Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Laugh Track(ers): The Science of Laughter

by Christian Gibbons
Summer 2016 Interns

The hardest I ever remember laughing happened pretty recently. A friend of mine and I were walking down Boylston Street this past spring, observing people on Segways and seguing into a discussion about the strangeness of spelling and pronunciation in the English language. Somehow, the word bologna ended up being pronounced “buh-LAWG-nuh” with a bizarre pseudo-accent.

I’m not sure why I found what my friend said so funny. All I know is that I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t stay standing. I collapsed into an actual heap of laughter, right there in the street.

To any passerby, what happened must’ve seemed very strange. But laughter, if you think about it, is generally pretty strange. Scientists still don’t really know why human beings laugh. Some, like Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, propose that laughter was originally a sort of “false alarm” signal. According to Dr. Ramachandran, what all humor seems to involve is an expectation that’s followed by a sudden twist that deflates it in a certain way. The very earliest punch lines would have occurred when our ancestors thought they were in danger, then discovered that they weren’t. Laughter, he claims, is “nature’s ‘all’s okay’ signal.” Ever laugh when someone tripped or fell? Don’t worry . . . according to Dr. Ramachandran, you’re not a bad person—you’re relieved that no one was hurt.

There are others who take a livelier view of what makes us chuckle. Dr. Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist and stand-up comedian, also believes that laughter reflects more than a mere feeling of amusement. She notes that people are 30 times more likely to laugh around other people than by themselves and that, most of the time, people laugh while they’re speaking, not while listening to someone else. “Laughter may thus be associated more with signaling affiliation, agreement and affection than it is with amusement,” Dr. Scott writes. “It may be most accurate to consider laughter as an expression of a strongly positive social emotion, which we use to form and reinforce social relationships.”

She might be onto something. A recent study published in 2015 found that laughter between friends and laughter between strangers actually sound different. Moreover, the study revealed that listeners—966 of them, from 24 different societies—were able to distinguish between the two as reliably as 67 percent of the time. The results of the study indicate that laughter is definitely a signal, and that we use it regularly to give and identify social information.

Maybe that has something to do with why I laughed so hard with my friend that day. Of course, it might also be that “buh-LAWG-nuh” just sounds really darn funny.

Did You Know?

A study done by researchers at Loma Linda University discovered that laughter improved the short-term memories of elderly participants. Because laughter decreases stress, and stress reduces the brain’s ability to remember and encode memories, laughter is an effective way to boost recall and learning ability.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Inventions and Innovations: The Object Project

by Moeko Noda
Summer 2016 Intern

This morning, I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock and went to the kitchen, where I pulled out milk from the fridge and used the toaster to make a nice breakfast. Then I changed into a blouse and skirt, which I bought at a fast fashion retailer, and came to the office.

You might be wondering why I’m describing a mundane morning routine. You will be surprised to learn that this boring account is actually filled with innovations and lifestyle revolutions, according to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History’s exhibition, the Object Project.

The ongoing exhibition at the Smithsonian presents familiar objects in a new light, exploring how people, things and social change shaped life as we know it now. Visitors can see and touch more than 300 objects on display, along with relevant historic documents. No worries if you cannot visit in person—the comprehensive companion website can provide a wealth of information and colorful images of the objects.

Clicking through the site tells me my morning routine is supported by amazing innovations over the years. Clocks were a phenomenon even before most people could read the time; automatic toasters first came out in the 1920s, immediately appearing on breakfast tables across the nation; and ads for refrigerators from the 1930s showed ladies in gowns and men in tuxedos, as refrigerators were luxurious items, a “style sensation.”

What is more, I learned that the skirt that I am wearing today not only owes its origin to the concept of mass-produced, ready-to-wear clothing, but possibly to bicycles! When women started riding bicycles in the 1890s, they were symbols of liberation for women. Not only did the vehicle physically liberate women by offering them mobility, but they also transformed the way women dressed. Skirt lengths were shortened for smoother rides, causing a singer to wonder: “If we give them the chance, they will all wear pants! I wonder what they will do next?” Hmm, I wonder what?

