Author Archive

What I know of immigration

March 7, 2011 1 comment


Once upon a time:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

But now:


Lady Liberty on Immigration


Categories: Uncategorized

Epictetus and Uncertainty

March 7, 2011 1 comment

I found that most of our anxiety comes from the uncertainty of not knowing how things are going to turn out. Will I get a good score at the math test, or will I not? Will I get the promotion, or will I not? Will this paper be accepted, or will it not?

Of course, anxiety does not always take its roots in uncertainty. In some cases you can become unsettled by things that are certain to happen. Think of yourself in a situation where you are terribly ill and your doctor says that your death is inevitable, and that you will take leave of this world at so and so date, hour, and minute. How would you spend your time then when you know that it is certain that death is going to strike you? Wouldn’t you persistently repress for every minute of your remaining life the thought that you are going to die? Or better, think of yourself of possibly having a debilitating genetic disease, such as Huntington, and that you have the choice of undergoing a test that would establish whether you are sick or not. Would you then rather chose certainty over uncertainty in that case? Wouldn’t uncertainty at least offer the consolation that comes from hope?

But, our daily anxiety, anger, and worry does not come from such hugely significant events such as our death. Really,  most of our thoughts are quite simple in their goals. In an ordinary day it is likely that you would think about the flavor of a specific food or drink, about the superiors and subordinates at your job, about clothes and music, about how you are going to accomplish a minor task, about the book you are reading, about how incompetent are drivers in this city, about having the desire to sleep,  about how are you going to convey a trifling thought in a blogpost…the list is endless. Such thoughts are likely to bring a variety of emotions in us, some of which are hardly desirable. Epictetus offers a solution how we can decrease the influence of negative emotions:

The thief does not know wherein man’s good consists, but he thinks that it consist in having fine clothes, the very thing which you also think. Must he not then come and take them away? When you show a cake to greedy persons, and swallow it all yourself, do you expect them not to snatch it from you? Do not provoke them; do not have a window; do not air your clothes. I also lately had an iron lamp placed by the side of my household gods; hearing a noise at the door, I ran down, and found that the lamp had been carried off. I reflected that he who had taken the lamp had done nothing strange. What then? To-morrow, I said, you will find an earthen lamp; for a man only loses that which he has. I have lost my garment. The reason is that you had a garment. I have a pain in my head. Have you any pain in your horns? Why then are you troubled? For we only lose those things, we have only pains about those things, which we possess. (Epictetus; Discourses)

The quote must be understood in the context of Epictetus’ work. Epictetus was a stoic philosopher, meaning that he not only taught philosophy, he lived it. An important principle that he emphasized continuously is that of not being victims of the things we think we possess. Epictetus mentioned that when you lose something that is in your possession, you feel a sensation of emptiness, and maybe anger. Hence a thief who steals a lamp, manages to hurt you not only materially but also spiritually. Epictetus’ advice is that we can subdue that anger by not attaching ourselves to our possessions. Of course, this is not done in a day. It is accomplished through rigorous training. Also, Epictetus mentions in his work that getting overly-involved in things that cannot be changed wouldn’t  be of benefit to anyone After all, should you really be angry about a thief that you know will not be caught? Is that anger of any use when you cannot change anything?


February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

True commitment is serious and it is powerful. Commitment is not just saying
you’ll do it. Commitment is doing it. True Commitment is not conditional,
for to be committed means to be absolutely committed.

Commitment is more than doing just what is convenient or comfortable.
Commitment is doing what is necessary. Commitment is making the sacrifices
and the tradeoffs that are required to uphold it. Commitment is more than
just wishing for the right conditions. Commitment is working with what you

Commitment is not easy. Commitment does not back down or run away at the
first sign of trouble. Commitment perseveres until the goal is reached.
Commitment does not waste time and effort whining or complaining or seeking
to find blame. Commitment adjusts to reality and moves forward.

Too many people have been deceived for too long, and have come to expect
that they can know fulfillment without the gritty effort of commitment. They
are sadly mistaken. Real, solid commitment is real work. And well worth it.
The evidence is overwhelming — it gets results like nothing else can.

–Ralph Marston

–Back to work now.

Categories: Uncategorized

Language metaphors and time

February 20, 2011 6 comments

Few are convinced that Whorfianism has any credibility to it. The theory’s strongest claim, in basic terms, is that language has the ability to shape thought. Nonetheless, it was found that color perception does not depend on differences in how languages classify color, and that Eskimos do no not have nine ways of conceptualizing snow because their language allows them to do so (That was a hoax, by the way). Hence, it was concluded that Whorf got it all wrong.  Later, with the rise in popularity of UG, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis went into obscurity.

Still, maybe if Whorf framed his theory in lighter terms,  it would not become so discredited.

For example, Matlock, Ramscar, and Borodinsky (2005) found an experiential link between spatial and temporal language. When we use language to refer to abstract things that we can neither see or touch, there is a tendency to rely on experience-based domains. Hence, we sometimes talk about time as if it is coming (the time has come), as if we are having it (I don’t have time to complete the work), as if giving it (give me more time)…you get the picture.

The researchers were primarily interested in whether “thought about fictive motion (FM; as in The road runs along the coast) can influence thought about time.” If FM uses the same structures involved in thinking about actual motion, then it should influence the way people think about time. They performed three experiments to test that. I will go over two of them:

Experiment 1

In this experiment subjects were asked to read a FM sentence, such as the road runs along the coast, and a similar non-FM sentence, such as the road is next to the coast. After that, participants were required to demonstrate their understanding by drawing a picture of what they’ve read.

