Do you speak EUnglish?

Learning another language is not easy, but is it harder if you already speak English? It might not just be down to a lack of motivation, knowing that seemingly everyone else in the world speaks English.

Five reasons English speakers struggle to learn foreign languages
4. Keeping track of case
Where German has der/die/des/dem/den/das, English has only the – and this poses considerable challenges for English speakers learning German. So why does German have all these different ways of saying the? This is the German case system which spells out the article the differently depending not only on whether it is singular or plural (see above), but on its function in a sentence (subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor).

But perhaps it’s more important than ever to try, in these uncertain times.

The English language is evolving – here’s how it will change after Brexit
As part of my ongoing PhD research on the translation profession, I interviewed some British translators working at the European Commission. From their perspective, English will remain the principal working language following Brexit, as switching to only French and German, or adding another language would be unrealistic and require a huge investment in training by the EU. Instead, they report that English will continue to be used, and will simply evolve and change in these settings.

So-called “EU speak” is an example of this.

Linguistic diversity driven, not by invaders this time, but bureaucrats?

11 examples of the odd dialect called ‘EU English’
10. COMITOLOGY

The Commission must draft new rules setting out the powers and workings of the bodies replacing the Committees in the framework of the now-abolished comitology procedure, to ensure that the new system operates properly.

The report states that there are 1253 instances of this word in an EU document database but “not only does the word not exist outside the EU institutions … it is formed from a misspelt stem (committee has two m’s and two t’s) and a suffix that means something quite different (-ology/-logy means ‘the science of’ or ‘the study of’). It is therefore highly unlikely that an outsider would be able to deduce its meaning, even in context.” It means something like “having to do with committees.”

Is this indigenous to just Brussels, I wonder. Does it count as endangered?

Thaana, from the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets
Thaana, which seems to have been invented in the eighteenth century, is unique in other respects, too. For one thing, its letters are based on numbers — but numbers from two different number systems. The first nine letters (h–v) are derived from the Arabic numerals, whereas the next nine (m–d) were the local Indic numerals. The remaining letters for loanwords (z–ch) and Arabic transliteration are adapted from native consonants, with the exception of y, which is of unknown origin.

And another thing

How often have you thought about your Shift + 7 key?

Ampersands: A beloved character
It began life as a shortcut for scribes and proved just as useful for early typesetters, eventually working its way into the English alphabet as the 27th letter. We collectively dropped it from the ABCs, and the decline of handwriting and manual typesetting made it less useful. But its flexibility and grace have kept it on our business cards and movie posters.

These Quartz Obsession e-mails are typically full of wonderful rabbit holes, and this one’s no exception. Let’s start with a quick introduction.

Where did the ampersand originate?
Developed from the Latin et (“and”), the ampersand, formerly the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet, is a character with a cult following among students of typography.

And not just students of typography — the lowly ampersand can count lawyers, entrepreneurs, movie producers and restaurant owners as fans, if these links are anything to go by.

For law firms, the ampersand is a character worth saving
Paul Hastings, Norton Rose Fulbright, Hogan Lovells, Proskauer Rose, Baker Botts: the list of new BigLaw titles built on the corpses of ampersands is almost endless. All these firms discarded their ampersands as if they were ashamed of them.

There are practical reasons so many hipster businesses follow the exact same naming structure
There’s also a nostalgic feel to this construction. “At some point in its early history, I’d guess the germ of that trend was an allusion to the common practice in 17th/18th/19th centuries of naming your company after its principals (e.g. Gieves & Hawkes, Dege & Skinner, Marks & Spencer, etc.),” says Simon. “Could be some of your fashion brands want to allude to handcraft, to pre-industrial or non-industrial processes.”

Stereotypography
So far, critical appraisal of the ampersand in Pride & Prejudice has been mixed. On Slate, David Edelstein calls the ampersand one of the “ominous first impressions” that he had to get over in order to like the movie. The Toronto Globe and Mail (or is it “Globe & Mail”?) says the ampersand signals a “contracted, contemporary approach” to the novel. The San Francisco Chronicle finds the typographical choice to be indicative of the movie’s “jaunty approach.” And the Detroit Free Press says “the only thing really new” in the film is “the hip ampersand of the title.”

