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Corante Blogs examine, through the eyes of leading observers, analysts, thinkers, and doers, critical themes and memes in technology, business, law, science, and culture.

The Press Will Be Outsourced Before Stopped

Vin Crosbie, on the challenges, financial and otherwise, that newspaper publishers are facing: "The real problem, Mr. Newspaperman, isn't that your content isn't online or isn't online with multimedia. It's your content. Specifically, it's what you report, which stories you publish, and how you publish them to people, who, by the way, have very different individual interests. The problem is the content you're giving them, stupid; not the platform its on."
by Vin Crosbie in Rebuilding Media

Travels In Numerica Deserta

There's a problem in the drug industry that people have recognized for some years, but we're not that much closer to dealing with it than we were then. We keep coming up with these technologies and techniques which seem as if they might be able to help us with some of our nastiest problems - I'm talking about genomics in all its guises, and metabolic profiling, and naturally the various high-throughput screening platforms, and others. But whether these are helping or not (and opinions sure do vary), one thing that they all have in common is that they generate enormous heaps of data.
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Disrobing the Emperor: The online “user experience” isn't much of one

Now that the Web labor market is saturated and Web design a static profession, it's not surprising that 'user experience' designers and researchers who've spent their careers online are looking for new worlds to conquer. Some are returning to the “old media” as directors and producers. More are now doing offline consulting (service experience design, social policy design, exhibition design, and so on) under the 'user experience' aegis. They argue that the lessons they've learned on the Web can be applied to phenomena in the physical and social worlds. But there are enormous differences...
by Bob Jacobson in Total Experience

Second Life: What are the real numbers?

Clay Shirky, in deconstructing Second Life hype: "Second Life is heading towards two million users. Except it isn’t, really... I suspect Second Life is largely a 'Try Me' virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited. The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time users, most of whom drop out quickly, with most of the dropouts becoming immune to later use."
by Clay Shirky in Many-to-Many

The democratisation of everything

Over the last few years we've seen old barriers to creativity coming down, one after the other. New technologies and services makes it trivial to publish text, whether by blog or by print-on-demand. Digital photography has democratised a previously expensive hobby. And we're seeing the barriers to movie-making crumble, with affordable high-quality cameras and video hosting provided by YouTube or Google Video and their ilk... Music making has long been easy for anyone to engage in, but technology has made high-quality recording possible without specialised equipment, and the internet has revolutionised distribution, drastically disintermediating the music industry... What's left? Software maybe? Or maybe not."
by Suw Charman in Strange Attractor

RNA Interference: Film at Eleven

Derek Lowe on the news that the Nobel Prize for medicine has gone to Craig Mello and Andrew Fire for their breakthrough work: "RNA interference is probably going to have a long climb before it starts curing many diseases, because many of those problems are even tougher than usual in its case. That doesn't take away from the discovery, though, any more than the complications of off-target effects take away from it when you talk about RNAi's research uses in cell culture. The fact that RNA interference is trickier than it first looked, in vivo or in vitro, is only to be expected. What breakthrough isn't?"
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

PVP and the Honorable Enemy

Andrew Phelps: "Recently my WoW guild has been having a bit of a debate on the merits of Player-vs.-Player (PvP) within Azeroth. My personal opinion on this is that PvP has its merits, and can be incredible fun, but the system within WoW is horridly, horribly broken. It takes into account the concept of the battle, but battle without consequence, without emotive context, and most importantly, without honor..."

From later in the piece: "When I talk about this with people (thus far anyway) I typically get one of two responses, either 'yeah, right on!' or 'hey, it’s war, and war isn’t honorable – grow the hell up'. There is a lot to be said for that argument – but the problem is that war in the real historical world has very different constraints that are utterly absent from fantasized worlds..."
by Andrew Phelps in Got Game

Rats Rule, Right?

Derek Lowe: "So, you're developing a drug candidate. You've settled on what looks like a good compound - it has the activity you want in your mouse model of the disease, it's not too hard to make, and it's not toxic. Everything looks fine. Except. . .one slight problem. Although the compound has good blood levels in the mouse and in the dog, in rats it's terrible. For some reason, it just doesn't get up there. Probably some foul metabolic pathway peculiar to rats (whose innards are adapted, after all, for dealing with every kind of garbage that comes along). So, is this a problem?.."
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Really BAD customer experience at Albertsons Market

Bob Jacobson, on shopping at his local Albertsons supermarket where he had "one of the worst customer experiences" of his life: "Say what you will about the Safeway chain or the Birkenstock billionaires who charge through the roof for Whole Foods' organic fare, they know how to create shopping environments that create a more pleasurable experience, at its best (as at Whole Foods) quite enjoyable. Even the warehouses like Costco and its smaller counterpart, Smart & Final, do just fine: they have no pretentions, but neither do they dump virtual garbage on the consumer merely to create another trivial revenue stream, all for the sake of promotions in the marketing department..."
by Strange Attractor in Total Experience

The Guardian's "Comment is Free"

Kevin Anderson: "First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free. It is one of the boldest statements made by any media company that participation needs to be central to a radical revamp of traditional content strategies... It is, therfore, not hugely surprising to find that Comment is Free is having a few teething troubles..."
by Kevin Anderson in strange
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

The Loom

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October 26, 2005

A Rough Grunt Dictionary

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Posted by Carl Zimmer

chimpanzee mouth.jpgThere have been some interesting new developments in the study of the evolution of language. The idea that human language emerged from hand gestures rather than sounds has been getting very popular in recent years. Some scientists think that certain neurons in the brain played a crucial role in this gestural prehistory. Known as mirror neurons, they simulate the movement of other people's hands, among other things. In the October 14 issue of Science, a team of scientists showed that mirror neurons are even more sophisticated than previously thought. They even speculate that some mirror neurons could have helped give rise to different components of sentences, such as subjects and verbs.

