Ryan Northrup HP400 Journal Page

course web page
Spring 2011 at Clarkson University


Journal Entry 2

I disagree with Bickerton, even after he provides more supporting evidence to entice us to believe his point that language is the most important problem in science.  While the beginnings and continuation of such a phenomenon are intriguing, they certainly aren’t what I perceive to be the holy grail of science.  Language exists due to the nature of human beings, and in an agnostic way, we do not need to delve further into why it exists.  In a similar way, gravity also exists and is inherent to the structure of the universe.  We don’t try to figure out why gravity is, it just is.

His evidence, essentially saying that we couldn’t ask any other question without the existence of language is tangential at best.  I couldn’t type any of this journal without a keyboard, but that doesn’t make the mystery of my computer’s or keyboard’s creation any more interesting.  In this cause-effect relationship, that which caused language is worthy of research.  But to say such research is utmost important is an overzealous statement by one entrenched in the field.

I do agree with Bickerton’s next point, in a way.  How we got language, more specifically, how language affects the ways in which we perceive the world is important to science.  For example, if our language biases affect our scientific experiments, then it would be prudent for us to know it.  Our observations are analyzed with language, and if our results are skewed by anything, including language, it's beneficial for the researcher to be aware.


Journal Entry 3

After watching the video in class, I researched and found the NOVA documentary about Genie online.  It’s on You tube, in a probably illegal form, but it’s there.  In any case, both of these case studies about language make one thing certain:  isolation in the developmental years drastically affects the abilities of the isolated human.

While there are very few cases of the Forbidden Experiment, the ones of which I’m aware have resulted in a human whose life has been socially disinclined.  Genie and Victor both never gained “standard” capacity to understand or produce language, in essence they are ranked as mentally retarded by our society.

As one of the researchers on the Genie team points out, Genie’s year-to-year growth is comparable to someone without mental illness.  In math terms, her aptitude line has normal human slope but with a much lower intercept.

What frustrates me about these two cases studies is that in both cases, the researchers failed in their goals.  A sample size of two is a small pond from which to draw samples, but the failures haven’t been purely the fault of the subjects.  In the Genie case, funding was cut by the government because of lacking scientific results and disorganized research.

While less the case of the case of Victor, both cases suffer from a lack of rehabilitory focus--that is, treatments were performed by scientists whose specialties were not rehabilitation.  If instead of a scientific approach, a rehabilitation approach had been taken, then perhaps the subjects would have had a better chance at gaining language and communication skills.

Of the two cases, I believe that Genie had a better shot at gaining communication.  She had been raised, albeit abusively and horrendously, in something that more resembled society than Victor.  Genie’s apparent ability and aptitude at processing language, while limited by comparison to normal English speech, was much richer than the apparent capacity of the account of Victor.

Forty one years after the discovery of Genie, and two hundred thirteen years after the discovery of Victor, we still don’t know what exactly is learned about developmental psychology, nor do we know much more about rehabilitation for extreme isolation.  But my view is optimistic about the rehabilitation efforts, especially.  Technology has advanced over the past forty and two hundred years to a point in which we may be in a better position to rehabilitate.  Functional MRIs, a broader focus on speech rehabilitation in society, and many other tools would give any future wild child a better chance to be reintegrated into human society.

Journal Entry 5,
19 Jan 2011

So, upon watching the NOVA documentary for a second time today in class, I noticed several things that I didn’t get on my first pass.  First thing, and it’s not related to content at all, was how unfulfilling it was.  While on the first pass, the video was enlightening about the Genie story, it lacked a sort of scientific objectivity.  Much like the Genie case itself, it was riddled with emotion, and not science.

I’m a huge fan of NOVA, but I think they played too much back and forth in this one.  Common to British newscasting, they emphasized the nitty-gritty drama of the story and the overarching message was left to us to decide.  The documentary was segmented, notably at the part where they transitioned to Victor’s story.

But for all the similarities that they mentioned between Genie and Victor, they didn’t mention any of the differences.  For example, Genie’s language acquisition had been much more successful.  I’m no expert, but it would appear that the exposure that Genie had to language (and the time that Genie spent with her grandmother and brother, before her grandmother had been killed--noteworthy information that the NOVA account left out) appear to have had a profound effect on her skills.

