Posted in History & Literature

Bingo Bango Bongo

Spot the odd one out: King Kong, Ding Dong, Chit Chat, Jibber Jabber, Tick Tock, Flip Flop, Zag Zig. The last one is obviously wrong, with the correct version being “Zig Zag”. The astute reader may have noticed a funny rule here: in words that are repeated with only the vowel sounds changed, I comes before A and O.

This peculiar pattern is known as the IAO rule and it is best shown in the example “Tic Tac Toe”. For some strange reason, words just don’t sound right in English when it doesn’t follow the IAO rule. Pong Ping, Hop Hip, Dally Dilly and Clop Clip all just sound weird.

This rule is formally known as ablaut reduplication and it is seen in almost every English-speaking country. The origin of the rule is unclear (likely Germanic), yet it is so prevalent and ingrained into us. Even if you have never heard of “ablaut reduplication”, the words sound very wrong and awkward if said in a different order.

There is another strange rule in English when it comes to ordering words. When it comes to a list of adjectives, such as “Little Red Riding Hood”, not listing the adjectives in a specific order makes it sound strange.

For reference, the order is:

Opinion – size – age – shape – colour – origin – material – purpose, then the noun.

This means that you can say something like “my big fat Greek wedding” or “that lovely large old brown French wooden clock”, but you can’t say “a red big ball” without it sounding off.

One notable exception is “the Big Bad Wolf”, where the opinion comes after the size. But if you look carefully, you can see it follows the IAO rule instead.

The more you learn about it, the more you realise how (sometimes needlessly) complex the English language is.

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Posted in History & Literature

Meese

The plural for goose is geese. But the plural for moose is not meese: it is just moose. Why is this the case? This is because English is formed from words of various origins, all following different rules.

Goose is an old word that derives from Old English with Germanic roots. Typically in Old English, words were pluralised (turned into plurals) by a process called mutation, where the vowel sounds are changed to an adjacent sound (e.g. “oo” to “ee”). This explains why goose becomes geese, foot becomes feet and tooth becomes teeth.

However, the word moose traces its roots back to a Northeastern Algonquian language – a subfamily of Native American languages. This means that it does not follow the Old English rules of mutation. Furthermore, because Algonquian languages do not pluralise, the plural for moose is just “moose”.

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Posted in Philosophy

Analog And Digital

We now live in the Digital Age. We take photos with our digital cameras, letting us take thousands of photos as we can easily delete photos that did not turn out well. We write emails on our computers, where we often type and retype, proofreading and editing until we have perfectly sculpted our message. We bombard each other with messages that package complex words and feelings into neat little abbreviations and emoticons.

Going digital has, without a doubt, made our lives easier. Digital is exact and fast, while being easily editable thanks to existing only in virtual space. But what is the price of convenience? Did we lose something in the process?

Before the Digital Age, we used film cameras that required careful photography as we had a limited number of shots per roll of film. We wrote handwritten letters, where we had to give considerable thought to what we were going to write before even picking up the pen, lest we waste another sheet of paper. If we wanted to say something important to someone we cared about, we would do it face to face, or at least over a phone call, where our body language and voice gave off subtle nuances about how we truly felt.

As cumbersome as this sounds, the value of analog is that it focusses on quality, not quantity. We no longer have photo albums that summarise a whole year (or even childhood) in just dozens of carefully curated photos. Instead, we have albums full of hundreds of pictures per day, which we rarely review because there are too many to go through.

The worst consequence of going digital is that our words have lost weight and substance. We throw words at each other like paper planes because we feel compelled to reply in some way. We think less about our choice of words because they are a dime a dozen, yet we overanalyse the meaning of what others say in a message because we have no other cues such as body language. We become hurt by hollow words and emoticons devoid of feeling and personality.

We are still analog. We cannot treat each other like photos that can be taken en masse then culled, or a word document that can be freely edited. We should put more care into the things we say to each other – with more thought, feeling and personality – to avoid hurting each other so much.

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Posted in History & Literature

Lorem Ipsum

In graphic design, placeholders are very useful as it allows you to design a template, then substitute in the appropriate material, such as photos, when the design is finished.
This is particulary useful when designing the overall layout, as you can play with the spacing between items, how big the image should be, et cetera.

The same is true for text, but it is not as simple as you would imagine.
You could paste in a block of text that is an excerpt from somewhere, but this comes with the issue that it is distracting. This is because we are hardwired to start reading a line of text to understand it. Therefore, the designer is distracted from seeing the overall layout as they see the trees instead of the forest.
You could type gibberish text, but this does not look aesthetically pleasing at all.,

An elegant solution is the Lorem Ipsum text. Lorem Ipsum has been used in the printing industry since the 1500s. Ever since, it has been the gold standard in printing and design, both analogue and digital.
As an English speaker, Lorem Ipsum almost looks like normal text, but on closer inspection, you soon realise that you have no idea what it says. However, it is not complete nonsense – it is in fact a collage of text taken from a piece of classical Latin literature called “de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum” (The Extremes of Good and Evil) by Cicero, written in 45 BC.

