Language and Culture

January 20, 2013

Australian PhD student Sara Ciesielski (Graduate School of Humanities & Social Sciences, University of Melbourne) recently had the honour of presenting a “two minute thesis” for PhD Comics, on her project “Language Development and Socialization in Sherpa”:

Novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, in her short story “The Entertaining Episode of the Article in Question” (in Lord Peter Views the Body, 1928), writes about the gender-laden French language: “Now, in France, every male child is brought up to use masculine adjectives about himself. He says: Que je suis beau! But a little girl has it rammed home to her that she is female; she must say: Que je suis belle! … When I am at a station and I hear an excited young woman say to her companion, ‘Me prends-tu pour un imbécile’ – the masculine article arouses curiosity.

Referring to the same issue is Luce Irigaray’s famous book with an untranslatable title: Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un. The French language also incorporates status differences in the distinction between the pronouns tu and vous. However, other languages, such as Thai, have a far more complex pronoun structure.


Non-verbal Thai communication also requires care

Pioneer linguist Edward Sapir pointed out examples of languages where males and females used quite distinct sublanguages. Japanese is one such language, thus leading to more extreme cases of the issue pointed out by Dorothy Sayers.

Even in British English, studies show that “mauve,” “beige,” “pink,” “maroon,” “lovely,” “nice,” and “cute” are used more often by females than males. However, in 2010, Internet legend XKCD conducted a survey of colour term usage, half-expecting to see this clichéd pattern:

In fact, results were more like this:

More complex patterns of language usage mark professions, ethnic communities, and other subcultures. Writer Annie Dillard once said: “The mind – the culture – has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel.” The decorations vary from group to group. And occasionally, the shovel is used as a weapon.

– Tony


Emotion and Intelligence

January 14, 2013

A recent blog post in Science 2.0 refers to the 2004 book The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, and Intelligence Evolved from Our Primate Ancestors to Modern Humans by the late Stanley I. Greenspan and by Stuart Shanker. Drawing particularly on personal studies of child development, Greenspan and Shanker claim that “our highest level mental capacities, such as reflective thinking, only develop fully when infants and children are engaged in certain types of nurturing learning interactions.

They go onto to argue that the various stages of child development involve an intertwined growth of emotional and cognitive skills, and that these cannot be separated.

This raises the question as to whether (strong) Artificial Intelligence is possible. Can an unemotional thinking entity, like Data in Star Trek, actually exist? Such issues are explored further in a 2002 book edited by Robert Trappl, Paolo Petta, and Sabine Payr.


Unemotional thinkers in fiction, like Star Trek’s Data, actually do display various emotions – if not, the reader/viewer would lose interest

Greenspan and Shanker’s theories also have implications for child-rearing. If they are correct, emotionally rich interactions with caregivers are essential for the development of intelligence. For example, they argue (in contrast to Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker), that language does not develop “spontaneously,” but is critically dependent on those interactions. Greenspan and Shanker write: “A child’s first words, her early word combinations, and her first steps towards mastering grammar are not just guided by emotional content, but, indeed, are imbued with it.


Emotionally rich interaction (photo: Robert Whitehead, 2006)

– Tony


Human Sciences, Statistics, and R

January 6, 2013

The use of statistics has long been important in the human sciences. An early example is an analysis by William Sealy Gosset (alias “Student”) of biometric data obtained by Scotland Yard around 1900. The heights of 3,000 male criminals fit a bell curve almost perfectly:


Histogram © A. H. Dekker, produced using R software

Standard statistical methods allow the identification of correlations, which mark possible causal links:


XKCD teaches us that “Correlation doesn’t imply causation, but it does waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there.’”

Newer, more sophisticated statistical methods allow the exploration of time series and spatial data. For example, this project looks at the spatial distribution of West Nile virus (WNV) – which disease clusters are significant, and which are merely tragic coincidence:


Distribution of significant clusters of human WNV in the Chicago region, from Ruiz et al.

SPSS has been the mainstay of statistical analysis in the human sciences, but many newer techniques are better supported in the free R toolkit. For example, this paper discusses detecting significant clusters of diseases using R. The New York Times has commented on R’s growing popularity, and James Holland Jones points out that R is used by the majority of academic statisticians (and hence includes the newest developments in statistics), R has good help resources, and R makes really cool graphics.


