Sep 252017

“The more that you take care with your writing, the more you might explore uncertainties in your thinking,” suggests Stanford University Environmental Earth System Science Professor Julie Kennedy in this excellent Writing Matters video. Kennedy helpfully stresses the primacy of “owning” your topic before putting pen to paper. There’s no short cut.

Sep 252017

… writes MIT cognitive science professor Edward Gibson in Aeon:

Suppose you are at a cocktail party, and your conversation partner – someone with power in your field – wants to know your view about a potentially scandalous issue at your company. You don’t want to divulge what you know, but want the power player on your side. By speaking with a strong accent and using ungrammatical syntax, you can lead your listener to think that you are supporting a politic view while discouraging them from pressing you for more information, because people generally avoid asking a lot of questions of someone whose utterances are difficult to understand. If there is confusion over what you had meant, you can later say you meant to convey something else!

To test the idea that [non-native or second-language] speakers get the benefit of the doubt, my team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had people listen to poorly formed English sentences such as:

  1. The millionaire profited the tax reduction.
  2. The earthquake shattered from the house.

These sentences were spoken either in standard American English, or with a strong Israeli or Hindi accent. Note that each of these sentences is oddly constructed: either the grammar is wrong, or the speaker is saying something strange. In the first example, maybe the speaker meant ‘The millionaire profited from the tax reduction’ or ‘The tax reduction profited the millionaire’. In the second, maybe the speaker meant ‘The earthquake shattered the house’ or ‘The house was shattered from the earthquake’. Otherwise, they are saying that a house somehow destroyed an earthquake, which makes no sense.

After each sentence, we asked our participants to probe their interpretation of these strange sentences. The upshot: when sentences were spoken with an accent, listeners were more inclined to interpret them in the more plausible way, compared with when they were spoken in standard American English. When the sentences were spoken with no accent, listeners were more likely to interpret them literally and assume that the meaning was implausible.

We interpreted this result in terms of a noisy-channel model of language processing. …

Applying the noisy-channel idea to understanding L2 speakers, we can think of the errors in non-native English as a noisier language model than a native-speaker model. Listeners expect more errors and are therefore more likely to think that L2 speakers mean something sensible when they say something implausible. But if a native speaker says something nonsensical, listeners are more likely to take them literally, because they know their language model has less noise.

I absorbed Gibson’s piece with special interest today, having read this weekend, with much delight, discussion-forum posts written by my KPU students on the topic of miscommunication. Several posts brought a smile to my face. And one made me truly laugh out loud. In the latter a student describes an unnerving interaction between a Canadian Border Security officer and herself at the Vancouver airport. My student was congested and her hearing was muffled. When the officer asked to see her “boarding pass,” she thought he was asking “to see my ‘body parts’.” She had to stop herself from running away.

I will never hear either phrase without hearing its near-homonym again.

Feb 062017

I had long been puzzled by how many people don’t get the saying “That’s the exception that proves the rule.” This morning it occurred to me that the opacity is not in the minds of my friends but in the phrase’s antique construction.

Say “That’s the exception that proves that there is a rule,” and a world of lightbulbs will go on. And lovers of euphony shall be dismayed.

Mar 062016

As a teacher and as an editor, my counsel to students and writers often seems too obvious even to say. For instance: “You can’t complete a large project in a short time. Proceed bit by bit” (or “bird by bird“).

I have found, though, that repeating such counsel, many times, loudly and then quietly, and in different contexts, can reduce its obviousness to reveal its plain urgency.

What is more obvious than “practice something to get better at it”? Here is my friend Jonathan Mayhew in a post called “Jazz Piano” from his superb blog “Stupid Motivational Tricks: Scholarly Writing and How to Get It Done“:

Every thing begins with an idea. I have always wanted to play jazz piano, and now I am doing it, albeit at a lowish level. I see no possibility of getting worse with practice. There will be a plateau or two, with steady progress between the plateaux, and then a point at which I won’t get better.

It strikes me that the key with these kinds of things is neither to underestimate nor to overestimate the difficulty of it. If you think it is going to be easy, then it is easy to get frustrated. If you think of it is impossible, then you won’t even imagine doing it. My approach is just to get lost in it when I am doing it. I could spend 15 minutes trying out variations of a few chords. The other day I closed my eyes and I could still play some of my songs fine.

Most things, you can probably do. Ride a bike, make ceramics, or grow plants. If you are interested enough in it, that is. I am quite sure that I could be a crossword puzzle constructor. Some day I’ll want to do this, though not now.

Mayhew’s blog slices into the topic of practice again and again – lucid, brilliant, entertaining, and always very useful variations upon a theme. It is profound stuff. What one says about getting better at playing piano, writing books, constructing crossword puzzles – one is saying about living life.

“I see no possibility of getting worse with practice.”

Nov 142015

A friend in the media emailed me this morning: “Everyone keeps talking about hostages having been taken in Paris. Doesn’t the word ‘hostage’ imply a demand on the part of the terrorists? They made no demands; they intended all along to slaughter them. Wouldn’t captive be a more appropriate word, or am I over-thinking this?”

