Friday, September 30, 2011

Speed of languages

When I translate an English text into Chinese, it usually becomes only about 2/3 of the original length. When I hear people speaking Spanish or Japanese, I always feel like hit by a storm of syllables and I would never be able to catch up.

An interesting study was recently published in the journal Language on the speed of human speech. Linguists Pellegrino, Coupé, and Marsico from Université de Lyon recruited 59 volunteers who were native speakers of one of seven languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese. The subjects were instructed to read 20 different passages in their native languages into a recorder. The researcher then counted all of the syllables in each of the recordings and further analyzed how much meaning was packed into each syllable. They arrived at two critical indexes for each language: the average information density for each of its syllables and the average number of syllables spoken per second in ordinary speech.

The intriguing discovery was a negative correlation between information density and speed. The more data-dense the average syllable was, the fewer of those syllables had to be spoken per second, and thus the slower the speech. Out of the seven languages, Japanese was the fastest, spoken at 7.84 syllables per second. And in the density chart, it was at the bottom. Spanish came in second in terms of speed (7.82), and its density was also quite low. Mandarin, the slowest of the seven (5.18), was also the densest language. It seems that the speed of a language depends on the average amount of information its syllable can convey.

The researchers explained, "A dense language will make use of fewer speech chunks than a sparser language for a given amount of semantic information." I guess our brain can only process so much. If the flow of information remains steady according to the capacity of the brain, speed and density have to compensate each other for the speech to be understandable and not boring.

Another explanation could be the languages' sound systems. In languages with fewer consonants and vowels, or no tones, words tend to require more syllables to remain distinct. Hawaiian for example, has only eight consonants and five vowels. That's why you will see long words like humuhumunukunukuāpua'a (state fish of Hawaii) and lauwiliwilinukunuku'oi'oi (another type of fish).


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The cultures of cars

Since Karl Benz produced his first patented Motorwagen in 1886, the automobile has become an essential tool in our modern life. Moreover, it has been an important cultural touchstone that reflects the socio-economic changes. Irrational add-on values take the automobile beyond a practical machine to an object of cult and fetish. The current exhibition at Museum Tinguely "Car Fetish: I drive therefore I am" examines the many facets of cars as carriers of cultural meanings. It is one of the best curated exhibitions I've seen for a while.

The show is organized as a wheel in plan (yes, a bit kitchy), with each spoke / circular sector a theme related to the cultural significance of the car. At the center is Damián Ortega's exploded car. The Mexican artist takes apart a 1983 Volkswagen Beetle and hangs every single element afloat with airplane wires. The installation invites obsessive observation and admiration.

Damián Ortega, Cosmic Thing, 2002

The car obsession starts with speed. The new feeling of time and space through high-speed movement is fantasized by the Futurist paintings where whirls and lines represent motion, energy, and dynamic space and time. Horst Baumann's photo of Jim Clark captures the Formula 1 race car moving like a zooming streamline. Erwin Wurm's cute little slanted Renault seems like deformed from the centrifugal force during a fast right turn.
Giacomo Balla, Velocità d'automobile, 1913
Horst H. Baumann, Jim Clark, Grosser Preis von England, 1963
Erwin Wurm, Renault 25 / 1991, 2009

The automobile has drastically changed our landscape with all the facilities for traffic. Upon entering the "Traffic" gallery, you immediately smell the oder of burning rubber as if you just hit the brakes. It's from Michael Sailstorfer's installation where a rubber tire is constantly scraping against the wall and turning into powder. Also in this room are Andreas Feininger's documentation of the American "carscape" and a snapshot by photojournalist Christoph Ruckstuhl in which the tire tracks in a thin snow covered plaza compose a beautiful abstract expressionist painting.
Michael Sailstorfer, Zeit ist keine Autobahn - Basel, 2011
Christoph Ruckstuhl, Untitled, 2005

The irresistible fascination makes the car center of our consumer culture. In the "Commodities Fetish" gallery, you can see the enchanting close-up photos by Peter Keetman and Patrick Weidmann in juxtaposition with Edward Burtynsky's eerie images of dead tires graveyard and Ant Farm's half buried Cadillacs. Allan Kaprow's 1961 installation is restaged in the next gallery to join the critiques of our consumerist, throw-away society.
"Commodities Fetish" gallery with photos by Patrick Weidmann, Hans Hansen,
Edward Burtynsky, and Arman's Accumulation Renault No. 105 (1967) in the middle
Ant Farm, Cadillac Ranch, 1974
Allan Kaprow, Yard, 1961/2011

If something is the center of consumerism, it would inevitably become the subject of Pop Art. Andy Warhol repeats a press photo in slightly displaced prints to visualize the collision of two cars. John Chamberlain forms his monumental sculpture with compressed car body parts. In the basement of the museum, the curators put together sculptures, photos, and documents by Jean Tinguely to demonstrate his passion for speed and the machine.
"Pop Europe" gallery with works by Franz Gertsch, Gerhard Richter, Jean Dubuffet, and Jean Tinguely
Andy Warhol, Optical Car Crash, 1962
John Chamberlain, Straits of Night, 1992
Jean Tinguely, Le Safari de la mort moscovite, 1989
Jean Tinguely, Pit-Stop, 1984

