Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Language Affects Thought

(Hat tip: Mom and the "most e-mailed" feature on the WSJ.com site)

There is an absolutely fantastic article in the Wall Street Journal about how language affects our lives - from cultures to how we act to how we think about things. Some choice excerpts that were really cool:
So if Pormpuraawans think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time?

To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time.
Meanwhile, the way events are re-told in various cultures affects how people remember them:
In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn't normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn't encode or remember the agent as well. 
 Meanwhile, I couldn't help but somewhat cringe at a note that I've often discussed with friends, co-workers, and the like about how the way they put things affects the way people think about those things/people. I recall one co-worker consistently making jokes about others - completely joking, but I noted to him that by doing so, he is slowly creating perceptions about people, much as media does when and how they discuss various subjects or people as well. People shrug off media bias by suggesting the word differences are innocuous, but what and how we say things does matter:
In another study, English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase "ripped the costume" while the other said "the costume ripped." Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read "ripped the costume" blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.
Read the whole piece, it's really just fascinating.

Side note: In Judaism, a basic concept is that what sets us apart from animals is language; in addition, particular note and honor is given to the use of lashon HaKodesh, which is Biblical Hebrew, over other languages, establishing that there is something special about language and that language in particular.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Triatholon Conspiracy

A great post by Lulei Demistafina on crying antisemitism
Tisha B'av next year is on a Tuesday. The NYC Tri is the Sunday prior. Again.

I checked the dates for previous triathlons, and to my surprise and dismay, in four of the past five years, the NYC Tri always fell out the Sunday before Tisha B'av. The English dates were in a broad range; but on the Hebrew Calendar the dates were eerily consistent. What could account for that? Even I, a red-white-and-blue blooded American Jew, was beginning to wonder: Was it actually possible that the organizers of this event were discouraging Orthodox Jews from participating? What else could it possibly be?

So I emailed one of the organizers of the event. Why were the dates of the Tri so varied?, I asked. Her answer surprised me. The currents, she wrote back, have to be favorable between 6 and 9 in the morning. And you know this so far in advance? I asked. Years in advance, she responded.

It turns out that calculating the currents has a lot to do with the lunar cycle, the same lunar cycle that sets the Jewish calendar. So the organizers can not create the event around a certain date on the Gregorian calendar—as they do for the New York City Marathon and the U.S. Open tennis tournament; they have to take into account the moon’s position. Nothing to do with Jews.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

There is a tendency among some Jews to suspect anti-Semitism at the first whiff of anything that remotely interferes with, or even inconveniences, the Jewish community, a feeling that anything that can be chalked up to anti-Semitism should be chalked up to anti-Semitism. This mistrust is misguided—and potentially dangerous.
Read the full article here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Nasty Knuckler... 13-Year Old Girl

This is a cool story (and really great video work).s
PLANT CITY, Fla. -- She registered another perfect pitching record this year, 12-0, for her Little League team.
She threw her second perfect game -- and predicted this one just hours before she did it.
Her fastball hits the mid-60s, and she can send opponents to the bench in tears, embarrassing them with a knuckleball she learned from former major league knuckleball legend Joe Niekro.
Meet Chelsea Baker, a girl pitcher in a boys' league.

The best player on the Plant City Little League Team, is a 13- year-old girl named Chelsea Baker. Taught the knuckleball by Joe Niekro, Chelsea has not lost a sanctioned game in four years.
And of course, who does she face in the city championship, but Niekro's grandson and her friend, JJ Niekro.

Anyway - well worth the watch and read. It would be cool to see how far she can progress in professional baseball.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Let Us Pray...

...for an especially horrible hurricane season this coming year.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Mom, Dad

Board up your doors and windows. I think Cleveland just broke.

Let Us Pray...

