Daily Data Dump – Wednesday

By Razib Khan | September 1, 2010 11:31 am

Hello September!

Announcing PLoS Blogs. This looks to be a season of shakeups and transitions in the science blogosphere. Expect some more in the near future from what I’ve been told.

Oh, No, It’s a Girl! South Asians Flock to Sex-Selection Clinics in U.S.. There’s variation in sex ratio bias within India, and it is notable one of the women they highlight in the article flew in from Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver of course has a huge Punjabi community, and this is the ethnic group which has made the most use of sex selective abortion within India (with sex ratio imbalances in rural Punjab resulting in the movement, licit and illicit, of women from eastern South Asia to be brides for Punjabi farmers). Smell that Canadian diversity! On the other hand, please note that in Japan, and then South Korea, the strong preference for males shifted to females with economic development and smaller families. This seems a clear case where economic development results in an uplift from barbarism. In my own extended family in Bangladesh the move has been to a two child ideal, and often there is a preference for daughters first because sons are perceived to be a riskier proposition, and if you have only one or two children you want to avoid possible problems (this is the avowed rationale at least).

Reading Arabic Isn’t Easy, Brain Study Suggests. They’re suggesting here that Arabic script is just harder to learn than alphabets. If you’ve tried to read Arabic you know why. The implication here is that this retards development of literacy, but from what I can recall the same general class of issues arises with Chinese characters. There are supposed benefits to this slower and more labored development though.

Vitamin D Is a Prognostic Marker in Heart Failure, Study Finds. Just an observational study. A correlation if you will. Stop the presses when they do a randomized trial and find something. Heart disease is still killer #1.

Weight Index Doesn’t Tell the Whole Truth. The tension between BMI’s population wide informativeness and the large error on an individual level is problematic in terms of public understanding of the underlying issues.

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Comments (10)

  1. John Emerson

    On the other hand, please note that in Japan, and then South Korea, the strong preference for males shifted to females with economic development and smaller families.

    I was pretty sure that something like this would happen, though what I was thinking was that when sex selection became routine supply and demand would raise the value of girls (which apparently wasn’t exactly what happened in Japan and Korea). I even had it figured out as a market where a contrarian parent could win by thinking 18 years or so into the future.

  2. Did you see this in the sidebar http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091104091724.htm ? I think it’s an even bigger problem.

  3. Good thing that a “cultural arbitrage” is happening where the poorer states are supplying brides for the richer ones. Though it does smack of “sex-trafficking” and its another indictment of the sorry state of affairs in South Asia.

    Obviously sex-selection practices are barbaric and I guess alot of education is required. Its fascinating that Bangladesh has moved to a two-child family; in Pakistan three or four is still the preference. It’s reducing but if people could afford they would want more.

    The path to a more unified world is where such regional imbalances are corrected out either through migration, trade or labour movements.

  4. Obviously sex-selection practices are barbaric

    Oh? Why?

    Aborting a fetus because of its gender doesn’t strike me as any more or less appropriate than aborting one for any other reason. ‘Barbaric’ seems an unnecessarily loaded term.

  5. ‘Barbaric’ seems an unnecessarily loaded term.

    it’s necessarily loaded.

  6. Every time I try to avoid controversy I get mired into it 🙂

    I don’t like to impose my views on others but to my mind gendercide is a function of a backward culture.

  7. It would be interesting to compare the learning of Arabic script with Chinese, because in my expereience, the challenges of the two are very different. Chinese characters are easy to distinguish from each other but there are a lot to learn. Arabic letters exist in a multitude on the order of the Latin alphabet, but their form makes them difficult to distinguish.

    So, for comparison, here are two comparable statements in Arabic and Chinese (appologies to those who don’t have non-Western scripts properly rendered on their computers):

    أنا اسمي بنيامين مين

    Both are essentially: My name is x, where x in Chinese is the psuedonym I tend to use around the Internet and x in Arabic is the Arabicization of my real name (Benjamin Main).

    They’re small samples (which is a bigger issue for Chinese than Arabic in this case), but I hope you can see that the Chinese characters are easier to distinguish from a quick glance. 我 looks very different than 叫 and so on. In fact, Arabic is much closer to English as letters respresent smaller units of sound and thus characters are repeated many times, whereas Chinese characters are more connected to the meaning of each syllable.

    So when you look at my first name in Arabic, it’s بنيامين. To the untrained eye, that’s not a whole lot different than the following:


    But say I were to assign a Latin letter to each of those Arabic letters. Arabic’s an abjad, so some of the vowels would be missing (not a whole lot in this case), but it’s a good show of the distinguishability of different words. The correct one would be bnyamyn. Here are the others in the same order I showed above:


    I think you can see how small changes in the form of a word can change its sound drastically and unlike Chinese, the cues for meaning are absent from the writing itself.

    Now the challenges in Chinese generally arise from the lack of phonetic clues (there are some form time to time, and more in simplified than traditional Chinese) and the multitude of characters that need to be memorized to be anything approaching literate. There are characters that are similar, such as 根 and 恨, but as a native English speaker who didn’t study either language until college, this is much less of a problem than in Arabic, where as you can see above, there is a lot of changability in small differences. Perhaps it’s even a bit clearer looking at the whole Arabic abjad (right to left):

    ا ب ت ث ج ح خ د ذ ر ز س ش ص ض ط ظ ع غ ف ق ك ل م ن ه و ي

    The abjad is conveniently ordered in a way that similar forms are adjacent when writing it out. There are several “families” of letters that are only distinguished by the number and positions of dots above and below the main form. It gets worse when you look to the cursive nature of the language. Some of the letters that look different above can look more similar depending on where they fall in a word. Two examples of this are the n (ن) and y (ي) and their relationship with the t (ت), b (ب) and th (ث) as well as the q (ق) and f (ف). In both cases, the initial and medial forms of the letters becomes the same, the initial forms look like:

    بـ تـ ثـ نـ يـ
    فـ قـ

    and the medial forms look like:

    ـبـ ـبـ ـثـ ـنـ ـيـ
    ـفـ ـقـ

    with the equivalent Latin letters in both cases being:

    y n th t b
    q f

    So all this is to say, that distinguishing between letters in Arabic can be difficult, partially because of the small number of forms, using dots to differentiate them, and because of the cursive nature of the language.

  8. There’s another complicating factor in Arabic that I just remembered as I was closing the tab for the Science Daily article: ligatures. There aren’t many ligatures in English, besides the & for “Et” and perhaps the combining of the crossing stroke in “ff”, “tt”, or “ft”. In Arabic, there are quite a few ligatures. Most aren’t compulsory, so I’m not going to be able to demonstrate them in a comment, but there is one and that occurs with the l and the a.
    ل ا -> لا
    and in the medial/final position, it’s ـلا.

    In the standard Arabic layouts you see on the Internet, non-compulsory ligatures aren’t used much, but for text with more of an aesthetic look, you’ll often see ligatures used and you can see a good number of them in the Unicode documentation PDF about “Arabic Presentation Forms-A”:

    In some typefaces like the “Traditional Arabic” typeface that comes with Windows, many of those ligatures are used by default (though certainly know all of them).

    I’m guessing that the researchers didn’t include this aspect of Arabic in their study, but it is an extra complicating factor as typefaces similar to the Traditional Arabic font that I referenced do appear quite often. I know that I have a Qur’an that uses such a typeface and if I didn’t know the ligatures, it would be utterly unintelligible. Of course, it still is, but that’s just because I don’t know much Arabic, much less Arabic from over a millenium ago…the point is that I wouldn’t be able to even decipher the letters if I hadn’t learned the ligatures.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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