The fetish could become religious. The exhibition features Chris Burden's early performance Trans-fixed during which the artist nailed himself on a VW Beetle with arms outspread like Jesus. The car was pushed out of the garage onto Speedway Avenue in Venice, CA, and the engine ran for two minutes before it disappeared back into the garage. Spanish artist Jordi Colomer placed a cute mini Popemobile on a public square in Barcelona, and documented with photography people's reactions to this odd little icon.
Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, 1974
Jordi Colomer, Papamóvil, 2005

The fetish could also get erotic. The "Sex Fetish" gallery features Kenneth Anger's short film Kustom Kar Kommandos, in which a man in tight pants buffs his car in gentle and smooth movements. In the series acts of Household, Allan Kaprow instructed women to lick off the strawberry jam smeared on a car and then destroy the towers the men built; while the men destroyed the nests the women built and ultimately set the car on fire. Chinese artist Ji Wenyu's Mad Group somehow reminds me of Pulp Fiction and Grindhouse - maybe it's the Tarantino sense of coexisting lust and tension.
Allan Kaprow, Household (Women licking jam off a car), 1964
Ji Wenyu, Mad Group, 2005

The best part of the show though is outside of the museum. The organizers operate a drive-in cinema in the museum park where people can just come in and "rent a car," sit inside and watch a movie! It looks really funny because the cars are on wooden pallets and they are clearly not "driven in."
"Drive-in" Cinema in the Tinguely Museum park

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

So different, so appealing

Richard Hamilton passed away last Tuesday. His all-time classic Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? (1956) in a way started the whole Pop Art movement and defined the collage aesthetics of many architects and artists in the 60s, including Archigram and Superstudio.

If we are to look at our homes today, what has changed? Probably not too much! We are still pretty much at the high point of consumer culture. Just instead of a normal TV, we now have 3D TVs. We are also after designer furniture and new gadgets like exercise bike, Wii, and the iPad. Vacuum cleaner? Now we have iRobot Roomba.

The intangible changes seems to be more significant. An appealing home can also be a gay couple happily living together with a cat. We have moved from the space fantasy of the 60s to the 21st century cyber age. All the electronic devices have an odd company: a greater demand on green features: literally natural, technologically sustainable, and flora-inspired decorative.

I made this collage to pay my tribute to the master. Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? consists of images mainly taken from American magazines (Ladies Home Journal, Tomorrow's Man, Life), cut and glued together manually. Now we do it digitally. The elements in my new collage are all from the internet, assembled with Photoshop. Source websites include eBay, BestBuy,,, Dezeen, etc.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Picking cherries

When harvesting cherries, the pickers would select only the ripest and healthiest ones. This is a normal and reasonable process. But for outsiders who can only see the selected fruit, it is hard to get the whole picture. They may wrongly conclude that most, or even all, of the fruit is in such good shape.

The term "cherry picking" is thus used to describe the tendency of people favoring information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, while ignoring cases or data that may contradict that position. This "confirmation bias" may occur as selective attention while gathering information. If you believe something/someone is bad, you tend to notice negative evidences more easily or recall mainly bad memories to prove the argument. You see what you are looking for. It can also be partial and biased interpretation. People see things through lenses. Even if two individuals are presented with the same information, they can still draw different conclusions based on their preconceived opinions.

When someone is assigned or paid to advocate a particular position, like a debater or a lawyer, he or she may pick cherries intentionally. In normal circumstances, cherry picking is a common unintentional act that anybody may perform automatically without even noticing. Some scholars explain this with the limitation of our ability to handle complex information. When things get complicated, people tend to look for shortcuts, which in this case mean "availability heuristics" - the ideas that readily come to our mind or easily follow our train of thought.

Other researchers suggest that confirmation bias involves emotional motivations. In a study during the 2004 US presidential election, a group of people were shown contradictory statements by all candidates. A MRI scanner was used to monitor their brain activity when they were asked to evaluate the information. When it came to their favored candidate, the subjects' emotional centers of the brain were aroused, which didn't happen with the other statements. Our desire to believe and to defend our beliefs blinds us. We don't like to be wrong. We intuitively seek to confirm rather than falsify hypotheses because confirmation makes us feel confident and proud. To overrule a preconception, we need very powerful evidences and at the same time very strong will.

Imagine several people going to the same design meeting. Their debriefings after the meeting could be very different. The attendants may have caught only those comments that are in line with their own ideas, or put more importance to the aspects that interest them more. They may recall selectively comments from many previous meetings and insist on their own understandings. They may also interpret the bosses' verbal descriptions as utterly different material forms. With all these different hand-picked "cherries," those who didn't go the meeting would get completely lost.

Preconceptions affect judgment. We should all try to come in neutral and open-minded, and give fair evaluations to different opinions. Making the right call should be more important than proving oneself. I guess it’s easier said than done.