Dinner or tea, lunch or dinner – signs of class or the times

I was pondering the words of the old advertising jingle1:

I like a nice cup of tea in the morning,
Just to start the day you see;
And at half past eleven,
Well my idea of heaven,
Is a nice cup of tea.

I like a nice cup off tea with my dinner,
And a nice cup of tea with my tea,
And about this time of night,
What goes down a treat, you’re right,
It’s a nice cup of tea.

As well as the deep truth underlying the words, I suddenly became aware of the beginning of the second stanza: “a nice cup of tea with my dinner, and a nice cup of tea with my tea“.

I’d guess the last part of this may be confusing to a non-UK audience, or it may conjure up images of period-drama afternoon tea with cucumber sandwiches and parasols over a game of croquet.

Now the meaning of ‘dinner’ has been a matter of discussion in my household for years.

When I was a child ‘dinner’ was the light meal in the middle of the day, whereas ‘tea’ was the main meal at around 6 o’clock.

In contrast, Fiona takes a more pragmatic approach: ‘dinner’ is the main meal whether taken midday or in the evening.

My impression is that, when I was a child, this was part of a general class distinction. Posh (middle class) people ate lunch at midday, dinner in the evening, watched BBC and drank coffee. The working class ate dinner at midday, ate tea in the evening, watched ITV (the channel with adverts), and drank tea.

Weirdly in school one had ‘school dinners’ or ‘free dinners’ if on benefits, but had ‘packed lunches’.

We have sometimes discussed whether the tea/dinner distinction was more a Welsh-ism. But the advertising jingle clearly shows it was widespread2.

Now-a-days I tend to use the words rather interchangeably, and certainly happy to use ‘lunch’. Is this because I have become part of the professional classes or a general shift of language?

What do you call meals? Is it the same as when you were little? Is it still a class distinction?

  1. According to responses in AnswerBank, this was from an original 1937 song for Brook Bond ‘D’ brand … and in fact the word ‘tea’ was replaced by ‘D’ … but I obviously missed this and remember it as ‘tea’!  The original lyrics have slightly different final lines, “And when it’s time for bed, There’s a lot to be said, For a nice cup of tea“, or maybe I simply misremembered the advert.[back]
  2. even in 1937[back]

book: The Unfolding of Language, Deutscher

I have previously read Guy Deutscher‘s “Through the Language Glass“, and have now, topsy turvy, read his earlier book “The Unfolding of Language“.  Both are about language, “The Unfolding of Language” about the development of the complexity of language that we see today from simpler origins, and “Through the Language Glass” about the interaction between language and thought.  Both are full of sometimes witty and always fascinating examples drawn from languages around the world, from the Matses in the Amazon to Ancient Sumarian.

I recall my own interest in the origins of language began young, as a seven year old over breakfast one day, asking whether ‘night, was a contraction of ‘no light’.  While this was an etymological red herring, it is very much the kind of change that Deutscher documents in detail showing the way a word accretes beginnings and ending through juxtaposition of simpler words followed by erosion of hard to pronounce sounds.

One of my favourites examples was the French “aujourd’hui”.  The word ‘hui, was Old French for ‘today’, but was originally Latin “hoc die”, “(on) this day”. Because ‘hui’ is not very emphatic it became “au jour d’hui”, “on the day of this day” , which contracted to the current ‘aujourd’hui’. Except now to add emphasis some French speakers are starting to say “au jour aujourd’hui”, “on the day on the day of this day”!  This reminds me of Longsleddale in the Lake District (inspiration for Postman Pat‘s Greendale),  a contraction of “long sled dale”, which literally means “long valley valley” from Old English “slaed” meaning “valley” … although I once even saw something suggesting that ‘long’ itself in the name was also “valley” in a different language!

Deutscher gives many more prosaic examples where words meaning ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘she’ get accreted to verbs to create the verb endings found in languages such as French, and how prepositions (themselves metaphorically derived from words like ‘back’) were merged with nouns to create the complex case endings of Latin.

However, the most complex edifice, which Deutscher returns to repeatedly, is that of the Semitic languages with a template system of vowels around three-consonant roots, where the vowel templates change the meaning of the root.  To illustrate he uses the (fictional!) root ‘sng’ meaning ‘to snog’ and discusses how first simple templates such as ‘snug’ (“I snogged”) and then more complex constructions such as ‘hitsunnag’ (“he was made to snog himself”) all arose from simple processes of combination, shortening and generalisation.

“The Unfolding of Language” begins with the 19th century observation that all languages seem to be in a process of degeneration where more complex  forms such as the Latin case system or early English verb endings are progressively simplified and reduced. The linguists of the day saw all languages in a state of continuous decay from an early linguistic Golden Age. Indeed one linguist, August Schleicher, suggested that there was a process where language develops until it is complex enough to get things done, and only then recorded history starts, after which the effort spent on language is instead spent in making history.

