Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Weekly Links, May 30, 2008

In roughly three months, I’ll be on my way to China. The shock has yet to really hit me. My life in France has reached a pleasant culmination as work, studies and social life s’équlibre, balance themselves out harmoniously. I’m not sure how my life will be in China in terms of this sacred balance I achieved in France, but there is little doubt that my time here in peaceful living has changed me forever. The French work less than most, if not all, other countries, yet they remain one of the most powerful and efficient economies in the world. As the rest of the world continues to aim at expanding their productive power in order to improve their economic well-being, a healthy pause, lunch-break, or vacation, French-style, is worth promoting and integrating into the vision of any modern, industrial country.

Here’s some of my favorite articles from this week. Happy Reading!

1.) France is a country run on nuclear power. While much of the liberal world, in particular the United States, as well as supposedly ecologically savvy people are vocally against the promotion and use of nuclear power, France has slowly but surely positioned itself as one of, if not the world leader in nuclear research, technology and application. In a great article, Parlez-vous nucléaire?, exploring the cross-cultural opinions between the French and Americans over nuclear power, it is clear US policy-makers have much to learn from its Romantic counterpart.

2.) Tense Liars, Serene Exaggerators. We often think of exaggeration as simply an extension of lying, but, in fact, as Benedict Cary points out in I’m Not Lying, I’m Telling a Future Truth. Really, “Touching up scenes or past performances induces none of the anxiety that lying or keeping secrets does, these studies find; and embroiderers often work to live up to the enhanced self-images they project.” While people who are lying or holding a “guilty knowledge” or secret show signs of stress (increased heart rate, sweating, etc.), people who are exaggerating do not show these signs and, in fact, are more composed and calm than those who are not exaggerating but simply telling the truth.

In a study published in Emotion, looking at students exaggerating their grades:

The researchers had 62 Northeastern University students fill out a computerized form asking, among other things, for cumulative grade point average. The students were then interviewed while hooked up to an array of sensitive electrodes measuring nervous system activation. The scripted interview covered academic history, goals and grades.

The researchers then pulled the students’ records, with permission, and found that almost half had exaggerated their average by as much as six-tenths of a point. Yet the electrode readings showed that oddly enough, the exaggerators became significantly more relaxed while discussing their grades.

Moreover, the videotaped interviews were in turn reviewed and rated by independant observers, who found that, in fact, “The ones who exaggerated the most appeared the most calm and confident.” Their conclusion was that exaggeration does not function as an attempt to deceive but instead as a kind of projection of overconfidence and of future aspirations.

3.) How does language affect perception? This question has continually plagued epistemology, because if language affects our perception and understanding of the phenomenon around us, then understanding languages, specifically our native languages, strongly influences our understand as such. In When Language Can Hold the Answer, Christine Kenneally explores some of these tensions. In one experiment, children were asked to identify the difference between two alien groups; but while one group attempted to understand the difference between the groups without group labels, another group was “suggested” certain labels. Even though

All the participants eventually learned the difference between the aliens, but the group using labels learned much faster. Naming, Dr. Lupyan concluded, helps to create mental categories.

Things get hairier:

The traditional subject of the tug of war over language and perception is color. Because languages divide the spectrum differently, researchers have asked whether language affected how people see color. English, for example, distinguishes blue from green. Most other languages do not make that distinction. Is it possible that only English speakers really see those colors as different?

Past investigations have had mixed results. Some experiments suggested that color terms influenced people in the moment of perception. Others suggested that the language effect kicked in only after some basic perception occurred.

The consensus was that different ways to label color probably did not affect the perception of color in any systematic way.

Last year, Lera Boroditsky and colleagues published a study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that language could significantly affect how quickly perceptions of color are categorized. Russian and English speakers were asked look at three blocks of color and say which two were the same.

Russian speakers must distinguish between lighter blues, or goluboy, and darker blues, siniy, while English speakers do not have to, using only “blue” for any shade. If the Russians were shown three blue squares with two goluboy and one siniy, or the other way around, they picked the two matching colors faster than if all three squares were shades from one blue group. English makes no fundamental distinction between shades of blue, and English speakers fared the same no matter the mix of shades.

In two different tests, subjects were asked to perform a nonverbal task at the same time as the color-matching task. When the Russians simultaneously carried out a nonverbal task, they kept their color-matching advantage. But when they had to perform a verbal task at the same time as color-matching, their advantage began to disappear. The slowdown suggested that the speed of their reactions did not result just from a learned difference but that language was actively involved in identifying colors as the test was happening. Two other recent studies also demonstrated an effect of language on color perception and provided a clue as to why previous experimental results have been inconclusive. In The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Paul Kay of the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley and colleagues hypothesized that if language is dominant on the left side of the brain, it should affect color perception in the right visual field. (The right visual field is connected to the left side of the brain, and vice versa.)

English-speaking subjects were shown a ring of 12 small squares that were all the same color except an odd one on the left or the right. If the odd square was shown to the right visual field and it was from a completely different color category in English, like a green square compared to the ring of blue squares, then subjects were quick to identify it as different. If the odd square shown to the right visual field was the same basic color as the ring of squares, perhaps just being a different shade of blue, subjects were not as fast to recognize the difference. If the odd square was shown to the left visual field, it didn’t matter if it was a different color or only a different shade.

The extent to which language affected color perception depended on the side of the brain being used.

Video and Statistics of the Week:

Gapminder.com is a site directed at better contextualizing health and economic data concerning the status of countries around the world. While in 1950, as the data concerning infant mortality and income shows, the world could be classified in terms of the Industrialized West and the Developing World (or simply, as We and Them), today in 2008 the world no longer transcribes to this dated myths. In the 1950s and 60s, the poorer countries were characterized by large families (more than 5) and short lives, but since then we have seen a global trend towards smaller families and longer lives.

As Hans Rosling, a Swedish expert in worldwide, public health, brings to light through several videos, the world today, excluding the marked example of Sub-Saharan Africa, has seen an amazing progression in improving health and life conditions around the world. The United States and Western Europe are the first countries to see family size decrease, infant mortality shrink, and life expectancy rise. But they are not the only, particularly if we look at Northern Asia (including China), Southern Asia (including India), North Africa and the Middle-East, and South America. Even these regions, which we continue to wrongly view as “developing,” display a strong correlation today (in terms of health and income) with that of the US and Western Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Although Africa continues to lag behind tremendously with the rest of the world, the evolution of this data from 1950 to today cannot help but leave us hopeful and optimistic in terms of global improvement.

Hans Rosling TED Video (Feb 2006):
Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen

While promoting an increased availability and a bringing together of data sources, this video critiques our long-held notions of the “developing world.” Equally important is the way that regional tendencies (for example, that Asia is relatively poor yet developing) are concretely contextualized (namely, that certain Asian countries like South Korea have a much greater improvement than other countries). Hans also critiques the idea that it is developing countries who contribute most to the creation of carbon. In fact, all countries—industrialized and industrializing or developing—have contributed to the increase of CO2 in the world. Improved health and living conditions leads inevitably to carbon production.

Equally important to debunk is the myth of where poverty exists. Specifically, poverty is a phenomenon that goes across certain continents:

[Hans Rosling TED Video (Mar 2007 ):

New insights on poverty and life around the world]6

This video is a sequel of the first, which includes certain goals for the development. For Rosling, development is not simply a question of economic growth and wealth, but instead these are the means towards different goals of development, namely human rights (I would say human dignity in order to avoid this Euro-centric notion) and culture.

[![][8]][8]An interesting example is the movement of China from 1960 to today: