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Letter of Recommendation: Letter of Recommendation: ‘Primitive Technology’

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For all the virtuosic craftsmanship on display in these YouTube videos, the real draw may be the absorbing peace of watching the Man quietly go about his work.

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dbrandon
1075 days ago
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Column: How colors get their names

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Colorful eye. Photo by Péter Mács/via Adobe

How many colors exist in your language’s rainbow? A linguist takes a guess. Photo by Péter Mács/via Adobe

It is striking that English color words come from many sources. Some of the more exotic ones, like “vermilion” and “chartreuse,” were borrowed from French, and are named after the color of a particular item (a type of mercury and a liquor, respectively). But even our words “black” and “white” didn’t originate as color terms. “Black” comes from a word meaning “burnt,” and “white” comes from a word meaning “shining.”

Color words vary a lot across the world. Most languages have between two and 11 basic color words. English, for example, has the full set of eight basic colors: black, white, red, green, yellow, blue, pink, gray, brown, orange and purple. In a 1999 survey by linguists Paul Kay and Luisa Maffi, languages were roughly equally distributed between the basic color categories that they tracked.

In languages with fewer terms than this – such as the Alaskan language Yup’ik with its five terms – the range of a word expands. For example, for languages without a separate word for “orange,” hues that we’d call “orange” in English might be named by the same color that English speakers would call “red” or “yellow.” We can think of these terms as a system that together cover the visible spectrum, but where individual terms are centered on various parts of that spectrum.

Illustration of a color system with 20 hues. Illustation by Thenoizz, CC

Illustration of a color system with 20 hues. Illustation by Thenoizz, CC

Does that mean that speakers of languages with fewer words for colors see less color? No, just as English speakers can see the difference between the “blue” of the sky and the “blue” of an M&M. Moreover, if language words limited our perception of color, words wouldn’t be able to change; speakers would not be able to add new distinctions.

My colleague Hannah Haynie and I were interested in how color terms might change over time, and in particular, in how color terms might change as a system. That is, do the words change independently, or does change in one word trigger a change in others? In our research, recently published in the journal PNAS, we used a computer modeling technique more common in biology than linguistics to investigate typical patterns and rates of color term change. Contrary to previous assumptions, what we found suggests that color words aren’t unique in how they evolve in language.

Questioning common conceptions on colors

Previous work (such as by anthropological linguists Brent Berlin and Paul Kay) has suggested that the order in which new color terms are added to a language is largely fixed. Speakers begin with two terms – one covering “black” and dark hues, the other covering “white” and light hues. There are plenty of languages with only two color terms, but in all cases, one of the color terms is centered on “black” and the other on “white.”

When a language has three terms, the third is one is almost always centered on hues that English speakers would call “red.” There are no languages with three color terms where the named colors are centered on black, white and light green, for example. If a language has four color terms, they will be black, white, red and either yellow or green. In the next stage, both yellow and green are present, while the next color terms to be added are blue and brown (in that order). Cognitive scientists and linguists such as Terry Regier have argued that these particular parts of the color spectrum are most noticeable for people.

Berlin and Kay also hypothesized that language speakers don’t lose color terms. For example, once a language has a distinction between “red-like” hues (such as blood) and “yellow-like” ones (such as bananas), they wouldn’t collapse the distinction and go back to calling them all by the same color name again.

This would make color words quite different from other areas of language change, where words come and go. For example, words can change their meaning when they are used metaphorically, but over time the metaphoric meaning becomes basic. They can broaden or narrow their meanings; for example, English “starve” used to mean “die” (generally), not “die of hunger,” as it primarily means now. “Starve” has also acquired metaphorical meanings.

That there’s something unique about the stability of color concepts is an assumption we wanted to investigate. We were also interested in patterns of color naming and where color terms come from. And we wanted to look at the rates of change – that is, if color terms are added, do speakers tend to add lots of them? Or are the additions more independent, with color terms added one at a time?

Everyone sees them all, but languages divide them into different color terms. Photo by alfexe/via Adobe

Everyone sees them all, but languages divide them into different color terms. Photo by alfexe/via Adobe

We tested these ideas using color words in Australian Aboriginal languages. We worked with Australian languages (rather than European or other languages) for several reasons. Color demarcations vary in Indo-European, but the number of colors in each language is pretty similar; the ranges differ but the number of colors don’t vary very much. Russian has two terms that cover the hues that English speakers call “blue,” but Indo-European languages have many terms.

In contrast, Australian languages are a lot more variable, ranging from systems like Darkinyung’s, with just two terms (mining for “black” and barag for “white”), to languages like Kaytetye, where there are at least eight colors, or Bidyara with six. That variation gave us more points of data. Also, there are simply a lot of languages in Australia: Of the more than 400 spoken at the time of European settlement, we had color data for 189 languages of the Pama-Nyungan family, from the Chirila database of Australian languages.

