Monday, December 16, 2013

Uncooked lobsters are red: they just don't look that way

Just a bit of data for contextualists and perhaps response-dependence theorists. In last week’s New Scientist the question is asked “Why do shellfish turn red when cooked?”
The answer begins:
“Certain shellfish, such as lobsters, turn red when cooked because they are red to begin with – we just can't see it.” (New Scientist, 7th Dec 2013: 69)
Apparently the red colour is due to a compound called astaxanthin, which is there all along. Its effect is masked in live crustaceans by various other compounds. When the creature is boiled many of these denature, but astaxanthin is stable at high temperatures, so does not break down, and the lobster turns red – or its natural red colour is revealed.

Compare with Travis on brown leaves painted green: pp. 171 ff. of Travis, Charles. 1994. On constraints of generality. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 94:165–188.

Monday, November 11, 2013

What literature knows about your brain...

…is the name of a new blog about cognitive science and literature. The author, Raphael Lyne, says he “will be tempted to see literary works as experiments into cognition, as they set up scenarios in which certain qualities can be explored.”

There are already interesting posts on social cognition (posing the question “When we think together, do we think differently?”) and on spatial understanding of time.

The latter suggests that the Spenserian stanza, which has “more lines than other common forms, and an extra couple of syllables in the last line […] often seems to distend duration.” That made me think of a perhaps related phenomenon – how the rhythm of cuts in films affects time perception. For example, Donald Ritchie and David Bordwell both point out that Ozu’s cuts rarely interrupt dialogue, and Ritchie says that:
The tempo of the Ozu film […] is extremely subtle. […] in film the idea of tempo is complicated by the content of the shot: an empty shot seems to move more slowly than a shot filled with action, even if it is the same length. […] Ozu’s time is not clock time, though many of his sequences would have taken the same amount of time they take on the screen. His conversations […] are composed of a number of shots all about the same length (the length depending entirely upon the length of the spoken line), but the effect (perhaps because of the “empty” waits before and after dialogue) is not that of clock time at all. […] the effect becomes that of psychological time. As the characters experience film time, so do we.[…] the tempo is created by what is in the shot. (pp. 181–2 of Richie, D. (1974). Ozu. Berkeley: University of California Press.)
I wonder if Bordwell’s cognitive science collaborators have done work on time perception.

Lyne suggests the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream do not experience time as a straight line: “forward progression [is] a mortal way of thinking about time” and:
Fairies like to dance in rings, and they like to circle the earth. Puck promises to put a girdle round it in forty minutes, and Oberon says that he and Titania ‘the globe can compass soon’. When Titania lies down with Bottom, she imagines herself capturing the moment, and also the period of sleep, in natural circles
But, he says, “I don’t think it’s as simple as saying ‘for immortals, time is cyclical’. It might be helical.” Which of course reminds me of Delaney’s Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones. But also, perhaps more relevantly, of Diane Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, which is about mortals caught up with the immortal fairy queen and her court, and is considerably indebted to Spenser. Jones wrote that in order to organise the shifts of the action between the mundane and the supernatural (which she says she learned from Spenser’s shifts between overt allegory and subtle correspondences):
I found that the narrative moved in a sort of spiral, with each stage echoing and being supported by the ones that went before. I had to work very hard […] to make sure the echoes were not repetitions (p. 137 of Jones, D. W. (1989). The heroic ideal – a personal Odyssey. The Lion and the Unicorn, 13(1), 129-140.)
Somewhere else, she explains that this is so that the narrative can build up in waves, each of which partly recapitulates what has come before, but some of which go on beyond and push the story forward.

Friday, November 08, 2013

T-Rex on the poverty of the stimulus

T-Rex expounding his version of the poverty of the stimulus argument

I was a bit slow to blog this one, which came out in August.

In the meantime, someone I pointed it out to says that it’s great apart from “They will stone-cold deduce rules of grammar FROM OBSERVATION ALONE”, and suggests that the author didn't finish reading the chapter on the poverty of the stimulus. The problem, of course, with what T-Rex says is that the whole point of the poverty of the stimulus argument is to establish that infants do not work out grammar from observation alone: rather, there is some innate knowledge of language.