A psalm of James

1. LeBron is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2. He makes to throw down in crowded lanes
He leads the break with the ease of still waters
3. He restores my franchise;
He leads me in the paths of playoff wins
For his game's sake.
4. Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of Jordan,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your size and Your quickness,
they comfort me.
5. You prepare a winner before me in the
presence of my enemies;
You anoint your head with headbands;
Our attendance runeth over
6. Surely goodness and mercy shall
follow you
All the days of your life;
If you will dwell in the house
of The Q
FOREVER.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

**SCHEDULE CHANGE**SCHEDULE CHANGE**SCHEDULE CHANGE**

Please be aware that the reading of Megillas Eicha has been moved up to tomorrow evening, Thursday, at 9 PM...in addition please pay attention for notices of a possible krias Hallel at 10 PM.

Thank you, that is all.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

1948 Israel - in Color

(Hat tip: Corner Point)

This is absolutely amazing. A wealthy American businessman in the 40s and 50s filmed everything that was happening in Israel - in color. The footage was just found in his attic.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Storm Before The Calm

"Keep calm and carry on" - from a friend's g-chat status.
The past few months have been tumultuous, to say the least. While I was feeling a bit stressed out after coming home from work for this extended weekend, it was a perfect reminder at the perfect time to log onto my e-mail and see that line sitting there.

A year ago yesterday, I started what was to be a dream job, of sorts - a start-up company, with a successful CEO who had already built a company from nothing into a nationally recognized success, the ability to raise capital easily, and an expansive, exciting idea. The difficult piece would be creating a strong business or finding a successful product that we could market, but with the cushion of capital and the experience available to us, we would be able to pull it off.

Or so it seemed. As the months went by, projects would be started - but not fully funded. Money wasn't available when it needed to be. Employees became cynical as rumors started to circulate, and slowly, things seemed to head downhill, though we would seem to get "saved" just as we were on the brink of complete frustration each time.

And then, we stopped getting saved. Shortly thereafter, we discovered that the prior "success" of our CEO was questionable at best, at worst, criminal. (He immediately became our ex-CEO.) Money we had raised was gone, likely never to be recovered. Suddenly, we were all living on a prayer.

After a couple of days of feeling bad for ourselves, we had to refocus and move forward - or shut down. And the decision was extremely difficult: Our money was gone, and the constant promises to pay us back the money we were owed were completely empty. On the other hand, while originally we had looked to find a product to sell, now we had created a product (actually a service) that was not just successful - but replicable, and viable for sale. We had lost our cushion, but we had something real.

We decided to move forward anyway. We had to make the extremely difficult decision to cut all non-essential personnel - resulting in the layoffs of about twenty-five people, including some very close friends (one sang me down at my wedding, another was in my class in high school and was my roommate at one point in Israel) and all of them good people. We were able to raise just enough money and work hard enough to get out our corporate filing just in time, put together a fantastic business plan, and have recently started presenting it to potential investors, with even more positive feedback than we'd hoped. (In a funny twist, one commented almost angrily that our projections were "too conservative" and that we should "up them". On a similar parenthetical note, every single one of the vendors whom we work with on our branding, technology, software integration - and so on - have expressed their belief that not only will we raise the money, but that we have a "tremendous business model" and will be "a great success". Their patience and support has been incredibly encouraging and nothing short of astounding.)

Raising capital is possibly one of the most stressful activities a person can do. Even when you know (as well as anyone can "know" anything) that what you have will be successful, getting others to believe the same is difficult in a world where people are raised to be rightfully skeptical. Thankfully, our model is clear and straightforward, and we were in a way surprised at just how many people who are investors, even those not in our field, who came over to us at a conference to congratulate us on what they believed to be a strong model and wishing us luck moving forward. We are now in the midst of discussing potential deals with investors of all different backgrounds, each bringing different structures and different potential assets, whether franchising experience (we're developing a franchise), chemical background (tying into a proprietary product of ours), financial experience (for advisory purposes), or other skills to the table which can work strongly to our advantage, and hopefully we'll either combine pick the ones that work the best for us both in the long-term and for now.

Until it happens, though, it's quite stressful - as one of our partnering vendors said, "I've had to raise capital before - it always takes just a little bit longer than you want it to." Amen.

Keep calm and carry on - or as my sister-in-law likes to say, "Let go and let God." Good advice.

Time to have a relaxing Shabbos.

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