Another important point that the exhibition makes, writer Rob Walker notes, is that people changed products and trends too, not just the other way round. A recent example is the MP3 player. Many people were skeptical of the gadget when it first came out, but some curious people tried it anyway, paving the way for its mass popularity and eventual revolution in the way we listen to music.

The exhibit shows that the newest cool gadget you’re considering trying out just might turn out to be an integral part of life decades down the line.

Did You Know?

The line between creative and absurd is thin when it comes to inventions. PingPong Door is a door that transforms into a table tennis table; there is a cup holder that you can attach to an umbrella; and with Kitchen Art Ham Dogger, you can transform hamburger meat into a hotdog shape whenever the occasion calls for it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

PSG’s Preferred Poets

by Christian Gibbons
Summer 2016 Intern

Even though I am a Writing, Literature & Publishing major at Emerson College, there’ve been many hours that I’ve spent poring fruitlessly over a poetic text that I feel I just don’t quite get. But for every poem I wring my hands over in anguish, there’s one that stands out to me as a reward to read. In recent months, I’ve read everything from Symbolist poetry to Japanese poetry to Martian poetry, and have had plenty of interesting experiences as a result.

As such, it was a real treat for me to become acquainted with the poetic interests of my coworkers at PSG. Even though the degree to which each staff member enjoys poetry varies, the list of favorite poets in the office is a long one. Shannon, for instance, used to hate poetry before she read T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”—now, she includes both Eliot and Sharon Olds as favorite poets. Kate doesn’t read poetry often, but enjoys Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost and Robert Herrick. Tess similarly reserves most of her love of poetry for greats, such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath and John Keats. Annette, also a fan of classic poets, enjoys the poems of Lord Byron as well as those of modernist E. E. Cummings.

Eileen and Alyssa both love poetry with a passion. Eileen treasures confessional poetry so much that she has tattoos of lines from Sylvia Plath’s “Elm” and Anne Sexton’s “Love Letter Written in a Burning Building.” Alyssa, who also studied poetry in college, likes the verses of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets the best, but is also fond of modern and postmodern poets like Pablo Neruda and Allen Ginsberg.

Still others at PSG are more unorthodox about their appreciation of poetry. Colleen believes that the song lyrics of certain musicians such as Brandi Carlile, the Indigo Girls and Van Morrison ought to be regarded as poetry (a sentiment that I strongly agree with). Tanya and Don stick by childhood favorites like Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein.

If you’ve ever had difficulty with poetry, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned from all this. It seems that there’s definitely something for everyone in poetry. Next time you’re at a bookstore, don’t forget to check out a poetry collection or two!

Did You Know?

If you’ve ever been told not to end your sentences with prepositions, you might be surprised to know that this may have been because of a poet. John Dryden is believed to have taken issue with a particular phrasing (“the bodies that those souls were frighted from”) of fellow poet Ben Jonson’s in 1672. His criticism was subsequently supported by grammarians on the basis of the fact that Latin doesn’t strand its prepositions, even though English not only allows, but sometimes even requires, sentences to end with them. So it’s not worth arguing about!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Hands Speak Louder than Words: Gloves Translating Sign Language

by Moeko Noda
Summer 2016 Intern

On a hot summer day last year, I was stuck in the middle of a party supplies shop in Barcelona. I had exchanged smiles with a small girl in the shop, and now she wanted to become friends. I wanted to, too. The problem was that I couldn’t speak her language, and she couldn’t speak mine. After a long, awkward conversation of hand gestures, we were able to learn each other’s names, but I remember wishing I could speak even a little of her language—or that I had a translating app. Body movement goes a long way, but shared language is an important component of communication.

Two undergraduate students at the University of Washington came to the same conclusion, but they took matters into their own hands. With the firm belief that language is a fundamental human right, rising juniors Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi created gloves that aim to break barriers between sign language and verbal language.