As with geology, or biological evolution, the modern linguist rejects this staged view of the past, looking towards the Law of Uniformitarianism, things are as they have always been, so one can work out what must have happened in the pre-recorded past by what is happening now.  However, whilst generally finding this convincing, throughout the book I had a niggling feeling that there is a difference.  By definition, those languages for which we have written records are those of large developed civilisations, who moreover are based on writing. Furthermore I am aware that for biological evolution small isolated groups (e.g. on islands or cut off in valleys) are particularly important for introducing novelty into larger populations, and I assume the same would be true of languages, but somewhat stultified by mass communication.

Deutscher does deal with this briefly, but right at the very end in a short epilogue.  I feel there is a whole additional story about the interaction between culture and the grammatical development of language.  I recall in school a teacher explained how in Latin the feminine words tended to belong to the early period linked to agriculture and the land, masculine words for later interests in war and conquest, and neuter for the still later phase of civic and political development. There were many exceptions, but even this modicum of order helped me to make sense of what otherwise seemed an arbitrary distinction.

The epilogue also mentions that the sole exception to the ‘decline’ in linguistic complexity is Arabic with its complex template system, still preserved today.

While reading the chapters about the three letter roots, I was struck by the fact that both Hebrew an Arabic are written as consonants only with vowels interpolated by diacritical marks or simply remembered convention (although Deutscher does not mention this himself). I had always assumed that this was like English where t’s pssble t rd txt wth n vwls t ll. However, the vowels are far more critical for Semitic languages where the vowel-less words could make the difference between “he did it” and “it will be done to him”.  Did this difference in writing stem from the root+template system, or vice versa, or maybe they simply mutually reinforced each other?

The other factor regarding Arabic’s remarkable complexity must surely be the Quran. Whereas the Bible was read for a over a millennium in Latin, a non-spoken language, and later translated focused on the meaning; in contrast there is a great emphasis on the precise form of the Quran together with continuous lengthy recitation.  As the King James Bible has been argued to have been a significant influence on modern English since the 17th century, it seems likely the Quran has been a factor in preserving Arabic for the last 1500 years.

Early in “The Unfolding of Language” Deutscher dismisses attempts to look at the even earlier prehistoric roots of language as there is no direct evidence. I assume that this would include Mithin’s “The Singing Neanderthals“, which I posted about recently. There is of course a lot of truth in this criticism; certainly Mithin’s account included a lot of guesswork, albeit founded on paleontological evidence.  However, Deutscher’s own arguments include extrapolating to recent prehistory. These extrapolations are based on early written languages and subsequent recorded developments, but also include guesswork between the hard evidence, as does the whole family-tree of languages.  Deutscher was originally a Cambridge mathematician, like me, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, I found his style of argument convincing. However, given the foundations on Uniformitarianism, which, as noted above, is at best partial when moving from history to pre-history, there seems more of  a continuum rather than sharp distinction between the levels of interpretation and extrapolation in this book and Mithin’s.

Deutscher’s account seeks to fill in the gap between the deep prehistoric origins of protolanguage (what Deutscher’s calls ‘me Tarzan’ language) and its subsequent development in the era of media-society (starting 5000BC with extensive Sumerian writing). Rather than seeing these separately, I feel there is a rich account building across various authors, which will, in time, yield a more complete view of our current language and its past.

book: The Singing Neanderthals, Mithin

One of my birthday presents was Steven Mithin’s “The Singing Neanderthals” and, having been on holiday, I have already read it! I read Mithin’s “The Prehistory of the Mind” some years ago and have referred to it repeatedly over the years1, so was excited to receive this book, and it has not disappointed. I like his broad approach taking evidence from a variety of sources, as well as his own discipline of prehistory; in times when everyone claims to be cross-disciplinary, Mithin truly is.

“The Singing Neanderthal”, as its title suggests, is about the role of music in the evolutionary development of the modern human. We all seem to be born with an element of music in our heart, and Mithin seeks to understand why this is so, and how music is related to, and part of the development of, language. Mithin argues that elements of music developed in various later hominids as a form of primitive communication2, but separated from language in homo sapiens when music became specialised to the communication of emotion and language to more precise actions and concepts.

The book ‘explains’ various known musical facts, including the universality of music across cultures and the fact that most of us do not have perfect pitch … even though young babies do (p77). The hard facts of how things were for humans or related species tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago are sparse, so there is inevitably an element of speculation in Mithin’s theories, but he shows how many, otherwise disparate pieces of evidence from palaeontology, psychology and musicology make sense given the centrality of music.