The lawyers in the film, though flaky at best, make a point that is worth expanding.  But, it’s poorly presented from a legal standpoint.  And as some of the Youtube comments (that’s right the off-the-wall comments from random Internet pedestrians) points out, the lawyers lost the case with prejudice (simply meaning they couldn’t appeal or refile or prolong the judicial agony like they probably would have).  It was thrown out, because despite the failures of the scientific process, despite the failures of the methods used by scientists whose intentions were questionable, despite the general incompetence displayed by the foster home system, the family of Genie was the root cause.  They should not be the ones suing the experts, however derailed, for the condition of Genie.  Screw the lawyers, NOVA, you could have made this point without them and with much more credibility.  Rehabilitation should take precedent over scientific study, period.

Journal 5

I had listened to a video by Keith Olberman about the 9 days since the Tuscon, AZ shootings while writing Journal 3.  It had me a little argumentative and critical of something that I thought was wrong.  As in the tragedy in Arizona, I feel that Genie’s case was needlessly thwarted.

Journal 7
20 Jan 2010

Bickerton's theory from Chapter 8 (and note that I'm not an expert in biology, and the last biology class that I had taken was in high school) seems reasonable.  There is little proof of his theory currently, and there is likely to be little concrete support for his theory about high-scavenger behaviors.  But it is intriguing.

The number of hand-axe stone that the primitives made, seems to fit into his theory well.  And while we can't really know some many of these stones actually were produced, ammunition stockpiles isn't too bad of a suggestion.  If this behavior started small, maybe just a few stones carried in hand at first.  Then the number of stones grows, and it becomes advantageous to have them all but impractical to carry them all.  Displacement occurs, and the primitives would have to remember where their useful stones were.  That's one piece of hard evidence, the existence of stones.

But there isn't support for his role of women in the siege of a megacarcass.  While it would certainly increase the chances of success to have as many numbers as possible--including the women--there is no way to definitively say who was involved with the fighting.  Maybe it was all women warriors.  Maybe it was all men.  Maybe it was both.  There just isn't support for this part of the story, and short of time-travel, we might never be able to figure out who scavenged.

And from this behavior of scavenging, there seems to be growth in mental capacity, but this "spark" seems to lack the conditions that would lead to language.  If this spark were enough to sustain the species, then why would we need to know more?  Was it the downfall of the megacarcass animals that led to a peculiar new system?

Maybe.  How does agriculture come into this?  Did some primitive accidentally scratch the ground with a stone, and accidentally put seeds in it?  Then months later, food appears.

There are gaps, and while Bickerton's theory seems to be a great start at attempting to jump start a theory of human behavior evolution, it really needs more depth to even begin to explain our society in any more detail.

Journal 7

After going to class today, I realized something.  We didn't really compare the two case studies.  Nobody even mentioned that Genie and Victor are incomparable studies, so I'll express my thoughts here.

So making the basis of this, I reference this piece of news.  (http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=4873347&page=1)  This link will bring you to a story about Genie's brother, a boy who grew up in the same household.  It's a somewhat morose recap of the upbringing, but there is one point from this piece that I'd like to use in my comparison between Victor and Genie.

I do not believe that Victor had nearly as much linguistic training as Genie.  From the account of Genie's brother, John Wiley, there was one loving figure in the family, John's grandmother.  In the care of his loving grandmother, John was afforded the opportunity to learn language in his critical years.  But that wasn't the fate for Genie.

The grandmother was killed by a truck.  And Genie's hopes for learning language were immediately taken away.  Put into the care of her parents, Genie was locked away.  Grown into the world in an unthinkable way, Genie was concealed to her room for many of her younger years.

But, Genie's confinement is much different from Victor's wildness.  It would appear that Genie had a more social life (as hard as it is to imagine) than Victor.  She actually heard humans speak, and there are accounts that she could hear a piano from her prison-cell-room.  Where with Victor, he was free to roam, and forced to secure his own food.  Genie was fed, but she was forced to remain.