The gloves are called SignAloud, and they translate American Sign Language into text and speech. Each glove has sensors on the hands and wrist that measure hand position and movement. The gloves wirelessly send the signs to a main computer, which translates them into words or phrases. These are then immediately delivered back to the gloves, which are equipped with a speaker to transmit the audio translation of the signs. The current renditions of the gloves are still prototypes, but the two students are working with more people in the deaf community to help refine the gloves for wider use.

In the United States, American Sign Language is used by hundreds of thousands of deaf people as their first language, and by many more people who learn it as a second language. The demand for smoother communication is immense.

“Everyone should be able to communicate with everyone else,” Pryor said, explaining his and Azodi’s philosophy behind the gloves. “When we were talking about things being accessible and connecting people and making that impact we found that language and communication was the piece that holds it all together," Azodi added. While translation apps continue to knock down barriers between verbal languages, those who communicate by hand can be alienated from others who communicate verbally. Through their innovative gloves, Pryor and Azodi hope to create a more unified global community.

Did You Know?

Just like spoken language, sign language varies widely among countries and cultures, each with its own grammar and dialects. The Ethnologue, a website that catalogues more than 7,000 living languages, lists 141 sign languages from around the world.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

You Don’t Say? Computers, Science and Sarcasm

by Christian Gibbons
Summer 2016 Intern

Like many other people, I have experienced times when a sarcastic comment has flown right over my head. The thing about these moments, though, is that when you don’t pick up on sarcasm, you tend to miss a lot. Who knew?

A big reason why it’s so important to be able to recognize sarcasm is because of how common it is in our society today. Over the course of the development of the English language, entire phrases that were once meant sincerely have come to have an exclusively sarcastic meaning. After all, when was the last time you heard someone say, “Big deal!” and really mean it?

In fact, sarcasm is so omnipresent in our society that computers need to be able to recognize it, too. A couple of years ago, the US Secret Service began seeking a software system that would be able to distinguish sarcasm. One of the Secret Service’s spokesmen, Ed Donovan, stated in 2014 that the agency’s ultimate goal was to analyze social media data, and that “the ability to detect sarcasm and false positives is just 1 of 16 or 18 things [they were] looking at.”

There are clear and immediate benefits to a tool like this. Perhaps most importantly, a sarcasm detector would allow people to differentiate between an instance of sarcasm and a legitimate threat on social media platforms such as Twitter. The problem is, computers that are used as sarcasm detectors often have a difficult time identifying such a nuanced form of communication.

However, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University recently published findings that might be on to something that will change that. What made this study different from others was that its authors believe sarcasm is more likely to be used between people who know each other well. Using algorithms that took into account contextual features such as past tweets, key words and phrases, profile information, and previous sentiments, the researchers found that their detectors were able to pick out sarcasm with increasing accuracy over time. The highest accuracy rating they achieved overall was 85.1 percent!

As scientists continue to work on the challenges of getting computers to understand sarcasm, who knows what level of accuracy they’ll be able to achieve? Maybe some day computers will be able to recognize sarcasm faster than humans can. That wouldn’t be creepy at all.

Did You Know?

Sarcasm may have a sour reputation in some circles, but scientists have found that there are actually benefits to using it. Because understanding sarcasm involves disparities between literal and intended meanings, sarcasm seems to promote greater creativity in both people who use it and people who hear it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Lake Turkana: A Cradle of Human Life

by Shannon Pender
Summer 2016 Intern

If you’re like me, you dug in your backyard as a kid, hoping to find fossils and make some sort of groundbreaking discovery. Unless you were really lucky though, you probably didn’t find much more than rocks. If you lived in northern Kenya, your search could turn out differently—it’s home to Lake Turkana, where fossils have remained for millions of years.

