Unabashed Naïveté

Archive for the ‘steven pinker’ Category

Summer reading

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For a student, I’ve had a kinda-sorta busy summer in that every day I have obligations to fulfill at scheduled times (forcing me to turn down many a proposed rendezvous), but still have quite a lot of free time. So a few weeks ago I went to the library to get some books.

  • The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker
  • Abstract Algebra and Solution by Radicals, John Maxfield and Margaret Maxfield
  • The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Classical Music, Tim Smith
  • The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney
  • David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
  • The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • King Lear, William Shakespeare
  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

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Written by leonxlin

August 16, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Assorted free entertainment #1

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Web stuff that I thought worth the time.

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Written by leonxlin

July 29, 2012 at 4:18 am

Steven Pinker: Words and Rules

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Cover of Words and Rules The kind of wordplay Pinker sometimes engages in is mindblowing (read to the end):

A governor-general is a general governor, namely, one who has several governors under him. The puzzle is, why didn’t they simply call him a general governor? After all, the adjective comes before the head noun in English, not after it. The answer is that these words, together with many other terms related to government, were borrowed from French when England was ruled by the Normans in the centuries after the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. In French, the adjective can come after the head noun, as in États-Unis (United States) and chaise longue (long chair, garbled into the English chaise lounge). The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1292: “Tous attorneyz general purrount lever fins et cirrographer” (All general attorneys may levy fines and make legal documents). Anyone who insists that we eternally analyze (hence pluralize) these words as they were analyzed in the minds of the original speakers of Norman French also should insist that we refer to more than one major general as majors general, because a major-general was once a general major (from the French major-général). Long ago our linguistic foreparents forgot the French connection and reanalyzed general from a modifying adjective to a modified noun. So if you are ever challenged for saying attorney-generals, mother-in-laws, passerbys, RBIs, or hole-in-ones, you can reply, “They are the very model of the modern major general.”

(If reading that was not a profound, life-changing moment for you, then perhaps you are unaware of the “Major-General’s Song”, in which case you should look it up. It is widely parodied; for example in this xkcd.) I can only wish he were still at MIT.

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Written by leonxlin

July 20, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature

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Steven Pinker makes me very happy. I will go out on a limb and say that he is my favorite author. (Given my established international preeminence in literary circles, that is really saying something.) I think I cried a couple of times reading The Language Instinct, just from being so excited. Then again, I cried watching The Princess and the Frog.

Cover of The Better Angels of Our Nature So I just finished Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He first demonstrates that whether we look at the past few millenia, the past few centuries, or the past few decades, the overall trend in violence globally has been decline, the world wars notwithstanding. The common perception that violence especially afflicts today’s people is attributed to our “historical myopia” (the examples of violence we know of are mostly recent, no magic there) and the modern-day media, which makes us more aware of violence around the world than people in centuries past could ever have been. A whole litany of graphs is adduced, and though they aren’t all spectacular (some of the plots look like they have only two or three data points, which the author has helpfully connected with a line), the point is clear. Near the beginning there are also detailed descriptions of medieval torture methods, which is just fantastic. But by the fiftieth graph on homicide or battle deaths or crime showing a mostly-negatively-sloped zig-zag, I was only skimming the first sentences of paragraphs in the text’s accompanying explanations, which were often to the effect of “as you can see, it first goes up a bit and then down a lot, and then up a bit more, and then a lot more down, and then it’s bumpy for a bit, and then it goes down to zero, after which it’s flat”. The writing in Better Angels is definitely not as dense or witty as in Pinker’s books on language or the mind (perhaps that is a consequence of the subject matter).

The nearly-500-page history of the decline of violence, encompassing everything from the near-disappearance of torture to bans against dodgeball in schools, is intermixed with discussion about the causes of each trend Pinker tracks. In the second part of the book, he considers both the psychological underpinnings of violence (“inner demons”: predation, dominance, revenge, sadism, ideology) and the psychological forces resulting in restraint therefrom (“better angels”: empathy, self-control, morality and taboo, reason). Finally Pinker ties it all together by looking at what he sees to be the broad shifts that underlie the historical decline of violence: the rise of Hobbesian Leviathans, which penalize aggression (by individuals in their states) and serve to counterbalance whatever benefits violence accords its perpetrators; the proliferation of gentle commerce, which for suitable parties provides an attractive, mutually beneficial alternative to zero-sum (or negative-sum) fighting; the empowerment of women; the expanding circle of empathy towards one’s kin, tribe, nation, race, species, and beyond; and the “escalator of reason”, which, according to Pinker, we owe in large part to the Enlightenment.

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Written by leonxlin

July 16, 2012 at 5:32 am

Posted in books, steven pinker