Whether or not you accept Mithin’s thesis, the first part of the book provides a wide ranging review of current knowledge about the human psychology of music. Coincidentally, while reading the book, there was an article in the Independent reporting on evidence for the importance of music therapy in dealing with depression and aiding the rehabilitation of stroke victims3, reinforcing messages from Mithin’s review.

The topic of “The Singing Neanderthal” is particularly close to my own heart as my first personal forays into evolutionary psychology (long before I knew the term, or discovered Cosmides and Tooby’s work), was in attempting to make sense of human limits to delays and rhythm.

Those who have been to my lectures on time since the mid 1990s will recall being asked to first clap in time and then swing their legs ever faster … sometimes until they fall over! The reason for this is to demonstrate the fact that we cannot keep beats much slower than one per second4, and then explain this in terms of our need for a mental ‘beat keeper’ for walking and running. The leg shaking is to show how our legs, as a simple pendulum, have a natural frequency of around 1Hz, hence determining our slowest walk and hence need for rhythm.

Mithin likewise points to walking and running as crucial in the development of rhythm, in particular the additional demands of bipedal motion (p150). Rhythm, he argues, is not just about music, but also a shared skill needed for turn-taking in conversation (p17), and for emotional bonding.

In just the last few weeks, at the HCI conference in Newcastle, I learnt that entrainment, when we keep time with others, is a rare skill amongst animals, almost uniquely human. Mithin also notes this (p206), with exceptions, in particular one species of frog, where the males gather in groups to sing/croak in synchrony. One suggested reason for this is that the louder sound can attract females from a larger distance. This cooperative behaviour of course acts against each frog’s own interest to ‘get the girl’ so they also seek to out-perform each other when a female frog arrives. Mithin imagines that similar pressures may have sparked early hominid music making. As well as the fact that synchrony makes the frogs louder and so easy to hear, I wonder whether the discerning female frogs also realise that if they go to a frog choir they get to chose amongst them, whereas if they follow a single frog croak they get stuck with the frog they find; a form of frog speed dating?

Mithin also suggests that the human ability to synchronise rhythm is about ‘boundary loss’ seeing oneself less as an individual and more as part of a group, important for early humans about to engage in risky collaborative hunting expeditions. He cites evidence of this from the psychology of music, anthropology, and it is part of many people’s personal experience, for example, in a football crowd, or Last Night at the Proms.

This reminds me of the experiments where a rubber hand is touched in time with touching a person’s real hand; after a while the subject starts to feel as if the rubber hand is his or her own hand. Effectively our brain assumes that this thing that correlates with feeling must be part of oneself5. Maybe a similar thing happens in choral singing, I voluntarily make a sound and simultaneously everyone makes the sound, so it is as if the whole choir is an extension of my own body?

Part of the neurological evidence for the importance of group music making concerns the production of oxytocin. In experiments on female prairie voles that have had oxytocin production inhibited, they engage in sex as freely as normal voles, but fail to pair bond (p217). The implication is that oxytocin’s role in bonding applies equally to social groups. While this explains a mechanism by which collaborative rhythmic activities create ‘boundary loss’, it doesn’t explain why oxytocin is created through rhythmic activity in the first place. I wonder if this is perhaps to do with bipedalism and the need for synchronised movement during face-to-face copulation, which would explain why humans can do synchronised rhythms whereas apes cannot. That is, rhythmic movement and oxytocin production become associated for sexual reasons and then this generalises to the social domain. Think again of that chanting football crowd?

I should note that Mithin also discusses at length the use of music in bonding with infants, as anyone who has sung to a baby knows, so this offers an alternative route to rhythm & bonding … but not one that is particular to humans, so I will stick with my hypothesis ;-)

Sexual selection is a strong theme in the book, the kind of runaway selection that leads to the peacock tail. Changing lifestyles of early humans, in particular longer periods looking after immature young, led to a greater degree of female control in the selection of partners. As human size came close to the physical limits of the environment (p185), Mithin suggests that other qualities had to be used by females to choose their mate, notably male singing and dance – prehistoric Saturday Night Fever.

As one evidence for female mate choice, Mithin points to the overly symmetric nature of hand axes and imagines hopeful males demonstrating their dexterity by knapping ever more perfect axes in front of admiring females (p188). However, this brings to mind Calvin’s “Ascent of Mind“, which argues that these symmetric, ovoid axes were used like a discus, thrown into the midst of a herd of prey to bring one down. The two theories for axe shape are not incompatible. Calvin suggests that the complex physical coordination required by axe throwing would have driven general brain development. In fact these forms of coordination, are not so far from those needed for musical movement, and indeed expert flint knapping, so maybe it was this skills that were demonstrated by the shaping of axes beyond that immediately necessary for purpose.

