The Whorf Hypothesis all wrong

I was put onto the podcast Lexicon Valley by pal Fiona Tweedie. One of the first that I listened to was No, Your Language Doesn’t Influence How You Experience the World in which they talk to the linguist John McWhorter about the Whorf Hypothesis (aka linguistic relativity):

the notion that the language you speak affects the way you think, and even influences how you experience reality itself. It’s an attractive idea, and one that makes some visceral sense. English, with its unique structure and grammar and vocabulary, will necessarily bestow a particular worldview that is different from that of Russian, say, or any of the other roughly 6,000 languages still spoken on Earth, right?

McWhorter makes a strong case - interesting in light of The Drama and the Invented Language in which neo-fascists hijacked John Quijada’s conlang Ithkuil in order to “think different” – like a/the master race.

Humans should not be allowed to drive

I don’t think that human’s should be allowed to drive cars. Or any heavy vehicle. Not within the suburban bounds, anyway.

I came late to driving. Very late, on average. Thirty eight. Due to my circumstances, I decided to get a motorcycle license instead of a car license – easier, quicker, cheaper. But it also means I’ve come to driving with a lot more non driving experience than most. And I think that’s valuable. Since I can’t listen to the radio and I’m not wrapped in a metal cocoon while driving, I have a lot of time to study and think about this opinion.

I think I’m a good driver and I’m certainly wrong. I know the rules and I follow them meticulously, except when they are annoying or inconvenient. I have noticed that I’m not alone in that approach. I make mistakes. I forgive mistakes. I forgive the mistakes of others immediately after I’ve almost been killed. I am tormented by my own not-even-close-to-fatal errors, for months. Humans should not be allowed to drive. Humans have emotions and moods that affect their driving.

There are skill levels ranging from expert automotive fanaticists, to the barely capable, on our roads legally.  This is not a good or safe mix. There is rain, and time of day, and level of inebriation, and age of driver to take into account. Speed, the biggest killer. The very notion of traffic as a system, when considered holistically – lights, rules, multiple localized independent actors in different sized, shaped and powered vehicles while traversing a larger systemic whole – is fascinating and fraught for humans limited by imperfect bodies, imperfect understanding of the rules.

The smallest of thought experiments blows it all away:

1. Drivers will have so much more spare time on their hands. Instead of concentrating on not hitting other vehicles drivers can read, watch, surf, learn, or sleep. Or sex. Or SMS. Or vote. Or basically anything except cook.

2. Efficient automated autonomous objects are efficient. Vehicles with a localized knowledge of conditions, laws and needs will be at least an order of magnitude more effective and faster at delivering people to the places they need to be. For values of localized that are roughly 1 metre < x < 3 km.

3. (step 1 plus step 2) More time for non-driving activities coupled with on average less time on the road means a happier, smarter, more relaxed and generally healthier populace.

4. Faster. Let’s face it – when the robotized cars are self organizing, they will do a great job. We will have more free time by virtue of more efficient routing, and more efficient driving.

5. Environmental gains: fewer miles burnt, more efficient driving, fewer cars needed means fewer car built. The end of car ownership and the move towards a pool of autonomous driving vehicles of various size available to all, at all times. The resulting massive reduction in resource and labour consumption from the vehicle industry.

Remember that most cars spend most of their time sitting idle, with one of the few exceptions being taxis. Let’s reclaim the space taken by parked vehicles, the time wasted in the manufacturing of the massive vehicular excess and it’s component parts, and the environment consumed mining for oil, iron, and vehicular oriented city and urban planning, the fresh air from the pollution created. This is not a novel idea – Helsinki is planning on phasing out private cars.

6. Reduction of fatal and/or serious accidents.

7. Reduction of traffic jams as the cars communicate with each other in such a way as to prevent the coalescences that creates traffic issues.

To those that claim the vehicles brings freedom, I contend that there are fewer spaces on the planet that are less free than the car. Every aspect of driving is highly regulated – who can drive one and what state they must be in to do it, who can afford a vehicle, who can make a vehicle and what standards it must meet to hit the road, the rules about where and how one must drive the vehicle, even the interior of the car is regulated – first by the state, then by the manufacturer, by the owner and finally the driver.

Those that insist on driving, those that enjoy driving, can continue to do so – in areas built especially for the purpose, out side of the city limits.

Driving does not bring us freedom. It brings us a slavery to the labour required to purchase them, to build them, to power them and to use them. It brings us environmental destruction in the land it consumes as roads and parking spaces, and the natural resources that must be extracted for their continued creation and use, and the pollution that all of those processes create. It has the mental tax of dealing with other drivers, the expenses and the time lost concentrating on driving. It has the human tax of lives lost. The financial cost to our lives by virtue of the time wasted and all other external costs listed.

The cost of allowing humans to drive is too high. We shouldn’t pay it.

Humans should not be allowed to drive within the urban bounds. It should be done by networked robots.

Non Human Languages?

According to the surprisingly still active Slashdot, Researchers Discover New Plant “Language”:

Westwood examined the plants’ mRNA, the molecule in cells that instructs organisms how to code certain proteins that are key to functioning. MRNA helps to regulate plant development and can control when plants eventually flowers. He found that the parasitic and the host plants were exchanging thousands of mRNA molecules between each other, thus creating a conversation.

