The Pirahã

Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã has one of the simplest sound systems known. Yet it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations. It is a language so confounding to non-natives that until Everett and his wife, Keren, arrived among the Pirahã, as Christian missionaries, in the nineteen-seventies, no outsider had succeeded in mastering it.

(…) The Pirahã, Everett wrote, have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition. Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Pirahã displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (“the man is walking down the street,” “the man is wearing a top hat”) into a single sentence (“The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street”).

John Colapinto in “The Interpreter”, New Yorker (emphasis added)

Explorer Wade Davis on the Ethnosphere

If you can listen past his voice – trembling with excitement – National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, here speaking at TED 2003, has some excellent insight to share from his travels. Here he discusses world cultures, dying languages and unique spiritual practices including tribal psychoactive rituals.

On a variant of DMT:

To have that powder blown up your nose is rather like being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with baroque paintings and landing in a sea of electricity.

… and on how one particular ethnic group distinguishes the subtle variants of a plant species they use to make Ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea:

You ask the Indians and they say the plants talk to us. Well what does that mean? This tribe, the Cofán, has 17 varieties of Ayahuasca, all of which they distinguish at great distance in the forest, all of which are referable to our eye as one species. And then you ask them how they establish their taxonomy. And they say, ‘I thought you knew something about plants, don’t you know anything?’ And I said ‘no’. Well it turns out you take each of the 17 varieties on the night of a full moon and it sings to you in a different key. Now that’s not going to get you a PhD at Harvard but it’s a lot more interesting than counting stamens.

The problem is that even those of us sympathetic with the plight of indigenous people view them as quaint and colorful but somehow reduced to the margins of history as the “real world”, meaning our world, moves on.

Wade has written several books including The Serpent and the Rainbow & Light at the Edge of the World.

Memory, Growth, Love

photography used slightly out of context: Simon Pais

While i’m all down for remembering everything i ever read, just imagine the havoc wreaked on courtship by remembering today. First off, you “remember” interactions that never took place because you read the details of her blog before you even met. Next, all of those blog entries you wrote reminds you of your own emotional naiveté because you were in lurve. And now you have the snarky emails and IMs and texts that show that you’re a complete dickwad and are the root cause of all relationship woes. You have the video of your breakup that you watch over and over again to see what you could’ve done better so that you don’t feel like such shit. Oh, and you have shelves of DVDs that prove that your relationship looks nothing like what “normal” relationships should look like (proof through Molly Ringwald). Somehow, just as you’re starting to feel better, you think that it couldn’t _really_ hurt to look at her MySpace. Only you found that she erased your very existence in an effort to delete the relationship out of memory. And you wonder why you’ve stolen every emo MP3 out there. (…)

Media has made it difficult for cultural memories to fade. We don’t remember the days of house calls for courtship because society moved away from that rather quickly (and few read beyond the Crib Notes of 11th grade English texts). But thanks to TV and movies, we “remember” past practices and norms. Does this mean that culture will have a much harder time evolving with the times? Or perhaps it means that there will be an ever-increasing disconnect between the generations because even though your mom didn’t fall in love like Ingrid Bergman, she’s still gonna imagine that this is how it’s supposed to be. How does the non-forgetfulness of archival media influence our culture’s ability to shift over time?

We are building technology with the implicit desire to remember everything. Every interaction, every feeling, every idea. Why? Perhaps this isn’t such a good thing. I for one would like to see my digital memories fade into hearts and flowers.

Some thoughts from Danah Boyd on the implications persistent digital memory (IM/email archives, blogs, images, video) has on culture, relationships, etc.


John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus explores the lives of several emotionally challenged characters as they navigate the comic and tragic intersections between love and sex in and around a modern-day underground salon. A sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, a dominatrix who is unable to connect, a gay couple who are deciding whether to open up their relationship, and the people who weave in and out of their lives, all converge on a weekly gathering called Shortbus: a mad nexus of art, music, politics and polysexual carnality. Set in a post-9/11, Bush-exhausted New York City, SHORTBUS tells its story with sexual frankness, suggesting new ways to reconcile questions of the mind, pleasures of the flesh and imperatives of the heart.

Now out on DVD.

Hans Rosling: Myths About the Developing World

I’ve seen Hans Rosling’s Gapminder, a stunning interactive display of world social and economic statistics, but I’ve never taken the time to watch his presentation at TED 2006 until today. His passion for visualizing data that thus far resides in a more nebulous region of global consciousness is inspiring.

The Emperor’s New Party

This was no bacchanal. A few students danced, with less body contact than normal, and the men seemed more self-conscious than the women. When a couple started making out in the back of the room, a barefoot member of the Pundits, the student society that threw the party, asked them to leave. (…)

“It’s one of those things people feel they need to do before they graduate,” says Megan Crandell, a senior who estimates that she has been to a half-dozen naked parties during her time at Yale. “The dynamic is completely different from a clothed party. People are so conscious of how they’re coming across that conversations end up being more sophisticated. You can’t talk about how hot that chick was the other night.” (…)

“With this whole 20-something party culture, getting dressed to go out is such a big deal,” says Kate Horning, a senior who went to the party. “But that whole part of the evening is purposely absent. My friends who didn’t go were like, ‘Oh, my God, were people just staring at each other’s bodies all night?’ And I said, ‘No, people were just kind of chatting and playing pool and playing piano.’ ”

World History Timeline

A wall chart about 6.5 x 4.5 feet in size, containing an overview of nearly 13.7 billions years of universal history: biological evolution, culture, literature, religion, philosophy, science, technology, art and music. Authored by Tom Schoepen and four years in the making, it will soon be published and sold. Unfortunately, I can’t find any version online that is readable.