All posts for the month November, 2012

At one point or another, we’ve probably been emailed the following:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

While there wasn’t a published paper on the topic from Cambridge University, Graham Rawlinson from Nottingham University did write his PhD Thesis on “The Significance of Letter Position in Word Recognition” in 1976. He tested a lot of different things such as replacing letters with their mirror images, reversing the letter order of words, reversing the word order of passages, keeping the first two and last two characters fixed while mixing the inner characters, and substituting letters with other ones that may or may not be similar. The results generally showed that it is possible to guess words with incomplete information, and humans are better at guessing the words if only the middle letters have been rearranged. This last part makes a lot of sense if you’ve ever tried to do a Jumble in the newspaper; the whole point is that it’s hard to unscramble words.

How does the trick work? First, note that the text is written in lowercase for the most part. In 1955, Miles Tinker found that reading lowercase text was more legible than all-capital text because of the “characteristic words forms furnished by this type.” Building on this work and scientific studies conducted from 1982 to 1990, Colin Wheildon explains “When a person reads a line of type, the eye recognizes letters by the shapes of their upper halves.” Looking at the shapes of the words, most letters are either switched with letters of the same height (like in “wlohe”) or only offset by one character (as in “ltteer” where tt has been shifted to the left by one character).

The next important point is how much the inside of the words have been jumbled. Two and three letter words cannot be jumbled and four letter words can only have their inside letters swapped. It’s only when we reach five letter words and beyond that we can sufficiently scramble the words to hide their meaning. Here are a few examples from Posit Science:

As soon as the longer words have their letters randomly distributed, it’s very hard to decipher what they say. Assigning one point for each place a letter has moved, the harder scrambled words have scores of 16, 18, and 20 compared to 8, 4, and 8 respectively. This small amount of randomization is easy enough for us to overcome, especially when compared to how the words could have been written.

When reading we also gain context from the sentence as a whole and can infer the meaning of words without knowing what they are. In the third sentence, “The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm,” 8 of the 15 words are unscrambled giving us ample context. This might be a point we miss as they’re all function words (words that join together the important nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives that give the sentence its substance) which we tend to ignore when reading. Further, while total is rearranged to toatl it retains its overall sound, which is another piece of information we use when reading.

The final issue with the theory is with words that can be rearranged into multiple other words. For example, salt can be rearranged as slat, but these words were avoided in the passage lest the effect be ruined. Clive Tooth has found a wonderful example of this in the following sentence:

“The sprehas had ponits and patles”

There are multiple rearrangements possible here including:

  • The sherpas had pitons and plates.
  • The shapers had points and pleats.
  • The seraphs had pintos and petals.
  • The sphaers had pinots and palets.
  • The sphears had potins and peltas.

In summation, this hoax is similar to writing a paragraph missing that fifth symbol: it’s a pain to concoct but it only slows you down slightly to turn words into conclusions. As a bonus point, grammar is missing in parts such as “According to a research at…” and a word or two don’t unmix rightly such as “rscheearch” to “research” and “iprmoetnt” to “important”. Additional data by a PhD linguist is at this URL:

Today’s Tangent: Jumble was created by Martin Naydel in 1954 and now appears in more than 600 newspapers daily worldwide. An unintended byproduct was a gameshow in 1994 where four contests would face off to solve jumbles in the fastest time possible. It was one of four game shows created by Wink Martindale and Bill Hilleir for the Family Channel. Jumble only lasted six months, twice as long as the short running Shuffle also created by the duo. None of the game shows were still being produced after 1994.

My Tuesday Tidbits went on an unannounced hiatus for two weeks due to other obligations, such as the talk I did for Ignite 10. I’ll be writing up an article on my experiences leading up to my presentation and on the night, so look for that later this week. – Travis Gerhardt

During wartime lots of things become scarce: metal, meat, sugar, gasoline, and even chocolate. For the United States in World War II, chocolate was sent to the troops leaving those at home looking for something else sweet. It is because of this shortage that they turned towards jelly beans and other confections, helping to broaden the different candies available and ensuring that jelly beans would be around for generations. But there’s a lot more to jelly beans than just a wartime treat, and to tell that tale we need to visit Turkey more than two hundred years ago.

While the exact origins of Turkey Delight are unknown, the modern day version of the sweet was first found in 1776 in Istanbul, Turkey. It was at this time that Bekir Effendi, a confectioner from Anatolia set up a small shop there and started to sell his new confection. Unfortunately information around this event is scarce but we can piece together some things. It seems as though an ancestor of the treat existed back in  1626 as Francis Bacon wrote about similar sweets from Turkey:

They have in Turkey and the East certain confections, which they call servets, which are like to candied conserves, and are made of sugar and lemons, or sugar and citrons, or sugar and violets, and some other flowers; and some mixture of amber for the more delicate persons: and those they dissolve in water, and thereof make their drink, because they are forbidden wine by their law.

