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CS Wednesday Talks Fall 2009

September 23: Ted Stankowich, adjunct assistant professor of animal behavior
On the Evolution of Weaponry in Female Ungulates
Abstract: Weaponry is ubiquitous in male ungulates and is driven by intrasexual selection, but the mystery surrounding its sporadic presence in females has persisted since the days of Darwin and remains unsolved. Female horns are often smaller and shaped differently than male horns, suggesting a different function; indeed, hypotheses explaining the presences of female horns include competition for food, male mollification, and defense against predators. Here we use comparative phylogenetic analyses to show that females are significantly more likely to bear horns in bovids that are conspicuous due to large body size and living in open habitats than inconspicuous species living in closed habitats or that are small. An inability to rely on crypsis or take refuge in deep vegetation has apparently driven the evolution of horns for defense against predators in female bovids, a finding supported by many field observations. Typically, exceptions are small species where females are territorial (e.g., duikers) and use horns in intrasexual contests. Furthermore, we suggest that conspicuousness and territoriality hypotheses may explain other instances of femal cranial weaponry (i.e., antler and ossicones) in other horned ruminants. Our phylogenetic reconstruction indicates that the primary function of horns in females is linked to antipredator defense in most clades but occasionally to intrasexual competition in others.

October 1: Pervez Amir Ali Hoodhboy, professor of nuclear and high energy physics and department of physics chairman, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad
Can the Taliban Win in Pakistan and Afganistan?

Abstract: Over a period of 25 years, Dr. Hoodbhoy created and anchored a series of television programs that dissected the problems of Pakistan's education system, and two other series that aimed at bringing scientific concepts to ordinary members of the public. He is the author of "Islam and Science--Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality", now in 7 languages. In 2003 he was awarded UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for the popularization of science. Also in 2003, Dr. Hoodbhoy was invited to the Pugwash Council. He is a sponsor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and a member of the Permanent Monitoring Panel on Terrorism of the World Federation of Scientists. Over the years, he produced and directed several documentary films that have been widely viewed on national television which deal with Pakistan's political, nuclear, and scientific matters. He is frequently invited to comment on nuclear and political matters in Pakistani and international media.

October 7: Linnaea Stockall, visiting assistant professor of linguistics
How Understanding ‘Undoable’ Might be Doable

Abstract: The word ‘undoable’ can either mean ‘not able to be done’ or ‘able to be undone’. The difference in these two meanings of the whole word can be understood as the result of differences in the way the three pieces ‘un’, ‘do’ and ’able’ are combined together. In this talk, I’ll describe how my colleagues and I have been measuring people’s eye movements while they read sentences containing ambiguous words such as ‘undoable’ to better understand how we go about assembling complex words from simple pieces. I’ll discuss the possible roles of such factors as the larger linguistic context, and the lexical semantics of the verb stem might play in resolving ambiguity.

October 14: Ernie Alleva, associate dean of advising and lecturer
Genes and Justice, What, if Anything, Follows, Morally Speaking, if “The Bell Curve” (or Similar Conjectures) Turns Out to be True?

Abstract: It is often thought that, if there are significant genetic-based differences in human cognitive (and perhaps other) capacities that are associated with race or sex, certain kinds social inequality related to race or sex are morally acceptable. One can find views like these in the work of ancient thinkers, such as Aristotle, and in contemporary work by Herrnstein and Murray in “The Bell Curve”. In response, critics of such views typically challenge the empirical claims involved, denying that there is a genetic connection between race and intelligence or sex and mathematic and spatial abilities. I shall argue that the widespread emphasis on the empirical issues in these debates often misses or obscures something important: Even if the empirical claims in works like "The Bell Curve" turn out to be true, race- or sex-related social inequality needn’t be morally acceptable. Whatever the empirical facts, in drawing conclusions about acceptable or unacceptable social inequalities, one also needs to determine the appropriate moral principles for evaluating such inequalities.

October 21: Laura Sizer, associate professor of philosophy
Do you need to feel it in order to hear it? A debate over musical emotions

Abstract: What does it mean to say that a piece of music *sounds* (italics) happy or sad? Is the emotion expressed by music a property of the music or the listener? I will discuss several different philosophical positions on these questions, and perhaps go on to make some grandiose claims about what this debate reveals about human affect and cognition more broadly.

October 28: Ethan Gilsdorf, alum
Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks

Abstract: Join Hampshire College grad Ethan Gilsdorf, F84, who will discuss some of the themes of his new book, "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms." In "Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks," a blend of travelogue, pop culture analysis, and memoir, forty-year-old former D&D addict Gilsdorf crisscrosses America, the world, and other worlds from Boston to Wisconsin, France to New Zealand, and Planet Earth to the realm of Aggramar. Delving into Dungeons & Dragons, live-action role playing games, World of Warcraft, the Society for Creative Anachronism, Tolkien fandom, and other fantasy subcultures, Gilsdorf embarks on a quest that begins in his own geeky teenage past and ends in our online gaming future. He asks: Who are these gamers and fantasy fans? What explains the irresistible appeal of such "escapist" adventures? How do the players balance their escapist urges with the kingdom of adulthood? Gilsdorf will talk about the culture's discomfort with the geek/nerd/gamer stereotype and will look at society's ambivalent relationship with gaming and fantasy play, and the origins of that prejudice, as well as the author's own past misgivings and final acceptance of his "geek" identity. Since the origins of D&D, the culture has widely embraced gaming and role-playing as an "acceptable" activity since, a shift largely brought on by the digital revolution. The shame of being a gamer and social isolation are gone, but in their place are other concerns: the loss of "place" and "hereness," and the way games with richly-textured digital landscapes may demand less of the imagination.

