A Brief Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Linguistic Theory, Narrated by The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson

How is it that children just entering toddlerhood pick up the structure of their respective languages with ease? They are not formally taught to use speech; they have limited cognitive abilities and a “poverty of stimulus,” given their highly circumscribed environments. And yet, they learn the function and order of subjects, verbs, and objects, and learn to recognize improper usage. Children might make routine mistakes, but they understand and can be understood from a very early age, and for the most part without very much difficulty. How?

These are the questions that confronted Noam Chomsky in the early years of his career in linguistics. His answers produced a theory of Universal Grammar in the 1960s, and for decades, it has been the reigning theory in the field to beat, initiating what is often referred to as the “Chomskyan Era,” a phrase the man himself dislikes but which nonetheless sums up the kinds of issues that have been at stake in linguistics for over fifty years.




Questions about language acquisition have always been the subject of intense philosophical speculation. They were folded into general theories of epistemology, like Plato’s theory of forms or John Locke’s so-called “blank slate” hypothesis. Variations on these positions surface in different forms throughout Western intellectual history. Descartes picks up Plato’s dualism, arguing that humans speak and animals don’t because of the existence of an immortal “rational soul.” Behaviorist B.F. Skinner suggests that operant conditioning writes language onto a totally impressionable mind. (“Give me a child,” said Skinner, “and I will shape him into anything.”)

Chomsky “gave a twist” to this age-old debate over the existence of innate ideas, as Gillian Anderson tells us in the animated video above from BBC 4’s History of Ideas series. Chomsky’s theory is biolinguistic: it situates language acquisition in the structures of the brain. Not being himself a neurobiologist, he talks of those theoretical structures, responsible for reproducing accurate syntax, as a metaphorical “language acquisition device” (LAD), a hardwired faculty that separates the human brain from that of a dog or cat.

Chomsky’s theory has little to do with the content of language, but rather with its structure, which he says is universally encoded in our neural architecture. Children, he writes, “develop language because they’re pre-programmed to do this.” Syntax is prior to and independent of specific meaning, a point he demonstrated with the poetic sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Every English speaker can recognize the sentence as grammatical, even very small children, though it refers to no real objects and would never occur in conversation.

Conversely, we recognize “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless” as ungrammatical, though it means no more nor less than the first sentence. The regional variations on word order only underline his point since, in every case, children quickly understand how to use the version they’re presented with at roughly the same developmental age and in the same way. The existence of a theoretical Language Acquisition Device solves the chicken-egg problem of how children with no understanding of and only a very limited exposure to language, can learn to speak just by listening to language.

Chomsky’s theory was revolutionary in large part because it was testable, and researchers at the professor’s longtime employer, MIT, recently published evidence of a “language universal” they discovered in a comparative study of 37 languages. It's compelling research that just might anticipate the discovery of a physical Language Acquisition Device, or its neurobiological equivalent, in every human brain.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Marc Martel, Who Supplied Vocals for the Award-Winning Queen Film, Sing Just Like Freddie Mercury: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “We Are The Champions” & More

Understandably, given a moviegoing public seemingly starved for reality, all of the biggest winners at this year’s Academy Awards were based on true events. And nearly all of them have generated huge controversies for the liberties they took with those true stories. While some of the criticism can sound censorious, none of it is about censorship, but about the larger social question of how much truth we should sacrifice for the sake of commerce and entertainment, two human endeavors with which education cannot compete.

One of those big Oscar contenders, the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, strays from the facts in ways some have even deemed “harmful.” But in one respect, at least—and perhaps the most important given its subject—it is faithful.




The film gets the music right, in part by syncing best actor-winner Rami Malek’s onstage performances as Mercury with Mercury’s actual voice, and sometimes with the voice of Marc Martel, “a vocal doppelgänger for the Queen frontman,” as Gavin Edwards writes at The New York Times, with a “prominent but invisible role in Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Audiences will not know when it’s Mercury or Martel, though the singer has received “fleeting ‘additional vocals’ billing" in the film. A nondisclosure agreement keeps Martel from telling—and he didn't know until the film premiered which scenes would feature his voice. But the fact that audiences will likely never tell the difference is remarkable. Even Queen drummer Roger Taylor told Martel, “When I listen to you sing it’s like Freddie walked into the room.” This was the moment, the singer says, when he embraced the likeness, which he hadn’t thought very much of in the past. “It’s different from what I envisioned doing as a young musician.”

