Diversions, Nonsense



While I was browsing the aisles of a used book store last Friday, my gaze fell upon the spine pictured above. With no disrespect to the author, I hope I may be forgiven for interpreting the title as Onions: Bearers of Meaning and believing for a moment that the book was really about the semantic potential of this indispensable vegetable. For no reason noble or worthwhile, I decided to devise a few titles for possible sequels to Onions: Bearers of Meaning. Here they are:

Shallots: Capsules of Signification

Pumpkins: Vessels of Erudition

Lima Beans: Agents of Reference

Eggplants: Envoys of Intellection

Potatoes: Canisters of Qualia

Brussels Sprouts: Vectors of Logicality

Peas: Pellets of Gravitas

Tomatoes: Conduits of Intention

Artichokes: Impresarios of Allusion

Radishes: Couriers of Denotation

Avocados: Vehicles of Symbolization

Carrots: Utensils of Argument

Parsnips: Virtuosos of Ratiocination

Cannellini Beans: Custodians of Discernment

Yams: Emissaries of Reason


It’s not April Fools’ Day

Today is not April Fool’s Day.  I can prove this in several ways:

Proof #1:  Was yesterday April Fools’ Day?  No.  Was the day before yesterday April Fools’ Day?  No.  Hence, by induction, we may conclude that today is not April Fools’ Day.

Proof #2: April Fools’ Day only happens once a year.  So, the probability that today is April Fools’ day is 1/365.  That’s almost 0.

Proof #3: If today were April Fools’ day, there would be unanimous consensus about the fact, but there isn’t, because I disagree.


The Emperor Experiment

Years ago I became intrigued by the idea that some forms of perception involve physical mimicry. One of my college linguistics classes (back in the mid-90s) touched on the motor theory of speech perception, which asserts that when we listen to speech, we reverse-engineer the sounds we hear, identifying each sound with the motion or “gesture” of the vocal tract that would be needed to produce it. So, when I listen to you say a word like “dog,” I recognize the word by preparing to say it myself, or at least by figuring out what I’d need to do to with my mouth in order to make those same sounds.  In fact, some studies show that seeing and hearing speech excites the motor system involved in speech production (to quote the title of one paper by Watkins, Strafella, and Paus) — when I listen to you say “dog,” I exhibit neural activity similar to the act of speaking.

When I first heard about these ideas, I wondered if there was a way I could test them myself, or at least explore the territory through an introspective experiment. If listening to speech, or even imagining speech, involves some degree of physical mimicry, what would it happen if that mimicry were obstructed? Would it be harder to perceive speech, or to imagine speech (two separate but related processes) if I adopted an awkward physical position — a configuration of the vocal tract that would make it difficult to physically mimic what I was hearing?  I came up with the following simple experiment that focuses on imagined or “inner” speech:

The Emperor Experiment

1) Stick your tongue out as far as you can (as when a doctor asks you to say “ahhh”) and keep it in that position.

2) Now try to imagine yourself saying the word “emperor.” Try to hear the word in your mind’s ear (as when you talk silently to yourself) but don’t actually say it out loud or do anything with your mouth besides holding your tongue out.  Although your tongue should remain extended as you do this, you should try to imagine the word pronounced clearly, as you would normally say it (i.e. without an extended tongue).

Stop reading and try it!

Were you able to hear the word “emperor” enunciated without a lisp in your mind’s ear? Or did you find that were only able to hear something like em-pah-wah — the way “emperor” would sound if actually spoken with an extended tongue?

I’ve administered this experiment to countless “subjects” informally over the years, including dozens of unsuspecting conversation partners at coffee shops throughout New England, and approximately 30 classmates in an Artificial Intelligence class I took as a grad student. I find that roughly half of participants react to me as though I’m crazy, not because I’m asking them to do something silly like sticking out their tongue, but because they have no problem imagining a clearly pronounced “emperor” in step 2 and therefore don’t see any point to the experiment. The other half quickly bursts out laughing in step 2, because they discover (often to their great surprise) that they simply cannot imagine a clearly pronounced “emperor” while they keep their tongues extended — they can only imagine a mangled, lisping em-pah-wah. Their imagination is a slave to their tongue!

My own experience was that I could only hear em-pah-wah the first couple of times I tried the experiment, but with some practice, I gained the ability to imagine a clear “emperor” no matter the position of my tongue. So it seems that a physical obstruction interferes with imagined speech for some subjects initially, but it’s possible to learn to separate the imagined sound from what it suggested by the obstruction.

I still wonder why people have such different experiences the first time they try this expirement: why is it initially easy for some but hard for others? And how might other kinds of physical or motor interference affect what we can perceive or imagine? I haven’t had occasion to study “extended tongue effect” formally, and I don’t know whether something similar to the emperor experiment occurs in the research literature: I’d appreciate any references you might send my way.

The emperor experiment came back to mind today after several years of dormancy: I was having coffee this afternoon with a neuroscience researcher (and founder of the startup momedx) who has done some fascinating work on visual perception in people who gain or regain sight after years of blindness. On his first try, my coffee companion reported that he heard “em-pah-wah.”