Mithin’s description of the musical nature of mother-child interactions also brought to mind Broomhall’s “Eternal Child“. Broomhall ‘s central thesis is that humans are effectively in a sort of arrested development with many features, not least our near nakedness, characteristic of infants. Although it was not one of the points Broomhall makes, his arguments made sense to me in terms of the mental flexibility that characterises childhood, and the way this is necessary for advanced human innovation; I am always encouraging students to think in a more childlike way. If Broomhall’s theories were correct, then this would help explain how some of the music making more characteristic of mother-infant interactions become generalised to adult social interactions.

I do notice an element of mutual debunking amongst those writing about richer cognitive aspects of early human and hominid development. I guess a common trait in disciplines when evidence is thin, and theories have to fill a lot of blanks. So maybe Mithin, Calvin and Broomhall would not welcome me bringing their respective contributions together! However, as in other areas where data is necessarily scant (such as sub-atomic physics), one does feel a developing level of methodological rigour, and the fact that these quite different theoretical approaches have points of connection, does suggest that a deeper understanding of early human cognition, while not yet definitive, is developing.

In summary, and as part of this wider unfolding story, “The Singing Neanderthal” is an engaging and entertaining book to read whether you are interested in the psychological and social impact of music itself, or the development of the human mind.

… and I have another of Mithin’s books in the birthday pile, so looking forward to that too!

  1. See particularly my essay on the role of imagination in bringing together our different forms of ‘specialised intelligence’. “The Prehistory of the Mind” highlighted the importance of this ‘cognitive fluidity’, linking social, natural and technological thought, but lays this largely in the realm of language. I would suggest that imagination also has this role, creating a sort of ‘virtual world’ on which different specialised cognitive modules can act (see “imagination and rationality“).[back]
  2. He calls this musical communication system Hmmmm in its early form – Holistic, Multiple-Modal, Manipulative and Musical, p138 – and later Hmmmmm – Holistic, Multiple-Modal, Manipulative, Musical and Mimetic, p221.[back]
  3. NHS urged to pay for music therapy to cure depression“, Nina Lakhani, The Independent, Monday, 1 August 2011[back]
  4. Professional conductors say 40 beats per minute is the slowest reliable beat without counting between beats.[back]
  5. See also my previous essay on “driving as a cyborg experience“.[back]

Books and books about books

A combination of things (several rail journeys and flights including two long haul, waits at airports due to snow, an unexpected 2 day diversion to a hotel outside Istanbul again due to snow,  a few days illness after Christmas, and a power cut lasting a whole morning) have all meant that I have spent more time reading than usual.  Now it is not that I do not want to read, and it has always been one of my chief pleasures, but as an academic, paradoxically, for many years my reading has narrowed to the next report, thesis or paper to review shutting out not just reading for pleasure, but any academic book or article that was not immediately necessary for the next deadline.

However, I have been wonderfully forced by circumstances back to the page.

I have already written about one of these “The Shadow of the Wind” while I was travelling, itself a book about books, and while travelling I also read Kathryn Harrison’s “A Thousand Orange Trees” (an eye opening but unrelentingly depressing vision of women’s life during the Spanish inquisition), Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” (a sometimes depressing, but also glorious account of a hard Irish childhood), Jodi Picoult’s “Change of Heart” (on the death penalty and religion) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Ruth” (a wonderful book about the small mindedness and great generosity of the human spirit, especially remarkable when seen against its time).

… and then I had some new books for Christmas …

At first Keith Gray’s “Ostrich Boys” seems like a classic boy’s book with three friends ‘kidnapping’ the ashes of their friend Ross in order to give him a proper send off at Ross in Scotland.   Like all journey stories, a mixture of going on against the odds and self discovery, not in the league of Cynthia Voigt’s “Homecoming“, but more likely to be read by boys wanting a good adventure and being stretched in the process.

Mal Peet’s “Tamar” is clearly for ‘young adults’, a claustrophobic tale of war time resistance in 1945 cut through with a ‘modern day’ tale.  This parallel tale is a hard genre, and, like Joan Lingard “Natasha’s Will“, I felt Peet managed the 1945 tale better than the current day one1. Although Peet is writing for an older audience, I was reminded of the way Nina Bawden manages to get me to identify, however unwillingly at times, with the flawed characters in her children’s novels.

