July 13, 2024

Obviously, it’s been a while, so this one is a little long, and it goes back a little further than usual to some stuff I’ve had queued up for a while.

Article: “To Build a Better Language” by Sam Dean

A short history of the artificial and proposed “universal” language Esperanto, occasioned by the availability of lessons in the language learning app Duolingo. Despite being nobody’s native language, and being spoken by a tiny community, Esperanto was Duolingo’s most frequently requested language. Though it’s frequently a punch line, something about the language, or the ideals behind it, still has a powerful appeal for some. There’s also an interesting idea here about Esperanto as a kind of gateway drug for language learning; the idea being that if learning a second language makes it easier to learn a third, it might make sense to start with Esperanto, which is very easy to learn, by design.


Unintentional Conversation: “Is Translation an Art or a Math Problem?” by Gideon Lewis Kraus; and “The Data or the Hunch” by Ian Leslie

These two pieces both deal with questions about the extent to which human intuition and sensibility can be replaced (or supplemented) by data and algorithms. Kraus’s is aabout the practical and philosophical differences between machine translation— which relies on textual volume, moving from one language to another by finding correlations— and the work of human translators, which is as much about form and style and tone as it is simple meaning. I don’t think anybody’s going to be using Google translations to create a new edition of The Brothers Karamazov any time soon, but Kraus touches on the idea that the increasing utility of machine translations tends to devalue (further) the work of human translators by perpetuating the idea that all they have to do is look each word up in a bilingual dictionary.

Leslie writes about the use of large data sets to identify musicians and bands that have hit potential. I posted another piece a few weeks ago about the company Next Big Sound, which tries to do precisely this, with some success; here, Leslie contrasts this approach with the traditional “A&R man,” a kind of musical talent scout for record labels, valued for his/her ability to spot the ineffable, indefinable qualities that separate stars from the merely talented. The big data approach, of course, discounts dramatically the mystical qualities of that approach, replacing intuition to follower counts and retweets and other readily quantifiable signals of listener interest. The biggest problem I see with that approach is that it only works for artists who’ve already made some headway; you have to have produced a song or made a video, and while the internet has made distribution vastly easier and cheaper, it hasn’t necessarily changed those first, necessary steps as much.

Setting that relatively narrow point aside, though, what both of these pieces are talking about is, in a sense, what makes us human. That might sound grandiose, but if a capacity or function of human beings can be replicated by machines, that leads me, at least, to wonder whether that capacity is in any sense distinctive of human beings. There’s no doubt that, in both of these cases, computers are achieving the same (or similar) ends with very different methods from humans, so maybe the question is really whether that makes a difference— that is, whether there’s some value in the way human beings do things, the way we arrive at a particular end, that might in some cases supersede the value of the end itself.


Article: “Film from the Ashes” by John Lingan

Nitrate film was the industry standard for motion pictures up until the 1940s. Nitrate film looks fantastic (apparently), producing images with clarity, rich colors, deep blacks, and a sense of depth that other media can’t. Nitrate film is also prone to shrink over time— and a loss of more than 1% makes it impossible to project. Perhaps most problematically, nitrate film is also really, really flammable— once lit, it will continue to burn under water— and was the cause of numerous theatre fires, some fatal, while it was in use. Lingan takes a nitrate film festival, organized by the George Eastman House, which has one of the world’s largest collections of nitrate film, as the basis for a broader discussion of film preservation and the problem of formats in general.


Article: “Monkey Glands for Everyone” by Dan Piepenbring

In Ned Beauman’s excellent novel The Teleportation Accident, the main character gets mixed up in a scam to trick an aging socialite into paying a great deal of money for surgery that will attach monkey glands (read: testicles) to her body, reinvigorating her and making her, in some sense, younger. (In the novel, this results in the attachment of lychee berries to the woman’s neck, which has even less of an effect that monkey glands would have.) Apparently, though, this idea isn’t something Beaumont came up with on his own; his protagonist is pretending to be Serge Voronoff, a real person who, in the 1920s and 30s, promoted the replacement of aging men’s testicles with those of young, healthy monkeys; this was supposed not only to help them look and feel younger, but to increase their sexual stamina as well. I’ll leave the rest for you to read for yourself, but, wow, yeah, not good science.

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