Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Curse of the Geek
I am cursed by intellectual curiosity. There are just too many things I want to know about, and I am finding all of a sudden that even though I have more truly free time now than possibly ever before, I can't concentrate on one thing at a time for long enough to learn all I want. It occurred to me today that part of the reason I like taking actual classes is because then I have someone else responsible for guiding my interest and breaking up the information into more bite-sized chunks over a period of time. Maybe I should try to assign myself a-chapter-a-night kinds of homework assignments, but I can't quite bring myself to that yet. It's too easy, and too much fun, to have the luxury of being easily distracted. My brain has descended into a kind of joyous chaos, which I'd enjoy more if it didn't whirl around all the time and keep me awake when I'm trying to responsibly fall asleep.

In the past couple of weeks, these are the things that have caught my attention to pursue, research, and drool over books about: None of this really touches on the fiction I've been reading, either. I'm hopeless. I spent some time this weekend putting away books that I had pulled out at various points over the past several months, and yet, when I look up from where I'm currently sitting on the couch, I can count three separate piles of books, all of things I either intended to read, or did read and need to return to people, or am in the process of reading.

Plus, this month's National Geographic came yesterday, and it's all about the importance of national parks. And it has a mini-article about the resurgence of the atlatl, in which they quote my old anthro professor at Grinnell, John Whittaker, who, you will note, started the world's first collegiate atlatl team. Yes, I do own an atlatl that I made at his house. I am a giant nerd. But I am now only two steps removed from a National Geographic article, so there.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Japanese Perspective on the New Prince
For everyone who hasn't been living in a complete media blackout for the past month, you undoubtedly know that Japan's imperial family has a new prince. This was momentous news, because it looked like there weren't going to be any boys in the latest generation, and they had gone so far, in the past several years, as to discuss changing the succession laws to be "the first-born child" rather than "first-born son." Such a radical break from tradition, though, came to a screeching halt at the birth of the new prince. (For more basic information, the BBC announcement of the birth is here.)

Anyway, I took the opportunity to email my favorite ex-co-teacher in Japan, Mr. Kamiyama, to find out what he thought, and he had lots of information about the name, much more interesting and informative than the cursory BBC description, so I figured I'd share:
The new prince was named Hisahito, which consists of two kanji. The latter half of the name, "hito," has been inherited by the men of the imperial family. As you know, one kanji usually has more than one way of pronunciation--usually, one Japanese way and a (old) Chinese way--and the Chinese way of "hito" is "jin," which has been considered to be an indispensable virtue for wise men to have in Confucianism. The idea of "jin" includes love, affection, consideration, and a strong will not to be conquered by oneself. A name of a male member of the royal family is made up of two kanji, and the latter half is already fixed. So when a boy is born, only the former part is to be determined.

The kanji for the first part, "Hisa," means being with composure, self-composed, with serenity, not in haste, (and never-ending when read in another way). Although this kanji has a fairly good meaning and more and more parents use it for their boys' names these days, it has traditionally, and tacitly, been thought to be not-for-a-name kanji. I have no idea why, but that's the way it has been. In this sense, the imperial family has been changed, because they have been considered conservative in every way.

As a name, it doesn't sound good, least to me. Especially I don't like it in the sense that the "h" sound is duplicated, which is not easy even for Japanese to pronounce clearly and correctly, and I bet much less for French people. I'm sure they will call him just "Prince," not by his name. Some of my colleagues at school agreed to me about the name.

By the way, do you know the imperial family is the only exception that they don't have a family name. They have only their given names. This shows their unusualness.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Linguists are Funny
(Or maybe just punny, but it suits my familial sense of humor.)

I came across the following passage in Bilingualism in Development (33,) in a discussion about the differences between formalist and functionalist theories of language acquistion, and theories that try to bridge the gap.
An early acknowledgement of the need to approach language acquisition from both sides was submitted by Bruner (1983). He proposed that the language acquistion device (LAD), the engine of learning for generative linguistics, is accompanied by a language acquisition support system (LASS), the social, interactive, and cognitive structures that bring the child to language, assure that appropriate interactions take place, and present the information to the child's conceptual system in ways that are clearly interpretable and conducive to learning.
Note the stereotypical gender roles associated with each system. Typically, it appears the LASS is doing the brunt of the communicative work...

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Scientists Out of History, Available for Free
Via Carl Zimmer at The Loom, I see that the Royal Society of London is making its entire archives available for free. Why is this exciting to me? Well, first, for anyone who doesn't know what the Royal Society is, Carl explains:
In 1665, a group of natural philosophers in England got together and decided to publish what is arguably the first scientific journal: the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.
For me, this is exciting for several reasons.

Frivolously, this is because it gives me access to the actual historical documents behind the Society that featured so prominently in Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, which I gushed about here. I love picking up history incidentally from things I'm reading, and it just makes me more curious about what the people behind the characters in the books actually wrote.

But the underlying reason behind my interest in this announcement, as well as my interest in the books, is, well, what child raised properly on the tenets of science wouldn't be excited? How could any normal person not be somewhat in awe of being able to have such easy access to Benjamin Franklin's actual description of flying a kite in a thunderstorm? The Watson & Crick paper describing DNA? Innumerable other scientifically pivotal papers? How can anyone consider what these people did, and not feel all shivery inside?

Seriously, I am utterly in awe of those original scientists, the natural philosophers, and the people who came after them. These are people who have been dedicated to the cause of furthering knowledge. They have been amazingly aware and fantastically curious, asking questions in the true spirit of scientific inquiry, and our society has been incomparably shaped by them. They pushed us forward to where we are now. They are worthy of awe and admiration.

When Mark and I were in Chicago last March, we went to the Planetarium and saw a show about the history of the discovery of space and the solar system. The show didn't tell us anything new. But it did take us through the historical timeline of people who made the major discoveries in the field. We both left feeling warm and fuzzy and inspired and in awe. You know why? Because damn, but scientists are sexy.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Tea and Hibernating Bears
For my birthday when I lived in Japan, my friend Sharon decided I needed to be more British, so she gave me tea. One tin was Earl Grey, the other was Muscat. I had no idea what Muscat was, but it smelled nice, and it tasted good, so I figured I just hadn't heard of it before, and maybe it was a British thing imported to Japan.

This morning, I was trying to describe what kind of tea it is to someone else, and I didn't really know how, so I googled for it. What Google revealed to me is that "Muscat" tea appears to only exist in Japan; in other places in the world, it seems to be known as "Darjeeling." I'm not sure if they're exactly the same thing, since I don't have any Darjeeling here to compare, but this explains why no one ever seems to have heard of it. I will be sad when it is all gone. ("Muscat" is a kind of grape, by the way.)

In my search for the tea description, though, one of the things that turned up was the Forest Inn Nikko Teddy Bear House, because it has a tea room with Muscat Tea listed on the menu. In the information about the Teddy Bear Shop & Tea Room, you will find this notice:
*Tea room and Teddy Bear shop will be closed from January to the begining of March because of bear's hibernation.
Now I really want to go. Heh, I also now note that it is located in Tochigi, where Chris used to live. Such a small world.

Thus concludes my sick-day entertainment for the morning.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Inside as an Outsider
I was listening to the This American Life episode ("Americans in Paris") about what exactly it is that Americans see in Paris. For the last part, Glass interviewed an African-American lawyer who now lives in Paris. She talked about what a relief it had been for her to move to France, because there, she wasn't the girl in the projects who spoke too white, or the girl in the white world who spoke too project, she was just an American, or rather, just a foreigner. (She said that the first time someone in France told her she was American, she said, "No, I'm not. I'm black.") But after they explore some interesting theories about whether people in France's attitudes toward actually French black people count as racism or classism, Glass went back to what it seems like this woman's life has been in France. He noted that she seems more happy, more like she fits in, in a place where she is a constant outsider. She agreed, and said she felt like that's what her whole life had been, being on the outside, but now she feels more comfortable than ever before, because by being in France, rather than the US, she has been able to drop all the baggage she carried in the social politics of being African-American.

I thought this could be made into a broader point. When I was living abroad, especially in Japan, I was an obvious outsider, so I never really worried about fitting in. And that, in itself, is a freeing experience. Just the simple idea that you don't have to fit in. But it also gave me a certain feeling of living in a bubble outside of the real world. I was still American, but the problems of America were farther removed. I was living in Japan or Chile, but the problems of that country were of more of a passing interest, because as a foreigner, I had no power to affect their outcome.

A lot of people I knew in Japan, fellow foreigners, became frustrated with the fact that they would never fit in or be accepted as a person who belonged there. And this is true; we were constantly treated as guests, politely greeted and included as friends, but not as natives. The people who were frustrated by this wanted a greater feeling of belonging. But I was never bothered by it, because I, like the woman in France, have always found myself on the edge of many groups, so I was used to it enough to just feel the freedom that my priveledged status as foreign gave me. I didn't worry about getting politeness levels scrupulously correct in my speech. I didn't worry about refusing alcohol. I didn't feel the myriad pressures to conform that come from truly belonging to a society, because I clearly didn't.

This is not to say that I didn't try my best to fit in as much as possible, a few times coworkers commented that I seemed "very Japanese," and I did get mistaken as Chilean once in a while, but I was never expected to conform, wherein lies the difference. In some ways, I liked living abroad because it allowed me to be myself. Someday, maybe I'll get to do it again.

Update: Since I first wrote this post and saved it as a draft, some related thoughts have come up.

1) My brother brought up a good example of how emphasizing one's accent as more native can also be quite useful. (This is not unusual, I know, but it was a funny story.) He and one of his friends have been looking for a new apartment/house to rent in the Cullowhee area. His friend is originally from there. One place they looked at was owned by an elderly woman. In order to make a favorable impression, the friend unconsciously, as my brother put, "really twanged out his speech and slowed way down. When he said good-bye, he ended with, 'God bless ya, ma'am!'," which was, needless to say, quite out of character. It is, of course, even funnier to hear the story.

2) While talking on the phone the other night, I found myself engaged in what amounted to a very quick exchange of obscure cultural references that were completely understandable and clearly related to the conversation taking place between the two of us. I noted that, as much as I enjoy living in other places and interacting with people of diverse cultural backgrounds, the kind of exchange entirely based in shared cultural history is distinctly lacking, and as I recall from Japan, at times makes communication a lot harder.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Older Fathers and Autistic Kids
I'm sure many people heard about this yesterday, as I did when I woke up, but both the BBC (read) and NPR (listen) were reporting on the study that came out in this months Archives of General Psychiatry* showing a possible link between paternal age and the likelihood of having a child born with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It was, of course, all the buzz at the office, so I used my handy academic connections to get my hands on a copy of the actual article.

Though fairly short, it is fascinating. The first thing I noticed was that Isreal has pretty much the ideal set-up for a population study of this sort, because everyone, and I mean everyone (except orthodox Jewish women,) is evaluated and documented by the draft board, with official and consistent diagnosis codes noted in the file, as of age 17, which makes for robust diagnoses, and these records are in turn linked to those of the parents. In addition, everyone in Isreal who receives services for an ASD is registered with one central non-profit agency. A researcher's dream, clearly.

Anyway, the point is, the research team ended up with an enviably large cohort of children with ASD born in 6 consecutive years during the 1980s. They analyzed the data with just paternal age as the predictor, and then again with adjustments for year of birth, socioeconomic status, and maternal age. In both cases, paternal age showed as an increasing risk factor. Perhaps the most intriguing finding, though was this:
The association between paternal age and ASD risk is evident in male and female offspring... However, the male-female sex ratio in the offspring with ASD of fathers younger than 40 years (5.6:1.0) was noticably higher than the sex ratio in the offspring with ASD of fathers 40 years or older (2.3:1.0).
Though the researchers note that there was not a large enough sample size for really robust analysis, "[t]hese numbers... are intriguing nevertheless as they suggest the possibility of a distinct etiology for ASD that is more prominent among offspring of older fathers and that pertains equally to both sexes."

In the comments, they go on to suggest some possible genetic reasons behind this, specifically de novo spontaneous mutations and paternally expressed imprinted genes, which I don't understand enough of the background for to provide a nicely synthesized explanation. However, the earlier note about a possible distinct etiology for ASD found in offspring of older fathers jives with a lot of the thoughts I've had, and that I've heard others more professionally related to the field express, that there is probably no one cause for autism to be found, but many. There may, in fact, be numerous kinds of autism, but we don't know enough about the underlying causes of any of them to be able to tell them apart. This could also explain why some children with autism seem to go through a regression phase in early childhood, while others never do; why some seem to respond to special diets, while others don't; etc., etc. It's a fascinating possibility to consider. It'll be interesting to see what researchers continue to find out in the future.

*Reichenberg, A. et al. Advancing Paternal Age and Autism, Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2006;63:1026-1032

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Mountains (and Rivers) of Western North Carolina
This past weekend, I went with my parents and grandparents to see my brother in the far western part of the state. He's attending Western Carolina University, in Parks and Rec Management, which seems like an excellent choice for him. I got to do a lot of window tourism, since we did a lot of driving around. This is not my preferred method of seeing the sights, but fortunately the scenery was nice enough to be distracting on its own.

We drove up on Saturday morning, getting there in time for a late lunch (made somewhat later by the restaurant.) My brother, who has had a great deal of experience with food service now, had some very strong, and not very kind opinions about the service we received at the restaurant we chose to eat at. Apparently, the only other time he tried to eat there, he and his friend sat for 15 minutes without someone coming to take their order. They left. We didn't, but I can see why he doesn't want to give them any more business. The food was okay. Then he took us out to an overlook at the Nantahala River, where the rafters and kayakers get to go over the rapids. Given that he also says the water is 42F in the height of summer, I was not sad that we didn't have time to go rafting. He says he did many tours down the river over the summer. At one point, as we drove further up along the river, he pointed out a pizza place where he said the owners were "very cool, 'cuz they'll come out and pour hot water over your feet if they've gone numb."

The next day, we went on the Great Smoky Mountain Railway train from Dillsboro to Bryson City. It mostly follows the course of the Tuckaseigee River, which is a much tamer river than the Nantahala, apparently. One of the more unusual sights we passed was the area where they filmed the train wreck scene from The Fugitive. When we got back, my brother ran off to work at his current pizza restaurant, and a few hours later, we went there as well. The service was much better, and the pizza was excellent as well, although he said he wasn't involved in making ours.

On the last day we were there, we took a long drive through the Great Smoky Mountains, mostly in the Nantahala National Forest, along a very windy road that eventually led to Highlands and Cashiers, apparently where all the rich people live. Indeed, the contrast in housing was readily apparent. Gone were the prevalent trailers and older homes of the area around the university, to be replaced by homes clearly designed by architects to be enhanced by their surroundings and to capture views, or possibly even vistas. Even for houses less ostentatiously designed, you could tell these were not owned by natives by a sheer lack of, well, stuff in the yard. Such a lack is, I think, an indication that people haven't been living there very long.

The best part of the drive, though, was while we were in the national forest, because we got to stop at an overlook to see some falls, possibly even the falls on the Cullasaja River. There was a small, rocky path leading down from the side of the road to the river's edge, so I got to do a very little bit of hiking. I would have liked to do more, but since the weather was not very sunny, it didn't seem like a good idea. While I may have a growing history of hiking in the rain, (Machu Picchu, the Great Wall,) I don't really expect everyone to share this predilection, especially not my octogenarian grandparents. But I did manage to get some good pictures on my short hike, and really, this whole entry is mostly just an excuse to post them. Enjoy.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Native Literacy as a Basis for Learning is Not a Liberal Concept
On NPR this afternoon, there was this story, "Spanish Classes for Latino Immigrants," on a program based in Durham County here in North Carolina, teaching literacy skills, in Spanish, to Latino immigrants. They pointed out at the beginning of the story that this is because most of these students have tried ESL classes and failed because they had no literacy skills at all.

As I'm sure is a great shock, there have been innumerable studies done on the benefits of teaching immigrants, children and otherwise, how to read in their native language before attacking teaching them an entirely new one. This isn't rocket science, or biochemistry, or whatever your own particular scientific field of awe and near-impossibility happens to be. It's a very easily understood concept.

And yet, of course, they had to interview an English Only proponent, of a group called US English, who insists that this entire effort is wasted, because they should just learn to read in English at the same time they're learning to speak it. It appears that everyone involved in founding and chairing the group, at least that they mention on the front page, is also an immigrant, but given that those mentioned are a US Senator and a Chilean architect, I doubt they had to deal with learning literacy skills as an adult before trying to learn English. While I find arguments that everyone who moves to the US must learn perfect, fluent, nearly unaccented English to be ridiculous as well, I'm particularly irritated by this argument that would essentially deny both English and literacy skills by making the equally unattainable, because of a misguided and entirely political lack of understanding of how effective literacy teaching works, not to mention second language acquisition in adults.

And in answer to the US English claim that it's a waste of money as well as time, NPR smoothly pointed out that in this case, the government of Mexico is actually funding the project, which I thought was a nice touch.

This is another one of those highly politicized issues in the US that I just don't understand, because the arguments all seem so ridiculous and pointless. If I'm fair, I'll admit that my side of the issue, that the US doesn't need an official language and that educators should be in charge of language learning policies, perhaps seem ridiculous to people on the other side. But I'm really just inclined to declare all those people to be idiots.

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