Archive for the ‘Learning’ Category

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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Two weeks into my arrival in London and I’m getting my ass kicked by a “review” math course right now.  It’s ridiculous.


The class is pretty polarized into extremes with not that many people in the middle, which is kind of similar to the Business Writing course that they made us take in undergraduate.  Essentially, if you have no idea what’s going on before the course, the course does not really fulfill its role of fully introducing you to a topic (given they cover like, 4 or 5 terms of information in 15 days) but if you have already seen it before (because you are planning on doing a PhD, or already have a Masters, or are just freaky smart) then it will bore you to tears.  I’m on the first end of the extreme.  At least that’s how I feel given my propensity to hyperbolize (which is something that I should remember from calc, but don’t.)

It also polarized the class into those who are interested in economics mainly for academic purposes (papers, research, a career as a prof) and those who took this but are actually going into an MPA class (which is more for those who are geared towards some kind of job after grad).  I used to be kind of a quant/academic snob and think that theory and rigour, and an understanding of these concepts, made me better than my social science counterparts.  I’ve fully become one of those counterparts.  We’ve done so much stuff in probability densities, Lagrange, manipulations of matrices and vectors and what’s quasiconvex but not convex but actually also concave . . . . I’m starting to see why it’s dangerous.

It’s so easy to get lost in a see of Greek letters and to forget what you are actually trying to do, which is (positively) influence people’s lives and choices.  We ain’t doing this for fun!  But being surrounded by the objectiveness of the math can make it easy to think that our manipulations of the real world are so insignificant that we can shuffle them across both sides of an equal sign, when really they can represent millions of people.  I always felt like the world was opposed to academia for being detached from her worries, and the danger is real.  Economists who operate with “moral awareness” like Amartya Sen are rare because after hours of studying equations in the library, it can be easy to forget to be human.

I don’t like the way the world pits “street” vs “book” smarts.  If I had to choose, I’d prefer to be on the side of “street” but I’d love the credentials on the other side.  Mainly because I don’t want to take the same side as Ron Paul.

Related Video: “Street vs. Book, Paul vs. Paul” (I’ll side with Krugman)

Paul vs. Paul

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In the last 72 hours, I:

a) found a fifty dollar bill in the middle of the street.  Waited at the corner for someone to at least feign looking for their lost money, and after ten minutes, went home.  I will be able to afford the good kind of cheese for at least a month, thanks anonymous!

b) followed Chris Higgins 3 blocks before being able to muster up the courage to deliver a terrible line, only to find him nice enough to oblige me a (blurry) picture

Kiss Huggins. I hope he survives the trade deadline.

c) dressed up as a perverse interpretation of Hello Kitty, and broke my friend’s riding crop in the process.

Life is good, and my laziness only translates into compliance.  Hence my absence.  I always have a reason.

One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is an idea I got from one of these RSAnimate lectures.  It should be embedded below.

I’m really intrigued by the last concept, the one about individual and mutual knowledge, starting at about the 7:00 mark.

In the last month, I’ve had a friend who was trying to shake off the very persistent company of another friend of hers.  In fact, she indirectly denied her an invitation to a social event by suggesting that there was some barrier that this unwelcome friend could not overcome, a “previous obligation”.  However, being from a culture where this kind of an excuse is seen as a polite and veiled expression basically communicating “I do not want you at this event,” this friend of hers, coming from a different culture, took it upon herself to remove said barrier and happily invite herself to this event after a bit of appointment shifting.  Problem solved?  Apparently not.

Mutual and individual knowledge is a neat observation and explains a lot of the way that we function within Canadian society, but I guess there are caveats about applying it universally.  Every region has its own sensitivity to what is and what isn’t innuendo.  For the Chinese, the word jing is used as the word “bright” in English, but it also has a secondary meaning as “someone who can read social innuendo well.”   It is a high compliment to call a child “bright” but it also builds a culture of heightened sensitivity to what others are implying, but never saying.  In North America, there’s more of an emphasis on “confronting your problems head-on” or “striving for verbal resolution.”  As you can imagine, Asian cultures expect the listener to be able to extract a lot more innuendo out of a conversation than those from North America.

