Words on the Move

I just listened to a recent(ish) episode of Econ Talk: John McWhorter on the Evolution of Language and Words on the Move.

I particularly enjoyed this episode because:

  1. Emergent order (duh!).
  2. It shed new light (for me) on a category of words that serve a function but don’t really mean anything. “Well” doesn’t really mean anything. Well, sometimes it means a hole filled with water, but in this sentence I’m using it as a “pragmatic.” Other pragmatics like eh, and huh feel like filler, but they’re really a part of oral communication where the speaker can casually and non-disruptively check in with the listener. Pretty cool, huh?
  3. And the discussion of accents was interesting in light of an experience I had just the other day. I’ll get to that at the bottom, but let me set the stage…

I’ve been particularly aware of my own accent since a young age because kids have always been quick to point out how different I’ve always sounded. At around age 7 I moved from the prairies to southern Ontario and I remember some kid asking me if I was British. They might have been picking up on regional variation in the Canadian accent, or it might be that my accent was affected by the movies and TV shows I had watched to that point (I suspect watching Monty Python at a young age deeply affected me).

Later (aged 17) I moved from Canada to Texas where I worked very hard to ditch my Canadian accent and gain some Southern drawl. When I moved to California I kept trying to lose the Canadian parts of my accent but gave up on trying to gain the drawl. When I moved to Boston I picked up some affectations that now makes me stand out on Long Island. I drink kahfee instead of quofee, but since I never did like the mwahll, my pronunciation of “mall” is probably the slightly-off version I would have picked up in my youth.

The other day I was talking to a student and noticed something especially bizarre–as our conversation moved from seafood (note to self: soak calamari in buttermilk for 3 days) to boar hunting I found myself involuntarily moving back into my Texas voice! (You’ve probably already guessed that this was an econometrics student.) I have zero experience with hunting, but I had to suppress this reflexive change in my accent. Somehow, all the automatic processes in my brain have lined up in such a way that made it clear that not only do I have a lot of tacit knowledge, but I even have unseen triggers for how I communicate.


A metaphor for the Socialist Calculation Debate

This week’s episode of EconTalk was fantastic, and in particular drew an important parallel between the complexity of the human brain and the complexity of market economies. The guest was discussing radical nanotechnology (basically the idea that engineers could out do bacteria by applying good design principles in place of random mutation and natural selection), and Russ pointed out that the logic is basically the same as in Socialism. Radical nanotechnology runs into a fundamental problem as long as it ignores the emergent processes occurring at the molecular/cellular level.

Later, the guest discusses the issue of artificial intelligence and points out that the fundamental unit of biological computing is not the neuron (which we simulate on computers using neural networks), but the molecule. In other words, natural intelligence is the outcome of a complex process that isn’t simple enough for us to easily replicate on a computer.

All that in mind, the idea of socialism* is like the idea that we could replace a brain with a pocket calculator. Yes, the idea is to get a very powerful calculator, but the problem is that it’s replacing a computer that’s far more complex and sophisticated.

* i.e. Centralized control of the means of production… socialism has nothing to do with sharing (you’re thinking “Egalitarianism”) and everything to do with control, and particularly the attempt to rationalize complex systems.