The Value of Culture

A friend of mine sent me a link about the variety of dialects found in Pennsylvania, it’s a pretty cool read. The article basically argues that because of the number of dialects, 5 in total, Pennsylvania is one of the most interesting states in the US for linguists. It reminded me of whenever I first moved to the Netherlands. I made a few friends and they were always making fun of the Limburgians because Limburgese sounds really funny. It’s has a mixture of Dutch, German, Spanish, and other stuff, plus they say the Dutch words really funny. So I decided to play them a PIttsburghese song, they couldn’t understand a word in the song. They actually asked me if it was English.

Which brings me to my next point, the Netherlands, which is roughly half the size of PA, has 2 languages at least 5 dialects (Limburgese is on it’s way to being a third language). Sure the country has a lot more people 18 million vs. 12 million, but there’s a lot more diversity in their language than in PA. Which is pretty interesting – especially considering that they’ve kept this variety whenever they also know somewhere between 3-5 languages (Dutch, English, German, Spanish, French for example). One of the concerns of the Slate article about PA is that the folks that leave decide to lose their accents which isn’t the case in the Netherlands.

These are all part of the local culture and language is one of the best representations of a culture. The words that people use to describe things really influences the way they want to live. For example the Dutch word “Gezellig” (link explains how to say the word) doesn’t really have an English translation the closest being “warm and cozy” for a room, but can be used in many different contexts (most beyond my understanding of the application). This word kind of represents a goal of a gathering, house, or anything. I think it strongly influences who the Dutch are and who they want to be their friends. It’s embedded in their culture.

I’m currently reading a book called “People’s Platform” which has a huge emphasis on culture and the cultural enablers of the internet. The internet is both the best thing and worst thing that has ever happened to our culture. It’s fantastic because I can still find out about awesome bands from friends all over the world, but it’s also extremely isolating because of algorithms that shape how we find content from 3rd parties. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve heard people express the thoughts that people are the best at recommending a new band compared to Pandora.

We have the opportunity to expand our culture a little bit if we put forth the effort. However, that’s a lot of effort. It’s hard to find people you have things in common with on some platforms and it’s easier to just find the popular people and follow them. I’ve made the effort to keep Dutch connects on my twitter feed because I loved living there. I have intentionally followed many women because I want to see their opinions as well as a few minorities. However, for the most part they are fairly under represented. It’s tough, because you want things that interest you on your twitter feed and a lot of people are into very different things than I am.

Which begs the question, how do we ensure a robust culture in an environment where we and our algorithms are actively trying to homogenize the cultural goods we interact with? This isn’t an easy problem to answer especially since we like free goods on the internet. I stream Pandora for free (ads on my phone), I haven’t bought an actual song or album in years. I want to support bands, but I know so little goes to the actual band these days. For Twitch I support 2 people (kbmod and nipnops) because I know the money goes to them to help produce the content I love. However, even with all the people paying, it’s not enough to allow nipnops to live solely on this income.

I think that we should seriously consider a living wage for artists and entertainers. I believe there is a need to support content I don’t like because we need to make sure that people see it. If the Dutch don’t understand all aspects of Americans (they’d never heard of Pittsburghese) how can we ever hope to understand other cultures if we don’t help enable them to reach us?

 

What are your thoughts?

Billions and trillions

One of Carl Sagan’s books that I really like is “Billions and Billions”, where he wrote about the importance of exponentials, the connection between hunting and football, the true size of the universe, the decline of our planet, government and even abortion. Though I read it in English, I once, in a friend’s house, found a Spanish translation of the book and I was surprised when I realized the translated title: “Miles de Millones”, which means “Thousands of Millions”. If you are a native English speaker you might be thinking “Why were you surprised? A billion is a thousand millions, in other words it is 109”, and that is the main reason I decided to write about this because in most Spanish speaking countries the term “Billion” means a million of millions, i.e. 1012, and probably now you understand my surprise.
Historically, the term billion in English was first used to design 1012 following the French numbering system and it was introduced in the 15th century[1]. Now that meaning is part of the denominated long-scale system where a trillion is 1018, meanwhile in the short-scale system, used in most of the English speaking countries, a billion is 109 and a trillion is 1012. Surprisingly, the short-scale meaning was introduced also by France in the late 17th century even though they officially use the long-scale system nowadays. In the past, England used the long-scale system for a long time but they changed to the short-scale one, meaning that when reading old documents from England you must be careful about the meaning of billion and trillion.
If you are used to the exponential notation, then this whole discussion might be pointless since you use an unambiguous way to describe large quantities that doesn’t need the confusing terms billion and trillion. In that sense, the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) suggests to avoid the use of billion or trillion since their meaning is language dependent and I think that scientists that publish or communicate their work should be aware of this language ambiguity and avoid it or at least be clear about the scale they use. As a recent example, we have the news about the MIT camera that is able to capture video at the speed of light, where they use in the title the sentence “one trillion frames per second” and they even use the word trillion over all the official website of the project, I couldn’t find a footnote or an explanation of the scale they are using and, therefore, after my first excitement about having a camera capturing data at 1018frames per second I had to use my common sense to realize that they are talking of 1012 frames per second since their results have time lengths of nanoseconds (10-9 seconds) and hundreds of picoseconds (100 times 10-12seconds). I’m not saying that their results lost importance because the camera works just at 1012 fps, that’s still very impressive if we take into account that most of the video cameras we had commercially don’t go further than 30 or 60 fps and that the fastest video camera I have worked with has a maximum frame rate of 1000 fps. I’m just saying that at first I imagined the amount of data captured and the transfer and storage capacities needed to work with it but later everything looked a little bit smaller because my reference frame was using the large-scale system.
In a globalized world, where communication between people from different countries and languages is a common thing, we need to have standards to communicate our ideas unambiguously and we must try to allow everyone to fully understand the information we are sharing with them, even though their common sense should be enough for them to understand us. Since there is not a chance that we have an standard meaning for billion and trillion in the world, I invite everyone to avoid their use or at least to give an explanation of the meaning of those words in their work.


[1]Smith, David Eugene. History of Mathematics. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 84–86. ISBN 978-0486204307.