Martel’s other gig was as the lead singer of a Christian rock band called Downhere (he says nothing about how his particular sect views Mercury's sexuality). He began performing Queen covers during a hiatus and has since appeared on American Idol, released an album of Queen covers, and is now touring in a tribute show, “The Ultimate Queen Celebration.” Martel is not a Mercury clone, nor has he ever attempted to be. He can “itemize the subtle differences” between his voice and Freddie’s, Edwards writes:

I’m not British, so I don’t usually sing with an accent. I don’t have extra teeth like he did, so my Ss come out normally — his were very piercing. But even if I don’t try to sing like Freddie Mercury, people still hear him in my voice, no matter what I do. I have this weird unique thing where I can sound like him, so why wouldn’t I?

It has become a highly marketable skill that’s “paying the bills right now,” as his manager put it, though Martel is eager to get back to his own songwriting. But even if he wasn’t celebrated at the Oscars, he’s proud of his contribution to the film, and to the lives of Queen fans. “It brings people so much joy and nostalgia,” Martel says, “and frequently I see people tearing up in the front row.” Whether or not you are a fan of Bohemian Rhapsody, the movie, you’ll be bowled over by the uncanny fidelity of Martel’s Mercury renditions (his features even resemble Mercury's when he starts singing). Here, see Martel sing “Bohemian Rhapsody,” at the top, “We Are the Champions,” further up, and, above, a stunning rendition of “Love of My Life.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The New Normal: Spike Jonze Creates a Very Short Film About America’s Complex History with Cannabis

In two short minutes, director Spike Jonze takes you from the hemp farms of George Washington to Reefer Madness and America's long, costly prohibition against cannabis--a prohibition that's now getting dismantled state by state. Narrated by actor Jesse Williams, the short was made for MedMen, an American publicly traded company that provides "a wide range of ... high quality cannabis products." Welcome to the new normal....

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The Life & Work of Edvard Munch, Explored by Patti Smith and Charlotte Gainsbourg

Look beyond the highly distressed genderless figure in the foreground of The Scream, one of the most famous painting in existence, and you'll find plenty of women. While its painter Edvard Munch was a man, as his name might suggest, the rest of his body of work featured not a few female bodies: 1895's Woman in Three Stages, 1896's Young Woman on the Beach, and in 1907's The Sick Child, a highly personal work by an artist whose mother and sister both died of tuberculosis. Or take 1895's Madonna: "However dramatically effective Munch's use of color was," writes Michael Spens of its black-printed version, "this option for black to express a mood of despair persisted, and worked with many successful results."

It was significant, Spens adds, that Munch's "depressive tendency was frequently induced by women, or by Munch's personal lack of success in love thereby, as reflected in his own affairs." The painter may have had plenty of "trouble with women" in life, as the title of Spens' essay puts it, and even now, 75 years after his death, he may find himself occasionally charged with possessing an objectifying male gaze.




But that hardly stops artistically powerful women from admiring and even championing his work: singer-songwriter, poet, and visual artist Patti Smith and actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, for instance, both appear in the short Nowness documentary above to "delve into the proto-existentialist ideas and psychological themes" of that work at "Between the Clock and the Bed," a Munch exhibition that toured a few years ago.

Walking through the gallery, Smith says she's been "looking at Munch paintings for maybe 60 years, since I was very young." Looking at 1913-14's Weeping Nude, another of Munch's women, Gainsbourg comments that "the choice of colors is incredible, because they're quite ugly, but the whole thing is incredibly beautiful." To describe the beauty of 1895's Death in the Sickroom, Smith explains that the painting "expresses not the death as much as the effect the death has on others." But for all he understood about others, Munch remained a man isolated, "convinced that in order to be able to fully express yourself artistically you have to be alone," in the words of Munch Museum art historian Nikita Mathias. "You have to be an outsider, you need a certain distance to society in order to be able to describe what’s going on there” — a sentiment that can't but resonate with Smith, Gainsbourg, and other creators so fully themselves.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Lifespan of Ancient Civilizations Detailed in a Handy Infographic: Are We Headed Towards Our Own Collapse?

Anyone living in the West today surely feels they've heard quite enough about its decline. (Unless, of course, they're fans of 1980s punk rock.) Given how long civilizations usually outlive individuals, how can an individual grasp the prospects for longevity of the civilization in which they find themselves? History, a discipline which has long had everything to do with charting the rise and fall of settlements, cultures, and empires, can provide the context necessary for understanding, but more of it has been written than even a human with the lifespan of a civilization can digest. Come to provide some clarity is Luke Kemp of Cambridge's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, creator of the infographic above. View it here in a larger format, courtesy of the BBC.

