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review 2014-11-08 13:11
The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker
The Language Instinct - Steven Pinker

I've read this book a few times, and it's always a good read. It was fun to pick up the updated version and see what's changed (all carefully annotated in an appendix.) And I'm waiting on his new book about writing from my library queue, so I thought I'd revisit this one 

In fact, now that I already mentioned the appendix, this book has a ton of appendixes, the actual text finishes around 75%, after that is non-academic sources, the academic sources, updates on changes to the text, and then two sources lists for the updates. And an index, and a glossary, and then a suggested reading list.

I love that kind of thing, pushes all my "oh really now" buttons when I read something I find difficult to believe, when I can just go look up the sources and make my own evaluation.

tl;dr: Chomsky is right, but he's not god. Sapir & Whorf maybe never even met, but they're right too, to a point. And Pinker is a really good read. And the rest of my ranting is below the cut.

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review 2014-06-09 14:30
The Horse, the Wheel and Language, David W. Anthony
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World - David W. Anthony

I adored this book, but it's only getting 3 stars. Maybe 3.5, I'll decide by the end of writing this review


This book is utterly fascinating, but like most archaeology books, it tends to wander into "the contents of this grave site.... and the contents of that grave site..." cataloguing. But! It has plenty of horses. Which is always good in my book.  It's also very personable and has an easy to read style, it's not the typical dry archaeology tome. So it's straddling a line between popularised science a la Mary Roach or Jared Diamond, and a purely academic tome, and it would have been stronger if it had tipped all the way over into one or the other.


So, among other things, this is a story of how a dogged pair of US archaeologists discovered a way to tell when and where horses were domesticated by looking for something utterly obvious: wear from bits on the teeth. Which nobody had ever bothered to actually look for before, because nobody thought it could be measured - because a) horses aren't supposed to mouth their bits (any teenage girl with a fractious pony could have enlightened all of archaeology on the fact that they do, every damn one of them :) and b) it was assumed that early bits were typically organic, and wouldn't leave wear, like the jaw ropes that the plains indians used.


So Anthony and co went out and bought some young horses, and had students ride them using four different kinds of bits, from jaw ropes to modern snaffle bits. 600 hours of riding later, they actually measured the resulting tooth wear and discovered it was readily identifiable. Sometimes you just got to go out and test things! Also, I wish I was one of their students who got the job of riding the horses around!


And the point of this whole exercise was to map the domestication of the horse, and an attempt to identify the when and where the PIE people who gave us most of the languages of Europe actually lived.


But apart from being a history of the Eurasian steppe people from the neolithic to the iron age, the history of the taming of the horse and , proto-indo-european it's also a fascinating history of both archaeology and linguistics over the last hundred years or so, and the contributions that Russian archaeology that is only now being translated and added to the corpus has made in changing views on a lot of things.


This is very interesting to me in particular, because Swedish (actually, Nordic in general) social sciences is infused with a russian socio-cultural (or culture-historical) view. Early Russian psychologists and education theorists like Vygotsky and Lejontjev were contemporaries of much better known names like Piaget and Lewin and they have made a huge impact here in the north. While they are certainly known in the US, theories based off their work tends to be more in the direction of workplace psychology than learning, partly because their work published in the 30's was only translated to English in the 70's - including a rather famous if somewhat tragic exchange of views between Vygotsky critiquing Piaget, and Piaget answering, when that essay was finally translated, some 40 years later, and long after Vygotsky's death. And I just finished writing a junior thesis where the major theoretical basis was Culture-Historical Activity Theory, a direct off shoot of Vygotsky's work. 


Anyway, Psychology was not the only discipline that the iron curtain kept hidden for far too long, and a lot of this book touches down right there. Not only is there an enormous (truly astoundingly large) amount of archaeological data from digs in the former Soviet Union that is only now coming to light, but Russian archaeology was also clearly built on the same post-Marxist base that culture-historical psychology and education were: The big idea that culture is the force behind human development, and language, as forged by culture and history, is the main tool of mankind. That cultural boundaries are not where the pottery changes ("Pottery is not people") or where they grew wheat instead of millet, cultural boundaries fall where the language changes.


