Thursday, August 14, 2014

When People Do and Don't Listen to Scientists

I saw the following on a friend's Facebook wall:

This reminded me of a talk that was given by Dan Gilbert back in 2007. As I summarized when I wrote about this, this is because:
Four features global warming lacks:

A face: understanding what other people are doing is so crucial that our brain has developed an obsession about human agency. This is why we see faces in the clouds, but not clouds in peoples' faces. Global warming is not trying to kill us, and that's a shame.
A violation of moral suasion: Visceral emotions are aroused by things our brains have been concerned: food and sex. NOT atmospheric chemistry. Societies are built around who you can sleep with and what you can eat, and not about how much you can consume.
A threat to the present: The brain is an exquisitely designed "get-out-of-the-way" machine. Only recently has our brain been able to think about the future and take actions againt a future event, which is why we use dental floss and invest in 401k plans. However, global warming is still in the "R&D" version.
Ability to see absolute changes: Because we are so bad at perceiving changes gradually, we are more likely to tolerate it since it was a day-to-day gradual change, not an abrupt one.
 While global warming lacks these things, ebola has all of them.
A face: ebola is carried around by people.
A violation of moral suasion: There are many social hangups about the sick, and some people (and societies) explain one's sickness as an outcome of one's past moral choices.
A threat to the present: Over and over again, one of the most prominent things that is said about ebola in its description is it's high mortality rate: up to 90% mortality. That's a pretty immediate threat to the present.
Ability to see absolute changes: One day a person is well, the next day that person is sick, another day and that person is dead; very, very absolute changes.
 So, yeah, when people are talking about global warming, who cares about what the scientists are saying? (Because global warming doesn't punch the "reactionary buttons" that we have evolved.)

Conversely, when people are talking about ebola, who cares about what the scientists are saying? (Because ebola punches - and punches hard - all of the evolved "reactionary buttons" that we have.)

Here's the video of Dan Gilbert's 2007 talk:

Monday, July 28, 2014

The difference between "few" and "a few"

It's one of the things that many non-native speakers of English get wrong: the distinction between few and a few. For example, let's take the following pair of sentences:
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were few signs that the final would include Germany.
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were a few signs that the final would include Germany.
What's the difference? While most native English speakers would immediately recognize the difference, to many English-language learners that I have encountered in the past, there is no discernible distinction. This could get them into a bit of a pickle in writing.

The simple explanation of the difference is that few means "almost zero" and is generally of a negating connotation, while in contrast a few means "a small amount, but definitely not zero" and is generally of a positive/additive connotation. Therefore, the above sentences would mean something like:
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were almost no signs that the final would include Germany. (i.e., It was unimaginable that Germany would make it to the final.)
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were some signs that the final would include Germany. (i.e., It was possible to think that Germany would make it to the final.)
As to why this distinction exists, it's partly because few is an adjective, while a few is a noun.

As an adjective, it implies that the expected value is vanishingly small. Therefore, if we initially had a high expectation that Brazil would reach the finals, the possibility that it wouldn't was approaching zero.

In contrast, as a noun, it implies that the actual amount was more than zero. Therefore, if we initially had an expectation that Germany would fail to go to the finals, our perception of that possibility would have been that it was greater than zero.

In reality, the number in question (e.g., the number of signs that Brazil wouldn't reach the finals) could be known or determined. The difference is how you interpret that number. For example, if we stated that the odds for making the finals of the 2014 World Cup stated on July 5, 2014 were:
Odds for World Cup semi-finals:
Brazil wins 80.09 %
Germany wins 19.91 %
Argentina wins 61.60 %
Netherlands wins 38.40 % 
It means that - on July 5th - there was an expected 19.91% chance that Germany would win their semi-final match to enter the finals against the winner of Argentina vs. Netherlands. This is almost a 1-in-5 chance that they would make it. And here is the crux in how our interpretations of the same number would change the meaning of the sentence.

If we had interpreted that 1-in-5 as a vanishingly small chance, then we'd use, "...there were few signs that the final would include Germany."

However, if we had interpreted that 1-in-5 as a distinct (if small) possibility, we'd use, "...there were a few signs that the final would include Germany."

... and that's basically it. Simple, no?

One additional note: The meanings for few and a few remain consistent when the thing your talking about is stated as a negative. For example:
There were few signs of Brazil not reaching the final.
Here, the direct implication is, "There were almost no signs of Brazil not reaching the final." After doing the trick in English of transforming two negatives into a positive, we have the implicitly understood interpretation of this statement as something like, "There were many signs that Brazil would reach the final." The use of a few leads to a contrasting sentence, similar to the examples using Germany:
There were a few signs of Brazil not reaching the final.
Here, the direct implication is, "There were some signs of Brazil not reaching the final," which is almost the direct opposite of the implication of the previous statement.

So, in short:

  • If you want to emphasize the near-zero quantity of something, use few.
  • If you want to emphasize the not-at-all-zero quantity of something, use a few.

Addendum: Of course, there is also the use of the few. However, as with most uses of the to convert an adjective into a noun (e.g., the elderly, the hungry, the poor, the tired, the wealthy, the powerful, etc.), it is referring to a distinct and defined (either implicitly or explicitly) group, usually of people. Thus we understand the recruiting phrase used by the US Marine Corps, "The few, the proud, the Marines," as referring to an implicit exclusivity that is associated with the culture of the US Marine Corps. Similarly, given the interchangeability of pronouns for articles, we can understand the following use of we few from the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
... and an excuse to post this lovely rendition of the St. Crispin's Day speech:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Units Conversions: Square feet to square meters

Apartments in Chile - as in much of the rest of the world - are measured in square meters. However, in the US, they are measured in square feet. Since people get really used to the meanings of various measurements, seeing (or hearing) the same thing measured in different units provokes a different response (or sometimes just a sense of puzzlement).