"There is no strict definition of civilisation," Kemp admits, "nor an overarching database of their births and deaths." This forced him to come up with his own definition for this infographic: "as a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilisations, but not all civilisations are empires."




What comes at the end of virtually all of them, he calls a collapse: "a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence."

When civilizations have collapsed, as they've done with fair frequency over the past five millennia, "some recovered or transformed, such as the Chinese and Egyptian. Other collapses were permanent, as was the case of Easter Island. Sometimes the cities at the epicentre of collapse are revived, as was the case with Rome. In other cases, such as the Mayan ruins, they are left abandoned as a mausoleum for future tourists." The Roman Empire, "the victim of many ills including overexpansion, climatic change, environmental degradation and poor leadership" before its sacking by the Visigoths in the year 410 and the Vandals in 455, has come up especially often in current discussions about the fate of the America-led Western — or even global — order.

The Roman Empire, as we can see on Kemp's infographic, lasted 525 years: much longer than the Akkadian Empire, which lasted 187 years, but less than half as long as the African Aksumite Empire, which lasted 1100. "We may be more technologically advanced now," Kemp writes," but this gives little ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ancestors. Our newfound technological abilities even bring new, unprecedented challenges to the mix. " Kemp names among the possible factors in the next big collapse climate change, environmental degradation, inequality and oligarchy, as well as plain randomness and bad luck. Given the inevitability of collapse, perhaps we can only hope that our civilization is ultimately succeeded by a superior one. But then, Kemp adds, " "We will only march into collapse if we advance blindly. We are only doomed if we are unwilling to listen to the past."

via the BBC

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

To Save Civilization, the Rich Need to Pay Their Taxes: Historian Rutger Bregman Speaks Truth to Power at Davos and to Fox’s Tucker Carlson

Certain economists may have downgraded the labor theory of value, but most of us can agree on the basic moral intuition that no one person is worth millions, even billions, more than almost everyone else on the planet. Yet we live in a society that allows individuals to hoard millions and billions of dollars in cash, assets, and capital gains, without even the presumption that they demonstrate why they should have it--especially to the degree that the top 1% now holds more wealth than 90% in the U.S.

What social contract allows for this situation? I’m not personally interested in the answer from economists, though I imagine there are many excellently accredited proponents. The dominant assumptions in economics come from fantasies like ceteris paribus, “all else being equal,” and the concept of “externalities.” World historical inequality, political instability, and ecological devastation do not seem to pose serious problems for most mainstream economic thinking. But what do historians say? This is, after all, a historical question.




Many similar situations have obtained in the past. Sometimes they have resulted in bloody revolutions, sometimes sacking and pillaging, sometimes redistribution schemes. Noblesse oblige: land grants, endowments, hospitals, museums, universities… these have not only eased the consciences of the rich but have stood out as appeasing acts of public generosity. But the only thing that has really mitigated the conditions for societal collapse under capitalism?

According to Dutch historian and writer Rutger Bregman, it’s high taxes on high incomes and estates. It just so happened, however, at this year’s Davos World Economic Forum, as Bregman lamented in a Davos panel discussion, taxes were the one thing billionaires would not discuss. This was so, he observes, at a conference that features Sir David Attenborough “talking about how we’re wrecking the planet.”

I mean, I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then, I mean, almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich are just not paying their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighter’s conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.

Picturing firefighters hoarding water and refusing to share it while the planet is going up in flames is a sinister image, but maybe the intentions are beside the point. Even where tax rates are high(ish), governments go out of their way to allow companies and individuals to avoid paying them. Surely, many people believe this is necessary to create jobs? So what if those jobs lack security, benefits, or a living wage?

Bregman pulls back from the inflammatory metaphor to concede that one panel did address the issue. He was one of fifteen participants. We have to “stop talking about philanthropy,” he says, “and start talking about taxes,” just like Americans did in the supposedly halcyon days of the 1950s, when under Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower the top marginal tax rate was 91%. He says this to people like Michael Dell, who once asked Bregman for an example of a 70% tax rate ever working.

Oxfam’s executive director Winnie Byanyima substantiates his polemic, noting globally “we have a tax system that leaks so much, that $170 billion” annually ends up in tax havens. This is wealth that is extracted from the planet’s resources, from government subsidies and the labor hours and health of grossly underpaid workers. Then it is disappeared. If you’ve seen this video, you’ve seen the charges of “one-sidedness” lobbed by former Yahoo CFO Ken Goldman from the audience. Byanyima's response rebuts all of his talking points. She deserves her own cheerleading video edit.

