My Universe

I turned on Radio 1 today for the first time in years. While I know essentially nothing about the current pop music scene, the unique combination of my decades-old pop music knowledge and a tiny slice of contemporary pop music knowledge (courtesy of my far-more worldly sister) allowed me to identify this song as a Coldplay/BTS colab purely from the singers’ voices.

Unfortunately I don’t really like it :/

New preprint: "Sensorimotor distance: A fully grounded measure of semantic similarity for 800 million concept pairs"

Together with my colleague and lab PILouise Connell, I have developed a new measure of semantic distance between concepts. It is based on the senses and body parts involved in experiencing those concepts — in other words it is fully grounded in sensorimotor experience. This sets it aside from other measures of semantic distance, such as those based on distributions of words in language, on encyclopaedic databases, or on lists of properties or features. It also is fairly comprehensive (thanks to the expansive norms collected by colleagues), with distances available for nearly 800,000,000 pairs of concepts.

Two panels. Both show arrangement of dots labelled with concepts. Left panel: select nouns for tools, emotions, fruit and celestial objects. Right panel: select verbs for leg, hand, mouth and cognitive actions
Left panel: select nouns for tools, emotions, fruit and celestial objects. Right panel: select verbs for leg, hand, mouth and cognitive actions. Within each panel, positions are based on sensorimotor distances between concepts, transformed into two dimensions using Sammon mapping.

The measure is described in a new preprint, and you can search, visualise and play around with the distances (e.g. the above image) using an online app I also developed.

Let us know if you do anything cool with it!

"Have one fewer child"

I’ve been looking for suggestions of individual actions one can take to reduce CO2 emissions. In particular, ones which actually make a big difference (unlike, e.g., switching to LED lightbulbs). Everywhere I look, all I see is "have one fewer child" dwarfing all other actions by effectiveness. It's all anyone talks about.

Graph showing comparative impacts of different climate actions. "Have one fewer child" so overshadows others that the y-axis has been clipped to accommodate it.
Wynes & Nicholas (2017, Environmental Research)

The Web is full of figures like this one. It shows the one-fewer-child recommendation being equivalent to about 60 t/y, where the next-best options like “sell your cars”, “stop flying” or "be vegan" are mostly in the 1–2 t/y range. So high, they had to clip and compress the range on the graph so you could even see anything else. That looks pretty stark. That figure is so high, it seems as if nobody could ever hope live sustainably if they had even one child. They might as well be taking a long-haul flight every 10 days for the rest of their life! Now, we definitely shouldn't discount conclusions just because they are surprising or uncomfortable, but we should scrutinise them. That feeling of "…really?" is the first hint something might not be right.


Every now and then when I find something online which I want to remember or show to somebody — usually an image or a video — I save it in a text file; one per person. Literally kilobytes of the stuff. And even more occasionally, I look back through those text files, and post something I find there on this site. (At this rate it'll be the year 3888 before I get through it all.)

This is one such thing:


New preprint: "Linguistic Distributional Knowledge and Sensorimotor Grounding both Contribute to Semantic Category Production"

My colleagues Briony Banks, Louise Connell and I recently submitted a paper reporting research we've been doing at Lancaster University over the last year.

Needless to say, the Covid-19 lockdowns in the UK have been a substantial impediment to this work, so it's really good to see it finally complete.

A figure taken from the paper preprint. The computational model has two components, "linguistic" and "sensorimotor". The linguistic component is illustrated by colour spreading through a network of connected concepts ("animal", "husbandry", "horse", "cow", etc.). The sensorimotor component is illustrated with bubbles of colour growing and popping, creating new circles as they meet new points in the space ("animal", "cat", "rain", etc.). In the centre, the list of all concepts reached in either component are listed.
Schematic illustration of the computational model operating for an example category.

Ed Brayton

I was sad to hear of the death of Ed Brayton a few days ago.  He was a humanist and secular community leader, blogger, journalist and board member for the Center for Inquiry, Michigan.  Following a long battle with illness, he checked himself into hospice care, and died comfortably a few days later.

I think I first heard Ed Brayton in 2008 when he appeared as a guest on an episode of Reginald Finley's The Infidel Guy Show, which I listened to regularly while at university.

For the 12 years since then I've read Ed's blog and listened to his radio shows and podcasts.  I was delighted a couple of years ago when he returned to the airwaves with a new podcast, for which he had plans, though the most recent episodes are marked by his deteriorating health.  Unfortunately, the podcast has already lapsed from the web, so I will add what I have of it to the archive of Ed's other shows I have hosted. Throughout the time I followed him, Ed's staunch commitment to his humanist values, and rejection of tribalism, were an inspiration.  And when online atheism took an ugly turn in the last few years, Ed continued to find and highlight the good.

While I didn't know Ed personally, I always appreciated his words, and am sad that he is gone.