Ah! Clarity. For a loose definition of language and conversation. I’m ok with loose definitions, a good analogy can help open the mind to new possibilities and potentialities. But I’m still happy to mock a little.

 

 

Coded messages to China in Lorem Ipsum?

acb has pointed me to an interesting tale about Google Translate seemingly hiding coded signals in Lorem Ipsum translations. While it all seems a little far fetched or conspiratorial, this story is from Krebs on Security, a well respected blog on all things crypto and security.

I recently discovered that the simple Lorem has been transformed into what can only be described as a post internet: Vegan Ipsum (veggie ipsum), Lorem Bacon, Hipster Ipsum, Lorizzle (Gangster Ipusm), Beer Ipsum, Samuel L Ipsum and teh best of the lot – Picksomeipsum in which you can pick one of the actors Clint Eastwood, Michael Caine, Jim Carrey and or Morgan Freeman as a source, or pit two of the actors against each other:

…ing is about respect. getting it for yourself, and taking it away from the other guy. you want a guarantee, buy a toaster. what you have to ask yourself is, do i feel lucky. well do ya’ punk? cities fall but they are rebuilt. heroes die but they are remembered. multiply your anger by about a hundred, kate, that’s how much he thinks he loves you. no, this is mount everest. you should flip on the discovery channel from time to time. but i guess you can’t now, being dead and all. cities fall but they are rebuilt. heroes die but they are remembered. are you feeling lucky punk don’t p!ss down my back and tell me it’s raining. here. put that in your report!” and “i may have found a way out of here. that tall drink of water with the silver spoon up his ass. ever notice how sometimes you come across somebody you shouldn’t have f**ked with? well, i’m that guy.

Rehabilitated? well, now let me see. you know, i don’t have any idea what that means. it only took me six days. same time it took the lord to make the world. ever notice how sometimes you come across somebody you shouldn’t have f**ked with? well, i’m that guy. man’s gotta know his limitations. mister wayne, if you don’t want to tell me exactly what you’re doing, when i’m asked, i don’t have to lie. but don’t think of me as an idiot. cities fall but they are rebuilt. heroes die but they are remembered. circumstances have taught me that a man’s ethics are the only possessions he will take beyond the grave. this is my gun, clyde! this is the ak-47 assault rifle, the preferred weapon of your enemy; and it makes a distinctive sound when fired at you, so remember it. well, do you have anything to say for yourself? the man likes to play chess; let’s get him some rocks. that tall drink of water with the silver spoon up his ass…

There is, of course, a fairly comprehensive list of Lorem Ipsum generators, and generators available in German, Chinese, Russian and Spanish Ipsum.

The drama and the invented language

Fascinating read in the New Yorker about invented languages – most of which fail -and the other dramas surrounding them. The main focus is Ithkuil, a language invented by John Quijada, but broadly describes conlangs (constructed languages) and their inventors and adherents, sprinkled with interesting linguistic or language facts (George Soros is a native speaker of Esperanto!)

Unlike earlier philosophers and idealists, who believed that their languages could perfect humanity, modern conlangers tend to create their languages primarily as a hobby and a form of self-expression. Jim Henry, a retired software developer from Stockbridge, Georgia, keeps a diary and prays in his constructed language, gjâ-zym-byn. If there is a god paying attention, he is the language’s only other speaker.

Many conlanging projects begin with a simple premise that violates the inherited conventions of linguistics in some new way. Aeo uses only vowels. Kēlen has no verbs. Toki Pona, a language inspired by Taoist ideals, was designed to test how simple a language could be. It has just a hundred and twenty-three words and fourteen basic sound units. Brithenig is an answer to the question of what English might have sounded like as a Romance language, if vulgar Latin had taken root on the British Isles. Láadan, a feminist language developed in the early nineteen-eighties, includes words like radíidin, defined as a “non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.”

The underlying structure of the language is largely glossed over, although the broad brush strokes are compelling. Most languages have cool tools, little aspects that make it more interesting than other languages, be it situational or grammatical or in lexicon. In Ithkuil Quijada attempted to bring together all of these linguistic wonders into a single language – and then, having read the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s “Metaphors We Live By,” attempted to make a language precise, to remove the need for metaphor.

Quijada opened his presentation the next morning by showing an image of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2,” a seminal work of Cubist painting, which captures a figure in motion with abstract lines and planes. It’s not an easy work to describe in any language, but Quijada wanted to demonstrate how one would attempt the task in Ithkuil.

He began with several of the language’s root words: -QV- for person, -GV- for clothing, -TN- for an implement that counters gravity, and -GW- for ambulation, and showed how to transform those roots through each of the language’s twenty-two grammatical categories to arrive at the six-word sentence “Aukkras êqutta ogvëuļa tnou’elkwa pal-lši augwaikštülnàmbu,” which translates roughly to “An imaginary representation of a nude woman in the midst of descending a staircase in a step-by-step series of tightly integrated ambulatory bodily movements which combine into a three-dimensional wake behind her, forming a timeless, emergent whole to be considered intellectually, emotionally, and aesthetically.”

