bookmark_borderπ is wrong, long live ტ

? is often given an almost mythical status, so I found it very refreshing when I was made aware of the ? movement that argue that ? = 2? is a much more natural constant.

There are lots of good arguments in favour (do follow the link above), and I’m definitely a convert.

However, as Stewart Russell pointed out to me on Facebook, physicists already have other uses for ?, so perhaps a better symbol could be chosen.

I would propose the Georgian letter ? (pronounced tari), which doesn’t seem to have any uses in maths or physics.

bookmark_borderBoys and girls, not children or kids

In English, the word for young human beings is kids informally and children formally.

However, in a school context the expression used is almost always boys and girls. It’s practically the only option when speaking to them, and it seems also to be the preferred lexical item when talking about them to parents. Even parents use them in sentences such as this: “Did you have good fun playing with the other boys and girls today?”

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most bilingual dictionaries won’t have included boys and girls as a translation.

It’s also one of the words that shows that I’ve been away from Denmark for a long time now: I’m not really sure which term Danish teachers use to address the boys and girls… “Godmorgen, børn!”? “Godmorgen, drenge og piger!”? “Godmorgen, alle sammen!”?

bookmark_borderThe impossibility of the Universal Translator



Universal Translator Device
Originally uploaded by Fred Seibert

The Universal Translator that is used in Star Trek, as well as its related inventions in other science fiction, is an insane idea if you think about it.

Let’s look at the various ways it can possibly work.

Perhaps it’s simply analysing spoken and written language and interpreting it. This is the most obvious way, but there are no ways to avoid delays during interpretations. For instance, the German sentence Ich kenne diesen kleinen Jungen means “I know this small boy”, but Ich kenne diesen kleinen Jungen nicht means “I don’t know this small boy”; in other words, the second word of the English translation cannot be produced until the last word of the German original has been said. This means that interpreted speech will always be delayed compared to the original, but there’s absolutely no evidence of this in the Star Trek series – people from different planets talk freely without any noticeable delays.

So if that doesn’t work, the alternative is to analyse the speaker’s brainwaves or similar. Apart for the problem that it’s unlikely that different species would have brains organised in similar ways, it would require brainwaves to be present. That is, it would be doable if the speaker was in the same room as you, but how would this work if the speaker was speaking over a radio connexion, as they often do? Do subspace transmissions always carry brainwaves along with the audio? Apart from that, how would this approach work with written materials or audiovisual recordings, given that they don’t have brainwaves? You often see Star Fleet members operating alien spaceships that have all labels written in alien letters, so somehow the UT must be handling this, too.

The second big issue is that it picks up new languages too rapidly. It seems to be enough for it simply to listen to a few sentences in an alien tongue, and it suddenly becomes able to translate everything. If it’s operating on brainwaves, perhaps this would be possible, but if it’s actually analysing the language, this is just impossible. Even if it could quickly establish the meaning of a few words, it would takes days if not weeks before the vast majority of the vocabulary items had been encountered enough times to work out what they meant. In other words, it would have to intersperse its translations with beeps all the time when translating a ‘new’ language.

Finally, there are some occasions where people clearly have learnt an alien language. Why on earth would they, if the UT is so wonderful? And how could they, if they never actually hear the alien languages because the UT interprets everything before the sound reaches their ears? I guess they’d have to switch off the UT for a long time, but that would be such a handicap for a long time that I doubt it would be a frequent occurrence.

Why is there such a deficit of linguistically plausible science fiction? 🙁

bookmark_borderAvoiding the front of the shelf



Aisle of cans
Originally uploaded by nyxie

I read this in The Telegraph the other day:

On the rare occasions I have done my supermarket shop via computer, the milk and meat that arrived were already on their sell-by date. I felt cheated. One of the many thrills of being in a supermarket is that you can surreptitiously shove aside the sausages the store displays at the front of the cabinet to find the freshest produce at the back.

I couldn’t agree more. I always pick products from the back of the shelf, and the fact that it’s not in the shops’ interest to do the same when picking groceries for online shoppers makes me very reluctant to use internet shopping for products that can go off (although I hardly ever buy books, computers, trees or holidays offline these days).

