This story, our story, only has one ending and it is death and destruction.

If you don’t recognize that, you are living in a fantasy world.

Second, even in the short term your plans almost certainly won’t work out. Most ideas are bad ideas and there are infinitely more ways to fuck something up than to get it right.”


How are things?

I very much like this post about determining what things are like in reality (with much more here). When I was an undergraduate, I heard two things within weeks of each other that changed my perception of ‘truth’. The first was this quote from Nietzsche:

A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!

The second was a lecture on international relations. One speaker – a rhetoric professor, if I recall correctly – mentioned that it’s very hard to convince people of things. Often, we assume that if the other person just had more information, they’d come around to our side! But of course that person usually thinks the same thing.

I know, none of this is particularly mindblowing after your freshman year of college. But I do find that the hardest thing in life is stepping outside my own biases in order to perceive the world as it is, not as I wish it to be. Try to stay under the impression that you are always wrong. Yet another reason to frequently read other people whose opinions your strongly disagree with – after all, if you’re reading opinions you agree with, what are you gaining?

Study things from as many points of view as possible, and try to understand as many models of thought as you can. This way, you can better understand the behavior of other people, and how people can think in ways that seem incomprehensible to you. If an atheist, talk to religious people until you understand them well enough not to consider them silly; if religious, talk to atheists until you understand them in the same way. Get at least passingly familiar with all the existing genres of fiction, and especially study science fiction – the good sort of science fiction…

Recognize your fallibility. Realize that in a quest for the truth, your own biases become your worst enemy. To defeat your enemy you must understand it, so set forth on studying it. Follow blogs like Overcoming Bias. Read up on the field of heurestics and biases – the book Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases comes highly recommended, and though I haven’t read it yet, I plan to do so soon. Find the time to peruse articles like Wikipedia’s list of cognitive biases and Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks. In your interdisciplinary studies, especially emphasize the sciences…

Discuss the same subjects repeatedly, even with the same people. If you are losing a debate but still cannot admit you’re wrong, ask for time to ponder upon it. Decide if your hesitation was you being too caught up in the defense of a topic, in which case you only need time to get over it and accept your opponent’s arguments, or because there was more relevant information in your mind that you couldn’t recall at the moment, in which case you need time for your subconsciousness to bring them to your mind. Be very sceptical of yourself if you disagree with something, but cannot justify it even with time – you might be dealing with bias instead of forgetten knowledge. If questioned, be prepared to double-check your intuitions of what is obvious from scientific studies, and be ready to discard your intuitions if necessary.

Avoid certainty, and of all people, be the harshest on yourself. 80% of drivers thinks they belong in the top 30% of all drivers, and even people aware of cognitive biases often seem to think those biases don’t apply to them. People tend to find in ambiguous texts the points that support their opinions, while discounting the ones that disagree with them. Question yourself, and recognize that if you want your theories to find the truth, you can never be the only one to evaluate them. Subject them for criticism and peer review, and find those with the most conflicting thoughts to look them over. Never think that you have found the final truth…

[apropos of very little, photo from]

Where the pictures are the maps

Someone took data from Panoramia and made a series of maps showing where the most touristy places are, as well as the most interesting remote places. In a similar vein, someone else dug through Flickr and Picassa and found the most photographed areas around various world cities. For instance, here are London, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Vancouver, and Tokyo.

Oh, and while we’re at it, here are ten maps that changed the world, or something silly like that.

Dystopias, today

This cartoon describing the difference between Huxley’s A Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 makes me rethink how I feel about them. It’s eerie how little of Orwell’s vision has come to pass – despite, or perhaps because of, how much it scares us and has entered into our consciousness – and how much of Huxley’s vision has. The precursor to both of these books, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We has shades of both; Orwell and Huxley took different threads and ran with them in different directions. His book is the worst prediction (a mix between 1984, A Brave New World, and THX 1138), but possibly worth rereading to mine for ideas. As we proceed into the future, maybe the question is – how much of a dystopia is A Brave New World, really?