I replied: “You are definitely right about ‘hostage’ being the wrong word and for the reasons you say. I would say that ‘captive’ is also the wrong word, because captives are prisoners – not intended victims of murder. At the very least, one ‘holds’ a captive for a predetermined period of time; this was not the case yesterday. To see how ‘captive’ is the wrong word: One would not say that a person killed in his/her or another person’s home is a captive – same for a person killed in a restaurant in a drive-by. I think ‘intended victim’ is the closest. There is no single word for ‘terrorist victim,’ and it seems discourteous to refer repeatedly to the slain as ‘terrorist victims’ – two awful words to describe innocent souls.”

My friend’s reply: “Alas, ‘intended victim’ is clumsy.”


About this one can truly say, There is no word.

Oct 192015

Sophos, the esteemed network-security company, is starting a new series on its always erudite blog. It is called “What Is …,” and it promises to turn “technical jargon into plain English.”

The inaugural post, written by Paul Ducklin, is called “What is … a VPN?

VPN stands for “virtual private network.” Writes Ducklin:

On your own network, you get to set the security rules.

You can make sure your router has a decent password; you can keep everything patched; you can run security software on all your devices; and so on.

But once you’re on the road, whether it’s free Wi-Fi at the coffee shop or the business network in the airport lounge, you don’t have the same control.

For all you know, the network you’re using might not merely have been hacked by crooks, it might have been set up by crooks in the first place.

One solution is to be careful, and stick to secure websites for sensitive work such as uploading documents or online banking.

But you are probably giving away plenty of information anyway:

  • Some secure websites include links to insecure sites, which leave a visible trail.
  • Some applications use secure connections, but don’t bother to check if they’re talking to an imposter server.
  • Some applications use insecure connections, but don’t tell you.
  • When a program connects to, say, https://bank.example/, it first asks the network, “I need bank.example. Where do I find it?”

In other words, your computer’s internet connection is a bit like a conversation two rows behind you on the bus: even if most of it is inaudible, you can nevertheless be pretty sure what it’s about.

That’s where a VPN, short for Virtual Private Network, comes in.

The idea is surprisingly simple.

You get your computer to encrypt all your network data (even if it’s already encrypted!) before it leaves your laptop or phone, and send the scrambled stream of data back to your own network.

When the scrambled data is safely back on home turf, it is decrypted.

Only then is it sent onto the internet in its unscrambled form, just as if you were at home.

The encrypted internet link, known in the trade as a tunnel, acts like an long, secure, extension cable plugged into your own network.

Unless the crooks can crack into the encrypted tunnel itself, they’re no better off at hacking you than if you were back at home or in the office.

So, you have neutralised any advantage the crooks were hoping for because you were on the road.

And that, very briefly, is a VPN.

Read the whole thing. It is completely lucid.

This is a wonderful start to the series.

Jul 122015

From the great Language Log:

Most of the ambiguity contained in normal language use is passed over without any awareness on the audience’s part of the potential for double meanings. If one of the two intended meanings in an ad happens to be too faint, the ad must do something to fortify it and nudge it over the threshold of awareness. For instance, an ad that ran some time ago for British Airways used the tagline “Showers expected upon arrival.” To make it clear to the reader that showers could also refer to the bathing facilities that were available in the airline’s lounge at Heathrow Airport, the advertisers resorted to a fairly crude visual technique: a photo of a showerhead accompanied the tagline.

Much more sophisticated is the use of ambiguity in the following:

Are you up in the air about your future? Maybe that’s where you belong.

The ad was placed by the U.S. Air Force, whose logo appeared in the usual lower right hand corner of the print ad. I’m guessing that a typical reader response looks something like this: The idiomatic reading of “up in the air” is far more accessible in the first sentence than the literal one, and is perhaps the only meaning that the reader registers. The second sentence prompts a reanalysis, with the anaphoric where pointing to a definite spatial location, but it’s still not really clear how this second sentence fits in coherently with the first, on either the literal or idiomatic reading—until the reader’s eye lands on the logo, and voilà—the literal reading is further primed, and the identity of the sponsor now allows the reader to fit all the pieces together.

Such manipulation of context, to render meeker meanings more assertive, is part-and-parcel of the adept use of ambiguity. …

Jun 082013

“We have somehow not successfully received your professional-development documentation,” a Dean’s Office colleague wrote me in an email early in my career at Kwantlen.

The sentence both charmed and alarmed me, especially the phrase somehow not successfully received, which seemed so artfully composed. Why had such care been taken in writing this simple request?

Because I had been habitually late and/or sloppy with my paperwork. Because I always needed guidance and reminding. And because now my colleague was *mad*.

I had to remember where I was: British Columbia, Canada. People here really are polite, just like the Americans say. My colleagues back in New York might have made such a request with explicit impatience, or even invective, to make sure I understood what they needed and what I had been doing wrong.

The language used for disapproval where I now worked was identical, it seemed, to the language of approval, in terms of vocabulary and tone. What gave the game away was the inordinate amount of care given to a simple writing task.

One could infer that this care came from irritation rather than pleasure.

Thereafter I have always wondered whether I am able – whether I am Canadian enough – to hearken to the subtle ways my colleagues and neighbors can scold.