A really cool graph in R, using the ggplot2 R package (from Jeromy Anglim’s Psychology and Statistics Blog)

An increasing quantity of human-science-related instructional material is available in R, including:

Through the igraph, sna, and other packages (and the statnet suite), R also provides easy-to-use facilities for social network analysis, a topic dear to my heart. For example, the following code defines the valued centrality measure proposed in this paper:

library("igraph")
valued.centrality <- function (g) {
  recip <- function (x) if (x == 0) 0 else 1/x
  f <- function (r) sum(sapply(r, recip)) / (length(r) - 1)
  apply (shortest.paths(g), MARGIN=1, f)
}

This definition has the advantage of allowing disconnected network components, so that we can use these centrality scores to add colour to a standard plot (using the igraph package within R):


Social network diagram, produced using R software, coloured using centrality scores

– Tony


Suicide and the Military

December 18, 2012

A recent (2011) report by Margaret Harrell and Nancy Berglass (“Losing the Battle: The Challenge of Military Suicide”) looks at suicide in the U.S. military.


U.S. military active duty suicide rates, compared to general U.S. population (from Harrell and Berglass)

The U.S. military has seen an increase in suicide among its serving and former personnel, with suicide now killing more troops than enemy fire does. Junior enlisted personnel appear to be most at risk. Among U.S. veterans, it is estimated that there is one suicide death every 80 minutes and, although only 1% of Americans have seen military service, veterans account for 20% of U.S. suicides. The U.S. Army in particular has seen suicides increase markedly since 2004.

From Vung Tau, riding Chinooks, to the dust at Nui Dat,
I’d been in and out of choppers now for months.
But we made our tents a home, VB and pinups on the lockers,
And an Asian orange sunset through the scrub.

And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes,
Can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.
– Redgum, I Was Only 19

Harrell and Berglass make a number of recommendations to help address this suicide problem, including that the U.S. Army establish a “unit cohesion period” on return from deployment. Stress factors among soldiers include encountering dead bodies – and this is a stress factor which may also apply to troops on humanitarian relief missions. A 2003 book notes that “there is growing evidence that the stress of peace support operations can be as psychologically damaging as conventional warfare.” Given these stresses, addressing the problem of military suicide will require recognising post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a “real injury.” Various helpful recommendations for dealing with PTSD have also been made in the past.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are over 36,000 suicides in the U.S. each year (and almost half a million cases of self-inflicted injury). Risk factors include stressful life events and feeling alone – two factors common among post-deployment military personnel who have left their unit.

Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel appear to think about suicide more than the general community. According to one study, 3.9% of the ADF had suicidal ideation. However, comparing the 8 suicide deaths per year of ADF personnel against the 2,300 suicide deaths per year in the general Australian community shows that ADF personnel are slightly less likely to die by suicide than their civilian counterparts. This may indicate that ADF suicide prevention strategies are having some positive effects.


Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, USA

Some of the recommendations from Harrell and Berglass also appeared in a 2010 U.S. Military Task Force report. That report highlighted in particular the need for reducing the stigma of soldiers seeking help, and for removing cultural and organisational barriers to doing so. RAND has also produced a lengthy report on preventing suicide in the U.S. military. In its July 2012 special issue on the topic, Time Magazine printed some helpful advice for wives and husbands of military personnel – see here. The Australian Defence Force has a fact sheet here.

In the end, though, suicide is everyone’s business, for “no man is an island … every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … any man’s death diminishes me.”


U.S. Army Suicide Prevention Poster (2011)

This post is dedicated to all my friends who wear, or who have worn, a uniform, and to everyone who has been affected by suicide.

– Tony


Emergence, Intelligence, Networks, Agents: WEIN

December 1, 2012

Networks are ubiquitous, and often large. The WWW contains over a trillion pages. The Internet contains over 900 million hosts. Facebook has over 900 million active users. The human brain contains over 80 billion neurons. The world has over over 7 billion people.

The behaviour of such networks is determined not just by the behaviour of individual nodes, but also by the network topology. The famous six degrees of separation often hold, for example. Network dynamics and self-organization are also important.

From the nodes and links of these large networks, fascinating things emerge. Nobody expected what happened when a small internal network at CERN was scaled up to planetary size, for example. And somehow, the interactions of our billions of neurons make us intelligent.