November 4: Student Lightning Talks
Abstract: Three students. Thirty minutes. Twelve pizzas. This Wednesday: The first Cognitive Science Student Lightning Talks, featuring original work from students working in and around the School of Cognitive Science. Each ten-minute talk will be short, sweet, and science-tastic. This week's speakers and topics:
Marco Carmosino on natural language processing
Auburn Lutzross on speech differences and sexuality stereotypes
Jarred de Beer on the computer graphics incubator program

November 11: Mark Feinstein, professor of linguistics

Abstract: CHARGE Syndrome is a rare genetic/developmental disorder that occurs in approximately 1 of 10,000 births. It was first described some 30 years ago as an apparently non-random association of six anomalies: C (colobomas, or defects of the visual system); H (heart defects); A (atresia, or blockage of the nasal passages); R (retardation of growth and development); G (genital defects); and E (ear deformation). It is now recognized as a distinct syndrome caused by mutations or deletions in a single regulatory gene, CHD7. Although the brain itself is usually spared by the defective action of this gene, CHARGE Syndrome has a dramatic impact on the peripheral nervous system and other anatomical and physiological systems. Multiple sensory input and motor control systems are affected: CHARGE children typically have moderate to profound hearing loss; significantly impaired vision; olfactory impairment or complete anosmia; strong aversion to touch; deformed or absent semicircular canals leading to profound difficulty with balance and movement; generally ‘hypotonic’ musculature, poor head control and difficulty in manual manipulation; and impairment of tongue control and swallowing. Not surprisingly, the usual course of cognitive and behavioral development is significantly delayed or disrupted in CHARGE. Many children with CHARGE will not (or cannot) eat or drink normally. Unaided walking often does not occur until age three or later. Perseverative, obsessive-compulsive, aggressive, and self-abusive behaviors can occur, and social interaction may be impaired. Language development in particular can be highly compromised: one third of CHARGE children do not ever exhibit productive symbolic language ability (vocal or gestural) even when their hearing and/or visual challenges are remediated. But there are also children with CHARGE who go on to learn and use language essentially normally, and adults with CHARGE syndrome who attend college and attain advanced degrees. Indeed, non-linguistic assessments of cognitive ability (though difficulty to perform on many of these children) suggest that most individuals with CHARGE are intellectually quite capable. Perhaps most surprisingly, the single strongest predictor of linguistic success in CHARGE children is relatively early emergence of walking. CHARGE therefore may shed some light on long-standing questions about the nature of language and language acquisition: What are the necessary biological/developmental and social preconditions for language? How are language and 'general intelligence' related? What kind of perceptual input is necessary? Are there developmental time-constraints (‘critical periods’) in the course of learning? What role do motoric abilities such as balance and locomotion play in cognitive development? What is the relationship between productive linguistic ability and language comprehension in these children?

November 18: Anne Pycha, post-doctoral fellow, University of Pennsylvania
Acoustic signatures in speech production and perception

Abstract: Every language contains a set of sounds that people combine to produce words and sentences. When we analyze these sounds acoustically, we see that they are created with an extremely limited set of basic elements--pitch, duration, and loudness--and that speakers use a given element for multiple, unrelated purposes. For example, a speaker may increase the duration of a vowel in order to accomplish a linguistically important phonological goal, such as changing the meaning of a word (because the vowel in "bead" is longer than the vowel in "beat"), but she may also increase the duration of a vowel in order to accomplish an arguably less important phonetic goal, such as signalling the end of a sentence (because "beat" is longer at the end than in the middle of a sentence). This creates a serious problem for listeners, and for our understanding of speech perception more generally: how do listeners know if a duration increase signals a meaning change or not? In this talk, I present evidence from speech production and perception studies which demonstrates that not all duration increases are created alike. The production studies show that speakers signal a meaning change by warping the duration of a vowel according to a specific signature; for less important linguistic goals, speakers omit this signature. The perception studies show that listeners can actually use this signature to distinguish between words with different meanings, such as "bead" versus "beat" -- even in the absence of an overall duration increase. The implications are that a) changing meaning is a categorical linguistic behavior which is distinct from other behaviors; that is, phonological processes are independent of phonetic ones, and b) people use distinct perceptual strategies to detect phonological versus phonetic processes during listening.

December 2: Jonathan Westphal, adjunct professor of philosophy
Sorting Out the “Self”

Abstract: What is the Self? It cannot be something eliminable, or psychological or mental or made of consciousness. The grammar of the first person singular pronoun tells a different story: "a whole cloud of philosophy dissolved into a drop of grammar" (Wittgenstein). "I" is like a variable whose type sense is "the speaker", and whose token sense is a variable that ranges over speakers.

December 9: CS Student Lightning Talks, Andrew Fulmer, Erik Hoel/Michael Hogan, John Schanck
Abstract: CS Lightning Talks are an opportunity for students to present their work and areas of interest to the School of Cognitive Science community. This month: Andrew Fulmer on courtship displays and bat harems; Erik Hoel and Michael Hogan on the neural correlates of consciousness; John Schanck on anonymized filesharing, so the spooks can't track your...totally legal Linux downloads


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