Sunday, August 31, 2014

When symbology means something completely different to you

I saw that one of my friends changed his Facebook profile pic to this:

The first thought that came into my head was, "Well, so, too, were the dodo and the passenger pigeon..."

The next was, "...and shouldn't it read, 'You are the result' - unless the message is for a 3rd person plurality, which is strange given how signs accompanied by messages to "you" are generally meant for the 2nd person...?"

My thoughts on grammar continued with, "...and shouldn't it be '... evolutionary successes...' since evolution is a process requiring consistent - and relatively constant - successes in mating and survival...? I know that the sign could mean to use success in the uncountable form, but that would be incongruous, given how "results" is used in its countable form."

My thoughts then strayed back to the implications of the wolf, given the message, and it was something like, "...and what's the point of using a wolf... a species that has been extirpated in much of its native range, and is - in many ways - a prime example of a species that, despite it being the culmination of billions of years of evolution, has until recently been going the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon?"

Maybe - as an ecologist with an evolutionary background and a great interest in grammar - I'm just thinking about this too much?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Apparently Russia and Canada can't agree on what belongs to Russia

NPR had a fun-with-maps story about how Canada's delegation to NATO tweeted the following map to show where Russia is (and isn't):
This was in response to Russia claiming that the Russian military convoys and vehicles that had entered Ukraine were just lost... or something similarly implausible.

However, look at the map that the Canadian delegation sent. It fails to label Kaliningrad as being part of Russia. By the way, here's a handy map showing you where Kaliningrad is:
Whoops! Apparently the GIS program that the Canadians were using didn't automatically include Kaliningrad as Russia. But the lack of recognizing Kaliningrad as part of Russia was apparently less important than showing that Crimea was Russian and that Abkhazia wasn't Georgian. This is the "corrected" map that Russia tweeted back to the Canadians:
(Never mind that almost the entire world doesn't recognize Abkhazia. Never mind that almost the entirety of the world doesn't recognize Russia's claim to Crimea, either.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Mozart rap: Great advice for growing up

Wish I knew some of these things when I was a teen. Wish that I had followed up earlier on some of these things that I knew.

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.