Genie was fascinated by people and even formed some attachments.  Victor formed less attachment, and showed less emotion.  These cases only drift further from each other when more details are considered.

Genie was abused before and after rehabilitation, which affected her desire to perform.  Victor's punishments were less severe, less damaging (as far as we know).

However, it would appear that Genie was better at communicating.  She was better at presenting her ideas in language (sign language and verbal) than Victor.  This may just be an artifact of culture--French culture from 1800 is notably different from the California culture of the 70s.  But I think it's more than that.  I think Genie's upbringing was more conducive to language acquisition (though she was abused), since she actually heard humans producing speech, i.e. her domineering father undoubtedly spoke, allegedly she could here a piano--and thus other sounds like vocalizations--from her neighborhood.  Victor on the other hand, had no examples to instruct him how to use his vocal chords for speech, until his rehabilitation.

This speculation is shaky at best.  For one, we're taking Truffaut's account as gospel, while it's actually a retelling of Itard's diary.  Furthermore, while Itard wouldn't necessarily fabricate his diary, the accounts that he presents are likely biased.  He wanted Victor to recover.  And the recreation of Victor as a film character hardly compares to Genie, a real life person, caught on tape.  But the evidence suggests that Genie, though raised by sub-par parents, was more successful than Victor at living in society.

The variance in individual assignments is more than enough, however, to make disparities between Victor and Genie.  And since neither of these individuals reintegrated into society, we're still left with an inconclusive answer.  Can humans learn language beyond the "critical period"?

Journal 11
24 Jan 2011

To the end of Adam's Tongue.

A particularly useful article from Science is mentioned in Adam's Tongue.  It is written by three top-level scientists, and it is meant to provide a sort of compromise theory between Noam Chomsky's viewpoint and that of Marc Hauser.  It is located here.

Journal 13
25 Jan 2011

The conventional knowledge would seem to dispute the notion that anyone would "repidginize a creole," especially if those people are family members.  Let's analyze what this would entail.

If a child learns his first language from a parent who doesn't speak a pidgin, then we have nothing to prove.

So, let's assume that a child learns his first language from a parent who speaks a pidgin.  But by the definition of a pidgin, the parent also must speak a language that isn't a pidgin.  This means that the child is learning a language from a person who speaks a full language, with a full grammar.  We must make another assumption, as a matter of practicality.  While the parent might well teach the child the pidgin language, it is hardly likely.  The parent may use the pidgin language around the child, but a pidgin is not a primary means of communication.  In many ways, the pidgin is unnatural and inadequate to the parent; it can't convey ideas efficiently.  So, the parent must then teach the fully syntactical language--the parent's mother tongue in the case of a pidgin speaker--to the child.  Now, what if that mother tongue is not a unique language.  Then that mother tongue is not a creole, since creoles are languages.  Then, that parent's mother tongue would have to be a pidgin, which by definition is a compromise between a mother tongue and another language.  This is a contradiction.  Or so it would seem.

Thus, the parent must at least speak a creole, which is a fully functional language.  Therefore, the child would not repidginize anything.  The child would speak the mother tongue to his or her parents, and that would be the language that the child depends upon.  But this isn't the case.

This idea of repidginizing is bizarre, though not impossible.  In the case of Hawai'i in the mid 20th century, there were many different mother tongues.  Japanese, Filipino, English and Chinese are a few that Bickerton mentions in his book, Bastard Tongues.  When so many people, on the fringes of society no less, are placed together in such a small place, interesting language phenomenon happen.

From above, the parents are native speakers of other languages, true.  But the argument above attempts to claim exclusivity of parents to children.  If the parents were the only people in which the children were to see, then perhaps the mother tongue would be passed on.  But the children aren't in isolation.  Even if the parents only spoke their mother tongues in the presence of the children--in every case--the children would still be in an environment where they'd have to interact with other children whose household had a different mother tongue than their own.  What this means is that the children are in a very similar situation to the parents.