Contemporary! Jaunty! Hip! That’s a lot of stereotypical baggage to put on a modest piece of punctuation that has been kicking around in one form or another for about two thousand years.

Petition · Restore the ampersand as the 27th letter of the alphabet
This isn’t just for us. Think of all the uses of the ampersand out there, and all the people and organizations that could benefit from allowing the ampersand back into our alphabet.

We’re not asking for much. And to be completely honest, we’re not exactly sure who calls the shots on these sorts of things, but having Merriam-Webster on our side seems like a good start.

Bring back the Ampersand

It’s fair to say that graphic designers and typesetters are this character’s biggest admirers, though.

Font Aid IV: Coming Together
The Society of Typographic Aficionados is proud to announce the release of “Coming Together”, a font created exclusively for Font Aid IV to benefit the victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The font consists entirely of ampersands, to represent the idea of people coming together to help one another. Type designers, graphic designers, and other artists from around the world contributed artwork to the font.

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Design by: Herb Lubalin
Herb Lubalin is best known for his logotypes, or as he called them ‘expressive typography’. One of his most famous works is the Mother & Child masthead he designed for a Curtis magazine, where the ‘O’ in the word mother is a womb for the word child. The use of the ampersand in this design is pure genius.

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Attitudes toward hyphenation and rag settings
In fact, Gill was even more willing to challenge convention than Dowding. Not only did he liberally use ampersands for “and” but he also used contractions (e.g., “tho’”), and superscript letters (e.g., “production”) to achieve even spacing. But most importantly, he advocated that text be set flush left, rag right (though he did not use that phrase) as not only more natural than justified setting, but as the best way to guarantee consistent word spacing. He considered the insistence on justified text to be nothing more than a superstition, remarking that “even spacing is more important typographically than equal length.” In his view justified text existed to satisfy man’s desire for neatness.

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That last link is my favourite, I think. I could read about typography and book design all day. There’s something very calming and comforting in a well set page of text like the one above. Those margins!

So it was a wonderful coincidence to see that today’s Aeon newsletter contained this link about book printing.

What’s as satisfying as a good book? Seeing one made the old-fashioned way, by hand
The director Glen Milner charts each step in the process as bookbinders piece together a new hardbound edition of the memoir Mango and Mimosa (1974) by the British writer and painter Suzanne St Albans. From folding pages to sewing and gluing paper to the leather spine, skilful human hands are front and centre throughout. Milner documents this melding of mechanics and craft with an almost musical rhythm, conveying skills and methods born of centuries of refinements.

Birth of a Book

And would you believe it, that printing and bookbinding company is in Leeds, just 5 miles away from me!

Full stop stop stop

Back in Newport we once tried to set up an art magazine/brand thing called Ellipsis. We had no clue what we were doing, but I always liked the name. I use ellipses frequently — and inconsistently — on this blog, so I really should pay attention to this piece on them from Quartz.

Ellipses
The word ellipsis might be Greek for “to fall short,” but the unassuming symbol has taken on more life than its size implies, a common phenomenon for punctuation marks in lives that are becoming increasingly text-heavy. But as the design and display choices made by tech giants and software designers influence more and more of our behavior, we paused to consider how much weight three little dots can carry.

[…]

A symbol of hesitancy, apprehension, indecision, and more to come sounds tailor-made for the internet. As instant chat became more popular in the ’90s, designers began to use the ellipsis as a “typing awareness indicator.” While intended to reassure the person on the other side that a response was forthcoming…its unintended effect was an intense anxiety when a response was taking too long.

Political storytelling

Politics is all about story-telling, reframing the world around us to encourage us to think a certain way. Verso have released an extract from James Meek’s new book, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, offering an explanation of why the Brexiteers got the upper hand at the referendum.

James Meek on Brexit and the myth of St. George
Of the two folk myths bound up with Englishness, the myth of St George and the myth of Robin Hood, the myth of St George is the simpler. Robin Hood is a process; St George is an event. Where Robin Hood steals from the rich, which is difficult, to give to the poor, which is trickier still, and has to keep on doing it over and over, St George kills the dragon, and that’s it. Before the dragon is slain, the people are tyrannised. They live in a state of misery, fear and humiliation. When the dragon is slain, society’s problems disappear. The swish of the warrior-saint’s sword slicing through the dragon’s flesh and the great beast’s death cry are, to the oppressed, both a joy in themselves and the herald-notes of a new era of happiness. The slaying of the dragon is quick, easy to remember, and easy to celebrate.

