Tag Archives: language

Communication tied up in knots

I think I might have remembered that the Inkas never invented the wheel, but I didn’t know they hadn’t invented writing. It seems so fundamental to civilisation development. Apparently ‘knot’.

The khipu code: the knotty mystery of the Inkas’ 3D records
But, after more than a century of study, we remain unable to fully crack the code of the khipus. The challenge rests not in a lack of artifacts – over 1,000 khipus are known to us today – but in their variety and complexity. We confront tens of thousands of knots tied by different people, for different purposes and in different regions of the empire. Cracking the code amounts to finding a pattern in history’s knotted haystack.

Ok, I can just about understand the like-an-abacus-but-made-of-string category of these strange artefacts, but those types only accounts for two thirds of the ones remaining today.

The remaining third of these devices – the so-called narrative khipus – appear to contain encoded non-numerical, narrative information, including names, stories and even ancient philosophies. For those who love puzzles, the narrative khipus are a godsend.

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Dante’s Divine Comedy: the book was too long, the video too short

This article from BBC Culture reviews the enormous contribution Dante made with his Divine Comedy, not just in terms of literature and religion but the development and adoption of the Italian language too. It does include this irreverent passage though:

Dante and The Divine Comedy: He took us on a tour of Hell
… Right there that suggests this view of the afterlife is coloured by authorial wish-fulfillment: Dante gets a personal tour from his father-figure of a literary hero and the woman on whom he had a crush. In the parlance of contemporary genre writing, Dante’s version of himself in The Divine Comedy is a Mary Sue, a character written to be who the author wishes he could be, having experiences he wishes he could have. Sandra Newman, author of How Not to Write a Novel, has said that “The Divine Comedy is really a typical science fiction trilogy. Book one, a classic. Book two, less exciting version of book one. Book three, totally bonkers, unwanted insights into author’s sexuality, Mary Sue’s mask slipping in every scene.”

I guess I must agree. I want to say I read The Divine Comedy as a sixth former, but it’s more accurate to say I read Inferno and just briefly skimmed the rest, like everyone else.

And I loved Peter Greenaway’s video version, A TV Dante, though it was frustratingly too short, only covering the first eight cantos of the first book.

Dante_El Infierno, “A_T.V. Dante” ( Peter greenaway & Tom phillips_1993) subtitulado en español

The illustrations that tend to go along with the books are wonderful, and I’m sure they have contributed to the ongoing appeal of this massive Medieval poem.

A digital archive of the earliest illustrated editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy
These images, from Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, represent a 1497 woodcut edition, at the top, with a number of hand-colored pages; an edition from 1544, above, with almost 90 circular and traditionally-composed scenes, all of them probably hand-colored in the 19th century; and a 1568 edition with three engraved maps, one for each book.

As evocative and helpful as they are, that typical cone shape never really worked for me, though, as it doesn’t feel underground-y enough. In this version below, it looks like a vast plain or the map of a pleasant stroll through the North York Moors.

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It needs more ceilings, like in As Above, So Below, a film dealing with similar geography, but with added claustrophobia.

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(I must admit I haven’t seen this film, however. Rather than having to sit through all these kinds of films, I get all I need from the FoundFlix YouTube channel these days. Much quicker.)

From a time before Duolingo

Food to the rescue.

Gleanings from the past #54
A ludicrous story is told of a great naval function which took place during the reign of the last Napoleon and the Empress Eugénie. Several American vessels were present, and they were drawn up in line to salute the Empress’s yacht as it passed. The French sailors, of course, manned the yards of their ships, and shouted ‘Vive l’Impératrice!’ The American Admiral knew that it was impossible to teach these words to his men in the time left to him, so he ordered his crew to shout ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese!’ The imperial yacht came on, and as it passed the fleet there was a mighty roar of ‘Beef, lemons, and cheese.’ And the Empress said she had never received such an ovation before.

Dumbing down the chatbots

A quite different take on Google’s AI demo from the other day. Rather than be impressed at how clever the bots appear, because they sound like us, we should be sad at how inefficient we’ve made them, because they sound like us.

Chatbots are saints
Pichai played a recording of Duplex calling a salon to schedule a haircut. This is an informational transaction that a couple of computers could accomplish in a trivial number of microseconds — bip! bap! done! — but with a human on one end of the messaging bus, it turned into a slow-motion train wreck. Completing the transaction required 17 separate data transmissions over the course of an entire minute — an eternity in the machine world. And the human in this case was operating at pretty much peak efficiency. I won’t even tell you what happened when Duplex called a restaurant to reserve a table. You could almost hear the steam coming out of the computer’s ears.

