Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Wear the red basque

Is red red? That's to say, is it only red because we call it red? Or is it something nameless that everyone sees, and only we call red? It's an interesting and important distinction. If the former is true -- and perhaps the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct -- lack of understanding between speakers of different languages might extend beyond difficulties in translation into impossibility of sharing term, a serious problem for crosscultural understanding. If the latter is true -- so that we might describe the world differently but the world we're describing is not affected by our descriptions -- hey, we can still love each other. Linguists Berlin and Kay did seminal work on colour in the sixties, which seemed to go some way to disproving Sapir-Whorf, but as Kay points out, his work can't be extended beyond colour. Still, he says languages are not too different (he means in this specific sense, not that Arabic is much like English) even if it might be true that they can shape thought (particularly interested by the Guugu Yimithirr thing -- they use north, south rather than left, right).

Googling "Guugu Yimithirr" I found a most curious thing. A page on Aboriginal languages in English and Basque. You don't see written Basque too often.

Basque is peculiar among languages itself (and it's probably only a curious coincidence but this is common among Aboriginal languages, as well as in Samoan, Inuit languages and to some extent in the Caucasus -- I studied Abkhaz at university, but don't ask me to say anything in it, I only looked at its form and phonology) in that it is an ergative language. In a rough sense, ergative languages mark as the same case the subject of an intransitive verb and the object of a transitive verb -- because they are the thing the verb does its action on: so that the words for "I" and "me" would be the same in "I arrived" and "he hit me". "He" would be in a different case to "I". They would not be considered grammatically equivalent. If you can think of those two sentences as "I am the thing arrived" and "I am the thing hit by him", you're getting it.

There, right there, is Kay's point. Even though ergative languages and their way of casting the world are strange, we can still grasp the concept. I don't know whether Basque speakers actually conceive of actors and actions differently from us, though. I rather doubt it.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Madrid bombs

Dr Zen will, in spirit, be joining the demonstrations in Spain against the Madrid bombings.

It's my feeling that nothing, no cause, no belief can justify the indiscriminate slaughter of our fellow humans.

I have sympathy for some of the aims of ETA and some also of the Islamists. But none whatsoever for their means. What would your nation be worth if you built it on the blood of commuters, everyday people doing their everyday things? What is your religion if that is your utopia that you build from broken bodies? Is that a glory, a wonder, a place we can all look at with pride?

I will never understand the sheer arrogance of those who believe they have the right to end the lives of others as they choose. I will never understand those who believe this world can be fuelled by hatred, that we, any of us, can hope to survive, can hope for our descendants to have a world to live in, if we make no effort to cherish one another.

We have to say no. We have to say that especially if we are the people the bombers think support them. I say no.

Monday, March 8, 2004

Monkeying around

I stumbled across the cute story about the hundredth monkey.

Actually, I found it on a site promoting being nice to one another. I'm in favour of promoting positivity, if for no other reason than that the world can occasionally seem to be a toilet. I could almost sign up to the UNESCO manifesto, if it weren't for the part about not defaming people. I think that's too strict. Some people enjoy a good defaming and who am I to deny them? Even those who don't enjoy it much might be improved for the experience. That's part of the problem with "niceness". It isn't enough to build a world with. There does have to be a certain amount of "cruel to be kind"ness in the mix. Sometimes people have to be confronted with wrongness. Okay, you can do that with respect -- and the principle is worthy. We need not feel that just because we cannot always reach the standards we set ourselves, we need not try.

As for the monkey story, I would have been more impressed if the hundredth monkey had tapped a palm and fried the sweet potato in the oil, opening up a franchise, which although increasing the incidence in cardiac disease in Japanese monkeys, brought him unimaginable wealth, albeit in coconuts.

Saturday, March 6, 2004

The soon to bes in view

Often it seems that even the brightest news must be slightly clouded over. Yesterday, we learned that Mrs Zen is carrying one of each sex.
Of course, I am very pleased that I will have another daughter, but I am in many ways a typical man, and the idea of having a son is thrilling. I suppose that the idea that you will improve on your father's life -- better him in your achievements in all spheres -- however stupid an idea that might be, however irrational you know it is, does drive men a little.
I don't know whether women ever feel that way.
But there is a very small but potentially very dark cloud. Both XX and XY, as they are known, have choroid plexus cysts, something I had never heard of before yesterday, and something I wish I had never had to find out about. In one case, the cyst is quite large.
These cysts are, in nearly every case, a simple developmental quirk. They occur in one in a hundred fetuses. They disappear after a few weeks, and have no ramifications. However, where there are no other markers, they mark for trisomy 18 in one in a hundred cases. The sonographer searched very hard for other markers, and found none -- no club foot, no clenched fist, no heart problem. So there really is nothing to worry about.
Except, if it's a one in a hundred chance, it is 10,000 to one that both babies just happen to have it (because they are dizygotic and are no more the same than two separate fetuses). That worries me. There are I think three possible answers:
1/ It is pure chance and the twins really are one in 10,000. I am too much the rationalist to believe that.
2/ It is caused by something genetic, and either I or Mrs Zen has this thing (it is found in normal people, who show absolutely no symptoms of having it). Zenella might have had it undetected. So both might have inherited the allele responsible. I haven't found anything to suggest a genetic cause though.
3/ A corollary of number 2, I suppose. The twins are actually what is called polar twins, and share half their genetic material (without going into it, twins can be from one egg but fertilised by two sperm). This would mean they are more closely related than fraternal twins normally are -- the two sperm can obviously be X and Y, so they can still be different sexes. This is what I fear.

The sonographer and the consultant obstetrician who looked through the sonographs felt it was nothing to worry about, but I wonder whether it simply didn't occur to them how rare it would be to find two babies together with the condition. The sonographer, if she scanned three sets of twins a day (which she might, because she is the twins specialist), would have to work for 15 years before seeing it again.

Of course, this is a very minor thing. It makes me feel immense sympathy for those parents who are presented with the news that there are other markers -- that their child, whom they had already begun to love (even if like me, they do not believe that a foetus is alive, well, we love the potential, the idea, the dream), will be ruined. This is a very unlikely outcome for me -- the young Zens are whole, with fast-beating, strong hearts, and I wholeheartedly believe they will be beautiful children.