Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Aks your relator if the house is perty

Metathetically speaking.
When you speak that way you are engaging in metathesis (mê--thê-sis), the switching of one sound or letter in a word with another.

Linguistic metathesis most often involves R and L, the "liquid" consonants: flimsy was created from filmsy by metathesis, linguist Robert Beard writes.
When we say perogative forprerogative or perscription for prescription, we commit metathesis, switching the positions of the R and E. In some dialects of English ask is metathesized to aks and another common speech error is the pronunciation of foliage as foilage, switching the L and the I. Southerners love metathesis: their pronunciations of pretty as perty, and difference [di-frêns] as differnce all reflect this proclivity.
In use: We have our choice of metathetic or metathetical for the adjective, and -ly may be added to the latter for the adverb:metathetically. The verb is a predictable metathesize, as two sounds might metathesize in a word.
History: Metathesis is a Late Latin noun based on the Greek verb metatithenai "to transpose". This verb consists of meta "beyond, over" + tithenai "to place". Meta comes from the same source as English mid and middle. Apparently, it originally meant "between", for that is the meaning of Russian mezhdu, which comes from the same word. Tithenai comes from an earlier form dhe-ti-, the source of English deed and do.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Why quotes get misquoted

Beam me up, Shakespeare.
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much." -- not Shakespeare
"The lady doth protest too much, methinks." -- Shakespeare

"Beam me up, Scotty!" not Star Trek
"Beam us up, Mr. Scott!" -- Star Trek

"Play it again, Sam." -- not Humphrey Bogart
"If she can stand it, I can. Play it." -- Humphrey Bogart

Why do we change famous quotations?
Have you noticed how incorrect quotes often just sound right—sometimes, more right than actual quotations? There's a reason for that. Our brains really like fluency, or the experience of cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive strain) in taking in and retrieving information. The more fluent the experience of reading a quote—or the easier it is to grasp, the smoother it sounds, the more readily it comes to mind—the less likely we are to question the actual quotation. 
Those right-sounding misquotes are just taking that tendency to the next step: cleaning up, so to speak, quotations so that they are more mellifluous, more all-around quotable, easier to store and recall at a later point. We might not even be misquoting on purpose, but once we do, the result tends to be catchier than the original.
So how do you spot that misquote?
There's (sadly) no effortless way to go about it. The most we can do is to always be skeptical of ourselves, especially if something sounds too right or fluent or spot on. Because the better it sounds, the more likely it is to be a little off. That, and check quotes before we perpetuate them in cyberspace or print. Otherwise, we might end up like Bob Dylan, who once remarked, "I've misquoted myself so many times, I don't know what I've said." (He totally could have said that, right?) 
Just remember: A quote in time must rhyme.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why your phone makes up your words

The autocorrect function can create some real howlers. Here's how Google intends it to work.
If you type “kofee” into a search box, Google would like to save a few milliseconds by guessing whether you’ve misspelled the caffeinated beverage or the former United Nations secretary-general. It uses a probabilistic algorithm with roots in work done at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the early 1990s. 
The probabilities are based on a “noisy channel” model, a fundamental concept of information theory. The model envisions a message source — an idealized user with clear intentions — passing through a noisy channel that introduces typos by omitting letters, reversing letters or inserting letters. 
“We’re trying to find the most likely intended word, given the word that we see,” Mr. Paskin says. “Coffee” is a fairly common word, so with the vast corpus of text the algorithm can assign it a far higher probability than “Kofi.” On the other hand, the data show that spelling “coffee” with a K is a relatively low-probability error. The algorithm combines these probabilities. 
I guess if you try to tweet that you're having coffee with Kofi Anan you're in real trouble.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Putting a dollar value on a story

Here's a fascinating story from a review of the book Fascinating Objects.
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously remarked. Hardly anyone can back this bombastic proclamation with more empirical conviction than Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.
In 2009, the duo embarked upon a curious experiment: They would purchase cheap trinkets, ask some of today’s most exciting creative writers to invent stories about them, then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Which it did: The tchotchkes, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for a whopping total of $3,612.51 — a 2,700% markup.
The most highly valued pairing in the entire project, bought for $1.49 and sold for $197.50, was a globe paperweight with a moving handwritten story by the magnificent Debbie Millman, with proceeds benefiting 826 National.
Not sure I've ever seen the value of story monetized.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Will a computer replace you?

Algorithms are producing a growing number of articles for newspapers and websites, such as this one produced by Narrative Science:
"Wall Street is high on Wells Fargo, expecting it to report earnings that are up 15.7 percent from a year ago when it reports its second quarter earnings on Friday, July 13, 2012," said the article on Forbes.com.
While computers cannot parse the subtleties of each story, Phys.org reports, they can take vast amounts of raw data and turn it into what passes for news.
"This can work for anything that is basic and formulaic," says Ken Doctor, an analyst with the media research firm Outsell. And with media companies under intense financial pressure, the move to automate some news production "does speak directly to the rebuilding of the cost economics of journalism," said Doctor.
Scott Frederick, chief operating officer of Automated Insights, another firm in the sector, said he sees this as "the next generation of content creation."
The company generates news stories from raw feeds of play-by-play data from major sports events. The company generates advertising on its own website and is now beginning to sell its services to other organizations for sports and real estate news. 
To mimic the effect of the hometown newspaper, the company generates articles with a different "tonality" depending on the reader's preference or location. For the 2012 Super Bowl, the article for New York Giants' fans read like this: "Hakeem Nicks had a big night, paving the way to a victory for the Giants over the Patriots, 21-17 in Indianapolis. With the victory, New York is the champion of Super Bowl XLVI." 
For New England fans, the story was different: "Behind an average day from Tom Brady, the Patriots lost to the Giants, 21-17 at home. With the loss, New England falls short of a Super Bowl ring."
Not much different than human sports writers.