Because I grew up with one foot in both cultures, I saw no innuendo in North American communication and felt that conversations were always more upfront, and more blunt.  This confused me as a child, and I was always getting in trouble for being a bad kid, and for being rude at Chinese dinner parties, basically because I talked too much and didn’t listen enough.  Eventually, I swore off trying to be jing all together and decided that I just focus on being the bluntest person I could be.

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One of the first events that set in motion the birth of this blog was the Tedx Terry Talks conference way back in October (nerd-central to the maxxx).  I was so excited about being able to cross of something from my list of “UBC things I have one year left to do” that I forgot to come up with an actual idea.  Well, application to talk turnover was about 2 weeks, so with that in mind, I was pretty sure it would go horribly, and I was ready to bury it in the back of my head afterwards.   It went up today, and actually, it doesn’t look as bad as I thought it would.  I also realized that I’m getting used to seeing myself on camera.

It’s essentially the story of how environmentalism is a first world luxury.

And Shiggy’s.  I had to follow his unfortunately and was the walking non-tradiction. 😦

Now I’m awesome though.

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One of the first things I noticed when I went to Tanzania two years ago was that everyone, EVERYONE, had a nicer phone than I did.  I mean, my piece of shit doesn’t have web access.  It can hold a total of five extremely blurry pictures.  Each picture probably has about four pixels in it.  I had to borrow a local’s cell in Moshi to check facebook.

This happened again in Indonesia last year.  Everyone, EVERYONE, had a blackberry. In order to contact professors, I was expected to send email length text messages, rather than voice calling.  Emails went unchecked.  The norm was paragraph long SMS messages that I would have to onerously type out on my primitive version of T9 using a numbers-only keypad.  I couldn’t create paragraphs, nor could I indent.  For fuck’s sake, universe, I get it, my phone sucks!

One of the greatest things about loose tech regulations outside of North American (and possibly Europe?) are that it means you get access to cheap phones, cheap service providers and cheap data plans.  Abroad, the norm is not to purchase a monthly plan, but to use pre-paid phone cards.

I’m pretty stoked about what this means in terms of connecting people with each other.  One of the first social innovations built around widespread phone access that I came across came from Jennifer Gardy’s Tedx talk last year on HIV patient treatment using an SMS system.

Simple and effective.

Another thing that I found interesting was the talk by Sugata Mitra about education and self-organized learning groups in India.  When children are curious, given very little, large steps can still be made in education.

I am curious to see if we can create a system that capitalizes on both.  Effectiveness without teachers, and widespread access to primary education in areas where cell phones are cheap but education is not.   There has to be a way to create a “hotline” with podcasts, text messages, and as iphones and Androids start taking over, games, built around educating and reaching out to children who cannot attend school.  Universal primary education is still far from a reality, and it would be great to take what we have and move in a small step towards progress.

Now excuse me while I text someone about it.  This could take a while.

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Qwiki: The Next Step in Search – Newsweek.

I was forwarded a link which blows Wikipedia out of the water.  My last post was all about making information accessible to the public.  As Wikipedia gets increasingly more complex and its scientific and political articles more detailed and technical, it will create a wider and wider gap between itself and the originally intended users.  That’s where Qwiki comes in handy.

Rather than trying to act like another search tool, Qwiki allows you to amass information on a given topic as if you are being told a story.  The features include:

  • narration by a female voice
  • the use of pictures, videos and interactive displays
  • links to other related topics

It’s kind of like a personalized presentation.  Here’s an example on my least favourite author, Ayn Rand:


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*partial repost from http://www.now-org.com

I got forwarded this awesome program called the “Three Minute Thesis” competition.  The idea is that traditional academic research is extremely dry and boring.  I’m serious.  My dad showed me his PhD dissertation once, and it was hundreds of pages long.  It was so long it was a leather bound hardcover book.  At five, I was horrified.

I do think it is interesting that there’s a push to bring research into the 21st century.   Resistance may surface over concerns that research loses its rigour if you have to dilute it for the masses to understand it, but shouldn’t the purpose of academia be to study ways to advance human society anyhow?  If it wasn’t, what are we doing?  I applaud the organizers for looking for ways to bridge the gap between real life and the ivory tower; it forces people like me to question what I’m doing every day.

Here’s one of the winners from the conference presenting on why monogamy may be an evolutionary advantage.  I actually cited this topic before, methinks, and it is a really interesting topic made completely accessible.

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