Susan Hill’s “Howards End is on the Landing” is, like “The Shadow of the Wind“, a book about books, but whereas Zafon’s Novel is set against a fictional library, Susan Hill tells us about her own bookshelves, which seem to coat and fill, like windblown snow, every wall and nook in her house.  She decides to spend a year reading only the books she already has on her shelves, a decision that coincides with a resolution to minimise use of the internet:

Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in a single subject becomes blunted.  Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result is mental malnutrition. (p.2)

This reminds me a little of Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur” except Susan Hill says it more succinctly and elegantly.

Hill’s reading is both eclectic and catholic, encompassing Ian Flemming along with Trollope and Chaucer.  She takes Enid Blyton and J.K. Rowling seriously for their contribution to literacy (although unlike me does not re-read the former), and is happy to say that she never feels comfortable with Austin.  As she describes the titles she finds, sometimes lost between unlikely bedfellows, I am inspired to read them all and also to look to my own shelves:

A book which is left on a shelf for a decade is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, packed with the potential to burst into new life. (p.2)

Susan Hill’s knowledge is amazing and the book is filled with anecdotes about authors she has met, known and corresponded with, giving hints of the inside story of many 20th century writers.  Sometimes I am surprised at her choices or rather not what she chooses, but more what she rejects.  In her list of books she has not read she includes:

Buddenbrooks. Thomas Mann

I want to read this . I mean to read this. I really do.

but also:

Romola. George Elliot

I do understand how I can have not read it.  (p.70)

Why?  Does she mean she can understand why it has not crossed her path, or that she does not want to read it? It is a book I have re-read several times, although always wishing the ending could be different.  I know she does not like “A Tale of Two Cities” feeling that Dickens is at his best when dealing with (for him) the contemporary; maybe she fears the same is true of Elliot?

However, Hill never assumes that her tastes are her readers’ tastes, she does not select the ‘good’ books, but the books she wants to read.

Sadly she does not supply a list of all the books she read during the year, but at the end she gives a ‘top 40′ list, with some I know well such as “The Mayor of Casterbridge“, some I know of but have never read, such as “A Passage to India“, and some I have never heard of such as “Flaubert’s Parrot“.  An instant Amazon Wish List!

Top of her top 40 are the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible (King James Version) — in the text (p173/174) deliberately in that order, but for some reason in the list at the end the Bible comes first, did she rethink after writing, or is it an editorial decision to make the list look neater?

This reminds me that I need to retrieve my battered school bible from underneath the pew where I left it after the Christmas morning service.  Also, the last of my Christmas reading (helped enormously by the enforced internet blackout due to the power cut), a book of Fiona’s “Whose Bible Is It?” by a biblical scholar and champion of inter-faith relations Joroslav Pelikan.  It is a book about a book, or rather a book about books, as Pelikan reminds us that the word “Bible” strictly means “little books”. I know some of the history of the forming of the modern Bible, but Pelikan’s encyclopaedic and detailed knowledge shines through.  I had not realised that it was the Greek Septuagint rather than the Hebrew Tanakh (Old Testament) that is quoted by the New Testament writers, making odd the decision of the early Protestants to excise the ‘Apocrypha’ (the writings in the Septuagint but not in the Hebrew).

It is a short and very readable book, but at times I found myself wanting to know a little more on some points.  When discussing the dates of the Gospels Pelikan notes that Mark is usually dated at 70CE, but doesn’t explain why.  Previously I’ve seen the same date quoted with the reason being that the Gospel appears to predict the fall of Jerusalem which happened in 70AD and therefore must have been written after.  This argument seems to presuppose that prediction is impossible and by analogy would inevitably lead to future historians excising or re-dating  several of Vince Cable’s statements prior to the 2008 financial crash. Maybe there is a better reason, or maybe, like other academic disciplines, biblical scholarship is a servant of its assumptions.

And now … no more power cuts and the internet is flawless, but trying not loose momentum with Sheila Stewart’s “Pilgrims of the Mist“, Mike Parker’s “Map Addict” and George Basalla’s “The Evolution of Technology” all on the go … maybe another post in a couple of weeks.

  1. Try also Susan Cooper’s “Victory” for a story that blends past and current narrative with equal conviction.[back]

Names, URIs and why the web discards 50 years of computing experience

Names and naming have always been a big issue both in computer science and philosophy, and a topic I have posted on before (see “names – a file by any other name“).

In computer science, and in particular programming languages, a whole vocabulary has arisen to talk about names: scope, binding, referential transparency. As in philosophy, it is typically the association between a name and its ‘meaning’ that is of interest. Names and words, whether in programming languages or day-to-day language, are, what philosophers call, ‘intentional‘: they refer to something else. In computer science the ‘something else’ is typically some data or code or a placeholder/variable containing data or code, and the key question of semantics or ‘meaning’ is about how to identify which variable, function or piece of data a name refers to in a particular context at a particular time.