The 5th International Workshop on Emergent Intelligence on Networked Agents (WEIN’13) will be exploring some of these phenomena at AAMAS in Saint Paul, Minnesota next May.

The WEIN 2013 Call for Papers is out, and submissions are due January 30. It is likely to be an interesting event, and one that should help to build bridges between the multi-agent system and complex network communities.


Bridging disciplines: the PLoS One Map of Science

– Tony


Calling the Race

November 15, 2012

The big winner from the US Presidential election has been Nate Silver and his 538 blog. On the eve of the election, Silver had calculated the following probabilities from polling data:

Silver also has a fascinating analysis of which polls were accurate, and which weren’t. In particular, polls based on calling landline telephones tended to seriously underestimate the Democrat vote. Voters without landlines are more likely to be young, urban, Black, Hispanic, strapped for cash, or some combination of the five, and all five categories are more likely to vote Democrat. There are lessons here for pollsters in other countries.

The following simple NetLogo simulation model (click on the image to run it) re-rolls Silver’s electoral dice, giving alternative outcomes – exactly the kind of simulation Silver actually did to support his 90% prediction of an Obama win:

Silver appears to take a Bayesian approach to statistics. A Bayesian has been described as “one who, vaguely expecting a horse, and catching a glimpse of a donkey, strongly believes he has seen a mule.” The legendary XKCD summarises the perspective quite elegantly:

– Tony


Benefiting from Board Games

November 5, 2012

Playing the Ticket to Ride board game

I’m a big fan of board games, especially the newer German-style board games, which are far superior to the games of my youth. This book argues the benefit of modern board games for learning and teaching, highlighting some of my favourites.

Board games are more than just entertainment. According to a press release, a lecturer at the University of Tennessee has won an award for using the Ticket to Ride board game to teach operations research to students. This makes good sense, since German-style board games tend to involve complex optimisation decisions.


Some Dominion cards (photo: Shannon Prickett)

Consider a massively simplified version of the enjoyable game of Dominion, for example. There are six kinds of card: copper money (costs $0, worth $1), silver money (costs $3, worth $2), gold money (costs $6, worth $3), estates (cost $2, worth 1 point), duchies (cost $5, worth 3 points), and provinces (cost $8, worth 6 points). The real game has many other interesting cards, but even this simple parody is non-trivial.

At each turn, the player draws a hand of five cards (from a deck of initially ten), purchases a new card, and discards the hand. When the deck is empty, the discard pile is shuffled to form a new deck, so each purchased card will be “used” multiple times (which is why it’s sensible to spend $6 on a gold card worth $3). However, only the green cards are worth points – as with many German-style games, the money does not directly contribute to winning the game. On the other hand, purchasing many green cards reduces the chance of a five-card hand containing much money.

One strategy is to only purchase money or the valuable province cards. A simple simulation of the game shows that, after 50 turns, this results in an average score of 112 points. In contrast, a strategy of preferring to buy green cards gives an average score of only 39. However, “switching” from one strategy to the other does best of all, with an average score of 128 when the “switch” is made at turn 35 (and an average score of at least 120 when the “switch” is made somewhere between turns 25 and 45). In other words, winning requires optimising when the strategic “switch” is made.


Average scores, as a function of when the strategic “switch” is made. Switching at turn 35 is best.

For full-blown German-style games, the optimisation problems are more difficult. As this podcast argues, they are often in the difficult class of problem called NP-complete. These are hard enough to challenge both a human and a computer.

As I’ve said before, I also have a long-standing interest in collaborative board games, such as Arkham Horror, Pandemic, and Lord of the Rings (for fans of Arkham Horror, here is one of my custom characters, with back story and marker). Collaborative board games offer an excellent way of both exploring and teaching teamwork, and a 2006 paper by José Zagal and others explores Lord of the Rings in this context.


Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings collaborative board game

Good board games generate the level of engagement that makes wargaming work. When the team is attempting to solve a difficult optimisation or decision problem (as in SCUDHunt), things can get very interesting indeed.

– Tony


Epistemology and Simulation

September 28, 2012

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. What is knowledge exactly? Well, I’m happy (for reasons argued elsewhere) to use the definition going back to Plato, that of justified true belief. For example, I know – or at least believe – that there’s a tree growing outside my window.


