Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On the International Date Line

Last week, I read an article about time zones on The Smart Set (via ALDaily) that chronicled the government of Samoa's decision to switch time zones by moving west over the international date line, thus losing a day in December 2011. The article speaks to the fluidity in how humans arrange time. China, for example, has had only one time zone since 1949, while Russia, which had eleven until 2010, has nine. The Boston Globe's Brainiac blog also recently profiled the article, and the Globe piece included a map of the international dateline:


The international date line is a fascinating construct, and a close examination of the map makes clear how time zones reflect politics, language, and history.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Study on Linguistic Determinism

A recent study has reignited the longstanding debate over linguistic determinism. A paper by Yale Professor M. Keith Chen, profiled recently on Big Think, suggests that the language we speak dramatically impacts many of our behaviors, including savings rates, diets, and smoking habits. By correlating future-oriented behaviors (e.g. saving, exercising) with language, Chen found that people who speak languages that include strong grammatical distinctions between past and present—what he called strong future-time-reference, or FTR, languages—exhibit fewer future-oriented behaviors than those who speak weak-FTR languages:
His results are rather mind-boggling: In Europe, speakers of weak-FTR languages (German, Finnish and Estonian are examples) were 30 percent more likely to have saved money in a given year than were equivalent speakers of a strong-FTR language (English, Spanish or Greek, for instance). (To put that in perspective, according to Chen's analysis, speaking a strong-FTR language is as a big a risk-factor for not-saving as unemployment.) Weak-FTR language-speakers have piled up an average of 170,000 more euros per person for their retirement than  strong-FTR speakers, and are 24 percent less likely to have smoked heavily, 29 percent more likely to exercise regularly, and 13 percent less likely to be obese. The weak-FTR speakers even had stronger grips and great lung capacity than did those whose grammar forced them to mark the difference between today and tomorrow. National records reflect individual habits too, Chen writes: "Countries with weak-FTR languages save on average six percent more of their GDP per year than their strong-FTR counterparts."
Syntax, it appears, may be destiny, at least in Europe. Not surprisingly, the anti-Whorfians have already cast doubts on Chen's findings.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Relaxation and Creative Problem Solving

A recent post by Sam McNerney on TheCreativityPost reminds us that we often come up with our best ideas when we have stepped away from a project, when we are relaxing. McNerney profiles a number of recent articles that support the idea that intense focus and creative output do not always go hand in hand. The value of time off task is particularly important to me when writing. I find that my most powerful thoughts come to me when I am walking, cooking, or driving—activities that require little cognitive effort. And since I'm writing this post at the end of a three-day weekend, I can attest to the value of downtime.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wikipedia and Truth

Are Wikipedia entries truthful? In a recent article in The Chronicle Review, Timothy Messer-Kruse, history professor, asks this question and explains how the site's rules about data verifiability have trumped his desire to correct an inaccurate statement. An expert on the Haymarket affair, Messer-Kruse attempted, over the course of many years, to correct, on the Haymarket affair page, a detail that his research revealed was a common misconception about the trial. Wikipedia's army of volunteer editors stymied his efforts, time and again:
I tried to edit the page again. Within 10 seconds I was informed that my citations to the primary documents were insufficient, as Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as my critic informed me, "published books." Another editor cheerfully tutored me in what this means: "Wikipedia is not 'truth,' Wikipedia is 'verifiability' of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that."
Although the issue at hand in this story is rather small, the case reflects a tension inherent in the democratization of historical authority.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

More on Art and Athenticity

Late last year, I blogged about a study that suggested that people find more pleasure in viewing a work of art when they are told they are looking at an original painting rather than a fake. In response to this study, philosophy graduate student Erich Matthes recently posed an interesting question: "Is our interest in authentic things justified, or do we merely possess an inherent bias in favor of the supposed Real McCoy?"

Matthes response is worth reading in its entirety, but here a few of his key points:
[W]hether or not something is authentic in the nominal sense depends on the context of assessment: while a Van Meegeren is not an authentic Vermeer, it is, of course, an authentic Van Meegeren. Thus whether the nominal authenticity of a work grants it any special value, and hence whether it is resistant to replacement, depends on a need to articulate a context of evaluative assessment. The fact that a given Van Meegeren is an inauthentic Vermeer only has evaluative relevance if we are assessing the value of the painting as a Vermeer. Absent this context, noting that the Van Meegeren is an inauthentic Vemeer is akin to noting that a painted horse is an inauthentic zebra: it is true that they are different animals, but outside a specified evaluative context, it is unclear why this fact should matter. In historical contexts, it cannot merely be the fact that an object embodies a particular history that blocks its substitutability: after all, everything has a particular history. There is consequently some sense in which all things are resistant to replacement, but it is not obvious that there is anything significant about that.

As straightforward as this point might seem, it is essential to how we should assess the value of authentic objects. As the Oxford study suggests (and experience corroborates), people are quick to increase their valuation of a given object based on an attribution of authenticity. But the mere fact that an object is authentic should not be where the evaluative buck stops—rather, it should be where evaluative reflection begins. If not, we risk an unacceptable proliferation of objects that we believe are resistant to replacement, which can serve to erode the importance of objects that truly possess this feature. The question we must ask ourselves when confronted with an object that we initially take to be resistant to replacement is whether that object is valuable in a distinctive way. This is what renders an object resistant to replacement. In contrast, if my umbrella is stolen, a replacement is precisely what I want, and inconveniences aside, I feel no regret about this. The bulk of umbrellas are all valuable in the same way, and thus they are perfectly interchangeable.