Monday, December 21, 2009

We Stand on the Shoulders of Dumb Luck

Seven bits is sufficient to map all 26 English letters in upper and lower case, the digits 0-9, various punctuation and other symbols, plus 32 control characters.

In contrast, Chinese contains (depending on the counting) 9500 - 22,000 characters. To read Japanese requires several different alphabets totaling over 2000 characters. Arabic, more than 200.

There is no way of knowing why the Greeks moved from logographic / syllabic writing to a true alphabet. The result, though, was a sparse symbol set to represent spoken language.

Without a sparse symbol set, economic printing is impossible. The Chinese invented movable type printing 400 years before Gutenberg, but their teeming multitude of logographs made type sets expensive and difficult to use: how do you collate 9500 characters?

Without economic printing, widespread literacy is pointless.

Without widespread literacy, intellectual progress is glacial.

Without the Latin alphabet, computers would have never happened. Even ignoring literacy and intellectual progress, without a sparse symbol set, the complexity required to map and depict language would have presented a "can't get there from here" problem. (While not pivotally important in comparison with other alphabetic languages, modern English has no diacriticals or, — absent a very few optional spellings — ligatures.)

An small arbitrary change led ultimately to decidedly non-trivial consequences.

There just might be an evolution analog in here somewhere.

17 Comments:

Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

Greek derived from the Phoneician alphabet, as did Hebrew, no? And orthogonal to them, Sanskrit had a alphabet from way back too.

December 21, 2009 6:35 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

"Without the Latin alphabet, computers would have never happened."

"Never" is a long time. Do the chinese not need to add and multiply?

December 21, 2009 9:47 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Without widespread literacy, intellectual progress is glacial.

Thought you would just slip that in quietly without anyone noticing, eh? You would make a great French intellectual, Skipper.

December 22, 2009 4:15 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Mike:

Greek was the first true alphabet in that it included vowels. Without vowels, representation gets complicated in other ways to indicate how to pronounce words in their absence.

Bret:

Yes, but most of what we do with computers is not for the purpose of adding and multiplying.

What's more, the means with which we interact with a computer, no matter the purpose, involves neither. A sparse alphabetic set allows extremely efficient character entry. With 8 fingers, the longest jump to get any possible character is J-Y, J-N, F-T or F-B.

That is nothing. I can enter characters as fast as my fingers can move. Chinese, not so much.

Of course, computers are a secondary effect of literacy.

Without a sparse representation scheme, printing never becomes economical; without that, very few people are literate (think Europe pre- and post- Gutenberg).

Peter:

Not slipping anything in. Think about my previous para.

Presume genius is randomly distributed through a population, but, an illiterate genius is inaccessible.

The more people who are literate, the more intellect is available to a society.

From where to you think more ideas are likely to spring, a society where 10% of the males can read, or where 98% of everyone?

December 22, 2009 5:35 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, were we lucky or did we take what we had and make the most of it?

Bret, the abacus was used all over Asia, Africa and Europe from earliest times and is probably still being used in many places.

Peter, do you mean Intelligent Design ;-} ?

December 22, 2009 5:47 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Good one, erp.

Presume genius is randomly distributed through a population,

I'd rather not. Look, allow me to give you a hand. If you are going to pen yet another chapter in your Darwinist Theory of Everything, I suggest randomness works better as a conclusion than an opening presumption.

December 22, 2009 5:56 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'The more people who are literate, the more intellect is available to a society.'

'Mute, inglorious Miltons' (Gray, Elegy in a Country Churchyard)


I fail to see why randomness enters into this. To take Skipper's example of 10% of half v. 98% of all, genius would have to be distributed extremely non-randomly for his point to fail.

Query: How did the Greeks represent numerals? It isn't just the representations of vocables. If you had to use Latin notation for numerical inputs, it would eat up the bits.

December 22, 2009 12:15 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

erp:

Skipper, were we lucky or did we take what we had and make the most of it?

To what do you attribute the fact that we do not use logographic or syllabic writing, as large parts of the world do?

I don't think there was anything certain about the existence of a very sparse, easily collated and mechanically represented alphabet. Had it gone the other way -- logographic writing, for instance -- printing would never have become economical, wide spread literacy never happens, and, nearly certainly Bret remains mute.

No doubt we have made the most of the luck of which we are the unwitting recipients, but that cannot deny how contingent the very basis of it all is.

Peter:

If you are going to pen yet another chapter in your Darwinist Theory of Everything, I suggest randomness works better as a conclusion than an opening presumption.

Well, I'm not entirely sure what you mean by that, but I'll take a stab.

David is fond of saying that there is no such thing as natural selection, that everything is random. I think there is a case to be made here that there was a great deal of randomness in the development of writing systems, and it is accidental that one would develop whose primary advantages would not exist for another couple thousand years.

But when they do eventually exist, what was once essentially a happenstance has had enormous knock-on effects.

Unless, that is, you think the Greeks had Gutenberg in mind.

