Archive for March, 2015

And in great timing, at work today we were talking about how to calculate option values correctly, and what it means for something to have an option. An example came up about prime number theory. I’m not sure what this means, since I can only be bothered to do a basic Google which tells me nothing, but from what I gather it can be one of two things:

1) There are an infinite number of prime numbers. The proof for this goes something like, if there were a finite number of primes, and the last one was n, then you could multiply all of the prime numbers up to n by each other, add one, and have created a new number that is indivisible by any of the prime numbers you just used.

2) Large numbers are really hard to factor, even for computers, because there is no way to do it elegantly.

Nobody really thought there would be any use for prime numbers, except basically people who like to do math for fun. Math hobbyists. The eventual value of primes was uncovered after it was discovered that they could be incredibly useful for encryption, and voila. The option value of playing with numbers.




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This was originally going to be an individual post about dying languages, but I think I’m going to split it into two.  

While wandering around the British Museum back in January, I was looking through the bookstore and came across an edition of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. InEnglish. Immediately enthused at the prospect of maybe being able to finally understand the story that my parents had been telling me about for decades, I texted my dad with the news, only to have him respond that:

  1. translations are awful, especially for something as classic as this.
  2. maybe I would be interested in something more modern instead?
  3. A link to the 1987 make of the “Dream of Red Chamber” on youtube.
  4. A link to some show about Chinese pageant contestants, which he assumed I would actually watch.

I’ve been thinking a lot about languages lately. Words without equivalents in other languages. Languages which have their own unique interpretation of the world. The idea that there are endangered languages in the world, languages that are being lost as users switch to more mainstream languages, a process which is being accelerated by globalisation.

There are a lot of similarities between endangered languages and biodiversity, but the main one is that they are being lost, and while in order for them to be preserved, there needs to be a certain level of public salience and commitment to keeping them alive. But how? I recall in biology class, it is still incredibly challenging to convince people to value biodiversity when there isn’t a strong economic value attached to its preservation. Biologists and economists have to get creative in understanding ways to convince a sometimes reluctant public to champion a cause which is sometimes quite costly and without clear, immediate, material rewards.

Biodiversity has been valued in several ways to make it more understandable for non-biologists, and some of these arguments might apply to language diversity.

Direct economic activity: pretty obvious, in the sense that biodiversity can be consumed (through products, consumption, medicine, etc). I’m not sure what the language analogy would be in this sense.

Spiritual/cultural/aesthetic value: in the sense that beautiful landscapes inspired countless poems and lots of general utility. Homes next to beautiful natural landscapes are valued at higher prices than otherwise equivalent homes. This has probably the most direct application to language diversity, in the sense that each language brings a beautiful unique interpretation of the world with it, and the inherent existence of these languages brings people happiness.

Recreation/tourism: biodiversity brings in revenue through tourism. I think I recall some sort of a segment from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in which hordes of American tourists travelled to a remote village somewhere in southeast Asia to listen to a traditional song performance, so clearly concept has some equivalent applications.

Education/research: biodiversity is valuable in that its existence allows researchers and institutions to learn more about the natural world. This seems like a bit of a circular argument; if biodiversity didn’t exist, then there would be no need to learn about it. At the same time, language preservation being justified by allowing people to learn about languages is also a bit of a weak argument.

Option value: just having something there is a value in itself, whether or not it provides any immediate benefit.  For example, there may be a cure for a disease or a new antibiotic that isn’t yet discovered in a rainforest, and having it around is a value in that this may one day be discovered and provide a direct economic benefit at a later date. Also, not sure how this applies to language preservation. It would imply that there is something hidden in a language that may become valuable in the future, which I’m having a hard time picturing.

Existence value: Just the act of being around is enough to provide some value, even without the possibility of a future direct benefit.  People are willing to donate funds to keeping the Amazon alive, whether or not they have any intentions of visiting or benefiting from its existence directly. I think this is the most applicable to language preservation; when I hear people communicating in a language I don’t understand, it’s kind of magical to just experience the unfamiliar combination of sounds and tones, and to know that these are being used to convey abstract ideas.  I imagine that this sense of magic is how people felt about wireless communication years ago.

It’s hard to come up with concrete arguments for why people should make a concerted effort to preserve the world’s smaller languages; rationalising the preservation of biodiversity is hard enough for conservationists to do, and many of their reasons don’t seem to apply.

I think I’m going to focus next week on my own personal understanding of why languages are dying, and why I think that I need to keep my own alive. It probably has nothing to do with a poorly translated version of a Chinese classic, but my parents will be happy nonetheless.

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