It used to be that I’d reply to all personal email as soon as it arrived. Those days, alas, have been gone for some time now. While I do receive more personal emails, response time has not increased proportionally – more likely it’s increased logarithmically. I’m not entirely sure why this is so. It’s not as if I have to expend huge amounts of mental resources in my reply, although sometime I do have to make important decisions. I’m not even sure why I’m bothered about all of this.

I do have an idea though. Email is supposed to be the ultimate in instantaneous communication – forget about mobile phones, email is the true medium for communicating ideas fast and cheaply. And as a result I think we’ve been seduced into thinking that all emails should be replied to within minutes, or at least hours.

But what difference does it make on response time if you send a letter via the post or email? The recipient still has to figure out a response and summon up the will to write it. So while the universal constant of procrastination hasn’t changed, speed of message delivery has, and consequently we think that we should get replies quicker no matter what. I certainly do, at least. Considering that many emails are not letter-like in depth or length and so have short response times, perhaps this blinds us to the longer response times required for other emails.

Take, for example, some emails I’ve sent out to people asking what they think the first words on Mars will be. I sent them out about four hours ago, and I expected replies three hours ago. I haven’t received any. Is this a surprise, if I think about it? No – if someone asked me what my first words on Mars would be, I’d probably flag the message, let the question rumble in the back of my brain for a day or two, and then reply. Unrealistic expectations, as ever.


I’m in the middle of reading Lobsters by Charlie Stross and while it’s very enjoying (a kind of superpowered MacLeod without the communism – okay, that doesn’t make any sense, but still) I can’t help but think – does anyone actually talk like this?

“I work for the betterment of everybody, not just some narrowly defined national interest, Pam. It’s the agalmic future. You’re still locked into a pre-singularity economic model that thinks in terms of scarcity. Resource allocation isn’t a problem any more – it’s going to be over within a decade. The cosmos is flat in all directions, and we can borrow as much bandwidth as we need from the first universal bank of entropy!” etc etc.

I have no real problem with this, since it is fiction after all, but sometimes he gets carried away with his neologisms and invents words that could mean something, but I’m damned if I know what they do. Like ‘metacortex’. I’m sure this isn’t a real anatomical or functional term.

(I just read a bit more and have seen ‘metacortex’ in a more enlightening context. But it’s still weird.)

Garden path

There’s an interesting phenomenon in language comprehension called the ‘garden path effect’. Proposed by Frazier and Fodor (1979), it basically meant that when you are reading or hearing a sentence, you split it up into chunks (you parse it), and due to something called ‘late closure’ you keep on adding as many words as possible to the current chunk you’re working on. This works quite well to illustrate the way in which we comprehend language.

Take a look at these examples:

1. (Since Jay always jogs a mile) he is very fit.
2. (Since Jay always jogs a mile) seems like a short distance.
3. (Since Jay always jogs) a mile seems like a short distance.

In (1), keeping the chunk as long as possible works quite nicely. In (2), it fails miserably since if you use the chunk illustrated there, the sentence doesn’t make any sense. Instead, you’d have to backtrack and reposition your chunk as shown in (3). Now, this all sounds a bit woolly until you realise that there’s plenty of evidence for this from latency measurements and eye movement studies. The latter in particular are neat – you can see people reading a sentence, come to a screeching halt as the garden path model fails them and then regress to the nearest noun.

There’s another possible method of parsing sentences, and that’s by looking at its semantics – its meaning – and parsing the sentence in a way that makes the most sense.

1. (The defendent examined) by the lawyer turned out to be unreliable.
2. (The evidence examined) by the lawyer turned out to be unreliable.

In (1), there are two possible places to position the first chunk. The defendent could be doing the examining (wrong, as shown above) or the defendent could be the one being examined (right, not shown). In (2), there’s only one meaning – since evidence can’t do any examining (it’s not alive, is it?), it must be being examined. So according to semantic parsing, you’d expect that people would have fewer problems reading (2) than (1). And that’s true, according to eye fixation studies. By the way, in both the sentences above, the parsing has been done ‘wrong’ – it has been done according to the garden path model with late closure.

As usual in these things, the two models (semantic and garden path) have been put together in a new ‘connectionist’ approach which takes the best bits from both. But that’s not what I’m interested in. What I’m interested in are the implications of altering the meanings of a word. Imagine if you had this sentence:

The AI examined by the lawyer turned out to be unreliable.

Now, imagine we go back far enough such that it is inconceivable that AIs are intelligent enough to do any examining. This would mean that there is only one way to parse the first chunk, as the AI is being examined. But go forward x decades to when it is conceivable that AIs could be examining something – you’ve just created an alternative parsing structure for the sentence. How does the brain cope with this? Is there a gradual alteration of the semantic structure and do the effects of this slowly filter down the language systems, or is the change sudden?.

(I just realised that I may have misunderstood the exact mechanisms of parsing and where to put the brackets, but the general concepts still hold. I think I’m right, anyway…)

Foreign emoticons

Inspired by a post on the Culture mailing list, I was going to write something about the universality of emoticons on the Internet between different cultures and languages here. I then realised that it was far more interesting than I first envisaged and so it deserves a full write up. Expect a new article in the near future (by which, I mean a week).


Something popped into my head today as I was scribbling down some notes during a supervision: does the fact that I write with a pencil (as opposed to a pen or biro) affect my writing style, and on a higher level, my method of thinking?

Pencils provide a much less constrained and linear way of putting thoughts down onto paper, in that pencil marks can be easily and quickly erased. Thus, I’m not too bothered with making the occasional correction or altering what I’ve written so that it’s more accurate, whereas if I used some non-erasable implement that option wouldn’t be open to me. Conversely, perhaps using a pencil is making me lazy and those who write using pens have less cause to make corrections.

Taking this further, what about writing on the computer? Words, sentences and paragraphs can all be moved about at the click of a button, and rarely does a supervisor not warn us against getting into a habit of writing all essays on the computer, as this won’t help us write essays in exams. I tried writing an essay on paper a couple of weeks ago, and it went down perfectly fine. In fact, I probably did it faster than I would’ve done on the computer since I could draw diagrams quicker. Score one for paper.

As others have said, probably the best solution would combine the qualities of paper and computers – I imagine some kind of smart paper which you can either write on (it has handwriting recognition, naturally) or hook up to a wireless keyboard would be ideal (many people can type faster than they can write). You’d be able to annotate the paper and move sentences and words about with ease, and it’d be intuitive for all users. It’ll probably be on the market in another ten years.