December 22, 2009 3:19 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, by we, I assume you mean western civilization.

Perhaps because we were Johnny-Come-Lately to civilization, we were able to simplify and improve on what came before us. That may have been what you call luck because it sure was lucky. It allowed us to, among other things, choose Arabic numerals instead of Roman, develop our own alphabet, live by the rule of law and evolve into what I think is the greatest civilization the world has ever seen.

December 22, 2009 4:12 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

erp:

Skipper, by we, I assume you mean western civilization.

Yes.

Perhaps because we were Johnny-Come-Lately to civilization, we were able to simplify and improve on what came before us. That may have been what you call luck because it sure was lucky. It allowed us to, among other things, choose Arabic numerals instead of Roman …

"We" were late to the game on that one. Arabic numerals came by way of the Hindus (Hindu numerals are what the Arabs call Arabic numerals). Europe completely adopted the decimal position notation developed wholly within India.

December 22, 2009 6:12 PM  
Blogger erp said...

Skipper, I didn't know that what we call Arabic numerals and the decimal system came from India. We were able to take the best ideas from around the world and build on them. I sure hope it doesn't all end this weekend.

December 22, 2009 7:30 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

Hey Skipper,

I think the need was first, then the invention. The exact progression that ended with the first alphabet is unknown, but it was likely invented to satisfy a need.

For example, according to wikipedia, the Egyptians made it most of the way to an alphabet. The need was that they needed pronunciation guides for their hieroglyphics.

Once you have symbols for pronunciation guides, it's relatively easy to imagine that new words being solely comprised of symbols and then eventually all words.

Did it happen that way? Who knows, but the points are that an alphabet probably (IMO) evolved incrementally and was probably driven by need.

No dumb luck involved.

December 22, 2009 8:41 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Having an alphabet, even with Arabic numerals, doesn't always lead to all that good stuff. It did not, for example, for the Arabs.

Nor for the Russians. But it if propose that widespread literacy leads to all that good stuff, then the bolsheviks set the Russians on the course to modernity, while the czars retarded them by, at least, 350 years.

I don't see any randomness about that, although presumably the Bolsheviks were the victims of unintended consequences.

December 23, 2009 9:57 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Eagar;

"Query: How did the Greeks represent numerals? It isn't just the representations of vocables. If you had to use Latin notation for numerical inputs, it would eat up the bits."

No. Very few computers represented numbers they way their human makers did so that represent is irrelevant. Further, Latin notation isn't that much worse than decimal for pure representation, it is operations that make it painful. It's also sufficiently simply that reading and writing it is often used as an introductory programming exercise.

As for Arabic, it may have relatively few symbols but it has lots of ligatures. Computer support for it turns out to be challenging even with present day systems. It's a big issue in the computer typography field.

December 23, 2009 1:13 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I didn't know that about the ligatures, although I have always been puzzled about non-alphabetic scripts and printing and even typing.

However, my point was not so much about computation (Skipper's original one) as about the use some societies fail to make of the ability to print.

Both the Russian and the Ottoman empires managed to hold off printing by legislation for hundreds of years. Even today, notoriously, Arabic speakers have relatively little access to printed material compared with civilized people.

To me, this is a mystery. Some societies just don't seem to care much about the technology of printing. Surely it cannot be more onerous to print Arabic today than it was to print English back in the days of distributed, handset type, just 165 years ago.

December 24, 2009 10:38 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

Did it happen that way? Who knows, but the points are that an alphabet probably (IMO) evolved incrementally and was probably driven by need.

No dumb luck involved.


Then there is no accounting for logographic writing systems. Or, perhaps the needs were somehow different, and that logographic and syllabic writing made sense in many areas, while alphabets arose to satisfy entirely different needs. However, it is very hard, for me, anyway, to hazard a guess as to how the needs underlying one manner of writing could differ so differently from another.

Where the dumb luck is involved, though, is that the needs of the Greeks, which could in no way have anticipated Gutenberg, meshed so well with Gutenberg's needs: that is dumb luck. The Arabic alphabet is every bit as satisfactory as the Greek and, eventually, Latin.

And there is no deterministic way of concluding why we ended up with the latter.

As AOG noted, Arabic is so complex to graphically represent that economical printing is a far more difficult proposition than for contemporary English, which has, perhaps uniquely, no ligatures or diacriticals.

Clearly, many other things are going on than just what a writing system looks like. But I think it within the realm of reason that if all languages were logographic, humanity would not have technologically advanced beyond pre-Gutenberg Europe or China.

However, my point was not so much about computation (Skipper's original one).

Well, my point was more that if representation and addressing are sufficiently complex, then widespread literacy and, eventually, computation, will be fatally undermined. And, further, that the development of a sparse and simple alphabet was a matter of luck that could not have anticipated its future importance.

December 25, 2009 3:16 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I agree the development was unpredictable, but am not so sure that something similar wouldn't have been devised eventually.

Cunieform spun off a series of simplified forms, although it took a long time.

December 26, 2009 10:36 AM  

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