Bregman took the same confrontational stance in an unaired interview with Fox’s Tucker Carlson. After Carlson seemed to agree with him, the historian bristled and pointed out that as “a millionaire funded by billionaires,” Carlson has faithfully represented and communicated the interests of his employers for decades, whether that's the brutal scapegoating of immigrants or the defense of unlimited profiteering and huge tax cuts for the wealthy (and tax raises for everyone else). The host ends the interview sputtering insults and obscenities and sneers “I was willing to give you a hearing.” The problem requires more than a condescending pat on the head, Bregman argues.

His solution to massive inequality and unrest, universal basic income, is one that, like high marginal tax rates, once appealed to Republicans. The proposal has a long history, many serious detractors, and it’s also politically ignored. You can hear Bregman’s argument for it above, and against Margaret Thatcher’s ruthlessly ahistorical characterization of poverty as a “personality defect.” If you think UBI goes too far, or not nearly far enough, maybe you’d be interested in other ideas, like a 15-hour workweek and open borders, part of the “ideal world” Bregman says is possible in his book Utopia for Realists. You can download it as a free audiobook if you sign up for Audible's free trial program.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover the KattenKabinet: Amsterdam’s Museum Devoted to Works of Art Featuring Cats

Image by T_Marjorie, via Flickr Commons

There’s been quite a bit of barking in the media lately to herald the reopening of the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, relocating from St. Louis to New York City’s Park Avenue.

What’s a cat person to do?

Perhaps decompress within Amsterdam’s KattenKabinet

In contrast to the Museum of the Dog’s glitzy, glass-fronted HQ, the Cat Cabinet maintains a fairly low profile inside a 17th-century canal house. (Several visitors have noted in their Trip Advisor reviews that the 3-room museum’s grand environs help justify the €7  admission.)




The Museum of the Dog’s highly toted “digital experiences”  and redesigned atrium suggest a certain eagerness to establish itself as a major 21st-century institution.

The KattenKabinet is more of a stealth operation, created as an homage to one J.P. Morgan, a dearly departed ginger tom, who lived upstairs with his owner.

The inaugural collection took shape around presents the formidable Morgan received during his 17 years on earth—paintings, a bronze cat statue, and a facsimile of a dollar bill featuring his likeness and the motto, “We Trust No Dog.”

In spirit, the Kabinet hews closely to America’s eclectic (and fast disappearing) roadside museums.

No apps, no interactive kiosks, a stolidly old fashioned approach when it comes to display…

It does have a gift shop, where one can purchase logo t-shirts featuring an extremely cat-like specimen, viewed from the rear, tail aloft.

While the KattenKabinet’s holdings include some marquee names—Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Rembrandt—there’s something compelling about the collection’s less well known artists, many of whom embraced the museum’s pet subject again and again.

Museum founder Bob Meijer rewards virtual visitors with some juicy biographical tidbits about his artists, cat-related and otherwise. Take, for example, Leonor Fini, whose Ubu glowers below:

Fini had a three-way relationship with the Italian diplomat-cum-artist Stanislao LePri, who, like Fini, was difficult to pin into a certain style, and the Polish literary writer Constantin Jelenski. The two men were not, however, her only housemates: Fini had dozens of Persian cats around her. Indoors you rarely see a photo of her without a cat in her arms. In the Cat Cabinet you can find many of her works, from cheerfully colored cats to highly detailed portraits of cats. The women depicted in the paintings have that iconic mystique characteristic of Fini's work.

Tsuguharu Foujita, whose work is a staple of the museum, is another cat-loving-artist-turned-art-himself, by virtue of Dora Kalmus' 1927 portrait, above.

Hildo Krop is well represented throughout Amsterdam, his sculptures adorning bridges and buildings. Two Cats Making Love, on view at the Kabinet, is, Meijer comments,” clearly one of his smaller projects and probably falls into the category of "free work." One of his most famous works, and of a different order of magnitude, is the Berlage monument on Victorieplein in Amsterdam.”

In addition to fine art, the Kabinet showcases other feline appearances—in vintage advertising, Tadaaki Narita's Lucky cat pinball machine, and in the person, er, form of 5 live specimens who have the run of the place.

Those visiting in the flesh can cat around to some of Amsterdam’s other feline-themed attractions, including two cat cafes, a cat-centric boutique, and the floating shelter, De Poezenboot.

And let’s not forget the other cat museums ‘round the globe, from Minsk and Malaysia to Sylva, North Carolina’s American Museum of the House Cat.

Begin your exploration of the collection here.

via the BBC

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this March. Follow her @AyunHalliday.E

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