Bekir Effendi took this treat and made it softer and covered it in a liberal amount of icing sugar. Legend has it that he presented this sweet to the ruler Abdul Hamid I after he was commissioned to make a new confection; it quickly became a coveted dish and was associated with royalty. Eventually a Briton discovered the delight and brought back crates of it to England, reselling it under the name Turkish Delight. From there it made its way over to the United States and near the end of the 19th century was turned into the jelly bean.

The jelly bean was created by taking the jelly of a Turkish Delight, shaping it into a bean, and coating it with a soft shell of sugar. The coating is added in a method called panning where the centre of the candies are put in a open container that is partly filled with syrup, and then they are rolled allowing the candy to be coated evenly as the shells slowly harden. Since Turkish Delight came in multiple flavours, early jelly beans shared this trait and experienced great success during the penny candy craze of the time.

In the early 1900’s, the penny candy craze subsided in favour of everything chocolate. It wasn’t until World War II that jelly beans and other non-chocolate treats resurged. Then in 1960,  the small Herman Goelitz Candy Company decided to change from primarily producing candy corn to multiple other confections including jelly beans and the United States’ first gummi bears. These jelly beans caught the attention of then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who would end up eating them through his two terms in office, famous writing “we can hardly start a meeting or make a decision without passing around the jar of jelly beans.”

In 1976, David Klien had an idea for jelly beans of unusual flavour and top notch quality, and pitched his idea to Herm Rowland, then owner of the Herman Goelitz Candy Company. Using the Goelitz company as a distributor, Klien created the Jelly Belly brand and launched with eight initial flavours including root beer and cream soda, flavours that had never been made into jelly beans before. In 1980, Klein and his business partner sold Jelly Belly and all the associated trademarks to the Herman Goelitz Candy Company for $4.8 million.

Around this same time, Ronald Reagan became President of the United States and with his presidency brought Jelly Belly jelly beans to the Oval Office and on Air Force One. He went further and asked for a blueberry flavoured jelly bean so he could serve red, white, and blue ones at parties he hosted. Then in 1983, Reagan sent Jelly Bellies to the astronauts of the space shuttle Challenger as a surprise. Throughout his eight years as president, he continued to have the jelly beans as a snack, helping to launch the Jelly Belly company into further financial success. Because of this huge influence, a portrait of the former president (shown above) made out of jelly beans hangs in the Jelly Belly visitor centre in Fairfield.

Today’s Tangent: While we may know them as Turkish Delights, the Turks definitely don’t call them that. The original word for these treats were lokum, which now translates from Turkish to English as Turkish Delight. However, not all translations are as simple. In Romanian the word is rahat which is a shorting of the Arabic translation rahat ul-holkum. Interesting, the Romanian rahat took another meaning, roughly translating to shit in English. I’d say that English got the taster of the two translations.

Nightfall is based on a short story that Isaac Asimov wrote in 1941 and which was then expanded into a novel by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg in 1990. It chronicles the experiences of an alien civilization on a planet with six suns, completely illuminating the surface at all times. That is, except for once every 2049 years when the suns disappear and the stars come out. The story is broken into three parts: Twilight (before the darkness), Nightfall (the period of darkness), and Daybreak (everything that happens afterwards). The characters were a good cross-section of different societal views, though the number of non-scientists and females were under represented (yes, there is a correlation between the two even in this alien society). The book forgoes alien terminology such as vorks in place of miles, making it more accessible to the general public. Overall I found that while the story fell into some predictable trappings, it kept me wanting more making its 7.5/10 well earned. A word of caution though: after reading most of the book in one sitting at night, I started to believe that it would not be light again. This is one of the few times I advocate that you take a break at the end of each section.

General Information:

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The first thing to discuss is the Tunnel of Mystery which is  a long enclosure resulting in sensory deprivation for 15 “minutes”. It’s described as completely dark and without sound of movement or any wind. This is similar to what astronauts are put through to test how they cope with solitude, and from our human experiences we find that we start to hallucinate and focus on anything that makes sound, such as our own heartbeat and breathing. Without external stimulation it can be a traumatic experience, which is exactly what happens to most of the aliens who take the ride. However, most people can handle sensory deprivation tanks for more than 15 minutes; it’s likely that the constant sunlight on this alien world caused its inhabitants to have a more extreme reaction. The only thing that bugs me about the description of the ride is how it can accommodate multiple people, yet anyone can exit the ride and lights will come on. Wouldn’t that ruin the experience for everyone else?

Then there’s the excavation of the ruins. It’s true that the desert can obscure great swaths of history, and right now we’re using satellites to try and see the outlines of completely buried pyramids in Egypt. I liked hearing how they found a historical record of a great cataclysmic every 2000 years or so because it was in perfect contrast to the mysticism of the Apostles of Flame who said the same thing. I feel that the authors gave a good depiction of how archaeology is done (how many fires were there?) and especially of how science and religion intermingle without trying to agree.