I guess the fundamental problem is that a lot of us don’t trust supermarkets to act as critical shoppers in their own shops.

I wonder whether it’d be worth setting up a business to provide 3rd party internet shopping, i.e., the customers would order groceries online, and the website’s expert shoppers would then go into several physical shops to get the freshest produce at the best price. The only problem is that is would end up more expensive for the consumers, and that’s probably not what’s needed during a recession…

It’s a shame, though, both for the consumers and the shops. If somebody came up with a new model so that consumers shopping online would get better produce at a better price rather than worse produce at a higher price, I’m sure supermarkets would start disappearing within a few years.

bookmark_borderRhubarb meringue pie



One of 6 rhubarb plants
Originally uploaded by dave.scriven

Here’s my family’s rhubarb meringue pie recipe:

  • 250 g flour
  • 125 g butter
  • 65 g sugar
  • 1 pinch of salt
  • 3–4 eggs, separated
  • 200 g icing sugar
  • some rhubarb (enough to cover the base of the mould twice)

Make a shortcrust pastry of flour, butter, sugar, salt and egg yolks and line a buttered mould with it.

Cut the rhubarb into 3–4 cm long chunks and blanch them briefly.

Make a meringue from egg whites and icing sugar. Cover the bottom of the pastry with a bit of the meringue, then add the rhubarb pieces, and add the rest of the meringue on top.

Bake for 45 minutes at 175–200ºC.

bookmark_borderA future hut heaven?

There’s an interesting article in The Herald describing how a charity is planning to build a thousand huts in Scotland.

It’s interesting, because despite Scotland’s similarity to the Scandinavian countries, the hut culture is entirely different (or rather, it’s non-existent): “In Norway more than half the population has access to a [hut]. [The proportion is] one in 12 Swedes, one in 18 Finns and one in 33 Danes. […] However, in Scotland 10 years ago a study showed there were just 700 holiday huts […] for a population of five million.”

Norway might be a difficult act to follow, but I can’t help thinking that building 1000 huts is a very small step if the deficit is about half a million!

It’s a good idea, though. The Scottish countryside is amazing, but most of the population is bottled up within the central belt. Wee huts around the lochs would be a welcome sight.

Update: It’s worth comparing the statistics about the person-to-hut ratio with the person-per-km² figures illustrated in my blog posting about wee gardens.

bookmark_borderAserbajdsjan?!?



azerbaijan
Originally uploaded by retlaw snellac

Jeg blev for nylig opmærksom på, at man iflg. Retskrivningsordbogen skal skrive Aserbajdsjan og ikke *Aserbajdjan, som jeg havde forventet, altså med -dsj- og ikke -dj-.

På aserbajdsjansk hedder landet Az?rbaycan, hvilket udtales /azærbajd?an/ – grafemet ‘c’ modsvarer altså fonemet /d?/, ligesom på tyrkisk (der jo er nært beslægtet), og det ville man nok normalt skrive som -dj- på dansk.

Men i øvrigt transskriberer vi jo normalt ikke stednavne, der allerede skrives med det latinske alfabet – vi skriver Paris, Wien, Edinburgh og Warszawa, ikke *Bari, *Vin, *Ættenborre og *Varsjava, så hvorfor er har vi overhovedet kastet os ud i transskription her, i stedet for simpelthen at skrive *Azarbaycan (hvis vi går ud fra, at ‘?’ ville blive transskriberet som ‘a’)?

Det eneste mulige svar er, at landet var en del af Sovjetunionen i mange år, og på russisk hedder landet ???????????, hvilket med de normale danske regler for transskription af russisk netop bliver til Aserbajdsjan – vi får -dsj-, fordi der er to bogstaver på russisk: ? ‘d’ og ? ‘sj’.

Jeg synes dog, det er ved at være på tide at lægge landets sovjetiske arv i mølposen. Det bedste ville nok være at give landet et “rigtigt” navn på dansk, ligesom nabolandene Armenien og Georgien, i stedet for blot at transskribere det russiske navn. Hvad vil være bedst? Aserbejdjan ligger ikke godt på tungen, så hvorfor ikke kalde landet Aserbejdien eller simpelthen Aserien?