Robin Hood is justice; St George is victory. Slow, complicated, boring Robin Hood–like achievements such as a national health service, progressive taxation and universal education yield in the folk narrative of England to events that can easily be held in consciousness as St George–like releases, so often involving the beating by the English, or the British, of the non-English – the destruction of the Spanish Armada, Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, or Geoff Hurst’s hat-trick against Germany in 1966.

The Guardian continues this look at political language with its new series on the recent shift to a certain kind of anti-elite, right-wing politics.

Revealed: the rise and rise of populist rhetoric
Major study analysing speeches of leaders from 40 countries over two decades shows surge in populism.

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It’s interesting, though, what research is suggesting about the poster boy for populist politics — it might not be all down to him.

The Teleprompter Test: why Trump’s populism is not his own
Kirk Hawkins, an associate professor at Brigham Young University, said there was a “dramatic difference” in the language in Trump’s speeches, depending on whether or not they were scripted. “Trump’s speeches with teleprompters all have longer words, longer sentences, and less frequent use of his pet words. And they have much higher levels of populism,” he said. “This is powerful evidence that Trump’s populism is not entirely his own.”

He’s still full of BS, though.

President Trump has made 9,014 false or misleading claims over 773 days
The president averaged nearly 5.9 false or misleading claims a day in his first year in office. He hit nearly 16.5 a day in his second year. So far in 2019, he’s averaging nearly 22 claims a day.

You’d think that would cheer him up a little.

A debate-watching robot learned Trump’s emotional self: sad!
A robot built around Microsoft’s Emotion API may have uncovered something surprising about the dominant emotions of either candidate. Or it may have just spat out a lot of random numbers.

What’s your number?

Another maths curiosity from the Futility Closet:

Fortuitous numbers
In American usage, 84,672 is said EIGHTY FOUR THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED SEVENTY TWO. Count the letters in each of those words, multiply the counts, and you get 6 × 4 × 8 × 3 × 7 × 7 × 3 = 84,672.

Here’s something I’ve (pointlessly) struggled with for a long time, now. Can you complete this sentence?

Written as words, there are _____________ letters in this sentence.

Use Excel’s LEN() function and AutoSum and try it like this, writing it out one word at a time.

number-1

So, forty three letters so far, with those two empty boxes. If you were to write forty three into those boxes, the total would obviously be more than forty three. A little trial-and-error, and we get

number-2

the answer fifty three. Well, that was fairly straightforward. Let’s try a slightly different sentence.

number-3

Maybe this isn’t so difficult, after all. One more?

number-4

That’s not right, there are forty nine letters in that sentence, not forty eight.

number-5

But now there are forty eight. Is it not possible to accurately complete that sentence, then?

Should have posted this yesterday

A little late, but better late than never.

The spirit photographs of William Hope
Known as “spirit photographs”, they were taken by a controversial medium called William Hope. Born in 1863 in Crewe, Hope started his working life as a carpenter, but in 1905 became interested in spirit photography after capturing the supposed image of a ghost while photographing a friend. He went on to found and lead a group of six spirit photographers known as the Crewe Circle. Following World War I, support for the group, and demand for its services, grew as the grieving relatives of those lost to the war sought a means of contacting their loved ones.

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He was later exposed as a fraudster, but could count Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of his supporters, so there you go.

What can a linguist learn from a gravestone?
The key running theme of gravestone inscriptions is that they are for the living, and even for a more specific task: they reaffirm and reiterate membership in a group, and the beliefs that are part of the culture of that group. This does not necessarily mean that they are particularly informative about the life of the specific deceased, but they are full of useful, sometimes subtle cues about the community the deceased belonged to, and what they valued.

And what movies they liked?

The Mummy: the story of the world’s most expensive movie poster
Auction house Sotheby’s is currently accepting bids for one of three remaining original posters of 1932’s The Mummy. It is expected to sell for somewhere between $1-1.5m, making it the world’s most expensive movie poster. It’s a scary amount of money.

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I’m sure audiences at the time would have been terrified by that film, but could we say the same about this one, from Méliès? I don’t think so.