During those critical language acquisition years, they are exposed to other children to other people who speak the pidgin.  This is the fallacy of the argument above.  But creolization isn't such a stretch for children who speak the pidgin.  While immigrant parents are making do--and not attempting to learn the other two languages--they still retain their mother tongue to some extent.  But the children don't have that luxury.  Instead, the pidgin is their mother tongue, since it's the language they've been using to communicate with most everyone.  So, it should come as not much of a surprise that formalization of the pidgin happens in these children, when they turn into adults.  So while the parents of these children can't formalize the pidgin into creole, since they are far enough out of those developmental years, the children must revert back to the pidgin in order to communicate with their parents.

Journal 17
3 Feb 2011

Truthfully, I don't really remember what the class discussion was about two days ago.  I just remember reading the poem Discovery, thinking that it was only tangentially related to the theme of the course.  That's how these things go, however, isn't it?  Honestly, the poetry doesn't do much for me.  Sure, it conveys some message, but I'm a mathematician.  I don't really care about elegant language.  It would have been more accessible to me if that poem about evil scientists or good scientists with evil ideas had been prose.  Good old prose.

I could go on a rant why I think poetry has little value at this point, but I won't because that would be insensitive to people who like poetry.  It is an art from, like any other.  Just because I don't personally think it means much to me, doesn't mean it doesn't mean much to others.

I will, however, go on to criticize the selected reading for the course.  Bickerton, whose arrogance and persistent "something to prove" attitude, did have one thing going for him.  His stuff was scientific--there was clear and well-thought out process to much of what he was saying.  I mean, how can we prove his theories?  Well, this paragraph isn't about whether Bickerton was science or not.  It's about the readability of the selected readings in the class.  This is partially a time for me to vent about the course, but it is also a time for me to offer constructive criticism.

To put these concerns and criticisms into context, the reader should know that we've had difficulty in this course, in terms of participation.  People who are usually vocal, and sometimes they are sharply critical, are silent.  I have a theory about the silent nature of half the class.  And it's not that people don't care about the class.  On the contrary, if people didn't care about the class, then they wouldn't show up.  The reading material is so far removed from any of us, it is difficult for us to have anything to say.  Is that the point of this class?  I think that's a bad strategy.  "Let's  edify poetry, and let those be damned who can't or won't participate..."  Wrong.

Seriously, poetry is okay in small doses, but blasting students with packet upon packet of Dickinson and Wordsworth doesn't mean a thing to me.  If it's apathy you want, then it's apathy you get.  Unlike other students who can just say, "I don't care, I'm not going to read it" or "I'll read it, even if I don't want to", it annoys me because I'm somewhere in a frustrated middle-ground between the two.  I'll give you an example of one of my least favorite moments.

In middle school, we went to see a play.  I like plays, because they are exciting and fun.  The play we went to see was far from fun.  It was the antithesis of fun--wait do we call that torture?  The play was a one-actress play, and it was a biography of Emily Dickinson.  I hated every moment of that endless play.  It went on and on.  Call me cultureless, but the same actress incessantly reciting poem after poem by Dickinson drove me bonkers and bananas.  Seriously, that is what hell is like.  So, when I hear that drabble complaining of the "great" Dickinson, please forgive me when I role my eyes.  I'm a man of culture, and I don't complain about things that are different from my own viewpoint often, but Dickinson just draws out a powerful resentment for poetry.

And you know what also bothers me about poetry?  Poets who just come right out and say profanity.  Sure, I know it's profane.  I know it's just a word.  I know that it really has no meaning, and that it has "color".  And I know that society gives it that dirty or awful or ugly meaning.  I just don't understand why bringing up certain behaviors is even necessary.  I know that I have bodily functions.  I know that you have bodily functions.  But that doesn't mean we need to talk about them.  Yes, we make up culture and you're all very cool for trying to break down our artificial barriers to live in a non-stigmatic world.  But let's be realistic here.  It's just not creative enough for me.  Talking about how a tree looks is one thing, but describing it with cultural stigma is just old hat.  I don't care about the "oscilating hips of a palm tree" or your pet rabbit procreating.

We really are creatures of habit.  This is why poetry hasn't changed much.  Or at least in my experience it hasn't changed much.  Even if there were some drastic change to poetry, who would really care?  Poets are so caught up in reading collections of Dickinson, Wordsworth and all the others.  Not that many people keep up with poetry on a daily basis.