But I’m inclined to give T-Rex (or at least his creator Ryan North, who has a master’s in computational linguistics and a dog called ‘Chompsky’) the benefit of the doubt. I think either North or T-Rex is being somewhat ironic. He (whichever one of them it is) doesn't really think that babies independently invent the idea of language or deduce the rules of grammar from observation alone, just that it might seem as though they do – to T-Rex, or to someone he is satirising.

Utahraptor is wrong, though, in saying that babies crawl off cliffs given half a chance. In fact we have an innate drop-detector which is available very early in infancy. Babies may fail to distinguish between small and large drops (pdf) though.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Structural ambiguity and the law

Mark Liberman at Language Log covers a US Supreme Court case that may hinge on the interpretation of this part of a statute:
Except as otherwise provided in this title, whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent therefor, infringes the patent.
They have a good short summary, and the discussion in the comments is worth a look too.

Nobody points out the obvious starting point, though (the comment from 'ohwilleke' comes closest): the text is structurally ambiguous, the scope relations are underdetermined by what is written, so the court will have to make a decision. Or rather, they will have to make at least two connected decisions: first, what criteria to apply (intent of executive or legislature; or the most accessible or salient or relevant disambiguation, now or when the law was promulgated; or something else) and second, what their chosen criterion or criteria imply.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ad hoc concepts paper with Mark Textor

It has become a staple of truth-conditional pragmatics to assume that the meaning contributed by the use of a word to the proposition expressed by a speaker in making an utterance need not be the fixed lexical meaning of that word. For example, in saying:
John’s a saint.
I might be talking about my neighbour, John, who has not been canonised, and be expressing a thought that might be partially glossed thus: John is extremely kind – to the point of self-sacrifice. According to truth-conditional pragmatic theories, when I do this I am predicating of John an ad hoc concept SAINT*, different from the lexicalised concept.

Evidence that this ad hoc concept gets into the proposition expressed comes from negation. Consider replying like this:
No, he’s not a saint. He just does what he would prefer and makes it look like a big sacrifice.
The speaker of the reply seems to be denying that John is a helpful etc. individual, not that he is a literal saint. It looks, in other words, as though the negation takes scope over  the proposition that John is a SAINT*, and this suggests that the proposition that was expressed by the original claim was that John is a SAINT*.

In the new paper we take all of this for granted and look in some detail at what kind of thing such an ‘ad hoc concept’ is (or would be).

We argue that ad hoc concepts are not really concepts; rather they are clusters of information ready to be used in inference. By cluster, we mean a collection which, in addition to having definite members and non-members, may have some borderline member/non-members, like a cluster of points on a graph. See below for the abstract: the paper is here.

Allott, N. & Textor, M. (2012). Lexical pragmatic adjustment and ad hoc concepts. International Review of Pragmatics, 4(2), 185–208

It’s in a special issue of the International Review of Pragmatics edited by Anton Benz, Katja Jasinskaja and Uli Sauerland. Many thanks to them for putting this together – also for organising the conference that most of the papers were from.

Thanks are also due to CSMN and the Norwegian Research Council for funding my research, and for making possible an extended visit by Mark Textor to Oslo last year for us to write the paper.


Lexical pragmatic adjustment and ad hoc concepts
Nicholas Allott and Mark Textor


According to truth-conditional pragmatics, a word may contribute an ad hoc concept to the proposition expressed, that is, something that differs from the concept the word encodes (the lexicalized concept). In relevance-theoretic lexical pragmatics, ad hoc concepts are treated like a species of concepts proper. Concepts as well as ad hoc concepts are taken to be atomic. Lexical pragmatic adjustment is conceived as the formation of an ad hoc concept that is narrower or broader in extension (or both) than the lexicalized concept involved. We argue that difference in extension should not be taken as the crucial feature of lexical pragmatics, since ad hoc concepts can have the same extension as the lexicalized concept. In contrast, we propose a positive view of ad hoc concepts as clusters of information poised to be used in inference. (Surprisingly, ad hoc concepts turn out not to be concepts at all.) The cluster account drops the assumption that ad hoc concepts are atomic and can therefore provide a satisfactory explanation of lexical pragmatic adjustment.