New Worlds: Computers for culture

Differences in culture remain a dominant factor hindering our ability to understand one another.

June 17, 2012 00:40
3 minute read.
Illustrative photo of religious woman hiding face

Religions woman hiding her face 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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Even though the world is often described as a “global village,” differences in culture remain a dominant factor hindering our ability to understand one another. Identifying cultural differences is a major challenge facing intelligence agencies, which has given rise to the field of “cultural intelligence” (abbreviated as CULINT) involving the better understanding of strategic competitors and opposition. Unlike “signals intelligence” (SIGINT), which relies heavily on advanced technologies, CULINT has traditionally remained the province of human experts and evaluations.

A recently developed methodology challenges this longstanding dogma. In a recent paper selected for presentation at the 2012 European Intelligence and Security Informatics Conference, Ben- Gurion University of the Negev education department chairman Prof. Yair Neuman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prof. Newton Howard and BGU master’s degree student Danny Livshitz present a novel methodology that paradoxically uses the shortcomings of automatic machine translation to better understand different cultures.

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The paper, entitled: “Can Computers Help Us to Better Understand Different Cultures? Toward a Computer-Based CULINT” will be presented this August at a conference in Odense, Denmark.

“This methodology seeks to identify our own shortcomings in understanding various cultures, while producing surprising results. For instance, it was found that historic American political speeches understood from the perspective of the Arab language were wrongly perceived as sentimental and emotionally loaded compared to the original meaning,” explains Neuman. “By identifying these biases, we can better understand and adjust our thinking.”

The researchers add that this methodology is a promising new tool for computer- based CULINT, but is currently only in the beginning stages of its development.


Jewish women who observe the laws of family purity according to the rules set down over 3,000 years ago have to take many details into consideration. It’s not just counting seven “clean days” without blood after menstruation and then going to the ritual bath. The Talmud requires women to calculate (and refrain from intimacy during the relevant period) the exact Hebrew date her previous period began, a 30-day interval between the last two periods and the average time between one period to another.

Women have always done this without help, but in today’s digital age, some women find a computer program helpful in doing the calculation. A number of such programs are available, all aimed at avoiding intimacy at a time when a woman may become ritually impure due the onset of her period.

But now a free application for smartphones to calculate one’s mikva date has been issued by an organization to memorialize Rivkah and Gavriel Holtzberg, the Chabad emissaries who were murdered by terrorists in Mumbai a few years ago.

The application is available at and has been endorsed by leading rabbis in the field. It uses the raw data and produces the date when the woman goes to immerse herself in the ritual bath.


A new study that looked at hunger trends over a decade found that nearly 15 percent of Americans over 60 – more than one in seven or 8.3 million people – face the threat of hunger.

“In 2005, we reported that one in nine seniors faced the threat of hunger,” said University of Illinois Prof. Craig Gundersen, the executive director of the National Soybean Research Laboratory who led the data analysis on the study. “So, unlike the population as a whole, food insecurity among those 60 and older actually increased between 2009 and 2010.”

“Compounding the problem is that food insecurity is also associated with a host of poor health outcomes for seniors such as reduced nutrient intakes and limitations in activities of daily living,” Gundersen said. “Consequently, this recent increase in senior hunger will likely lead to additional nutritional and health challenges for our country.”

The increases in senior hunger were most pronounced among the near poor, whites, widows, non-urban residents, the retired, women and among households with no grandchildren present.

“What may be surprising is that out of those seniors who face the threat of hunger, the majority have incomes above the poverty line and are white,” Gundersen said.

Other key findings in the study are that those living in states in the South and Southwest, those who are racial or ethnic minorities, those with lower incomes, and those who are younger, ages 60 to 69, are most likely to be threatened by hunger.

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