The Infernal Cauldron (1903)
Short film by Georges Méliès, released through his Star Film Company, featuring demons, flames, spectres, and a brilliant array of the film-maker’s usual arsenal of tricks. As Wikipdia sums up: “In a Renaissance chamber decorated with devilish faces and a warped coat of arms, a gleeful Satan throws three human victims into a cauldron, which spews out flames. The victims rise from the cauldron as nebulous ghosts, and then turn into fireballs. The fireballs multiply and pursue Satan around the chamber. Finally Satan himself leaps into the infernal cauldron, which gives off a final burst of flame.” Enjoy!

yesterday-4

And I can’t imagine this scaring anyone either. Sounds good, though.

Silly Symphony – the skeleton dance 1929 disney short

So let’s end with an exploration of that devil’s interval, and how it moved from the Classical and Romantic eras into the mainstream.

Spooky music
During the 19th century, composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner cracked the code of creepiness. The sonic dread they pioneered involved two key ingredients that horror movies and metal bands still use today: a forbidden sequence of notes known as “Satan in music,” and a spooky little ditty that Gregorian monks sang about the apocalypse.

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Send a smile

Maybe it’s an age thing, maybe I’m just a snob, but I’m still reluctant to include emojis in the texts and messages I write. They’re curious things, though.

Emoji, part 1: in the beginning
Sex! Con­flict! In­ter­na­tional stand­ards bod­ies! The brief his­tory of emoji is far more in­ter­est­ing than it has any right to be, and over the next few months I’ll be tak­ing a look at where the world’s new­est lan­guage came from, how it works and where it’s go­ing.

It star­ted with a heart.

What comes to my mind first, though, is the smiley face. Where did that come from? Read on.

How the smiley face became a counter-cultural symbol
The yellow smiley face as we know it has been around for over half a century, but where did it come from? And how does it continue to grin when the general consensus says there isn’t much to smile about these days? Here, we trace the origins of the iconic graphic, from its corporate beginnings to its counter-cultural adoption.

Can I have a word, you guys?

I hate that cliché about people from Yorkshire ‘saying what they mean and meaning what they say’. Words are rarely that straightforward or unambiguous.

This is how tiny changes in words you hear impacts your thinking
One example Lakoff mentions in his book is George W. Bush’s usage of the phrase “tax relief” on the day he arrived in the White House. Consider the framing around the word “relief.”

Lakoff writes: For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent relief. When the word tax is added to relief, the result is a metaphor: Taxation is an affliction. And the person who takes it away is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy. This is a frame. It is made up of ideas, like affliction and hero.

The problem with ‘Hey guys’
There are, of course, plenty of people—including many women—who have no problem being addressed as “guys,” think the word has evolved to be entirely gender-neutral, and don’t see a reason to change their usage. But others aren’t so sure. “I think there’s a really serious and welcome reconception of gender lines and relationships between sex and gender going on,” says John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics at Columbia University and has written several books about language. He says “something has crested in particular over about the past 10 years”—something that has people examining their everyday communications.

The English alternative to therapy?

An interesting view of us, our language and our politicians, from Rebecca Mead, of The New Yorker.

Jeremy Corbyn and the English fetishization of irony
In the London Review of Books personals, the wounding quality that is so often present in English irony is turned inward, to the point that self-loathing is so acute it becomes a form of self-love. (I may be ugly, but look how clever I am.) Often, though, the violence of irony is turned outward. The British playwright David Hare, in the notes to his play “Plenty,” writes that, when foreign actors ask him why a character behaves in a certain way, he believes it is sufficient to reply, “Because you are English.” Hare goes on, “Irony is central to English humor, and as a people we are cruel to each other, but quietly.” In this sense, Corbyn’s charge that some people “don’t understand English irony” participates in a ratcheting up of cruelty in the name of humor. The next step beyond hurting an individual or a group with a joke at their expense is to insist that their pain, far from being a justified response to verbal violence, is a symptom of deficiency on their part. The charge that a person lacks a sense of humor is a familiar bully’s tactic. Women in particular will recognize that the phrase “Can’t you take a joke?” is an expression of menace, not an invitation to share a laugh.

I’ve never thought of our self-confessed love of irony in such terms before. Our pride in our national sense of humour is no joking matter.