One reason that this gestural theory has gained ground is that it hasn't been clear that the sounds of apes refer to particular things. Random outbursts aren't a particular good foundation for building up language. But don't rule out the sounds just yet. In the journal Current Biology, primatologists have shown that when chimpanzees make noises known as "rough grunts," different grunts signify different things.

We're still at the very early stages of this sort of research, and I wouldn't be surprise if future work shows that there's not an either/or choice when it comes to the precursor of full-blown language. I've written a piece about all this for a special section of about communication. It's great company to be in, with articles and interviews from the likes of Steven Pinker, James Suroweicki, and Arthur C. Clarke.

While I'm on the subject of the evolution of language, a non-biological step forward has occurred over at Language Log, a popular blog about linguistics. They've taken on my brother Ben Zimmer as a regular contributor. Here's his latest, on the wordplay on the new Steven Colbert show on Comedy Central.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Evolution


1. linguist on October 26, 2005 12:47 PM writes...

First, congrats on your Forbes article, and to your brother on his new venture.

As might be expected, I'm very fascinated with the various theories of language evolution. One other thing to think about is that there appears to be a Broca's area correlate in the brains of some monkeys that "activates" when apes vocalize. My personal theory is that both gestures and vocalizations were involved in the birth of language. The REAL question, for me, is how language came to be located primarily in the left hemisphere, and how that fact may relate to handedness in hominids.

Since apes do have hand preference, do they gesture with their "off" hand? Some folks believe that homo sapiens used to be primarily left-handed, which would allow the right to be used for gestures. If enough gesturing came to be associated with meaningful vocalizations, this COULD, POSSIBLY be an explanation for the asymmetry.

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2. Jan-Maarten on October 26, 2005 07:33 PM writes...

Still, the grunts could denote level of excitement rather than refer to actual food stuff, leading to the same chimp response, as the authors point out as well..

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3. Emily on October 27, 2005 10:53 AM writes...

If this link between hand gestures and verbal structure can be confirmed, what kind of implications does this have for evolution?

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4. Barbara King on October 28, 2005 08:16 AM writes...

I agree with Carl's prediction that the precursors of human language are probably both vocal and gestural-- no need to dichotomize as some theorists do. One of the most interesting books on this question is, still (after a decade) Armstrong, Stokoe and Wilcox's 'Gesture and the Nature of Language' because it cogently explains how syntax may have evolved via gesture. I do think the subtlety and nuance of ape gestural interactions are still very much overlooked (The Dynamic Dance, Harvard University Press 2004, is where I make this case.)

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5. Sherman Wilcox on October 28, 2005 02:11 PM writes...

Good article -- I agree entirely that this need not be an either/or question. In fact, I think that the key to understanding the evolution of language will be to resolve this excluded middle mentality and look at how both speech and 'gesture' are gestural -- one producing an acoustic signal, the other an optical signal. The neuroscience data clearly points in this direction. A recent report by Maurizio Gentilucci on how grasp observation influences speech production is one example of the deep neurological connections between hand gestures, visual perception, and speech.

Gestural phonologists obviously provide an important framework for conceptualizing speech as essentially complex motoric gestures. Cognitive linguistics is an important piece of the puzzle too, because it reveals the significance of visual perception and visual cognition in the grammar of all languages.

Two recent books explore gestural theories along these lines. David McNeill's "Gesture and Thought" (U. of Chicago Press, 2005) is the culmination of his decades of research on gesture and speech. In "Vision to Voice" (Oxford University Press, in press), David Armstrong and I present the case that visible gesture played a key role in the origin and evolution of the human capacity for language.

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6. Gerry L on October 29, 2005 02:15 AM writes...

Five years ago I attended a talk by Sally Boysen (Ohio) in which she spoke about a study she was preparing to publish that was similar to the rough grunt study that recently came out of Scotland. Boysen said she had determined that the chimps in her lab could distinguish different classes of foods based on vocalizations of other chimps. I've looked for the published paper but have not seen it yet.

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7. John Burnside on November 1, 2005 10:34 AM writes...

The theorisers of the first human "language" should listen to modern discourse among some Africans who use a series of clicks in their very old, retained languages. OEA (Our Early, Earlier, Earliest Ancestors) simply used the same manner (and later, form). Once the evening small fire was enjoyed, signs in the gloom gave way to more indicative phonemes, and HAD to have reciprocal meaning in order to maintain social cohesion, expand the imagination and tell lies.
But it was not "language", but very suitable communication for survival and expanded that greatest of listeners -- oneself.

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8. JoseAngel on November 1, 2005 11:53 AM writes...

If language evolves in the direction of ever increasing abstraction and independence from face-to-face communication (as happens with the development of writing, then print, etc.), it makes sense to think of early forms of language (which must be verbal, if it is ordinary human language we are referring to) as closely tied to specific and concrete situations and to face-to-face communication, in which gestures, sounds, and overall understanding of the situation at hand go together.

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9. Steph Kent on November 14, 2005 10:28 PM writes...

It's interesting to me that theorizing about the role of gestures in language development leads folks to apes instead of to Deaf communities and their sophisticated sign languages ... I know there has been neurological research by the Salk Institute that demonstrates the brain essentially 'doesn't care' whether it gets verbal or visual language: "The capacity of brain systems to subserve language, regardless of modality, is a striking example of neuronal plasticity."

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