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Creuset of Ideas
A collection of various ideas



Archives of "Science"

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One day it’s gonna blow

2007-10-24 @ 10:37

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I knew it! We’re living on a balloon!


via the observers hunch

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The minimum

2007-03-1 @ 16:22

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I was discussing machine translation (MT) with a friend of mine, a fellow linguist, the other day, trying to see how a computer could acquire enough information to be able to do a fairly accurate job. The big thing, of course, is meaning. But, from a MT point of view, this pretty much amounts mapping one language onto another (I’m simplifying, of course). This brought about the big question: what is needed to learn a language?

What does a child need, a priori, to be able to start learning, to pick up its first language? In other words, what innate knowledge or ability is required, as a bare minimum (besides, of course, the ability to process inputs from our senses)?

First of all, I’d say we need the notion of communication, that the sounds mean something. Or does observation tell us that? Do we only need to see (hear) that specific sound patterns are related to interactions?

Pattern recognition is a pretty obvious choice for bare requirement. The ability to extract patterns from the flow of sounds. Even before birth, the foetus can distinguish language from noise, and even recognize the sounds of its mother tongue. Studies have shown that the foetus is equipped to recognize patters, be they (for hearing) in music or language. By three and a half month, babies can separate words in a sentence; the phonological word comes before meaning. The brain sees the physical patterns (sound waves) before tackling conceptual ones (meanings).

Generalization and particularization: the ability to come to a general concept based on observation of particular instances, and conversely, to extract an instance from a general idea. This is pretty much relation to pattern recognition.

Am I missing something? Do we need anything else?

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MS Hope

2007-02-22 @ 15:47

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A study conducted at the University of Calgary has lead to the discovery of an hormone that could regenerate myelin, countering the effects of multiple sclerosis. Starting from the long-established fact that pregnant women rarely have attacks, the research team was able to isolate the element responsible for this “protection.”

the study is the first to determine that prolactin, which increases in the body during pregnancy, is directly responsible for the formation of new myelin in the brains and spinal cords of pregnant mice. Further, when non-pregnant mice with MS-like lesions were injected with prolactin, their myelin was also repaired. (source)

Of course, clinical trials are still a long way off, treatment more so. But hope is their.

See also: University of Calgary.

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Causality

2006-11-15 @ 13:39

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I’ve said before that one of the most important things in science is doubt. Actually, there is something even more fundamental: the notion of causality. All science is based on the idea that every effect has a cause.

That is a big part of our (Judeo-Christian, Western) culture. Even the Bible starts with cause (God) and effect (heaven and earth). But, at least according to what Jung said in his preface to the Yi King, this is not the case in traditional Chinese thinking. (I don’t know enough about that to comment, though.)

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In Doubt

2006-11-7 @ 8:31

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David Byrne recently had some interesting thing to say about belief and denial.

I would maintain that a healthy (i.e. substantial) amount of denial is therefore genetically heritable, that it allows us to blithely go on (despite reading Beckett) and to ignore the basic sadness and desperation of life. We can live in an illusion — in fact we are genetically predisposed to do so. These illusions can be small — I am just as good at catching game as Bob, my rival, for example — or they can be very large — that death is not the end and that I will be rewarded for my faith and Bob, the apostate, will rot in Hell.

Either way, they allow me to go on, to persevere in the face of unlikely odds or limited chance of success. We have evolved to be less rational that one might think, and to be slightly more delusional and even stupid. (Happy Idiots)

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Paper trail

2006-09-12 @ 19:13

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Part of Science Idol: the Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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Gene linguistics

2006-06-2 @ 8:22

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Quick note about a Nature newsblog post which offers an interesting parallel between inflexional languages (like Finnish) and genes.

The order of genes on a chromosome seems to matter less than their context and the DNA suffixes that surround them: elements that flag the start of a gene and help control its activity, enhancers and repressors that likewise influence expression, and not forgetting the epigenetic codes that add meaning and depth to the sequence of genetic letters.

Actually, this behaviour of genes does not surprise me. It is a very good way to compress information in a small packet. As language does.

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Wednesday Linguistics: Data

2006-05-3 @ 9:43

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Many of you probably don’t know this, but linguists like to make up data. Maybe not all of them, but some mainstream theories really go for that sort of thing, especially in syntax. I was reminded of this recently by a post by The Language Guy.

To me, coming for a “hard” science (or, as one of my profs put it, “inhumanities”), this is ridiculous. Sure, as speakers of the language, we can make examples up. No problem with that. But it’s when linguists start making up examples of ungrammatical utterances that things go bad. Most just rely on their own (or a very few people’s) intuition to see if what they wrote works or not. They don’t bother looking it is actually said or not.

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Empty linguistics

2006-03-22 @ 8:37

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Looking at the course offering for next year at Concordia, I noticed that the linguistics department there offers its students a course devoted to nothing. That is, empty categories.

Empty categories, is some linguistic circles, are objects that appear in the syntactic (grammatical) structure but have no phonological or morphological form. Which means that they’re in the structure but do not manifest themselves. Basically, they seem to be there just to make the theory fit.

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Life and Cinema

2006-03-21 @ 9:24

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Just saw The Constant Gardener. Very good movie about the ill-dealings of drug companies, diplomats and politicians. It somehow reminds me of the best 1970’s movies. It has a similar field to those politically charged thrillers.

This is what the author of the book, John LeCarré, notes in the end credits:
“Nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world. But I can tell you this, as my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with reality, my story was as tame as a holyday postcard.”
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