When Quijada is invited to the conference “Creative Technology: Perspectives and Means of Development,” to speak on Ithkuil, he discovers that it is now being used by an odd sect of quasi intellectuals based in a Buddhist state, influential on anti Semitic Ukrainian terrorists and using Ithkuil to literally think different.

“We think that when a person learns Ithkuil his brain works faster,” Vishneva told him, in Russian. She spoke through a translator, as neither she nor Quijada was yet fluent in their shared language. “With Ithkuil, you always have to be reflecting on yourself. Using Ithkuil, we can see things that exist but don’t have names, in the same way that Mendeleyev’s periodic table showed gaps where we knew elements should be that had yet to be discovered.”

Really makes Esperanto seem so run of the mill, doesn’t it?

You can read Quijada’s text online Ithkuil: A Philosophical Design for a Hypothetical Language or purchase the 450 page book from the same site.

On disappearing scripts

Medium is a new online forum or format that I’ve been seeing more and more writing of note on, Quinn Norton’s essay collection is an example of some of the most interesting online writing at the moment. Smart, savvy, independent, thoughtful, nuanced.

This week I stumbled across another piece of note for language nerds, about the potential demise of the Urdu script nastaliq - one of the Persian scripts of note, still found in parts of Afghanistan, Western China, Pakistan and India:

…Urdu, a South Asian language spoken by anywhere between 100 — 125 million people in Pakistan and India, and one of Pakistan’s two official languages. Urdu is traditionally written in a Perso-Arabic script callednastaliq, a flowy and ornate and hanging script. But when rendered on the web and on smartphones and the entire gamut of digital devices at our disposal, Urdu is getting depicted in naskh, an angular and rather stodgy script that comes from Arabic. And those that don’t like it can go write in Western letters.

Here’s a visual comparison taken from Wikipedia.

Nastaliq v. Naskh. Courtesy Wikpedia.

Looking at the picture, the discerning eye may immediately realize why naskh trumps nastaliq on digital devices. With its straightness and angularity, naskh is simply easier to code, because unlike nastaliq, it doesn’t move vertically and doesn’t have dots adhering to a strict pattern. And we all know how techies opt for functionality.

I’m glad the writer goes further, finding the fascination of a language Romanized (the romance of a language romanized), although makes the following claim which I found odd, emphasis mine:

Writing in Roman letters also makes it easier to switch in and out of English. As an example, take a recent Tweet by the human rights activist Sana Saleem: “If you’ve read my tweets, or my work, I hardly ever cuss. Sorry about that, par bus boat hogaya, buss kardo bass.”

To me, as a writer, that is an astonishing piece of text. Not only are we looking at two languages collapsed into one, but the Romanized part is a language that has not yet been formalized; it is literally under construction due to the pressure exerted by the exigencies of the internet.

The implication that the English language is somehow fully formalized and is protected from the vagaries of the internet is just incorrect - it has been three years since Superlinguo dropped I can has language play on us – but even further, English is still being contested offline. Online is just giving younger people greater sway in that contest.

It’s also not that surprising or astonishing a concept to almost anyone that speaks a second or third language – I presume anyway. As someone that speaks small amounts of three or four other languages, inter lingual word play has always been a source of humour, power and poetry.

Despite this minor quibble, it’s a fascinating insight into the deep search that humans go on when confronted with so much knowledge, leading the author unsuccessfully to the doors of Apple and the, surprisingly successfully, to the doors of Microsoft.

It’s a great reminder of how fragile a language or culture can be - despite the ubiquity of information and knowledge online.

A font for all occassions

Google have announced Noto:

Noto is Google’s font family that aims to support all the world’s languages. Its design goal is to achieve visual harmonization across languages. Noto fonts are under Apache License 2.0.

The comprehensive set of fonts and some of the tools used in our development are available at noto.googlecode.com.


New!
 Noto Sans CJK is released with full support for Simplified ChineseTraditional ChineseJapanese, and KoreanLearn more

The page has a neat map to click for languages, where you can choose a subset per nation – for Kenya you can choose from 20 languages; for Australia, a mere three – English, Italian and Traditional Chinese. I’m not surprised there are so few – we barely see any Greek or Vietnamese writing on the streets, but I guess we don’t see much Italian either. Pity there’s not more South East Asian languages in our curricula.

Localised Malware

Trendmicro are reporting seen in the wild localised malware.

The malware strain known as VOBFUS works by copying itself onto removable media like USB sticks with names like porn.exe or sexy.exe. 

This variant also uses file names written in these languages:

  • Arabic
  • Bosnian
  • Chinese
  • Croatian
  • Czech
  • French
  • German
  • Hungarian
  • Italian
  • Korean
  • Persian
  • Polish
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Slovak
  • Spanish
  • Thai
  • Turkish
  • Vietnamese

While the languages may differ, they all translate to I love youNakedPassword, and Webcam.

I’m surprised that Malware is still a thing at times but then I remember that the whole world is online these days – as this development shows.