Diversions, Language


Driving on I-90 from Boston towards the Berkshires yesterday, I spied a curious road sign gleaming in the summer haze:


My mind skipped over three possible interpretations of this grammatically ambiguous statement and landed on a fourth. I didn’t read it as an assertion of the tenet that plows are cautious; I didn’t read it as an admonition to plows to be cautious; and I didn’t take it as a directive to non-plows to avoid plows. Channeling my inner copy editor (always the pessimist), I assumed it must be a simple misspelling of:


It’s not easy making signs (as evidenced by the preponderance of wretched signage in our world), and so I can easily imagine an incautious sign-maker trying to write PLEASE and having it come out as PLOWS.

Unfortunately, the very thought of this has put me in a state where I can no longer see the word please without mentally substituting it with plows (and the result turns out to be grammatical with surprising frequency). And so I invite you, dear reader, to join me in this affliction by listing some of your favorite please/plows substitutions. I will start off with one of my favorites:

Always say plows.



All prose is wordy–it’s made of words! So when does prose, a fundamentally wordy thing, deserve to be disparaged as wordy?

I struggle with this question because my brain is wordy–got lots o’ words. My thoughts are wordy, so my writing comes out wordy.  How much time should I spend eliminating “unnecessary” words?

The question is complicated because “wordiness” is a matter of perspective. If someone is convinced I’m a good writer, or if they’re particularly interested in my subject, they will likely ignore the redundancies in my prose. However, if they don’t “trust” me as a writer, or if they are bored by my topic, they will notice and object to my excesses.

I’ll go further and say that “wordiness” is a matter of musical taste and reproduction. All writing is musical in that it has tone and rhythm; the words are the raw material for a concert that we perform in our minds as we read.  Words will “sound good” to us if we can find the right voice to read them in (and when the author or text comes recommended, we usually work harder to find that voice).  If we don’t have an inner voice to fit the text, then our performance will fall flat: we’ll hear a bunch of disconnected sounds and call it “wordy.” 

We accept the wordiness of great speeches like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address because all of the verbiage becomes a substrate for the aura–and the sound–of a great speaker.  Read it like Lincoln, and it does sound great; read it in the voice of a bored student, not so much.

As an experiment, I’ve tried to rewrite Gettysburg as a modern schoolteacher might, if the original text had been submitted as a homework assignment, an essay draft to be edited. Here is the final revision (95 words):

Our nation was founded eighty-seven years ago on the idea that all men are created equal. Our civil war is now testing whether any nation based on that idea can endure. Today, we dedicate a portion of the battleground to our fallen troops. But in a larger sense, we cannot hallow this ground with words–the troops have already hallowed it with their struggle. Instead of talking idly, we should dedicate ourselves to their unfinished work, so they will not have died in vain. Let’s keep our nation free and ensure that self-government survives on earth.

Here is the original (267 words):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Language, Visual Design

Swearing Prohibited

Swearing Prohibited (Censored)

I created this sign to remind everyone that swearing is prohibited on the Internet.

Actually, I created it as an experiment in communicating with visual and textual symbols. There are three elements at play here: a red circle, the words “SWEARING PROHIBITED,” and a grawlix (“$@&#!”). When you put those elements together, what message do they make?

Last night, I asked a couple of friends at Venture Cafe. Most of my friends were willing to take this sign at face value.  Whether or not they agreed with the idea of prohibiting swearing, they felt the sign did convey a sincere message.  (In fact, a similar sign containing a grawlix in red circle has appeared in Virginia Beach as part of an anti-profanity campaign.)

For me, the sign is hard to look at without laughing because I find it fundamentally hypocritical: it swears!

Where do we draw the line between a symbol and the thing it represents? Specifically, do we take “$@&#!” as mere notation for the idea of a swear, or does it make us think and feel as though we’ve just heard someone actually swear? (This question brings to mind a joke by Louis C.K. where he says that the expression “The ‘n’ word” offends him because whenever someone uses that censored phrase, they are forcing him to say the avoided word — nig[BLEEP] — in his own mind.)

Now for me, “$@&#!” is so strongly associated with swearing that when I view it in this sign, I become witness to a curse.  And then I begin to wonder who’s cursing, and how the curse might relate to the rest of the sign.  Is someone cursing because they don’t like the prohibition against swearing?  Or do they really, really agree with it?

Even if you don’t experience the grawlix as an actual curse, you might notice a mismatch between levels of formality in this sign. SWEARING PROHIBITED sets a tone of severe formality, and yet “$@&#!” is the kind of icon we might see in a comic book. The sign has the same contradiction as a statement like: DO NOT SPEAK COLLOQUIALLY OK?

As I worked on the sign, I couldn’t resist the temptation to make an intensified version, which you’ll see below. For a while I thought that what I had come up with was so contradictory that no viewer could take it seriously. And yet, as I stared at this second version, my perceptions shifted. Where it had seemed that the swear words were subverting the circle by shining right through its porous front, now it seemed that those bold and brazen words were still captured inside the circle and still negated by it. Who wins, the circle or the swears?  I don’t know: either it’s the most obscene sign I have ever seen, or the most uptight one.

As I was finishing the sign, I had a software crash and lost a lot of unsaved work. When that happened, I assure you, gentle reader, I did not say any of the terms herein depicted:

Swearing Prohibited (Uncensored)