Showing posts with label Cognitive Science. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cognitive Science. Show all posts

Monday, October 3, 2016

What's Behind? More About the Sign and Flags at the Guomao Shopping Center in Mudanjiang

Yesterday I stopped by Culture Square in Mudanjiang yet again. When I arrived, I began questioning an earlier claim I had made — that the photo in the previous post showed a view from "behind the [main] sign" for the Guomao Shopping Center. I had characterized the view this way in part due to three reasons.

1. Viewed from the other side of the square, the large Chinese characters most visible on the metal gratings are "国贸商城" — the shopping center's name spelled from left to right. But from the photo's viewpoint the characters most visible, which are on the opposite side of the metal gratings, are "城商贸国" — the name of the shopping center spelled right to left. Typically, modern Chinese is written left to right when horizontal, but, long story short, right to left is still used in some contexts today. However, left to right would be more typical for a shopping center. It is also how the name is displayed anywhere else I have seen it at the shopping center.

2. The characters on both sides are affixed to a common set of metal gratings and are partly visible from behind.

3. The set of characters for the left-to-right spelling face a much larger area of the square. Here is a photo of a small portion of that side of the square with the sign in the distance:

Girl flying kite at Culture Square (文化广场)  in Mudanjiang, China, with sign for the Guomao Shopping Center (国贸商城) in the background

So without any deep thought, I described the photo as being taken from a location behind the sign.

But . . .

The right-to-left spelling of the shopping center's name (again, the one easily seen in the photo) stands over the shopping center's main entrances. So there is an argument for calling it the front side.

Also, the characters affixed to one side of the metal gratings aren't directly connected to those on the other side. So it would be reasonable to say there are in fact two signs. From that perspective, what I wrote would be correct if the sign facing the largest area of the square is considered to be the main sign. But with it mostly out of view in the photo and the other sign appearing prominently, it strikes me as a potentially confusing or not especially useful description.

You could say I see several sides of this issue, which interests me because it relates to some of my earlier research on visuo-spatial cognition and language. If I wrote the previous post now, I would simply mention the sign in a way which avoided the issue. And then I wouldn't need to write this post, which will probably cause far more confusion than the earlier post.

Since I have made this unexpected return to the shopping center, I will share something more about the topic which caused me to mention in it the first place — Chinese and red flags periodically appearing there during recent days. I had hypothesized the reason I didn't see the flags one late afternoon was because they are only put out during opening hours to celebrate the National Day of the People's Republic of China. Consistent with that explanation, yesterday I had the pleasure to see them being removed about one hour before the shopping center closed.

people removing Chinese and red flags at the Guomao Shopping Center in Mudanjiang

I was hoping there would be more pomp and circumstance though.

UPDATE: A closer look at a part of the sign here.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Product Placement, Dyslexia, and Censorship

Now seems to be a good time to share a variety of links to stories that touch on subjects found in previous posts here. In no particular order...

1. Earlier this year I shared the story of a young man who traveled from his home in mainland China to Macau so he could purchase New Zealand baby formula. Due to past formula scandals in China, he and his family did not trust locally produced formula. If he could have purchased imports in mainland China from trustworthy sources at a reasonable price he would not have needed to make the journey to Macau. In addition to high tariffs, as Wang Shanshan reported on Caixin there is another reason for the inflated prices of imported formula (H/T C. Maoxian):
One reason is supermarkets force dealers to pay large commissions to put their products on shelves, Yao Wenhua, senior executive of a Beijing-based trade company, said. This has forced dealers to raise retail prices to make a profit.
Read the article here for more about the commissions and how they are driving grey market online sales of imported formula through sources such as Taobao.

2. I recently posted about China blocking The New York Times in reaction to a story about the wealth of Prime Minister of China Wen Jiabao's family. Similar to my comments last year about an example involving YouTube, Evan Osnos in The New Yorker mentions that the blocking is not only an issue of censorship:
China has now blocked two major American news organizations (Bloomberg has been blacked out for four months, after a similar story on the incoming President, Xi Jinping), without official explanation. They are large American businesses, with substantial financial investments associated with their operations in China. At a certain point, the United States Embassy will have to weigh in, which will only ratchet up the pressure.
See here for more from Osnos about the "fallout from Wen Jiaobao's family fortune".

3. In a non-China-related post I considered whether tennis player Andy Murray's dislike for reading could be connected to a cognitive deficit. I pointed out that having such a deficit would not necessarily prevent a person from being successful. Kate Rix on Open Culture shared an interview revealing how a long unidentified reading deficit not only did not prevent director Steven Spielberg from achieving success, it may have helped lead him to his passion:
What no one, including the DreamWorks co-founder himself, knew until recently is that all those 8 mm shorts were more than just a pastime. In a recent interview Spielberg revealed that he is dyslexic and that he was only diagnosed five years ago. “It explained a lot of things,” Spielberg told Quinn Bradlee. “It was like the last puzzle part in a tremendous mystery that I’ve kept to myself all these years."

Always two years behind the class in reading, Spielberg was teased by other kids in school. He dreaded having to read in front of the class. He never lacked for friends, though looking back on it several of his friends were probably also dyslexic.