In order to answer these questions, we used techniques originally developed in biology. Phylogenetic methods use computers to study the remote past. In brief, we use probability theory, combined with a family tree of languages, to make a model of what the history of the color words might have been.

First, we construct a tree that shows how languages are related to one another. The contemporary Pama-Nyungan languages are all descended from a single ancestor language. Over 6,000 years, Proto-Pama-Nyungan split into different dialects, and those dialects turned into different languages: about 300 of them at the time of the European settlement of Australia. Linguists usually show those splits on a family tree diagram.

Family tree of Australian languages with their color terms and reconstructions of color systems for major subgroups. Illustration by Haynie and Bowern (2016): Figure 3, CC BY-ND

Family tree of Australian languages with their color terms and reconstructions of color systems for major subgroups. Illustration by Haynie and Bowern (2016): Figure 3, CC BY-ND

Then, we build a model for that tree of how different features (in this case, color terms) are gained or lost, and how quickly those features might change. This is a complicated problem; we estimate likely reconstructions, evaluate that model for how well it fits our hypotheses, tweak the model parameters a bit to produce a different set of results, score that model, and so on. We repeat this many times (millions of times, usually) and then take a random sample of our estimates. This method is due originally to evolutionary biologists Mark Pagel and Andrew Meade.

Estimates that are very consistent (like reconstructing terms for “black,” “white” and “red”) are highly likely to be good reconstructions. Other forms were consistently reconstructed as absent (for instance, “blue” from many parts of the tree). A third set of forms were more variable, such as “yellow” and “green” in some parts of the tree; in that case, we have some evidence they were present, but it’s unclear.

Our results supported some of the previous findings, but questioned others. In general, our findings backed up Berlin and Kay’s ideas about the sequential adding of terms, in the order they proposed. For the most part, our color data showed that Australian languages also show the patterns of color term naming that have been proposed elsewhere in the world; if there are three named colors, they will be black, white and red (not, for example, black, white and purple). But we show that it is most likely that Australian languages have lost color terms, as well as gained them. This contradicts 40 years of assumptions of how color terms change – and makes color words look a lot more like other words.

We also looked at where the color words themselves came from. Some were old in the family, and seemed to go back as color terms. Others relate to the environment (like tyimpa for “black” in Yandruwandha, which is related to a word which means “ashes” in other languages) or to other color words (compare Yolŋu miku for “red,” which also sometimes means simply “colored”). So Australian languages show similar sources of color terms to languages elsewhere in the world: color words change when people draw analogies with items in their environment.

Our research shows the potential for using language change to study areas of science that have previously been more closely examined by fields such as psychology. Psychologists and psycholinguists have described how constraints from our vision systems lead to particular areas of the color spectrum being named. We show that these constraints apply to color loss as well as gain. Just as it’s a lot easier to see a chameleon when it moves, language change makes it possible to see how words are working.

The Conversation

Claire Bowern is associate professor of linguistics at Yale University. She receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Australian Research Council. She is Vice-President of the Endangered Language Fund. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article

The post Column: How colors get their names appeared first on PBS NewsHour.



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dbrandon
1090 days ago
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It’s Official: Many Orchestras Are Now Charities

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John Moore, left, a bass player, and Michael Lipman, a cellist at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, picketing outside Heinz Hall on Monday. They have been on strike since the end of September.

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dbrandon
1091 days ago
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Letter of Recommendation: Letter of Recommendation: ‘Pinky and the Brain’

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It’s typically insulting to call a show formulaic, but sometimes the genius is in the formula.

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dbrandon
1104 days ago
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Why Did This Guy Collect 500 Screen Shots of Soda Machines in Video Games? Because He's a Genius.

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There are few constants in the history of video gaming. But if one thing links all those role-playing games and first-person shooters, beat-’em-ups and adventure games, it’s probably the soda machines.

By way of evidence, look no further than the Video Game Soda Machine Project, a comprehensive—and constantly growing—archive of screenshots from video games new and old, each of them featuring a soda machine.

Maintained by political science professor and amateur game designer Jess Morrissette, the VGSMP features astonishing array of images. Morrissette began his archive in August 2016 while playing Batman: Arkham Knight, where he spotted a machine that initially intrigued him for its incongruity. “I just thought it was interesting, in this very dark and shadowy game, to see this really brightly lit up soda machine pop up out of nowhere,” he told me.

Thinking others might share his amusement, he posted a screenshot on Twitter, and before long his followers were helping him identify other examples. “What started out as a joke became a kind of fun challenge, just seeing how many of these we could track down,” Morrissette said.