Don't get me wrong.  I don't know much about poetry, and I haven't read much of it.  But I haven't had the desire to read any more than I have, and to me, that makes poetry modern.  It's not an expression for the enjoyment or comprehension of the readers; rather it's an expression of the poet.  And that poet may or may not give a crap about you the reader.

If Bobby Flay scooped dirt out of the ground, just because he liked the taste, does that mean that we should eat it?  No.  Does that mean that we should scoop our own dirt out of the ground to eat?  No.  I'm all for writing passionate poems, in the heat of the moment, but that's not really dirt.  That's different.

So, what I'm really trying to say here is that I don't like poetry.  I don't like it because it is needlessly complicated to understand, and it serves little purpose in my daily life.  Creative prose would be just fine with me.  In fact, creative poetry that isn't based around a poet's ego would also be fine.  Just show me something creative poets; don't do those cliche poet things.  But you can't help it, just like I can't help it.  What's the point of even arguing any more...

Journal 19
5 Feb 2011

So in that last journal entry I was a little angry, confused and frustrated.  I really don’t feel that way all of the time.  I don’t think poetry is worthless.  I don’t think poets are worthless.

I was angry because I came into this HP400 class expecting something different, based upon what I’ve heard from older honors students.  This class had been described as the HP200 or HP300 that actually works well.  So far, however, it’s been more like HP201 where we were doomed to define beauty from the very first day of class.  Language is one of those human things; it has that “I know it when I see it” quality, yet it is hard to pin down.  Moreover, embedded in that “I know it when I see it” attitude is the subjectivity of each individual.

In other fields, such as mathematics, there are vagaries too.  A good example is convergence.  Is this word talking about sequences or series or applied math or modeling?  In just the realm of mathematical analysis of functions, this one word has so many meanings that we append the word with a modifier.  Absolute convergence, point-wise convergence, and uniform convergence are all talking about the convergence of collections of mathematical objects, but we have added specification to increase clarity and refine meaning.  It should be no surprise that other languages, like ancient Greek, have more words for concepts that English only has one.  In ancient Greek there are four words distinguishing between different types of love.

To a certain degree language is going to mean something different to each person, and that is a source of my confusion in poetry.  Out of context, for example, sickly German tragedies could be (and I’m being quite serious about this because it’s what I thought earlier) a way of talking about greasy German import food, like sausage.

I’m not apologizing for my criticism of a course which I didn’t correctly anticipate.  Nay, I don’t retract my criticisms about the course either.  My theory still stands.  A class with a large proportion of technical-field students is not equipped to discuss and/or analyze Wordsworth or Eliot.  There may be value to presenting us with these acclaimed pieces of poetry, but it’s triage, not treatment.  We’re not meant to swim in these literary waters, and pushing us from a helicopter into a sea with no land in sight is causing many of us to sink, rather than swim.  I sighed with relief, probably not audibly, when we were handed a short story to read, instead of a poem.

Journal 23
for 5 Apr 2011

Modernity and visual culture.

The emphasis on commercials was an interesting approach, and I enjoyed the discussion about "Head on".  Commercials are interesting because they are products of the capitalist system in which we live.  Why exactly do they advertise medicines on TV, isn't that a little absurd?  Yes, it is.  It's just a way for pharmaceuticals to get their names out their in a somewhat suggestive way that medicine is the cure.

Journal 29
for 7 Apr 2011

I really think that pictures, especially those that are also high art, are really up to interpretation.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  So, when we talk about Jackson Pollock or Tetsuya Ishida, we really must interpret for ourselves what the picture before our eyes actually means.

So, do common interpretations of these pieces exist?  Sure.  It takes a certain kind of mind to interpret a Pollock in some of the ways in which we hear.  Unfortunately, most art like this doesn't really sing to me emotionally as it does others.  I delight in art that is complex, yet real.  Pollock's style of art just doesn't really reverberate with me.

Some of my favorite pieces of art come from websites like deviantART.  And I particularly like landscapes that deal with buildings, cityscapes and urban settings.  Thus my opinions on Pollock and abstract artists are largely spur-of-the-moment.