So taking this very Russian approach to a puzzle that has been fascinating anyone with even a passing interest in archaeology for the past couple of centuries, puts it all in a new perspective, and there is plenty of really interesting reading in this very long book. 


Recommended for: If you enjoyed Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, this is a more academic exploration of many of the same themes.

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review 2013-09-27 16:44
What are the kids doing on the internet?
Vad gör unga på nätet? - Elza Dunkels

"After a lecture to teachers where my young daughter was present, the following conversation occurred:


Teacher to my daughter: 'It must be boring having a mother who knows so much about computers, you can't get away with anything'

Afterwards my daughter whispered to me 'Mum, they don't get it. If you have parents that understand the internet, you get to do just about anything!'"


The above little anecdote is in the foreword to this excellent book, and is a good example of the tone of the rest of it. Academic it might be, but it's no dry treatise written by someone exoticising the "culture of the young" or looking for technical answers to social problems that don't really exist except in the minds of the fearmongers in the tabloids.


So I didn't review anything for a week, and now my last two reviews are of textbooks. But this one is really really good, and I wish it was available in English (some of Elza Dunkels other books are, but not this one, yet.)


Elza is a doctor of Pedagogik, which is often translated into Education but here in Scandinavia it's an offshoot of both Philosophy and Psychology as disciplines, and more like the "Philosophy of Education" faculties that some US universities have.


As mentioned, Dunkels has teenage children, and is effectively "one of us" - an internet denizen parenting other internet denizens. She is pretty well known as an expert on children and the internet here in Sweden, and not by accident. In the endless debate about internet predators, she will be the voice of reason, bringing the discussion back to reality, and her research is based on a long ongoing project working directly with children.


So instead of "zomg, there's pedobears on teh intarwebz", we get discussion on the dangers of things like "thinspiration" groups on tumblr and facebook.


Instead of a chapter on how to keep kids out of porn, there's talk of how many pre-teens are so offended by porn themselves, that they take the endless admonitions not to look at it as insults and proof that those in authority "don't get it".


Instead of coming down on girls for posting scantily clad pictures of themselves on the net, there's a discussion about how kids don't have a long term view, and how to talk to them about the fact that the wayback machine etc mean these pictures may well still turn up years from now. And more to the point, that posting a picture of onesself in a bra is most often not at all sexualised in the mind of a 13 year old, but more likely to be motivated by fashion photography and things like top model, and it'd be more effective to work on the fashion industry itself, and discuss that with your teenagers, than to freak out that they put a picture on the internet. 


The only reason this doesn't get a 5 is that, like any book about technology, it's going to date quickly. Even this second edition, from 2012, has a few examples that are going to fly right by some people - discussion of the website Lunarstorm for instance, which was huge among swedish teenagers when my older daughter was an adolescent - she's almost 23 now, and Lunarstorm hasn't been cool in probably 8 years and hasn't existed at all for the last 3. I expect in a couple of years, even many of today's hot properties will have suffered the same fate, and although the heavy use of examples makes the book very accessible, it's also in some ways it's weak point.


I really really wish this book was available in English, because I would quite seriously buy a copy for at least three people I can think of right this second. And it's accessible enough, and such an easy read, that I think they might actually get something out of it, despite the academic background.

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review 2012-06-16 20:29
Introduktion till pedagogik
Introduktion till pedagogik - Lennart Svensson

Hard going. Good content, but it's very philosophical and high-concept, for an introduction to the subject as a discipline.

That said, recommended as perhaps a second book, or as a reintroduction to the subject. It's one of those books that improves on re-reading, and particularly re-reading with a little more familiarity with the subject matter.

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