One such measurement is living area. In Ann Arbor, I lived in a ~800 sq. ft., single-room cabin in the woods. To others who use square feet to designate living area, this has an intrinsic "feel" to it. To people in Chile (and much of the rest of the world), this means ... not much.

Sure, you can make quick back-of-the-envelope calculations to say, "Well, 3 feet is roughly 1 meter," but that fails (utterly) to account for squaring. Without a quick-and-dirty conversion factor, in order for Chileans to understand how big that cabin was, they'd have to take the square root of 800 (28.284) and then divide it by 3 (9.428) and then square it (88.888), which is kind of difficult to do on the fly.

However, there is an easier way. Using the handy site,, one can find that 1 square meter is equal to 10.763910417 square feet. To change this to a handy back-of-the-envelope conversion factor, just multiply square meters by 11 or divide square feet by 11 (a handy trick might be to multiply square feet by 9 and then divide by 100).

Ergo: My 800 square-foot cabin in the woods is roughly (9*800)/100) = 72 square meters (plus a bit). The actual answer is closer to 74 square meters, but this conversion is far easier (and far more accurate) than the one presented above.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

Units Conversions: Chilean Pesos/Liter of Gasoline to US Dollars/Gallon of Gasoline

Well, living in Chile - and expecting guests to visit from the US - means that there are many things to get accustomed to. Including measuring things differently. Since Chile - like most of the rest of the world - uses the metric system, and the US - like few places in the world - chooses to stick to an arcane system of weights and measures (with its citizenry either blissfully unaware of any different reality or loudly proclaiming anything different to be just plain weird), it is necessary - from time to time - to stop and recognize that visitors don't have the luxury of time to get accustomed to what a particular measured value means. Sure, sure, it's easy to use back-of-the-envelope conversions for simple, everyday things:

"One meter is a little longer than 3 feet."
"One kilogram is a little bigger than 2 pounds."
"One kilometer is a little more than 1/2 mile."
"One hundred kilometers per hour is roughly 60 mph."
"One liter is a little more than 2 pints."

Sure, they're only kind of correct, but it lets visitors from the US get a grasp on the kinds of weights and distances that are discussed, and for the day-to-day kinds of uses, this sort of calculation puts the results in the correct range at least. So when you're buying stuff at the store, you can make a quick conversion from kilograms to pounds; when you're looking at walking distances in the city, you can make a quick conversion from kilometers to miles; etc.

However, less common conversions don't necessarily have such easy rules of thumb. One such is the price of gasoline. If you are going to rent a car in Chile, you're likely going to want to know how much you're paying for gasoline. But while you might know that one liter is roughly 2 pints (and - by extension - there being 8 pints in a gallon, that 4 liters is somewhat more than 1 gallon), combining that knowledge with an exchange rate is not that simple. What would be great is a simple unit conversion.

Well, the exchange rate between the US Dollar (USD) and Chilean Peso (CLP) has been relatively stable at between 540 CLP/1 USD (or 0.001852 USD/CLP) and 565 CLP/1 USD (or 0.00177 USD/CLP). We can use this in the following unit-conversion:

USD/Gallon = CLP/Liter
USD/Gallon = CLP/Liter * 0.26417205236 Liters/Gallon * USD/CLP
USD/Gallon = 0.26417205236x CLP/Gallon * USD/CLP

(Using 0.00177 USD/CLP to be conservative:)

USD/Gallon = 0.26417205236x CLP/Gallon * 0.00177 USD/CLP
USD/Gallon = 149.2497x USD/Gallon
x = 0.0067

Or, to give it a nice back-of-the-envelope-calculation value:

"900 Chilean pesos/liter is roughly equivalent to $6/gallon."

And - given that gas prices in Chile are ~830 CLP/Liter (~$5.50/gallon) - this back-of-the-envelope conversion rate is kind of handy. (I did write about Chilean vs. US gasoline prices before; general trends haven't changed too much.) By the way, did you know that the price of gasoline in the US is the lowest among OECD countries and non-petrostates?

Next: Unit conversions of square area.

NOTE: For people familiar with UK pre-metric weights and measures, these numbers may seem to be a little off. Remember that these conversions are for people from the US, where liquid measures are slightly smaller than the those used in the UK pre-metric. In other words, people who refer to the US system of weights and measures as the "imperial system" are technically wrong. (Unless they mean to say that the "imperial" refers to the US empire, and not the British one.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Spanish apparently doesn't have an adverb for "write" either

Having studied - and used - Spanish for a while now, I recently returned to a question that stumped me a few years ago: what is the adverb of "write"? Does Spanish have an adverb for write?

First a short lesson in Spanish grammar. Adverbs are (for the most part) formed from adjectives by adding the suffix -mente, which means something along the lines of "in the thought of the thing" (being derived from mentis, the same Latin root from which English derives mental). Therefore, the Spanish equivalent of verbally is verbalmente (which is formed from the adjective verbal and the adverb-making suffix -mente).

In other words: verbalizar (to verbalize) U+2192.svg verbal (verbal) U+2192.svg verbalmente (verbally)

So I thought that all I need to do is determine the Spanish equivalent of "written" and just add "-mente" to get the Spanish adverb of "to write."

In other words: escribir (to write) U+2192.svg escrito/ta (written) U+2192.svg escritamente (adverb of write)

It seemed to easy. It seemed so simple. It seemed so obvious.

But escritamente doesn't exist. Unfortunately.

What's the solution? To do the equivalent thing as in English: use adverbial phrases.

Ergo: escribir (verb) U+2192.svg escrito/ta (adjective) U+2192.svg por escrito/ta (adverbial phrase).

How... deflating.