In our arrogance, we humans like to think of natural language processing as a technique aimed at raising the intelligence of machines to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Pichai’s demo suggests the reverse is true. Natural language processing is actually a technique aimed at dumbing down computers to the point where they’re able to converse with us. Google’s great breakthrough with Duplex came in its realization that by sprinkling a few monosyllabic grunts into computer-generated speech — um, ah, mmm — you could trick a human into feeling kinship with the machine. You ace the Turing test by getting machines to speak baby-talk.

Relaxed data

Data is such a funny word. It’s a plural, strictly. Part of me wants to use it that way, and show off, but a larger part of me always feels too self-conscious to do that. Thankfully, as Nathan Yau from FlowingData has discovered, the ‘rules’ around its use have been ‘officially’ relaxed.

Data is, sometimes
If you read data as singular then write it as such. For example, we already allow singular for ‘big data’. And we should for personal data too. An easy rule would be that if it can be used as a synonym for information then it should probably be singular — and if we are using it as economic data and mean figures, then we should stick to plural.

New alphabets, new words

I can’t imagine how difficult this must be to organise. Kazakhstan is changing its official alphabet — every written thing across all areas of life, work, education, commerce — from the Russian-based Cyrillic one to the Latin-based one of the West.

The cost of changing an entire country’s alphabet
That the Kazakh language is currently written in Cyrillic – and the persistent use of Russian in elite circles – is a legacy of the Soviet Union’s rule, one that some of its neighbouring countries sought to shed right after the union’s collapse in 1991. Azerbaijan, for example, started introducing textbooks in Latin script the next year, while Turkmenistan followed suit in 1993. Kazakhstan is making the transition almost three decades on, in a different economic environment that makes the costs hard to predict.

[…]

So far, state media has reported that the government’s total budget for the seven-year transition – which has been divided into three stages – will amount to roughly 218 billion tenge ($664m). About 90% of that amount is going to education programmes the publication of textbooks for education programmes in the new Latin script, including for literature classes.

The government aims to complete the move by 2025. I’d love to revisit this story then, to see if they meet their deadline and budget.

I wonder if Kazakhstan’s new alphabet will be put to use with some of the new words this report discusses. A University of Birmingham researcher has analysed 900 million tweets from October 2013 to November 2014 from users in the USA, looking for terms that started off rare but became more popular.

Feeling litt? The five hotspots driving English forward
The result was a list of 54 terms, which covered everything from sex and relationships (such as “baeless” – a synonym for single), people’s appearance (“gainz” to describe the increased muscle mass from bulking up at the gym), and technology (“celfie” – an alternative spelling of selfie). Others reflected the infiltration of Japanese culture (such as “senpai”, which means teacher or master). They also described general feelings, like “litt” (or “litty” – which means impressive or good – or affirmations such as “yaaaas” (as an alternative to yes.) Interestingly, some of these terms such as “candids” (a noun describing photos taken without the other person’s knowledge) have been around for years, but were extremely rare until seeing a sudden rise in popularity.

Because the messages were timestamped and geocoded, he could track five geographic hubs that were driving these changes and additions to the language; West Coast, Deep South, North East, Mid-Atlantic and the Gulf Coast.

Gulf Coast  The third (and final) southern region to feature in Grieve’s analysis, this hub centred around New Orleans, extending across Louisiana and into eastern and coastal Texas and along the Mississippi to Memphis. One of the region’s most noteworthy contributions – idgt (I don’t get tired) – became a catchphrase of the rapper Kevin Gates, who grew up in Baton Rouge, the state capital of Louisiana, and released a single of the same name in 2014.

Notable terms: bruuh (bro’): idgt (I don’t get tired); lordt (Oh Lord!)

Remarkable, beautiful and completely meaningless

Another great find on Brain Pickings.

Reality, representation, and the search for meaning: Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache’s invented graphic languages
A century after Nietzsche, the Argentine artist Mirtha Dermisache (February 21, 1940–January 5, 2012) set out to probe the limits and possibilities of language by filling countless notebooks, letters, and postcards with text. None of it was legible.

In the 1970s, Dermisache invented an array of graphic languages, each with a distinct syntactic texture and a visual rhythm that inclines toward meaning, or the longing for meaning. The lines she composed in them — so purposeful, so fluid, evocative of a script in a foreign tongue or a cardiograph or birdsong notation — become a Rorschach test, beckoning the mind to wrest from them a message, a meaning, a representation of some private reality of thought and feeling.

And from the Mirtha Dermisache: Selected Writings Amazon page:

Her work, which she created while living under the junta in Argentina, is lasting and subversive even though she barely penned a legible word…In our current environment, it is difficult to look at her work and not think about the impossibility of discourse, the primacy of self-expression, and the fallacy of a shared objective language, not to think of this art as both radically political and necessary today.–Will Fenstermaker “The Paris Review “

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Very poetic. A little spooky? Teeline? What would the graphologists make of them, I wonder.

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