Category Archives: Linguistics

Compensating for different spatial abilities (feat. cyborgs!)

In July, I saw Iowa State’s  Dr. Sarah Nusser give a presentation about spatial ability among survey field representatives and how different people interact with various geospatial technologies. This talk introduced an area of research quite new to me, and it reminded me how important it is to know your audience before designing products for them. It also touched on directly augmenting our sensory perception — more about that below.

When you hire people to collect survey data in the field (verify addresses, conduct interviews, assess land cover type, etc.), you hope they’ll be able to find their way to the sites where you’re sending them. But new hires might come in with various levels of skill or experience, as well as different mental models for maps and geography. Dr. Nusser’s work [here's a representative article] frames this as “spatial ability” and, practically speaking, treats it as innate: rather than training adults to improve their spatial ability, she focuses on technology and interfaces that help them work better with the mental model they already have. (I can’t believe that spatial ability really is innate and static… but it’s probably cheaper to design a few user-targeted interfaces once than to train new hires indefinitely.)

How do you tell if someone has high or low spatial ability (high SA vs low SA)? One approach is the Paper Folding Test and related tests produced by the Educational Testing Service.

Where will the holes be when the paper is unfolded?

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Pun for the money

Today’s post is brought to you by my language nerd side.

First of all, this weekend brings the O’Henry Pun-Off World Championships in Austin, Texas. Read more about the Pun-Off in an excerpt from John Pollack’s book, The Pun Also Rises, which is also the prize of an online pun contest run by the online store Marbles.
(My submission: “Hey baby, you must be a Latin noun, because I could never decline you.”)
More good (bad?) puns from Chemistry Cat and Condescending Literature Pun Dog.

For DC-area residents, today is also the first day to register for summer language classes with the Global Language Network. Whether you want to hone your Spanish, start on Mandarin, or get exposed to something more uncommon (Azerbaijani, Georgian, Yoruba?), I highly recommend the GLN. It’s potentially free — your $150 deposit is returned to you unless you miss more than a quarter of the classes. (Even paying the full price, it’s still a great deal.) I’ve taken a couple of Turkish classes there, then taught Polish for the past year, and it’s been a great experience both as student and teacher.

DC word nerds may also enjoy the Spelling Buzz, held most Fridays at 8pm at Rock & Roll Hotel on H St NE. It’s a spelling bee with drinking: contestants must have a drink in hand at all times, and the MC can make you drink at any point. Pro tip: he usually uses the Sharon Herald spelling bee word lists, so if you study ahead of time you might do reasonably well. At the very least, be sure you’re solid on “diphtheria” and “ophthalmology” before you go.

Finally: If pun contests, language classes, and spelling bees are still not nerdy enough for you, then have you heard of linguistics olympiads? They’re like math olympiads but with these language puzzles that I find amazingly addictive. For example, given a few words in a language you’ve never learned, can you find translations (or pronunciations) of new phrases? Or can you figure out the patterns behind an alternative to Braille?
I wish I’d had the opportunity to do a linguistics olympiad in high school. But luckily there are some excellent problem sets online thanks to the folks behind the International Linguistics Olympiad, North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad, and Princeton and University of Oregon. If you like cryptic crosswords, these might be up your alley too.