The emphasis in computing has tended to be about:

(a) Making sure names have unambiguous meaning when looking locally inside code. Concerns such as referential transparency, avoiding dynamic binding and the deprecation of global variables are about this.

(b) Putting boundaries on where names can be seen/understood, both as a means to ensure (a) and also as part of encapsulation of semantics in object-based languages and abstract data types.

However, there has always been a tension between clarity of intention (in both the normal and philosophical sense) and abstraction/reuse. If names are totally unambiguous then it becomes impossible to say general things. Without a level of controlled ambiguity in language a legal statement such as “if a driver exceeds the speed limit they will be fined” would need to be stated separately for every citizen. Similarly in computing when we write:

function f(x) { return (x+1)*(x-1); }

The meaning of x is different when we use it in ‘f(2)’ or ‘f(3)’ and must be so to allow ‘f’ to be used generically. Crucially there is no internal ambiguity, the two ‘x’s refer to the same thing in a particular invocation of ‘f’, but the precise meaning of ‘x’ for each invocation is achieved by external binding (the argument list ‘(2)’).

Come the web and URLs and URIs.

Fiona@lovefibre was recently making a test copy of a website built using WordPress. In a pure html website, this is easy (so long as you have used relative or site-relative links within the site), you just copy the files and put them in the new location and they work :-) Occasionally a more dynamic site does need to know its global name (URL), for example if you want to send a link in an email, but this can usually be achieved using configuration file. For example, there is a development version of Snip!t at cardiff.snip!t.org (rather then www.snipit.org), and there is just one configuration file that needs to be changed between this test site and the live one.

Similarly in a pristine WordPress install there is just such a configuration file and one or two database entries. However, as soon as it has been used to create a site, the database content becomes filled with URLs. Some are in clear locations, but many are embedded within HTML fields or serialised plugin options. Copying and moving the database requires a series of SQL updates with string replacements matching the old site name and replacing it with the new — both tedious and needing extreme care not to corrupt the database in the process.

Is this just a case of WordPress being poorly engineered?

In fact I feel more a problem endemic in the web and driven largely by the URL.

Recently I was experimenting with Firefox extensions. Being a good 21st century programmer I simply found an existing extension that was roughly similar to what I was after and started to alter it. First of course I changed its name and then found I needed to make changes through pretty much every file in the extension as the knowledge of the extension name seemed to permeate to the lowest level of the code. To be fair XUL has mechanisms to achieve a level of encapsulation introducing local URIs through the ‘chrome:’ naming scheme and having been through the process once. I maybe understand a bit better how to design extensions to make them less reliant on the external name, and also which names need to be changed and which are more like the ‘x’ in the ‘f(x)’ example. However, despite this, the experience was so different to the levels of encapsulation I have learnt to take for granted in traditional programming.

Much of the trouble resides with the URL. Going back to the two issues of naming, the URL focuses strongly on (a) making the name unambiguous by having a single universal namespace;  URLs are a bit like saying “let’s not just refer to ‘Alan’, but ‘the person with UK National Insurance Number XXXX’ so we know precisely who we are talking about”. Of course this focus on uniqueness of naming has a consequential impact on generality and abstraction. There are many visitors on Tiree over the summer and maybe one day I meet one at the shop and then a few days later pass the same person out walking; I don’t need to know the persons NI number or URL in order to say it was the same person.

Back to Snip!t, over the summer I spent some time working on the XML-based extension mechanism. As soon as these became even slightly complex I found URLs sneaking in, just like the WordPress database :-( The use of namespaces in the XML file can reduce this by at least limiting full URLs to the XML header, but, still, embedded in every XML file are un-abstracted references … and my pride in keeping the test site and live site near identical was severely dented1.

In the years when the web was coming into being the Hypertext community had been reflecting on more than 30 years of practical experience, embodied particularly in the Dexter Model2. The Dexter model and some systems, such as Wendy Hall’s Microcosm3, incorporated external linkage; that is, the body of content had marked hot spots, but the association of these hot spots to other resources was in a separate external layer.

Sadly HTML opted for internal links in anchor and image tags in order to make html files self-contained, a pattern replicated across web technologies such as XML and RDF. At a practical level this is (i) why it is hard to have a single anchor link to multiple things, as was common in early Hypertext systems such as Intermedia, and (ii), as Fiona found, a real pain for maintenance!

  1. I actually resolved this by a nasty ‘hack’ of having internal functions alias the full site name when encountered and treating them as if they refer to the test site — very cludgy![back]
  2. Halasz, F. and Schwartz, M. 1994. The Dexter hypertext reference model. Commun. ACM 37, 2 (Feb. 1994), 30-39. DOI= http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/175235.175237[back]
  3. Hall, W., Davis, H., and Hutchings, G. 1996 Rethinking Hypermedia: the Microcosm Approach. Kluwer Academic Publishers.[back]

language, dreams and the Jabberwocky circuit

If life is always a learning opportunity, then so are dreams.

