New Google Service Will Decide For You

“Google is very good at figuring out what text is about. It can pick out ads that are relevant to the content of any Web page, its search engine anticipates the meaning of search terms rather than just finding them in Web sites, and Google’s Chrome browser can tell when you’re visiting a site in a foreign language and helpfully offer to translate.

Now some of that language-processing power is available to everyone in the form of an API that developers can use to have Google distinguish between different categories of text . The service is only available to registered testers and it requires some coding to use, so I’ve built a modest, easy-to-use demonstration…” (Forbes).

The suggestion is to use the demo to distinguish between text in English and French, which is pretty trivial, so I gave it a more difficult challenge. After I had it sample one random paragraph each from Wall Street Journal and the New York Times online content, in 3:3 trials it successfully distinguished the source of further random paragraphs.The implications for categorizing a person’s demographic and sociopolitical niche from their reading choices are clear.

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Peripatetic Pets

An Iarnród Éireann commuter train in the Repub...
“A cat with a hankering for the city lights has been reunited with its owner after taking a trip to Dublin on the DART.

Iarnróid Éireann sent out an appeal via Twitter seeking the owner of the cat, which had been found in Pearse Street train station. Staff took care of the kitty and used CCTV footage to trace where she had begun her journey.

It turned out that the cat had got on at Malahide station and travelled into the city centre. After the rail company sent out its appeal for the cat’s owners, the lucky cat was reunited with her owner Eric Bieci, who thanked everyone involved.

After dodging the fare, Lilou has been issued with a rail card by Iarnród Eireann for any future journeys she wishes to take.” (RTÉ News)

This item grabbed my attention because, more than thirty years ago, I had a very very footloose dog named Sashi. Before I went to medical school, I was living near Harvard Square and one morning he apparently followed the stream of working people who walked down to the Square and got on the Red line, one of the branches of Boston‘s subway system, the MTA or ‘T’. Several hours later, I was called by someone to say that he was wandering the platform at Braintree Station, at the other end of the Red Line. I considered asking them to lend him 50 cents to get back on the T and travel home, but I did in the last analysis drive down to Braintree to pick him up.

At another point, Sashi and I lived in a house further out in the country with a golf course out the back door. After the golfers were gone in the evening, I would let Sashi out to congregate with the other local dogs on the golf course at the summit of the hill. He would come back sedate and satisfied from what I imagined had been several hours of romping in the field. Several months later, I happened to be walking him past the ice cream shop in the center of town, about a half mile away. One of the local skateboard kids who hung out in front of the shop greeted Sashi by name. I asked him how he knew my dog. “How do I know him? He’s here hanging out with us every evening eating our leftovers!”

Sashi also used to swim along with me and friends as we kayaked. Once he got himself stranded on a rock in the Cohasset Rips as the tide was rushing out, prompting my one and only daredevil rescue experience.

Later, during my medical schooling, Sashi ran away from a friend of mine who was boarding him one summer in rural Maryland while I was on a volunteer medical project in Appalachia. When I eventually located him three months later through ads I ran in the Maryland newspapers, he was flown home to me in Boston by the high-powered consultant with whom he had been living, under an assumed name, and gallivanting around the country in his foster owner’s private plane. Footloose indeed!

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Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

English Speaker
What we may think vs. what we must: ‘Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

Since there is no evidence that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.’ (NY Times Magazine)