Lake Turkana, Africa’s fourth largest lake, lies in the middle of a harsh desert climate. Called the “Jade Sea” for its beautiful color, the lake sits in a volcanic area that experiences activity from tectonic plates that move the Earth’s crust. This creates layers where archaeologists can clearly see different eras of fossils preserved in the lake and its surrounding basin.

There are 100 archaeological and paleontological sites surrounding Lake Turkana, meaning it’s an ideal place for fossils to give us insight into our species’ ancestors: what they looked like, how they walked, where they lived and more. The fossils here span four million years of human evolution. The lake hosts numerous groundbreaking discoveries about the hominids who lived over 4.2 million years ago.

Out of all the discoveries at Lake Turkana, one still shapes our understanding of human evolution—connecting the dots among our predecessors.

It was 1984 when Turkana Boy, the most complete early human fossil, was discovered. He was preserved in the sediments of the lake for 1.5 million years. Our ancient human ancestors were comprised of multiple species rather than the one homogenous species we are today; Turkana Boy was a member of the Homo erectus species, arguably the most important species to study.

H. erectus is thought of as the direct ancestor of humans: the first hominids to migrate out of Africa and into Europe and Asia. By studying Turkana Boy, archaeologists learned that H. erectus walked like us, centering their weight over their pelvis. They had arched feet, long strides and larger brains than other species such as Homo habilis.

Did You Know?

The prehistoric species Nuralagus rex is the largest rabbit ever discovered—a 26-pound animal with short ears and small eyes that is unable to hop. These features have never been seen before in rabbits. This giant rabbit had no predators on its native Minorca, a Spanish island, allowing it to live a leisurely life without any worries.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

High Stakes and High-Flying

by Christian Gibbons
Summer 2016 Intern

When I was a child, going to the circus was a family pastime. Although my family and I never watched it as much as an NFL game, we definitely got something out of it that we never got out of watching my dad’s favorite sport. There was something about going to the so-called “greatest show on Earth”—with its menagerie of death-defying tricks, spectacular animals and lovable buffoonery—that always felt special. But as I grew up more, those trips to the circus grew fewer and fewer, until eventually they ceased altogether.

Since then, I’ve often wondered what’s become of the circus industry. It felt strange when I came to Boston for college and saw so many posters for the latest show from Cirque du Soleil. But Cirque du Soleil is actually one of the biggest modern success stories in the circus industry, and it has built a global reputation on world-class performers, top-notch costumes and effects, and boundless liveliness. In fact, there’s pretty much only one thing left that the company hasn’t accomplished: making it big on Broadway.

Despite previous attempts to make a lasting impact on a New York stage, Cirque du Soleil still has something to prove. “It is a big question mark for Cirque now,” said Diane Paulus, a Broadway director who’s worked with Cirque before. “What’s next for them, and how are they going to break new ground after they broke ground so powerfully . . . [over 30] years ago?” Their most recent production, a hybrid of aerial techniques and musical theatre named Paramour, is distinguished from previous efforts by its use of dialogue, original music and a fully developed plot about a love triangle in Golden Age Hollywood.

Although Paramour hasn’t proved to be as popular with critics as its creators might have hoped since debuting in May of 2016, the show has been well-received by many Cirque fans. In addition, the company is already moving forward with at least four other shows in New York, and hopes to also bring a version of The Wiz to the Broadway stage in the near future.

It looks like the circus is here to stay, and Cirque du Soleil will continue to try to reach new heights.

Did You Know?

There really is no “I” in theater! Most Broadway theaters don’t have a row I because it’s so easy to confuse with the number 1. Some theaters exclude other rows, such as O, Q, N, U and V, for similar reasons.

Friday, August 5, 2016

A Book Lover’s Dream? A Library as a Universe

by Moeko Noda
Summer 2016 Intern

It’s truly a bibliophile’s nightmare that no matter how hard we try, we can never finish reading all the books that exist. The joy of walking into a bookstore or a library comes with a hint of despair, an understanding that most of these books will forever be waiting for you to open its covers. On the other hand, the endless array of books might also represent a good dream—it may be a relief that you will never run out of books to read.