Last night I both learnt something new about language and cognition, and also developed a new trick for creativity!

In the dream in question I was in a meeting. I know, a sad topic for a dream, and perhaps even sadder it had started with me filling in forms!  The meeting was clearly one after I’d given a talk somewhere as a person across the table said she’d been wanting to ask me (obviously as a sort of challenge) if there was a relation between … and here I’ll expand later … something like evolutionary and ecological something.  Ever one to think on my feet I said something like “that’s an interesting question”, but it was also clear that the question arose partly because the terms sounded somewhat similar, so had some of the sense of a rhyming riddle “what’s the difference between a jeweller and a jailor”.  So I went on to mention random metaphors as a general creativity technique and then, so as to give practical advice, suggested choosing two words next to each other in a dictionary and then trying to link them.

Starting with the last of these, the two words in a dictionary method is one I have never suggested to anyone before, not even thought about. It was clearly prompted by the specific example where the words had an alliterative nature, and so was a sensible generalisation, and after I woke realised was worth suggesting in future as an exercise.  But it was entirely novel to me, I had effectively done the exactly sort of thinking / problem solving that I would have done in the real life situation, but while dreaming.

One of the reasons I find dreams fascinating is that in some ways they are so normal — we clearly have no or little sensory input, and certain parts of our brain shut down (e.g. motor control to stop us thrashing about too much in our sleep) — but other parts seem to function perfectly as normal.  I have written before about the cognitive nature of dreams (including maybe how to model dreaming) and what we may be able to learn about cognitive function because not everything is working, rather like running an engine when it is out of the car.

In this dream clearly the ‘conscious’ (I know an oxymoron) problem-solving part of the mind was operating just the same as when awake.  Which is an interesting fact about dreaming, but  I was already aware of it from previous dreams.

In this dream it was the language that was interesting, the original conundrum I was given.  The problem came as I woke up and tried to reconstruct exactly what my interlocutor had asked me.  The words clearly *meant* evolutionary and ecological, but in the dream had ‘sounded’ even closer aurally, more like evolution and elocution (interesting to consider, images of God speaking forth creation).

So how had the two words sound more similar in my dream than in real speech?

For this we need the Jabberwocky circuit.

There is a certain neurological condition that arises, I think due to tumours or damage in particular areas of the grain, which disrupts particular functions of language.   The person speaks interminably; the words make sense and the grammar is flawless, but there is no overall sense.  Each small snippet of speech is fine, just there is no larger scale linkage.

When explaining this phenomenon to people I often evoke the Jabberwocky circuit.  Now I should note that this is not a word used by linguists, neurolinguists, or cognitive scientists, and is a gross simplification, but I think captures the essence of what is happening.  Basically there is a part of your mind (the conscious, thinking bit) that knows what to say and it asks another bit, the Jabberwocky circuit, to actually articulate the words.  The Jabberwocky circuit knows about the sound form of words and how to string them together grammatically, but basically does what it is told.  The thinking bit needs to know enough about what can be said, but doesn’t have time to deal with precisely how they are strung together and leaves that to Jabberwocky.

Even without brain damage we can see occasional slips in this process.  For example, if you are talking to someone (and even more if typing) and there is some other speech audible (maybe radio in the background), occasionally a word intrudes into your own speech that isn’t part of what you meant to say, but is linked to the background intruding sound.

Occasionally too, you find yourself stopping in mid sentence when the words don’t quite make sense, for example, when what would be reasonable grammar overlaps with a colloquialism, so that it no longer makes sense.  Or you may simply not be able to say a word that you ‘know’ is there and insert “thingy” or “what’s it called” where you should say “spanner”.

The relationship between the two is rather like a manager and someone doing the job: the manager knows pretty much what is possible and can give general directions, but the person doing the job knows the details.  Occasionally, the instructions get confused (when there is intruding background speech) or the manager thinks something is possible which turns out not to be.

Going back to the dream I thought I ‘heard’ the words, but examining more closely after I woke I realised that no word would actually fit.  I think what is happening is that during dreaming (and maybe during imagined dialogue while awake), the Jabberwocky circuit is not active, or not being attended to.  It is like I am hearing the intentions to speak of the other person, not articulated words.  The pre-Jabberwocky bit of the mind does know that there are two words, and knows what they *mean*.  It also knows that they sound rather similar at the beginning (“eco”, “evo”), but not exactly what they sound like throughout.

