Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Review: The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us


The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us
The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us by James W. Pennebaker


More interesting than just a look at pronouns grammatically, this is really a psychology book about how we put our words together (and what that can tell us), encompassing the class of "function words" (including pronouns) that make up a substantial part of our speech. Because of the role that function words play in establishing the structure we use to fill in the rest of the words we use (i.e. nouns, verbs, words with primarily semantic content), Pennebaker looks at patterns in function word frequencies and finds strong correlations with interesting real-world classifications: personality types, rhetoric, political speech, gender differences, even income and education gaps. Elucidating these various correlations forms the majority of the book.

Using function word analysis and modern Natural Language Processing techniques, Pennebaker shows how you can make predictions about the author of an anonymous text, and perform simple culturomics (e.g. gauging national "mood" after the 9/11 disaster) by surveying the text of blog posts across on the internet, all without recourse to more complex semantic information.

A recommended read for anyone interested in psychology and language, and also for those curious to see what modern technology applied to language analysis can tell us about ourselves.


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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Review: Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are

Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastian Seung

An accessible book to introduce and help explain the exciting theory that the mind is entirely encoded in the particular architecture of your brain. The central theme of "Connectome" is that such a mapping of the connections between neurons provides a far more complete picture of mental activity than other brain models. As Seung explains, mapping a brain's connectome would enable highly specific examination and treatment of a brain, going so far as to allow correlation of neuronal activity patterns with memory and conscious experience itself.

The catch is the monumental technical challenge of obtaining and handling so much data, as mapping a connectome, like mapping a DNA genome, is a computationally expensive process. In fact, mapping the connections in a human brain is many, many orders of magnitude more complex given the density of neurons and the intricacy of their connections in brain tissue. Furthermore, technology with the proper specificity to automate the delicate task is still in early stage development. Thus a corollary theme in the book relates to the pace of technological change: the field of connectomics banks on the continuation of exponential growth in computer processing speed (e.g. Moore's Law) and accompanying technologies. Assuming that technology continues to progress as it has, Seung proposes that connectomes will naturally become the substrate of which we discuss our mental selves and our conscious identity.

Other notes: The fundamental idea of the connectome is persuasive and fascinating, but perhaps because of such preexisting interests, this book was less in-depth than I was hoping for, and much of the content therein will be familiar to other fans of cognitive science or avid tech enthusiasts. Seung devotes the end of the book to the interesting future possibilities of cyber immortality, but they come with the usual speculation & caveats and don't yield much of a takeaway message. Seung's writing style is natural if not as crisp as a science journalist, just occasionally veering too folksy for the science (with a few awkwardly stilted metaphors).

I was originally introduced to Sebastian Seung's "Connectome" in his excellent 2010 TED Talk.


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