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Saturday, May 26, 2007 -- 9:18 am

Lately (to the extent I can scrape together any time) I've been immersing myself in fair amount of practical botany and mycology reading -- a field of inquiry I tend to think of as herbology in the spirit of a certain popular fiction series. I tend to prefer that level of playfulness and relevance in my practical inquiries. I also think that science, on some level, really is trying to deliver on the promises of magic. It's just that technological progress, like evolutionary development, is so gradual and incremental that we have trouble anticipating the route technology will take or the mechanisms it'll rely upon when it gets there. And it really wouldn't be so difficult to put together intriguing and exciting curricula that would give students a taste of what sort of "magic" really is possible today. Resources would be a stumbling block, of course, but even in public schools, grant funding is generally available for worthy projects.

That's also part of the attraction of home-schooling. As someone with a firm interest in education and self-improvement to begin with, I can imagine endless possibilities when I think about introducing young minds to the scientific method, literacy, history, writing and reasoning, math, and so on. Foreign languages could be tricky, though. It might be important to provide a grounding in more mainstream languages before seeking to preserve some rare and endangered dialect.

Thursday, May 24, 2007 -- 8:08 pm

How many linguists are there in the field at any given time, recording the grammars, dictionaries, and oral histories of the world's languages? It doesn't appear to be very many; a lot of the books I come across all seem to be written by the same small coterie of authors. How many mycologists are there? It seems to be a small number as well, though whether there are more linguists than mycologists, or vice versa, I have no way to guess. I suppose I'm drawn to marginal fields of study. Although it's primarily for the subject matter, I suppose it would be foolish to deny the allure of esoterica and the thrill of initiation into a elite (because obscure) field. Ethnobotany and musicology are similarly arcane fields. Quantum physics and genetics are more popular by far than any of the foregoing, to judge from the frequency of publication in the field, although they don't seem to be the more understood for it.

I'm reminded, yet again, of the dueling Renaissance mathematicians who hoarded their knowledge of peculiar algebraic solutions. In its way it sounds so petty and grasping to accumulate knowledge like treasure and refuse to share it. But at the same time, how am I with books? A lot of books on subject I find to be of particular interest are quite rare -- they're old, few copies were printed to begin with, and many people who own them (mostly libraries, the more I think about it) are unlikely to part with them except in extremis. So I'm reluctant to comment on certain types of subjects until I've acquired, for myself, the extant published works on them, few and expensive though they be. To some extent this reflects the shortcomings of the information age -- I wouldn't need to burrow and skulk about for the books if they were freely available online in the first place.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007 -- 9:47 pm

Why do people tend to romanticize language isolates, such as Basque, Ainu, and the rest? My naive hypothesis is that it's because, like orphans or adoptees, their pasts are a little mysterious. There's no genealogy to explain their history or how they got to be where they are in the world, and so there's an inevitable human tendency to assign such languages an air of exoticism. This is all well and good to the extent that it fosters research, language preservation, and a documentation of endangered cultures. But I would hope that it would take more than a simple lack of lexical cognates for a language to be deemed "exotic". Maybe not, but I don't find anything terribly novel or interesting in the notion of different languages having different referents for more or less the same collection of objects and ideas. And as for grammar, I've been searching far and wide for a grammar I could consider truly exotic; so far, I've been disappointed. So if there's anything to this notion of romanticism, it would seem to have to be something cultural, rather than linguistic. And it would also seem that people are romanticizing language isolates for no good reason at all, much like you used to hear people say they loved the sound of Italian without understanding a word of it.

Sunday, May 20, 2007 -- 7:42 am

Came across a philosophical debate the other day between two people exploring certain aspects of knowledge and epistemology. One of the things that bothered me about the debate (though, refreshingly, the participants sounded sophisticated and well-versed in the fundamentals) was that no one seemed to have examined whether our cognitive faculties, having evolved through natural selection to adapt to a particular set of functions, were really well-suited to withstand the scrutiny and to live up to the standards that contemporary philosophy expects of them.

At some point, presumably, early human beings were using language to communicate about elementary needs and basic social issues; issues of truth, falsehood, knowability, and logical inference would have been fairly straightforward. But we also know that certain logical errors are hard-wired into our cognitive faculties, such as the fundamental attribution error, and the various quirks of human nature that engender animism, superstition, conspiracy theories, phobias, and unrealistic estimates of the hazards of air travel -- these may have been convenient inferential shortcuts twenty thousand years ago, but have, to say the least, outlived their usefulness at this point. They're certainly no help in grasping the slippery truths of quantum mechanics. And it prompts the question, for me at least, whether there are any other shortcuts that are hard-wired into our cognitive faculties that are fundamentally unreliable, and how we would identify them.

This isn't to challenge, per se, the basic rules of inference that underlie much of contemporary mathematical thinking, although I have always suspected analytic definitions of failing to capture the flavor of certain intuitive notions, and wondered whether that sense of failure was attributable to the glibness of the mathematician, wilfully ignoring the larger truth, or my inner caveman's inability to clear up his woolly thinking and get with the program. I've also always resisted the logician's reduction of "if A then B" constructions to the schema "either B or not A", with the same dilemma. And I find it telling that our notion of Truth, which should be straightforward, so readily ensnares us in paradox (Russell's paradox, Goedel's incompleteness theorems, and so on), and any axiom we seek as a bedrock ends up betraying its own inadequacy for that purpose. Truth isn't something that the person on the street (or the average juror) has any trouble with; the fact that it's alarmingly untenable as a philosophical notion suggests to me that "Truth" may be yet another of these evolutionarily-adapted inferential shortcuts.

Sunday, May 20, 2007 -- 7:27 am

The world's writing systems, I've observed, can be sorted according to the degree to which they reflect the sounds of the words they record -- i.e., not at all or logo/ideo-graphic, syllabic, consonants only, etc. But has anyone devised a writing system that reflects the gestures made when someone is speaking a sign language?

Update:It appears that one Valerie Sutton has made impressive efforts here. I may report on it later.