Journal 31
for 14 Apr 2011

Cultures and subcultures.

While listening to this presentation, I was reminded of abstract algebra.  In abstract algebra, there are things which we call rings.  They are sets, having two operations defined over their elements, such that several conditions hold.  Here is a more formal source of the definition of a ring.

The most important analogy to make with the mathematics and the philosophy here is that of substructures.  For example, a subring in mathematics is a subset of the original ring that fulfills the conditions of being a ring itself.  In this way of thinking, culture would be such that it fulfills a set of properties.  A subculture, in effect, would be a subset of that culture which again fulfills those conditions.

For example, an American could describe his or her culture as an American culture.  But he or she could go further than that.  Say this person was raised in North Carolina, then the culture could be further categorized as being a Southern American culture.

While each person is part of some culture (whether that culture is defined and known to the mass public is another issue entirely) their subcultures are not necessarily disjoint.  For example, many people would consider race as conducive of subcultures.  So, say the person from North Carolina was black.  Then this person might identify as Southern American and Black American.  Certainly, these two subcultures have overlapping elements.  Indeed, they have elements which overlap with American Culture too.  But, is the intersection of these two (or three) subcultures also a subculture?  So, in other words, does there exist a Southern Black American subculture?

I think there does.  I think that we can model this cultural behavior using mathematical topology.  In fact, we would call this topological space the discrete topology.  Essentially, every human has his or her own unique culture (i.e. open set).  We can group these individual cultures together into larger cultures, such as regional cultures, language-based cultures, academic/professional cultures.

Journal 37
for 19 Apr 2011

Sounds Like Modernity.

I think that this group did a decent job in connecting modern music to modernity.  Something that I'm interested in personally, however is how modernity has shaped music over time.  I think that there is a sort of feedback loop which selects certain music as popular, beginning with ancient music.  So, while I appreciate the modern and very literary focus of Sounds Like Modernity, I also was left wanting more in terms of historical roots.  Questions like, "When did music become modern?" are really interesting to ponder.

Is classical music modern?  Does pre-modern music still exist?  What is pre-modern contemporary music like, if it does even exist?

All of these questions are difficult to answer.  While the presentation did address music of the Classical Age, classical music as a genre has much more breadth.  If we limit our analysis to, say, classical music before 1800, we get a much better sense of what non-contemporary classical music is.  Speaking for a stance of amateur understanding, I hypothesize that truely modern classical music lies in the intersticies of the Baroque, Romantic, and Classical eras.  My knowledge being quite insufficient in the area leads me to conclude that significant composers from this time were in some sense pre-modern.  However, it was a trend during this time that music grew out of the castles, courts and gentry-like establishments.  Music became more accessible on a day-to-day basis for the common man, fulfilling a Marxist requirement of modernity. 

Composers like Mozart were actually quite brave in some of their works.  Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is an opera which readily pokes fun at the upper class, something that wasn't generally acceptable at the time.  Furthermore, Mozart broke another barrier through non-conformity.  Most operas of the time were written in Italian, and several of Mozarts were in German.

Pre-modern music does still exist in my opinion.  The talent-less pop act, a stereotype that we use to distinguish between "quality" music from "unoriginal" music comes to mind.  But this is a really fine line.  In class, I had defended Rebecca Black's fame as being a product of modern thought.  I think I'd like to change that.  Her music is very much in the class of talent-less pop.  The jeering response that her video has seen on Youtube, which I originally cited as modern, is not really all that modern.  True, it is unprecedented in this form, but the essence of her popularity is dated.  The essence to which I refer is that of the court jester, the fool or the misfit who is kept around for amusement.  Shakespeare's Feste from his Twelfth Night was a character that was kept around by the characters of the story, not because of his philosophy or intelligence, but because he was a jester.  He was a "fool", someone who's actions cause laughter.  Essentially, this is what the Youtube community has done with Rebecca Black.

Journal 41
for 21 Apr 2011

The powerpoint from our presentation is available here (pptx, openoffice/libreoffice, pdf).

I just wanted a banana...
A friend proficient in the digital arts made this for me.