Since then, Morrissette has accumulated more than 500 examples. There’s a soda machine propped up against a wall in the 1995 Beavis and Butt-Head in Virtual Stupidity and another in the seminal Final Fantasy VII. There are the enticing ones found on the streets of Overwatch and others shining in the corridors of DARK. You may not be able to find one in every game, but Morrissette’s collection makes a compelling case that they’re unexpectedly frequent.

In the course of assembling his archive, Morrissette has come across some particularly delicious examples. He takes special pleasure, he said, in those that parody familiar brands. As both a professor and a dedicated Dr Pepper drinker, he was especially amused to come across a machine hawking Professor Doctor soda in F.E.A.R. 2. Other notable oddities include a wasabi steak flavored soda in Infamous Second Son and the perfectly named Handsomeman Executive Cola in Killer7. (That same Killer7 machine also dispenses Creamy Southern Coffee and Bloody Tomato Juice, about which the less said the better.)

Silly as the VGSMP can get, Morrissette has done some serious thinking about its contents. In the past—most notably in conversation with All Tech Considered’s Gabriel Rosenberg—he’s identified a handful of reason for the prevalence of these machines. Most notably, as he told Rosenberg, they may work as “a shorthand for modernity.” Expanding on that point over the phone, he suggested to me that they serve as anchors, objects “that we can latch onto and say, OK, this is a real world. Maybe I can immerse myself in it a little more deeply.

In that respect, Morrissette’s endeavor has already begun to influence the way he thinks about his own game design projects. Though none of his games have featured soda machines, the many examples he’s studied have him thinking about other ways of quickly conveying a sense of connection to a virtual world. At the moment, that’s come up in an American Revolutionary War–era game he’s working on. “A soda machine would be out of place there, but I’m trying to think about what would be like a soda machine to convey realism in the world we’re trying to create,” Morrissette told me.

Circling back to the reasons he first started the project, however, Morrissette has to admit that sometimes soda machines are fun because they don’t fit in. They regularly show up, for example, in the Monkey Island games, a series of goofy adventure titles set in a pirate-ruled (and ghost haunted) Caribbean. “The Monkey Island example is a good one,” Morrissette said. “In fact, I think it’s the first soda machine I remember encountering in a video game.” It stuck out, he added because it didn’t belong, much like the richly illuminated model that showed up in Arkham Knight. Though they often blend in, it’s the more incongruous examples that are the most fun.

Even when the machines don’t belong, though, Morrissette thinks they still speak to something familiar. “The idea that when I need something there’s a vending machine where I can just insert some gold coins or cash and get the thing I need is something all of us know from our real lives,” he said. They resonate because they express a feeling of pleasure on demand—the possibility of getting what we want when we want it. In that respect, they may not be unlike video games themselves.



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dbrandon
1117 days ago
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The Weird Economics Of Ikea

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Ikea is a behemoth. The home furnishing company uses 1 percent of the planet’s lumber, it says, and the 530 million cubic feet of wood used to make Ikea furniture each year pulls with its own kind of twisted gravity. For many, a sojourn to the enormous blue-and-yellow store winds up defining the space in which they sit, cook, eat and sleep.

All that wood is turned into furniture that tries to bring a spare, modern aesthetic to the masses. “We’re talking about democratizing design,” Marty Marston, a product public relations manager at Ikea, told me.

The furniture is also sold according to some unique economics. In many cases, Ikea’s famously affordable pieces get dramatically cheaper year after year. In others, prices creep up. In some cases, products disappear entirely. The result is an ever-evolving, survival-of-the-fittest catalog that wields an enormous amount of influence over residential interiors.

As we tour Ikea’s unique economics, you may want to have a seat in the company’s Poäng chair, 1.5 million of which are sold each year. Ikea’s been hawking them around the world for the past four decades, taking over living room square footage and modern design sensibilities with just a hex wrench and some wordless instructions.

Poang-chair

Ikea.com

The Poäng’s midcentury-modern forebear was the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto’s 1939 creation called simply armchair 406, which had its own bent-birch frame, swooping arms and thin tan upholstery. The Poäng’s design was first sold decades later, in 1978, after a collaboration between Lars Engman and Noboru Nakamura. Nakamura, in a company brochure celebrating his chair’s 40th anniversary, said that even though trends and fashion influence what he designs, “all products should have a timeless value.”