Which brings us to the discovery of Kalgash Two. When Beenay 25 first realized that there was something wrong with his measurements or theory, he tried to recalculate everything from scratch and then asked someone else to help him with the calculations. This just confirmed that he had done everything correctly, so he then approached his advisor and explained the situation. I thought they might have stumbled onto the theory of relativity, but it turns out there was another massive body in the system on a highly elliptical orbit; an orbit that would have it eclipse the single sun in the sky and plunge half the world into darkness for at least 9 hours.

I was disappointed in the small-world nature of the story. Beenay 25 discovers the new planet and works under Athor 77, the person who originally created the theory of gravitation. Beenay also knows Theremon 762, a highly prolific reporter who’s been assigned a story on the Apostles of Flame. Then again, Beenay also knows Sheerin 501 (the psychologist who investigated the Tunnel of Mystery) as he’s living with Sheerin’s niece and they both are professors at the same university. Finally, Beenay also knows Siferra 89, the leading archaeologist on the Beklimot dig, because they met five years ago at an inner-departmental meeting and became friends. The fact that everyone works for the same university, and that Beenay knows everyone except the Apostles of Flame, seems a little far-fetched  (especially when you consider that all the important work each of them is conducting is related and happens within a year of each other).

Midpoint Discussion:

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Now Nightfall is coming and the situation has changed. Athor has talked to Folimun 66 (the representative for the Apostles of Flame) and Theremon has changed from believing that darkness will come to strongly feeling that the scientists are over-reacting and buying into what the Apostles of Flame are spewing. I liked how the two students (Faro 24 and Yimot 70) tried to replicate the star experience by buying an apartment and poking holes in a sheet. It didn’t make a lot of sense that the Apostles of Flame would attack the observatory after they helped verify their predictions, but for some reason they didn’t want the eclipse to be recorded (more on this later).

Let me quickly touch on the science that’s been presented in the story thus far. Could they have detected a large planet that they can’t see using the theory of graviation? Yes, and it was by observing anomalies in Uranus’ orbit that astronomers hypothesized that Neptune existed and later observed it. Could a planet be invisible to our telescopes due to its colouration? This is less likely but still possible, as it’s hard for us to see planets on a brightly lit day and there are certain wavelengths of light that are harder to see through the atmosphere.

Would they really have been driven mad? By darkness, no, because that’s something that was scary but could be explained and was something they had experience with. In fact, the scientists had a very simple solution for combating that, which was using torches. And where darkness would have been scary, stars would have been terrifying. It’s no longer the darkness they prepared themselves for, but something completely alien and unexpected. (As an aside, I was slightly annoyed at how Sheerin’s explanation of the stars was postponed twice and then didn’t amount to much.)

Final Thoughts:

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Too many important people survived. It’s not surprising that Folimun survived, but having Theremon, Beenay, Sheerin, Siferra, and Yimot make it through means that 75% of the main characters in the observatory survived. This is very surprising given how we hear that there are bodies everywhere, equipment was being wrecked, and fires started all over. Of course, I understand that most of the main characters survived so they could have different experiences in the post-apocalyptic world, and both Yimot and Sheerin die shortly after. But still, 75% survival rate for an onslaught is a little extreme.

Then there’s how Theremon luckily meets up with almost everyone who survives. He randomly bumps into Sheerin and is told that everyone is heading to Amgando Park and that Yimot is dead. This is followed by meeting Siferra after trying to start a fire for the first time (she’s part of the Fire Patrol, so this is only marginally more sensible than the first encounter). Having Siferra and Theremon take the same same road as Beenay is reasonable, but having Beenay at the first checkpoint was very luckily. It made sense that they would be able to only get through a few sections on the highway, but it was convenient that near the end of their authorized trip, they stumble on Folimun to  wrap up the story.

I expected there to be a big twist with Mondior since we never met him but he played a large role in the story. Most of the time, hidden people turn out to be people we already met, and in this case it was simply a cover for Folimun which was an elegant solution. I didn’t like why Folimun attacked the university though; he says he was pretending to be a wild-eyed fanatic and just trying to convince the scientists to leave, but why didn’t he say that? The scientists had confirmed everything he knew and while they distanced themselves from the Apostles of Flame, they were on speaking terms and able to help each other out. Their conflict feels contrived.

My other big issue is Siferra’s character. In the first third of the story she’s pegged as completely uninterested in physical relationships, which is a reasonable characterization for a career-focused woman in a male dominated workforce. However, it still feels stereotypical, especially when she slowly falls for the womanizer Theremon who realizes that he has a softer side and that he loves Siferra. On the positive side, this is at most a subplot so its predictability isn’t much of an issue.

The story was well written and I enjoyed the characters and their interactions. I loved the idea of the stars only coming out every 2049 years and causing mass panic, combined with trying to fight the coming storm. It was a very enjoyable read. And to the people of Kalgash, may there always been a sun in your sky.