What would happen if you could venture into a place that holds not every book ever published, but every book ever and never written? Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Library of Babel” illustrates a real-life rendition of this nightmare—or dream, if you wish. Published in 1941, the story describes an expansive library that is composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries. Each gallery contains a set number of books, and each book is a random combination of letters of the alphabet. By combining every possible combination of letters, the library as a whole contains an exhaustive collection of every single book in the universe.

The story is actually a thought experiment; not only does it imagine the universe within the library, it imagines the library as the universe, where every idea ever conceived sleeps in its infinite galleries. The complete works of Shakespeare would be there, as well as books that were lost or burned. The browser could come by ancient folklore in one shelf and contemporary science fiction in another.

The library, amazingly, is actually on its way to construction—online.

Jonathan Basile, a Brooklyn-based writer, is trying to recreate the Library of Babel as a website. At present, Basile’s virtual recreation of the library contains all possible combinations of 3,200 characters, which is a few sentences longer than this blog post. This means that this blog post, if it were exactly 3,200 characters long, would exist somewhere in Basile’s library as well, along with all the other possible 104677 combinations of characters.

Although Basile admits that completing this idea is impossible (even if the entire universe was a server, it can’t contain the volume of “books” he aspires to create), which was Jorge Luis Borges’s point to begin with, the experiment still hints at the prospect of the completion of an infinite library. Whether you think this is a nightmare or a dream is up to you.

Did You Know?

One of the largest libraries in the world, the British Library in London holds well over 150 million items. Each year the library receives a copy of every publication in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and its 388 miles of shelves grow by 7.5 miles every year.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

PSG Has Dinner with History

by Shannon Pender
Summer 2016 Intern

If you could have dinner with one person from history, who would you choose?

For me, that person is Ray Bradbury—famed science fiction author of several short stories and novels, including Fahrenheit 451. I love all his works and credit him for inspiring my own writing. In high school, while writing a paper on Bradbury, I decided to write him a letter expressing my gratitude. Unfortunately, before I could finish writing it, he passed away. If I had the chance to time travel, I would make sure to tell Ray Bradbury how much his work meant to me.

When I asked the staff at PSG whom they would meet if given the same chance to time travel, everyone had wildly different answers. But most, like me, chose an idolized dinner guest from an earlier age.

Eileen would have dinner with her longtime hero, Kurt Cobain, and has also always wanted to visit his home. Tess would love to talk to Audrey Hepburn about her glamorous Hollywood life, her active role in WWII helping out the Dutch resistance and her later work with UNICEF. Moeko, a fellow intern, gained an appreciation for Buddhist philosophy during a course on Asian religion at Swarthmore College, so she would love to sit down with Buddha. Alyssa couldn’t pick just one person from history—she’s tied between Madeleine L’Engle, one of her favorite authors, and Queen Elizabeth I. Kate says she would have “a million questions” for Laura Ingalls Wilder—both about her books and her time living through most of America’s formative years from Westward Expansion to WWI to the 1920s. Kate is actually relieved a dinner with Wilder remains impossible because she “wouldn’t know where to start” in a conversation with her idol!

Some PSG staff members, however, picked people who are still alive to have dinner with—so a meeting could actually happen!

Ken, who has always cited music as a vital part of his life, would have dinner with singer-songwriter James Taylor. He would love to learn what inspires Taylor’s writing and when Taylor realized he had special talent. For Tanya, Harry Potter was an “important staple” in her childhood—it makes perfect sense that her dinner guest pick is J. K. Rowling.

To make all of our ideal dinner dreams come true, all we need are some friends in high places—that, and a time machine.

Did You Know? 

The hut of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, abandoned in 1912 when Scott and his crew died on an expedition, still sits near the South Pole in Antarctica. Containing frozen butter, ketchup and more than 8,000 additional artifacts, the hut is virtually a time machine to the last moment Scott and his crew spent there over a century ago.