But it’s less the fashion trends than the resulting furniture economics that make this particular history interesting. Versions of the Aalto sell online for over $4,000. The Poäng debuted at a fraction of the price of the Aalto, and now, after a steep price decline, the Poäng sells at a fraction of its original price. Furniture has generally gotten cheaper relative to other goods over the years — likely due to effects of globalization — but this chair’s trend stands out. In the early 1990s, the chair couldn’t be had for less than $300, adjusted for inflation. Today, it’s $79. (The average piece of $300 dollar furniture in 1990 would cost about $151 today, per the consumer price index for furniture and bedding.)

roeder-ikea-1

I was inspired to browse old Ikea catalogs and prices after seeing the iconic Poäng — bent birch, swooping arms, thin tan upholstery — in an ’80s movie. Or so I thought. After a few rewinds, however, I realized I’d made an embarrassing mistake. I had been looking at the Aalto 406 all along. It wasn’t only lumber purchases that Ikea had come to dominate, but also my internal aesthetic compass. What isn’t Ikea becomes Ikea, and what is Ikea becomes everything.

Other Ikea mainstays have followed Poäng’s path, plummeting in price as the years pass. The warhorse Lack table, for example, sold for $25 in 1985 ($56 in current dollars) but goes for just $10 today. Iterations of the Billy bookcases have seen big drops, as well.

But it’s not as simple as saying that everything in the 1988 Ikea catalog has gotten radically cheaper over time. The full story is, as full stories always are, subtler. Anthony Landry, a research adviser at the Bank of Canada, and Marianne Baxter, an economist at Boston University, have studied swaths of data culled from old Ikea catalogs and how they reflect economic concepts — exchange-rate pass-through and the law of one price, for example. Baxter, who loves midcentury-modern designs such as Aalto’s, shared some slices of that data with me, and we discussed the phenomena she and Landry spotted within it. In addition to the steadily decreasing prices of much of the product line, the researchers also identified Ikea’s tendency to constantly modify its menu of products and varieties.

“I think this is a pattern for products that survive for a long time,” Baxter said of the steep price drops. “Basically, they won’t survive unless they’re cost effective. I think the economies of scale really kicked in for that chair.”

Even Ikea employees told me they marvel at the declines. “We pulled out a 1985 catalog, and we started looking at products,” Marston said. “It was really fun for us to say, ‘Oh my God, look at the price of that. Look how expensive it was when we first came here to this country.’”

Although Baxter can’t yet prove its particulars — more data cleaning and analysis is necessary for her ultimate Ikea project — there is a sort of evolutionary dynamic at play in the annual Ikea catalog: survival of the fittest furniture. She noticed that the company tends to discontinue products that remain expensive. “If they can’t figure out how to make them more cheaply, or retool them or slightly redesign them, it seems like the things disappear,” she said.

Indeed, the products have evolved. In 1992, part of the Poäng was changed from steel to wood, allowing the chair to ship more densely and efficiently in the company’s flat packs. (“Shipping air is very expensive,” Marston said.) And the Lack table was changed from solid wood to a honeycomb “board on frame” construction, decreasing production costs and increasing shipping efficiency. Baxter theorizes, though, that if a product is finicky — requiring design in Sweden, manufacture in China and intricate pieces from Switzerland, say — it may eventually be abandoned.

Marston thought the Darwinian idea was interesting, but that the deletions from the catalog were less about persistently high prices and more about popularity. “If a product doesn’t perform well — we have certain sales expectations — then it will cease to exist. The public didn’t like it for some reason, so why continue to sell it?” she said.

Not all Ikea chairs have seen Poäng’s stark downward trend in price. The Antilop highchair (Swedish for “antelope”), for example, saw price decreases in a few international markets during the 1990s, but prices remained flat or increased, including in the U.S., in many cases after that. Baxter illustrated this example in the chart below:

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-5-33-10-pm

But, indeed, the highchair is still being sold — it’s not yet extinct.

More generally, there is another common pattern in Ikea pricing. “If they’re going to increase the price, they do it by little bits all the time,” Baxter told me. “But if they’re going to decrease the price, those decreases tend to be big and noticeable, and they get advertised.”

Marston echoed this empirical finding. “On average, the prices would go down, from year to year, 1 percent overall,” she said. “Some prices could go down with a huge jump. Other prices may increase slightly. But overall, year on year on year on year, we’re trying to reduce prices.”

Some mysteries persist. One is the company’s international pricing discrepancies. “They’ll sometimes reduce prices in the United States and make them go up in Canada, which makes even Canadians mad,” Baxter said. (The horror.) Marston said each country has “its own unique competition profile” that influences how the company prices its goods.

Some of these oddities may be explained by one principle: Ikea is sui generis — in a class by itself. The company navigates largely uncharted waters for traditional economic strictures. “Ikea continues to be nearly unique,” Baxter said. “I would’ve told you that they would have competitors all over the place by now, 15 years ago. I would’ve been horribly wrong. There’s only them.”











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