“Even my own friends who were just like me, we didn’t have the skills to talk about it,” he recalled in the interview for Friends of Quinn, a site for people with learning differences. “I got bullied. I dealt with it by making movies. That was my cover up.”
See the post here to watch a video of the interview and read Rix's summary of it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Case for Not Reading

Tennis player Andy Murray responded to a number of questions posed by readers of The New York Times. One answer in particular:
Q. Last book you read? (Nimmi Matthew from Calgary)

A. I never read. The paper or anything. I watch a lot of movies, and TV series and stuff. But I never, never read.
caught the attention of James Fallows:
Andy! Say it isn't so! I speak for all your fellow Scots* in saying, Well done at the Olympics, but this is not a plus for ethnic pride. Scots are supposed to be thrifty, freckled, somewhat ornery, and literary. Or at least literate.
Fallows also urged Andy Murray "to hit the books".

Although I am not aware of any Scottish blood in my family, I share the sentiment in encouraging Murray to change his habits. However, my feelings are tempered by wondering why Murray never reads.

During my days of cognitive science research, my main quest was to better understand the functioning of the typical human brain. In this pursuit, I tested a number of people with cognitive deficits -- in short, seeing how something can break can provide clues about how it operates when not broken. Some of the deficits I studied made reading, which requires a complex set of processes, difficult or impossible for a person regardless of any training or level of interest. So it is almost a reflex for me to question whether Murray does not read because he has a cognitive deficit. It is even possible that a deficit exists which has not been identified and Murray is not consciously aware anything is amiss except for lacking a desire to read.

Some may now be asking: "How could someone as talented as Murray have a reading deficit? And if he did have a reading deficit how could it have gone unnoticed, presumably by him, teachers, parents, and others?"

Instead of fully answering these questions, I will share a relevant example that can begin to address them. Michael McCloskey, a professor of cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University*, in a most unexpected manner discovered a person with a fascinating deficit:
To the casual observer, the student seemed absolutely normal. Though she often made mistakes in spelling and math, those were usually ascribed to carelessness. After all, the girl — known here as "AH" to protect her anonymity — was a top student in history at The Johns Hopkins University...

"She approached me one day after a lecture during which I was talking about a patient who had difficulty spelling after a brain-damaging stroke, and she mentioned that she wasn't a very good speller," McCloskey remembered. "I offered to give her the same spelling test I routinely use in research, and was surprised to find that this obviously bright student misspelled nearly half of the words. That was a clue that something was going on here."

McCloskey discovered exactly what was going on through further tests. He said that the student was "startled" to learn about her deficit, but that in the end, it probably helped explain certain challenges she had faced in her life.

According to McCloskey, it was AH's ability to compensate for this deficit that allowed her to be such a successful, high achiever.
More about AH's deficit can be found by visiting the link above. And a much fuller account can be found in McCloskey's book "Visual Reflections: A Perceptual Deficit and Its Implications". What McCloskey discovered about AH's deficit and how she perceived the world is simply incredible.

If Murray has a deficit there is little reason at the moment to think it would be anything nearly as dramatic as AH's. But what I want to emphasize about AH's story is that someone with a profound, yet long unidentified, cognitive deficit could function at a high level, even in some of the areas affected by the impairment. Just as amazing as how cognitive processes can go awry is how the brain can sometimes adapt to them.

Of course, Murray may not have any reading deficits at all, and I am not saying that anyone who does not read has a cognitive deficit. But although I do not advocate the press hounding Murray on this issue, if I had the opportunity I would at least ask Murray a few questions in private. After all, there might be a discovery to be made that may not only surprise me, but Murray as well.

*Disclosure: Michael McCloskey also has another important identifying characteristic: he was my graduate school advisor.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Moments of Insight: How Kids Learn Language

Fellow Johns Hopkins Cognitive Science grad department alumni (and friend) Tamara Nicol Medina just made the news for some really interesting research findings.  In short, kids learn language not by gradually honing in on correct word associations over time but through more focused moments of insight.

One of the more interesting aspects of the research is the logic the research team had for doubting what was assumed by many to be key for language learning:
The current, long-standing theory suggests that children learn their first words through a series of associations; they associate words they hear with multiple possible referents in their immediate environment. Over time, children can track both the words and elements of the environments they correspond to, eventually narrowing down what common element the word must be referring to."

This sounds very plausible until you see what the real world is like," Gleitman said. "It turns out it's probably impossible."


"The theory is appealing as a simple, brute force approach," Medina said. "I've even seen it make its way into in parenting books describing how kids learn their first words."A small set of psychologists and linguists, including members of the Penn team, have long argued that the sheer number of statistical comparisons necessary to learn words this way is simply beyond the capabilities of human memory. Even computational models designed to compute such statistics must implement shortcuts and do not guarantee optimal learning.

"This doesn't mean that we are bad at tracking statistical information in other realms, only that we do this kind of tracking in situations where there are a limited number of elements that we are associating with each other," Trueswell said. "The moment we have to map the words we hear onto the essentially infinite ways we conceive of things in the world, brute-force statistical tracking becomes infeasible. The probability distribution is just too large."
See the full article here.  If you're interested in how kids learn language, this is a must read.

The research conclusions themselves can be one of those "Aha!" moments that immediately sink in once you think about it.  The conclusions touch on several key issues including:

  • Losing information (memories) can sometimes be a very good thing.  As researcher Lila Gleitman said, "It's the failure of memory that's rescuing you from remaining wrong for the rest of your life."
  • The human mind has many strategies for working around limitations in acquiring, processing, and storing information.
  • Artificial Intelligence will be better able to mimic how the human mind works the more it takes into account the brain's limitations.

Later, I'll share some fascinating visual cognition research that has provided surprising insights into the limitations of human cognitive processing, even when we feel we are "fully" processing the world around us.