The tree outside my window (my photo)

Ultimately, this belief is grounded in the way the human visual system works, and on the way in which my perception of the tree triggers remembrance of trees past. All this falls within the scope of cognitive psychology, and experimental work in this area has told us a great deal about how human perception works.


The human visual system, from Gray’s Anatomy, 1918

Is my belief true? You’ll have to judge that for yourself (although the photograph may help convince you). Is it justified? Well, that’s the domain of philosophy – am I justified in trusting my senses?

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine takes “seven and three are ten” as a touchstone of truth, and in his City of God, he writes “the man who says that seven and three are eleven, says what cannot be true under any circumstances.” I agree with him. Here again, my belief falls within the scope of cognitive psychology (and developmental psychology, since Cuisenaire rods helped convince me of this back in kindergarten).


Seven and three are ten

Is my belief true? Once again, judge that for yourself. Is it justified? Well, that’s the domain of mathematics this time (and, as an older child, I learned to prove 7 + 3 = 10 mathematically).

Shortly, I hope to attend the 5th Epistemological Perspectives on Simulation (EPOS) Conference at Trinity University (San Antonio, Texas). We will be exploring whether it is possible to know things (especially things about social phenomena) as the result of a simulation (and, if so, how). It promises to be an interesting event. Papers from two of the four past instances of this conference series can be found here (2004) and here (2008).


(Public domain photo)

– Tony


Sleeping in the moonlight… or not

August 21, 2012

Moritz von Schwind, Selene
and Endymion‎, 1831

In 1609, the English writer Thomas Dekker wrote these lines in praise of sleep:

For do but consider what an excellent thing sleep is: it is so inestimable a jewel, that, if a tyrant would give his crown for an hour’s slumber, it cannot be bought … sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together. Who complains of want, of wounds, of cares, of great men’s oppressions, of captivity, whilst he sleepeth? Beggars in their beds take as much pleasure as kings. Can we therefore surfeit on this delicate ambrosia? Can we drink too much of that, whereof to taste too little tumbles us into a churchyard; and to use it but indifferently throws us into Bedlam? No, no. Look upon Endymion, the Moon’s minion, who slept threescore and fifteen years, and was not a hair the worse for it. Can lying abed till noon then, being not the threescore and fifteen thousandth part of his nap, be hurtful?

Full moon (from Weird
Tales, Sept 1941)

The modern prevalence of jet travel and shift work has prompted considerable research in sleep and sleep-related issues, since many travellers and shift-workers struggle to find effective strategies for managing sleep. Thomas Dekker is certainly correct about the effects which sleep deprivation can have.

However, although Selene (the Moon) caused Endymion to sleep, she is unlikely to be of any help here. In fact, the full moon reduces hours slept, and this effect may underlie traditional beliefs in lunacy caused by the moon. Not to mention the legends about werewolves.

– Tony


Games and teamwork

August 16, 2012
I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew

I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew (book cover)

One of my favourite children’s books is I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew by the great Dr Seuss. It contains that wonderful description of teamwork:

… ‘This is called teamwork. I furnish the brains.
You furnish the muscles, the aches, and the pains.
I’ll pick the best roads, tell you just where to go.
And we’ll find a good doctor more quickly, you know.’
Then he sat and he worked with his brain and his tongue
And he bossed me around just because I was young.
He told me go left. Then he told me go right.
And that’s what he told me all day and all night.

Is that really teamwork, though? There are requirements on true teamwork, and these requirements include processes that are (at least to some degree) democratic. But apart from that, what does a good team really look like?

In a 2006 paper in Simulation & Gaming, José P. Zagal, Jochen Rick, and Idris Hsi explore Reiner Knizia’s “Lord of the Rings” board game, in which a team of up to five people play the roles of hobbits intent on destroying Sauron’s ring.


Reiner Knizia’s “Lord of the Rings” board game

Zagal et al. find that this collaborative board game models four aspects of more realistic teams:

  1. There is a genuine tension between perceived individual utility and team utility.
  2. Players may, if they wish, take actions which go against group consensus.
  3. Players are able to trace outcomes (good or bad) back to player decisions.
  4. Players have varying strengths and weaknesses in the context of the game.

These characteristics make the “Lord of the Rings” board game, and similar collaborative board games, fascinating tools for exploring teamwork at its best (or at its worst), and for exploring strategies for improving team effectiveness. And they’re fun, too!

– Tony