To be able to maintain an ironical approach to life means avoiding a more passionately committed or passionately expressive one. It means arming oneself in advance against the possibility of pain or disappointment, by building pain and disappointment into one’s emotional default. Irony is resignation in jester’s clothing.

Being British as well as American provides Rebecca with a great perspective on us all. Here’s another great and quite moving essay from her.

A new citizen decides to leave the tumult of Trump’s America
After decades in New York, I’ve made the wrenching choice to return to Britain. But England isn’t home.

Very presidential

Maybe this is how it is now, this is how presidents conduct themselves.

Omarosa tapes: There is nothing the former Trump aide can say or do that could possibly matter.
But there is reason to believe that an N-word tape wouldn’t torpedo Trump’s presidency, or even keep him from winning a second term. By this point, we shouldn’t need to hear Trump saying the N-word to become convinced that he considers black people second-class citizens. At the same time, no one who has supported him through his Obama birther fabrication, his insistence that the Central Park Five are guilty, and his defense of white supremacists as “very fine people” will turn against him because he used a racial slur.

I wonder if those Word of the Year assessments will include ‘normalised’ this year.

Dog days of summarizing
If the birtherism campaign strategy, the Mexican rapists comment, the good people on both sides argument, the attacks on NFL players, the LeBron James critique, the efforts to avoid renting apartments to African-Americans, the Central Park jogger case, the wall, the Muslim ban, the disparaging of a Mexican judge, the suggestion that all Haitian immigrants have AIDs, the “shithole countries” description, the response to Hurricane Maria, the backing of Joe Arpaio and Roy Moore, and the constant dog whistles to the alt-right haven’t swayed you, spelling out an offensive word sure isn’t gonna make the difference…

Or has ‘fake news’ already grabbed that accolade?

Trump’s ‘dirty war’ on media draws editorials in 300 US outlets
Starting with the Boston Globe itself, the editorial there, headlined Journalists Are Not The Enemy, argued that a free press had been a core American principle for more than 200 years.

The New York Times chose the headline A Free Press Needs You, calling Mr Trump’s attacks “dangerous to the lifeblood of democracy”. It published excerpts from dozens more publications beneath.

The New York Post – a pro-Trump tabloid – answered the Globe’s call by saying “Who are we to disagree?” adding: “It may be frustrating to argue that just because we print inconvenient truths doesn’t mean that we’re fake news, but being a journalist isn’t a popularity contest. All we can do is to keep reporting.” But it also said: “Will this make a difference? Not one whit”.

The Topeka Capital-Journal was another paper to join the campaign. It said of Mr Trump’s attack on the media: “It’s sinister. It’s destructive. And it must end now.” The paper was one of the few to endorse Mr Trump in 2016.

There is such a thing as emoji research now

I still can’t bring myself to join in with this, but there you go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Academics gathered to share emoji research, and it was 🔥
Wijeratne had been working on separate research relating to word-sense disambiguation, a field of computational linguistics that looks at how words take on multiple meanings. The use of ⛽ jumped out as a brand new problem. “They were using the gas pump emoji to refer to marijuana,” says Wijeratne. “As soon as I saw this new meaning associated with the emoji, I thought, what about emoji-sense disambiguation?”

That moment caused Wijeratne to redirected his PhD research toward emoji. This week, he put together the first interdisciplinary academic conference on emoji in research.

[…]

Now, researchers are beginning to turn more seriously toward those research questions. On Monday, linguist Gretchen Mcculloch presented a theory of emoji as beat gestures—the equivalent of gesticulating to add emphasis—rather than a language in themselves. “Letters let us write words, emoji let us write gestures,” she says. Eric Goldman, a legal scholar at Santa Clara University’s School of Law, discussed a forthcoming paper on emoji and the law, which highlights the potential for emoji to create misunderstanding in legal contexts—including high profile cases, like the Silk Road case.

100,000 happy moments

Nathan Yau has a fascinating look at what makes us happy.

What makes people the most happy
What made you happy in the past 24 hours? Researchers asked 10,000 people this question. More specifically, the collaboration between the University of Tokyo, MIT, and Recruit Institute of Technology asked participants on Mechanical Turk to list 10 happy moments. This generated a corpus of 100,000 happy moments called HappyDB.

With how things are these days, I was happy to read over and analyze such a happy dataset.

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.

a-wide-open-hell

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.