Fig. 1: Example of drawing from experiment 1

Once they completed the drawing, they were required to answer an ambiguous question:

“Next Wednesday’s meeting had been moved forward two days. What day is the meeting now that it has been rescheduled?”

If you carefully read the sentence, you will notice that it could have two answers since “forward two days” is ambiguous. The answer can be either Friday or Monday. If language has no bearing on how we conceptualize the world, then there would be no difference in the number of responses for Friday and Monday. Nevertheless, there was. Participants who read fictive motion metaphors were more likely to answer Friday (70% of the time), while those who read non-FM sentences showed no preference (51% for Friday). The results suggest that when people think about FM, they apply the motion perspective to their conception of time. Hence the highway runs along the coast primes subjects to think that they move forwards in time.

Experiment 2

The purpose of experiment 2 was to see how much FM metaphors can influence our understanding of time. The layout was similar to that in experiment 1, except that participants were required to read “FM sentences that varied on the number of scan points along a path (e.g., Four versus Eight versus Twenty versus Over eighty pine trees run along the edge of the driveway).” It was predicted that the larger the number of pine trees in the FM sentence, then the number of responses for Friday for the ambiguous Wednesday question would go up. The results matched the predictions for 8 and 20 pine trees (80%, 61% response rate for Friday), but not for 4 and 80 pine trees (55% and 50% response rate for Friday). The reason why participants were more likely to answer Friday for 8 and 20 pine trees and not for 4 and 80 pine trees is because for a very small or a very large number of trees they would not develop a ego-moving concept of time. Imagine that you are told to scan your driveway for the number of trees. Four trees can be scanned almost immediately, while 80 trees are not scanned individually. If you look at the example drawings the subjects made (Fig. 2), it becomes clear that 80 trees are lumped together and are likely scanned as a clump.


Fig. 2: Example drawings from experiment 2


…is simple. FM metaphors seem to have an influence on how we perceive time.

And in case you are wondering, further experiments done in this area demonstrated that it is not the act of drawing that influenced the connection between FM and perception of time.


Pinker and Chomsky might not like Whorf’s theory, but it is essential to remember that Whorf came up with it when psycholinguistics was largely non-existent and when there was not a lot of data from which one could derive plausible hypotheses. Therefore, it is important to keep a non-judgmental attitude and give Whorf the proper credit for at least asking the question, “Does language influence thought?”.

And, in anticipation, when I think of linguists and psycholinguists in 2050, I imagine that they would also ask themselves, “How the heck did Chomsky come up with his theory when he had so little empirical evidence by his side?”.
Matlock, T., Ramscar, M., & Boroditsky, L. (2005). On the Experiential Link Between Spatial and Temporal Language Cognitive Science, 29 (4), 655-664 DOI: 10.1207/s15516709cog0000_17


February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

As it was mentioned on Language Log, there is a lot of coverage on the on-camera aphasic episode of Serene Branson, a reporter for CBS. There are several videos on Youtube, some of which are hardly sensitive. I know that snickering on reporter’s failures sometimes can be funny, especially in the O’Rilley can’t explain that meme. This is not the case:

My initial reaction was Wernicke’s aphasia, especially when I heard burtation.

Upon seeing an several callous remixes that popped up when I searched the segment, I remembered several shameful things I’ve done in elementary school. I’ve been through four schools in that period, and in some of them I’ve met classmates who had trouble speaking or reading. There was a lot of ridicule and mocking, since for many it was inconceivable how someone in, say, third grade would not be able to read when everyone else was able to. I really wish professors were more perceptive. When children are taught about learning disorders or types of aphasia, I think that there is some attitude change. If a teacher came to me and asked me to read the text below and explained me everything, I am certain I would have shown some understanding. I am so sorry right now.

From Top Gear to Documentary Man

February 16, 2011 Leave a comment

In high school I used to watch Top Gear. I still do, occasionally.  I think that Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond do a great job by keeping the show lively.

Just watch this segment:

But I never, never considered that Richard would go from being a Top Gear to a Documentary Man.  His series on Invisible Worlds is nevertheless amazing. Without any doubt, the best documentary I’ve seen so far.

You will never look at horse manure with the same disinterest again. Just watch, you’ll see for yourself:


Jokes and Politics

February 4, 2011 Leave a comment

When you have an untouchable archenemy, who is beyond impeachment and overt criticism, it seems natural to express your schadenfreude through jokes. Such is the case with the corrupt leader Mubarak:

Mubarak and his advisers are on board of his plane over Cairo. Mubarak brings out $1,000 and asks how he could use the money to make Egyptians happy. One adviser suggests throwing it out of the window to make an Egyptian family happy. A second adviser suggests splitting it into two bundles and throwing both out of the window to make two Egyptian families happy. The third adviser suggests that Mubarak puts the money in his pocket and jumps out of the window to make all Egyptians happy. (source)

Since my country went through similar uprisings in April, 2009, where thousands of people went on the streets after it was announced the communists won, for the third time, the general election, I recall that there were plenty of jokes made against the communist leader, Vladimir Voronin. Most people protested because they found it unbelievable that the Communist Party would win a majority. After all, they managed in only two terms to turn Moldova into a country that was rife with corruption and poverty. After some investigation, it was found that on the balloting lists  there were names of the people who, may god rest their souls, died. So this is how the joking began:

A presidential limousine stops in front of a graveyard. Voronin steps out of it with a bundle of pamphlets. The person sitting on guard near the gate of the graveyard approaches him and asks:
“My honorable leader, why is a person with such distinction as you visiting this lowly place?”
Voronin looks at him surprised, “It’s simple, I just came to see my voters.”