Or have I just not read that book in a really, really long time?

Typing out your typography

Some simple rules for good typography. One interesting one:

[T]he first two Fibonacci numbers are 0 and 1 and each other number is a combination of the previous 2. These numbers are meant to have a natural visual elegance to each other. Since the Renaissance, many artists and architects have proportioned their works to approximate the ‘golden ratio’…[I]n typography it is a good suggestion to consider using only these numbers to structure your chosen point sizes to. It will give your whole document a natural elegance.

0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89 144…

When writing a paper or, really, anything with text, it’s useful to have a good knowledge of typography; elegance helps people more easily understand the message.

Kind of like watching C-SPAN

It’s always nice to know if someone thinks you’re boring. Or to know if you’re giving the signs to someone else that you’re bored. Here, take a quick gander at some of those signs. Quickly, they are:

1. Repeated, perfunctory responses. A person who repeats, “Oh really? Wow. Oh really? Interesting.” isn’t particularly engaged.

2. Simple questions. People who are bored ask simple questions. “When did you move?” “Where did you go?” People who are interested ask more complicated questions that show curiosity, not mere politeness.

3. Interruption. Although it sounds rude, interruption is actually a good sign, I think. It means a person is bursting to say something, and that shows interest. Similarly…

4. Request for clarification. A person who is sincerely interested in what you’re saying will ask you to elaborate or to explain. “What does that term mean?” “When exactly did that happen?” “Then what did he say?”…

5. Imbalance of talking time. I suspect that many people fondly suppose that they usually do eighty percent of the talking because people find them fascinating…

6. Abrupt changes in topic. If you’re talking to someone about, say, the life of Winston Churchill (I have a tendency to dwell at length on this particular subject), and all of a sudden the other person says, “So how are your kids?”…

7. Body position. People with a good connection generally turn to face each other…

8. Audience posture. Back in 1885, Sir Francis Galton wrote a paper called “The Measurement of Fidget.” He determined that people slouch and lean when bored…

[Picture source]

Added my blog roll

I’ve added my blog roll which is a dump of everything on my google reader. I figure this is a way to organize things, and keep track of what I’m keeping track of! I’m going to try to organize it a bit better sometime later on, but hopefully if I keep it up-to-date it will be useful to…somebody. Anyway, there’s a fair amount of churn on my reader (~2 blogs added or removed per week?), so don’t expect it to stay very constant. I’m also planning on trimming a bunch of blogs soon, so it may shrink a bit.

Taekwondo monkeys are, unsurprisingly, a recipe for disaster

Hu Luang, 32, a bystander who photographed the incident, said: “I saw one punch him in the eye – he grabbed another by the ear and it responded by grabbing his nose. They were leaping and jumping all over the place. It was better than a Bruce Lee film.”

At one point the monkey trainer grabbed a staff to hit the monkeys, only to find himself facing a stick-brandishing monkey that cracked him over the head.

Merry Christmas.

No new helmets!

Here’s an article by a good friend of mine arguing against bicycle helmet safety laws. The basic argument is that forcing people wear helmets suppresses bicycle use, even though when a lot of people in one place ride bikes, they’re all safer for it. The net effect of these laws, then, is a negative one. I’m sympathetic to the overall argument: I would wager that the number of bike riders on the UCSD campus would plummet if they were forced to wear helmets (even if it was just the laziness factor here), and I’ve personally noticed that bicycle density really does seem to make drivers more aware.

I only have a couple of comments. First, the example of Western Australian children is a poor one. When you go from 80% to 5% of children riding their bikes, I’m guessing it’s not due to some helmet-wearing death spiral. Clearly something else culturally is going on here, and by overstating the case it makes me more suspicious of the rest of the argument. I would also take exception with the quote “We can either promote cycling or we can promote helmets. We cannot do both.” Really? I mean, you can’t promote general bicycle safety at the same time as bicycle use? Just because helmet laws might be a net negative, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be promoting safe practices.