Foreign emoticons

Inspired by a post on the Culture mailing list, I was going to write something about the universality of emoticons on the Internet between different cultures and languages here. I then realised that it was far more interesting than I first envisaged and so it deserves a full write up. Expect a new article in the near future (by which, I mean a week).


Something popped into my head today as I was scribbling down some notes during a supervision: does the fact that I write with a pencil (as opposed to a pen or biro) affect my writing style, and on a higher level, my method of thinking?

Pencils provide a much less constrained and linear way of putting thoughts down onto paper, in that pencil marks can be easily and quickly erased. Thus, I’m not too bothered with making the occasional correction or altering what I’ve written so that it’s more accurate, whereas if I used some non-erasable implement that option wouldn’t be open to me. Conversely, perhaps using a pencil is making me lazy and those who write using pens have less cause to make corrections.

Taking this further, what about writing on the computer? Words, sentences and paragraphs can all be moved about at the click of a button, and rarely does a supervisor not warn us against getting into a habit of writing all essays on the computer, as this won’t help us write essays in exams. I tried writing an essay on paper a couple of weeks ago, and it went down perfectly fine. In fact, I probably did it faster than I would’ve done on the computer since I could draw diagrams quicker. Score one for paper.

As others have said, probably the best solution would combine the qualities of paper and computers – I imagine some kind of smart paper which you can either write on (it has handwriting recognition, naturally) or hook up to a wireless keyboard would be ideal (many people can type faster than they can write). You’d be able to annotate the paper and move sentences and words about with ease, and it’d be intuitive for all users. It’ll probably be on the market in another ten years.


Getting a stereo view of Mars – the boys at NASA are pretty damn clever; they’re planning to obtain 3D images of areas the Mars Global Surveyor has already covered by pointing the spacecraft off-nadir (so it doesn’t point directly down).


While I have some issues with neurobiology lectures, I definitely don’t with our supervisions. They’re usually a great mixture of brainstorming and learning of interesting facts.

Take, for example, today, when I learned that when cats are hostile to each other and their hair stands on end, it’s because their hair makes them look much bigger than they really are.

Also, our supervision posed the interesting question – if squirrels didn’t have to forage and store hundreds or thousands of nuts over the winter and instead could get them from the supermarket, as we do, how would that impact on how closely their functions of consummation and apetite were entwined?

And why do foxes, when entering a barnhouse full of hens, kill every single one but only take one (or none!) off with them to eat?

Neuro and Psych

There were two things that caught my attention today in lectures. The first was a list of symptoms of mania (an abnormal emotional state, the opposite of depression):

i. Unfounded elation
ii. Hyperactivity
iii. Talkativeness and “flight of ideas”
iv. Distractivility
v. Impractical, grandiose plans
vi. Inflated self-esteem
vii. Reduced sleep

…and I thought, ‘I wonder if I know anyone who has those symptoms…’

The other thing that caught my eye was this passage from a lecture handout:

If the brain was organised logically and economically, then the neural systems responsible for the control and initiation of writing should be located close to the primary langauge systems. Therefore hand dominance (left or right handedness) and language laterality (whether your language centres are located in your brain’s right or left hemisphere) should eb tightly correlated, with the dominant hand being contralateral to the language dominant hemisphere.

If you got all of that, good. But I have some real problems with that passage. Firstly, we only started writing a few thousand years ago, and indeed literacy only became widely prevalent in the last couple of millenia, so frankly writing could not have had any realistic impact on human evolution. Note that I’m only talking about writing, I’m not talking about hand dominance (e.g. which hand you throw with, which hand you use for complex tasks) which incidentally would make much more sense.

Secondly, what’s all this talk about the brain being organised logically and economically? Evolution is a powerful thing, to be sure, but it’s not perfect and it’s entirely possible that there are many good reasons why the language systems would not have to be next to the writing (or dominant hand control) centres. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are only two reasons for why people believe this. The first is that there is a significant correlation between language system lateralisation and dominant hand control lateralisation.

The second is that some people thing, ‘Well, language is a complex task and so is hand control. They both need lots of processing power, so obviously they should be put in the same place.’ This argument is so terrible that I need not discuss it further.

Anyway, I suspect that all of this is down to the lecture handout being rushed, but I do wonder if lecturers realise that making even the smallest typo or factual error in their handouts can cause unlimited amounts of grief to all revising students.

I Wish I knew

Correction to an earlier post: It seems I made a common mistake when I said that the Barry Norman film night tune (I Wish I Knew) was first written by Nina Simone. It was in fact first written and performed by the Bill Taylor Trio. Thanks to Tom for pointing this out.