The standard Lorem Ipsum passage that the industry still uses to this day is largely unchanged since the 1500s. It goes as follows:

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.”

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Posted in History & Literature

Shibboleth

We are often corrected by others (as much as we correct others) on the proper pronunciation of words. Luckily, improper pronunciation is rarely consequential (other than sparking debates such as how to pronounce the word “gif”). However, on numerous occasions throughout history, this was not the case.

During World War 2, American soldiers in the Pacific Theatre came up with a questionable way of detecting enemy soldiers pretending to be allies to sneak in to bases. If a suspicious person was to approach a checkpoint claiming that they were an American or Filipino soldier, the sentry would ask them to say a certain word. The word was “lollapalooza” – an American colloquialism for something that is exceptional and extraordinary. The basis for this test was that Japanese people tend to pronounce the English letter “l” as “r” due to the difference in the two languages. Therefore, if the person was to repeat back “rorra-” they would be immediately shot.

This seems like a highly inaccurate method. What if they were an American soldier who had a bad head cold, or a lisp? But this type of racial profiling by the way someone pronounces a certain word has been commonly used throughout history to filter out people of certain races. Lollapalooza is an example of a shibboleth – a word that can distinguish people of a certain race by their inability to properly pronounce it.

The word comes from the Biblical story of the Ephraimites. When the Gileadites were invaded by the Ephraimites, they fought back and repelled the Ephraimites, who tried to retreat by crossing the River Jordan. The Gileadites planned ahead by securing the river so that they could capture the Ephraimites. They ordered each person crossing the river to say the word “shibboleth”. Because the Ephraimite’s dialect did not include a way to pronounce the “sh” sound, they would repeat back “sibboleth” and were killed on the spot.

Unfortunately, shibboleths have typically been used to identify members of a certain race so that they could be massacred. Nowadays, shibboleths are used in a more light-hearted manner. For example, New Zealanders and Australians mock each other on how each pronounce the words fish and chips. Because New Zealanders pronounce the “i” with a shorter sound, Australians tease that they say “fush and chups”. On the other hand, New Zealanders mock Australians on their long “i” sounds that make it sound as if they are saying “feesh and cheeps”.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Point Of View

Sometimes, we make a mistake while talking to someone and say something to offend them. But what is worse than accidentally doing so is not understanding why they were offended, or why they are suddenly angry at you. Everyone’s life is as unique as their fingerprints, with different experiences leading to the forming of different values. If you do not consider someone’s point of view, what may appear harmless to you may end up being a hurtful comment for the other person.

Even when the message was not particularly offensive, not taking a person’s point of view in consideration can lead to an uncomfortable moment. For example, imagine that you were giving someone a friendly advice when they suddenly turned angry and walked away. If you were to come to me and ask why the person became angry, I could reply in two ways. If I said “Well no surprises there, you clearly didn’t consider their feelings and she had a right to be angry”, you would probably feel quite down. The reason being, you were reaching out with a genuine desire to help, but it ended up with you feeling as if you hurt that person instead. No matter how good your intentions were, the way you say it and the way the other person hears it can turn it into an insult.

Let us use an analogy to make the above lesson easier. Now, let us imagine that I suddenly threw a candy at you with no warning. You will probably be surprised and not catch the candy, letting it drop to the ground. Even though what I threw at you was a sweet candy, throwing it at you when you were not ready just made that candy fall so no one could eat it. Even worse, I might have accidentally thrown it too high and hit your face. Like so, if I throw something at a time I judge to be right, the other person will find it difficult to catch it. But if I was to ask you “Are you ready?” first, then you would find it much easier to catch the candy. The key is to say something when the other person is ready, and in a way that they could accept.

No matter how good your intentions may be, first consider whether the person is prepared to receive that message. Thinking before you speak, being considerate of others and respecting their points of view will quickly make you a beloved friend who everyone wants to talk to.

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Posted in Philosophy

This Is Not A Pipe

This is a painting named The Treachery of Images, painted by the famous surrealist artist René Magritte in 1929. The picture shows a pipe and below it, the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe, which is French for “This is not a pipe”. However, the painting clearly shows a plain pipe. Is Magritte implying that he did not actually draw a pipe? Is the object actually some other clever invention?

What Magritte is saying is that this is not a pipe, but an image of a pipe. The painting is only a realistic representation of a pipe, but it is not real. No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to stuff the pipe and smoke it. Ergo, if Magritte had written “This is a pipe” under the image, he would have been lying.

