August 24th, 2003


Things that are pointless to worry about #953 - the dictionary

There are two schools of thought as far as language goes, and like most areas of human endeavour that involve two opposing theories, neither is actually much use in real life.

You can either fall on the Prescriptive or Descriptive side of the argument. On the one side is the belief that dictionaries prescribe the limits of the language, telling you what each word means and giving you a complete definition of each word. Any use of language as it's laid out in the dictionary is correct, any other use of the language is incorrect. On the other side are those that believe that dictionaries merely describe how real people use the language. They view language as an entirely fluid construction and where real usage and the dictionary conflict, the dictionary is in the wrong.

Real life is, of course, never so simple. At some point people need to be taught how to understand a language, and at that point the dictionary is fairly invaluable. Unless we are going to be limited in communication to just those people who we grow up around (and therefore naturally understand the language of) then some formal definitions are going to be needed so that we can usefully understand people who didn't grow up with the same slang as us. And dictionaries cannot be static, because ordinary people don't check the dictionary before coming up with new words. If enough language changes occur without the dictionary taking note, then the dictionaries don't actually tell you about the languahe you're nominally speaking.

The only sane option is the one that most dictionaries actually use - teams of researchers looking for new word usage and keeping the dictionaries up to date as a reference of a living language, while most people insist that in formal writing, at least, that not only are words used according to their dictionary meaning, but in fact go further than that and insist on a small subset of more formal language. It makes sense, after all, to use language that the people you are communicating with will understand and will carry the impact you desire, whether that language is formal and well-defined, or the latest slang, invented only a few days ago.

Things Andy wants #1422 - an eye recognition unit

I now have two monitors set up on my desk. The 17" CRT on the left, the 17" LCD on the right. This is great in many ways, as I have my main typing window ahead of me, with other, less important programs (email and and uninstall) on the left. The only problem I have is that when I look from one window to the other, my cursor doesn't move with it. Several times now I'm looked left to a dialog and then clicked with a cursor that's still on the right-hand monitor.

How hard would it be to have a cursor that leapt to wherever my eyes were concentrating (if they looked for more than half a second, for instance)?

Overrun by Beauty

A long time ago I read a study about mate-location. It showed that if there were many different ranking systems for people (say 20, for instance) each of which was used by a different section of the population (or even better, that each person used a variety of different ranks simultaneously) then this meant that people found partners that were very similar to what they were looking for. For instance, if I rated people on intelligence and sense of humour, while Dave rates them on dancing ability and ability to drink copiously then the chances are that we'll both find someone who falls close to our target partner.

What caused a massive disruption to the chances of finding a decent partner was the existence of a single ranking system that everyone used, i.e. beauty. Now obviously that's a simplification, there isn't any one beauty, with some people preferring dark hair, other's fair hair, some people preferring heavy or slim figures, etc, etc. But beauty seems to be one of those areas where there is far more agreement than not. Some people are generally considered to be far sexier, in a general sense, than others. For each of those, there will always be a few people who fail to understand the attraction, but the vast majority of people seem to be in general agreement. Anyway, the problem is that this takes the nice system whereby someone who is fairly well suited to you is reasonably attainable, and replaces it with one in which the person either isn't attainable to you (because they rate in the top 1% of beautiful people and you don't) or rates a long way down your wants list (take the rankings for myself and Dave and add Beauty to both of them. Now add that to everyone else's ranking systems as well - the person who was ideal a moment ago is now likely to be much less so).

This is bad enough with the modern culture, where the few stereotypically pretty people are all gathered together and diplayed globally, lowering the ranking of local people by their mere existence. With the amount of makeup and photo-shop modification that goes on you're now comparing real people with ficticious mega-pretty people, a competition that's never going to end well. Go back and take a look at that picture. Move the mouse over it to look at the differences. My first though was "Eww!" until I looked for more than a second and realised that the original person was actually rather pretty. She's not my type, but still actually good looking, it was only in comparison with the cleaned-up picture that she doesn't look good.

Looking back at what tribal/village beauty selection used to be like, the sheer lack of options would have made a lot of a difference. With only a few dozen women of a suitable age to compare with, your ranking system would go something like:

  1. Prettiest girl in the village

  2. A few similarly pretty ones

  3. Most of the girls

  4. Some less than pretty ones

  5. Oh my goodness, that poor girl

Nowadays we've added a few layers on top of that to give something like:

  1. Johnny Depp as a pirate

  2. Johnny Depp with makeup applied on a photoshoot

  3. Johnny Depp the person

  4. Most gorgeous guy in the village

  5. The other few good looking guys

  6. Most guys

  7. Geeks

  8. The spotty geek who always has his finger up his nose

Now, just by adding in global access to the world's hottest people and a bit of makeup we've moved "the average partner" from 3rd place to 6th place. If we assume that our lust increases exponentially (where the people on each level get twice as much as on the level below, for instance) then suddenly you're just not going to be happy with the most gorgeous guy in the village. You're certainly not going to be happy with the average guy in the village. We know that there's better out there, just waiting for us, why would we be happy with so much less?