I have noticed a similar thing with the written word.  Often in dreams I am reading a book, sheet of paper or poster, and the words make sense, but if I try to look more closely at the precise written form of the text, I cannot focus, and indeed often wake at that point1.  That is the dream is creating the interpretation of the text, but not the actual sensory form, although if asked I would normally say that I had ‘seen’ the words on the page in the dream, it is more that I ‘see’ that there are words.

Fiona does claim to be able to see actual letters in dreams, so maybe it is possible to recreate more precise sensory images, or maybe this is just the difference between simply writing and reading, and more conscious spelling-out or attending to words, as in the well known:

Paris in the
the spring

Anyway, I am awake now and the wiser.  I know a little more about dreaming, which cognitive functions are working and which are not;  I know a little more about the brain and language; and I know a new creativity technique.

Not bad for a night in bed.

What do you learn from your dreams?

  1. The waking is interesting, I have often noticed that if the ‘logic’ of the dream becomes irreconcilable I wake.  This is a long story in itself, but I think similar to the way you get a ‘breakdown’ situation when things don’t work as expected and are forced to think about what you are doing.  It seems like the ‘kick’ that changes your mode of thinking often wakes you up![back]

understanding others and understanding ourselves: intention, emotion and incarnation

One of the wonders of the human mind is the way we can get inside one another’s skin; understand what each other is thinking, wanting, feeling. I’m thinking about this now because I’m reading The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition by Michael Tomasello, which is about the way understanding intentions enables cultural development. However, this also connects a hypotheses of my own from many years back, that our idea of self is a sort of ‘accident’ of being social beings. Also at the heart of Christmas is empathy, feeling for and with people, and the very notion of incarnation.

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grammer aint wot it used two be

Fiona @ lovefibre and I have often discussed the worrying decline of language used in many comments and postings on the web. Sometimes people are using compressed txtng language or even leetspeak, both of these are reasonable alternative codes to ‘proper’ English, and potentially part of the natural growth of the language.  However, it is often clear that the cause is ignorance not choice.  One of the reasons may be that many more people are getting a voice on the Internet; it is not just the journalists, academics and professional classes.  If so, this could be a positive social sign indicating that a public voice is no longer restricted to university graduates, who, of course, know their grammar perfectly …

Earlier today I was using Google to look up the author of a book I was reading and one of the top links was a listing on ratemyprofessors.com.  For interest I clicked through and saw:

“He sucks.. hes mean and way to demanding if u wanan work your ass off for a C+ take his class1

Hmm I wonder what this student’s course assignment looked like?

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  1. In case you think I’m a complete pedant, personally, I am happy with both the slang ‘sucks’ and ‘ass’ (instead of ‘arse’!), and the compressed speech ‘u’. These could be well-considered choices in language. The mistyped ‘wanna’ is also just a slip. It is the slightly more proper “hes mean and way to demanding” that seems to show  general lack of understanding.  Happily, the other comments, were not as bad as this one, but I did find the student who wanted a “descent grade” amusing :-) [back]

Language and Action (2): from observation to communication

Years ago I wrote a short CHI paper with Roberta Mancini and Stefano Levialdi “communication, action and history” all about the differences between language and action, but for the second time in a few weeks I am writing about the links. But of course there are both similarities and differences.

In my recent post about “language and action: sequential associative parsing“, I compared the role of semantics in the parsing of language with the similar role semantics plays in linking disparate events in our interpretation of the world and most significantly the actions of others. The two differ however in that language is deliberative, intentionally communicative, and hence has a structure, a rule-iness resulting from conventions; it is chosen to make it easier for the recipient to interpret. In contrast, the events of the world have structure inherent in their physical nature, but do not structure themselves in order that we may interpret them, their rule-iness is inherent not intentional. However, the actions of other people and animals often fall between the two.

In this post I will focus in on individual actions of creatures in the world and the way that observing others tells us about their current activities and even their intended actions, and thus how these observations becomes a resource for planning our own actions. However, our own actions are also the subject of observation and hence available to others. We may deliberately hide or obfuscate our intentions and actions if we do not wish others to ‘read’ what we are doing; however, we may also exaggerate them, making them more obvious when we are collaborating. That is, we shape our actions in the light of their potential observation by others so that they become an explicit communication to them.

This exaggeration is evident in computer environments and the physical world, and may even be the roots of iconic gesture and hence language itself.

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Language and Action: sequential associative parsing

In explaining how to make sentences more readable (I know I am one to talk!), I frequently explain to students that language understanding is a combination of a schema-based syntactic structure with more sequential associative reading.  Only recently I realised this was also the way we had been addressing the issue of task sequence inference in the TIM project. and is related also to the way we interpret action in the real world.

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