Magritte was a master of painting realistic pictures and then changing something subtly (or sometimes obviously) to completely change the context, making the picture very surreal. He knew for a fact that his painting of the pipe and the “paradoxical” subtext would rub people the wrong way because people are predictable in some ways. Without the explanation that it is an image of a pipe, many people will experience cognitive dissonance as they see a pipe, yet something is telling them it is not a pipe. This makes people wonder about what Magritte means, until they either figure it out, ask someone about it, or become angry and insult the painting because they have no idea what it means.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Left-handedness

Phones, golf clubs, scissors, forks and knives, the order of writing… Almost everything in this world is made for the convenience of right-handed people. Because of this, there is a hypothesis that left-handed people have a relatively shorter life expectancy compared to right-handed people.

Dr. Diane F. Halpern of California State University conducted a research comparing the life expectancy of right-handed people versus left-handed people. The results were astounding; the mean life expectancy of right-handed people was 75, while left-handed people only lived 66 years on average. Dr. Halpern posited that this was due to left-handed people becoming stressed living in a right-handed world, shortening their life expectancy. Of course, there were debates about whether the results were reliable or not and there was heavy opposition from the left-handed community. But if the left-handed people are enraged about being discriminated against by society, this would stress them out and actually shorten their life, so it might not be best not to debate about the issue.

Left-handedness has historically been associated with evil. The word right also means “good”, while left-handedness is formally known as sinistrality, which shares its etymological origin with sinister. The word for right is associated with good things throughout the world, while left is associated with bad things. In Korea, 오른 (oreun, right) has the same pronunciation as 옳은 (orlheun, true)“. The Chinese character for left (左) is also used to mean “improper”. In medieval Europe, left-handed people were thought to be associated with the devil or witches and were often executed. Left-handed people have been unjustly hated throughout time and space.

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Posted in History & Literature

Flash Fiction

A short story of very small word count is known as a flash fiction. However, most flash fictions are between 300 and 1000 words. There are shorter examples such as nanofictions, which are flash fictions exactly 55 words long. But due to the criteria that a story must have a beginning, middle, ending, protagonist etcetera, it is quite difficult to write a story any shorter than that.

Ernest Hemingway once made a bet with a friend that he could write a short story which would have just six words. Of course, Hemingway being Hemingway, he easily completed the challenge. Like any other story, Hemingway’s short story had a beginning, middle and an end. It had a protagonist, a conflict and a resolution. Even within such a small word count, he filled the story with a variety of themes such as hope, joy, tragedy and agony. However, as so much content has been compressed to the extreme, the story may take a few reads to completely understand it. Hemingway’s story is as follows:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

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Posted in Science & Nature

Cryptography: Frequency Analysis

A cipher is a message that has been encoded using a certain key. The most common and basic type of ciphers are encrypted using letter substitution, where each letter represents a different, respective letter. For example, the message may be encoded in a way so that each letter represents a letter three values before it on the alphabet (e.g. if a=0, b=1… “a” becomes “d”, “b” becomes “e” etc.). This creates a jumble of letters that appears to be indecipherable.

However, the characteristics of substitution ciphers make them the most decipherable type of encryptions. As each letter can only represent one other letter, as long as the key is cracked (i.e. what letter is what), the message and any future messages can be cracked. The most important tool in decrypting substitution ciphers is pattern recognition and frequency analysis.

Frequency analysis relies on the fact that every language has certain letters that are more used than others. In the English language, the letters that are most used, in order, are: E, T, A, O, I, N, S, H, R, D, L, U (realistically, only E, T, A, O are significant and the rest are neither reliable nor useful in frequency analysis).

For example, if Eve intercepted a long, encrypted message that she suspects to be a simple substitution cipher, she will first analyse the text for the most common letter, bigram (two letter sequence) and trigram. If she found that I is the most common single letter, XL the most common bigram and XLI the most common trigram, she can ascertain with considerable accuracy that I=e, X=t and L=h (“th” and “the” are the most common bigram and trigram respectively). Once she substitutes these letters into the cipher, she will soon discover that certain patterns arise. Eve may notice words such as “thCt” and deduce that C=a, or find familiar words and fill in the blanks in the key. The discovery of each letter leads to more patterns and the vicious cycle easily breaks the code.

Frequency analysis is extremely useful as it can be used to attack any simple substitution ciphers, even if they do not use letters. For example, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tale The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes uses frequency analysis to interpret a cryptogram showing a string of hieroglyphs depicting dancing men.

To reinforce this weakness in substitution ciphers, many cryptographers have devised better encryption methods such as polyalphabetic substitution, where several alphabets are used (e.g. a grid of two alphabets – also called a tabula recta).

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