Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Self-Organizing Economy

Krugman, Paul. (1996). The Self-Organizing Economy. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

The concept of self-organization is difficult (for me) to get a grasp on, so I turned to this well-known writer who tackled economics. What I like about him is that he's always conversational in tone, and I have to be the same way, because I'm explaining language to people who already know quite a bit, but don't know self-organization. But second, he actually went as far as to work out the math; this I admire him for, and don't know if I can do the same for language.

Now it's time to return the book to the library (though I could just renew it); I've had it for months, and I need to mine it for quotes and get it out of here. I'm sure somebody else could use it!

He points out that scientists of complexity theory have not had much luck with economics and economists, because:
the authors of articles and books on complexity almost never talk to serious economists or read what serious economists write; as a result, claims about the applicability of the new ideas to economics are usually coupled with statements about how economies work (and what economists know) that are so ill-informed as to make any economist who happens to encounter them dismiss the whole enterprise. (p. 2)
His definition of a self-organizing system is the following:
...what links the study of embryos and hurricanes, of magnetic materials and collections of neurons,is that they are all self-organizing systems: systems that, even when they start from an almost homogeneous or almost random state, spontaneously form large-scale patterns. (p. 3)
Self-organization is not always good:
...self-organization is not necessarily, or even presumptively, a good thing. I think it is fair to accuse many of the writers on complexity, especially but not only the more popular ones, of falling into this fallacy...Self organization is something we observe and try to understand, not necessarily something we want. (p. 6)
This part is about Schelling and his model of how neighborhoods become segregated:
Thus Schelling derived, without any fanfare, a theme of many writers on complexity: local, short-range interactions can create large-scale structure. (p. 17)
About the field of complexity in general:
...the whole rationale of the field is the idea that common principles may apply to subjects with very different details....(p. 29)
His main thesis is that economics is a self-organizing system in two senses that are shown by complexity theorists to be properties of self-organizing systems. First is that:
starting from disordered initial conditions they tend to move to highly ordered behavior, and at least in a statistical sense this behavior exhibits surprisingly simple regularities...(p. 36)
The second sense is that they create order from random growth. (p. 37). Of this he tells a story:
Take a ceramic object, say a Grecian urn, and throw it hard against a stone wall, so that it shatters randomly into innumerable pieces. Surely such an act can do nothing but create disorder! And yet (so The Economist tells us) a strange hidden order emerges. Carefully gather up the pieces larger than 0.1 grams, the number larger than 0.01 grams, and so on, and you will find something remarkable: the pieces will obey a power law. And not just any power law: if it really was a Grecian urn, the exponent will take on a particular value; if it was a ceramic sphere it will take on another value; and so on. That is, a seemingly disorderly and complex process of fragmentation (which is random growth with a minus sign) produces the simple order of a power law, and the exponent of that power law contains important information - in this case, incredibly, it turns out to reveal the shape of the original object. (p. 49)
Here is a complexity theory bibliography:
Bak, P. (1991). Self-organizing criticality, Scientific American (January).
Kauffman, S. (1993). The Origins of Order. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Lewin, R. (1992). Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos. New York: Macmillan.
Nicolis, G. and Prigogine, I. (1989). Exploring Complexity. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Schelling, T. (1978). Micromotives and Macrobehavior. New York: W.W. Norton.
Waldrop, W. M. (1993). Complexity. New York: Basic Books.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Harrison, K. D. (2007). When Languages Die: The extinction of the world's languages and the erosion of human knowledge. New York: Oxford.

I was impressed by this book, which I taught in the last part of the spring, maybe April to now. The author is a professor at Swarthmore and took almost twelve years crossing the globe, talking to people in remote places about their endangered languages. In the course of finding out why their languages are endangered, and what they are doing about it, he also was able to make generalizations about indigenous languages in general, about world trends, etc.

These languages have a wide variety of ways to talk about numbers, from the Melanesians, who invented abstract math independently, to the Piraha, who have no use for numbers at all, really. Languages have different ways of orienting their people in space; they have ways of talking about where they are and how to get where they want to go.

So what do they have in common? Very little, according to Dr. Harrison. Greenberg's universals, which intend to find commonalities among the ways they talk about numbers, can all be disproven, one at a time. Dr. Harrison does not pretend to hold up Chomsky's ideas; in fact, he calls Chomsky narrow, unnecessarily focused on the world's "major" languages, and unnecessarily focused on grammar, at the expense of the other building blocks of language. Some of what he concluded, I will copy below:
The lack of meaning does not hinder linguists in our investigation of mental structures: we have come to focus mainly on the structures themselves, not their cultural meanings. This has been the conventional wisdom in linguistics for at least four decades. But although languages certainly contain abstract structures, they evolve and exist to convey information within a specific cultural matrix, and that function permeates and influences every level of language. To its critics, including me, the Chomskyan program has been unduly narrow, overly focused on large, globally dominant languages, and preoccupied with structure at the expense of content. (pp. 205-206)
It was also inspirational to me that, essentially, he said that language was a self-organizing system.
...when we sum up all these discoveries, both across many languages and within a single one, we achieve a clearer insight into the grand realm of human cognition. Language may by its very structure force speakers to attend to certain qualities of the world (shape, size, gender, countability). Languages are self-organizing systems that evolve complex nested structures and rules for how to put the parts of words or sentences together. No two languages do this in the same way. (p. 236)

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Leverett, T. (2013, May). 13th floor, please: Vowels on an elevator. Google docs. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1l5E7PuK16JS1xsmpR9SlTCRn8sfXNEeBrZAfFjbR4f0/edit?usp=sharing.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

gender revisited

In class the other day I told my students of what they told me in graduate school. Gender was a language characteristic, a grammatical thing, whereas sex was a biological thing, and they weren't to be confused. That's because some languages marked gender, male or female, on things that weren't alive; some marked them with neuter in some cases, etc. A gender marker was a separate idea from sex or gender as we knew it in the physical sense.

Now in the time since then both words, "sex" and "gender" have changed somewhat in people's interpretation, but the truth behind it is the same. A language's marking is separate from the physical characteristics of the thing marked. Just for example, I said, is there any good reason "book" is male in Spanish?

One student brought up the possibility that there was a good reason in the past, or at least a reason, in this case perhaps that men ruled the world of books at the time it was decided. Yes, but men also ruled the world of ships, and made ships feminine, one woman pointed out.

I said that in our culture we have an ongoing discussion about gendered things, words like "mankind" being applied to everyone, grammatical issues like "everyone brought his/her/their umbrella today" and that the essence of the discussion is that people are being more literal about pronouns and gender-marked things, thus rejecting the idea of using male words for everyone, etc. My question was whether this was happening in other cultures as well.

Two women mentioned that in Spanish, it was an issue how one addresses a group of mixed men and women; the standard rule was that if a group included even one male, it was considered male. One man who speaks German pointed out that in German, new words and borrowed words such as "computer" were all neuter these days.

I found these observations interesting and vowed to do research on the topic. My questions remain; I suspect that it's always an issue and has always been one. I remember noticing these problems immediately upon learning languages like Spanish and French (What do you call a dog that you don't know? or a group of them? Why are books male and windows female? What if you have books and windows together? etc.) or German (How do you decide which 'things' are neuter? Does male + female = neuter, and if not why not?). A glorious can of worms.

I remember the relative randomness of the answers drawing me into the study of language as I suspected that the 'reasons' for such things were actually subtle but powerful forces in our lives. Things happen, languages change, and it can happen fairly quickly over time. My questions (above) remain. I'll do research and get back to you.