Archive for Nerdview

Biomedical nerdview

My new hobby, as Randall Munroe sometimes says, is asking biomedical researchers what "sensitivity" and "specificity" mean. The modal response is "Um, yes, I always have to look those up".

But recently, preparing a homework assignment about the evaluation of binary classifiers, I had a flash of insight. My new insight answers one of the questions I've always had about these terms: Why do biomedical researchers focus on the (apparently misleading) concepts that "sensitivity" and "specificity" denote?  (My other question remains unanswered: Why did they pick those singularly un-mnemonic names? As far as I can see, they might as well have called them  "delicacy" and "capacity", or "intensity" and "curiosity", or "Jupiter" and "Saturn".)

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Fan-fold ticket stock nerdview

We have not discussed any examples of nerdview on Language Log for a while. But Bob Ladd told me of one the other day. He was at the Edinburgh Airport dropping someone off, and pulled up next to the ticket dispensing machine for the short-stay car park. He pushed the button, but no ticket appeared. Instead, the display screen of the machine showed a message: "OUT OF FAN-FOLD TICKETS".

Not having encountered the term "fan-fold" (I guess he never owned a tractor-feed printer in the 1980s), he was momentarily flummoxed. What the hell was a fan-fold ticket, and what was he supposed to do, given that there apparently weren't any, and he had to take one to make the white bar lift up so he could go in?

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Scholar-hegemons in China

In "Nerd, geek, PK: Creeping Romanization (and Englishization), part 2" and other Language Log posts, we have delved into the terminology for nerddom.  In the course of our discussions, we seem to have arrived at a consensus that it's difficult to find a Chinese term that conveys well the notion and nuances of the English word "nerd".

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Mandarin is weirder than Cantonese

So says idibon.

Beijing Cream took the hint and ran with it: "Cantonese, Which Sounds Like A Jackhammer Mating With A Chainsaw, Is Apparently Less 'Weird' Than Mandarin".

When I first read these sensationalistic claims, I stood back, took a deep breath, and said to myself, "Wait a minute! There are lots of people (mostly Mandarin speakers!) who swear that Mandarin is the most pleasant sounding of all the Sinitic languages." Just what is it that has led idibon to declare Cantonese to be less weird than Mandarin?

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Transit is departing

The electric train that runs between the different parts of Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport insists on referring to itself as a "transit".

What's more, the remarkably annoying female voice that tells you needlessly that the doors are closing and that the train is about to start moving says "Transit is departing."

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"Bladed items": nerdview?

After teenager Casey-Lyanne Kearney was found dying in a park in the northern England town of Doncaster yesterday, 26-year-old Hannah Bonser was arrested and charged with murder; but according to various news sources (e.g., Sky News and The Telegraph) she was also "charged with two counts of possessing a bladed item." Why would anyone use such a strange and deliberately vague technical description of a knife?

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Puzzled in Tarragona

In the Hotel Ciutat de Tarragona, the beautiful modern hotel in Tarragona where I am currently staying, I ate breakfast in the 1st-floor restaurant (Americans: that would be the 2nd floor), and then came out to take the elevator back up to my 5th-floor room (Americans: 6 floors up). But I was baffled: there was no button to call the elevator for upward journeys. There was just a button labeled with the Down-Arrow symbol for calling the elevator to go back down to the lobby on level 0. Some sort of security, I assumed, to ensure that random restaurant patrons don't go up in the elevator to wander up and down the halls looking for unlocked doors or stealable items. But then how was I to get back up to my room? I'm ashamed to report just how long it took me to resolve the conundrum here. Perhaps you would like to solve it for yourself before you read on.

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Create a language, go to jail

I've received several messages with links to this NYT piece since its appearance online on Sunday. The piece is on Dothraki, a constructed language used in the HBO series "Game of Thrones" and invented by David J. Peterson, founder and President of the Language Creation Society and (as it happens) a former PhD student here in the Extreme Southwest Wing of Language Log Plaza. The piece also talks about constructed languages ("conlangs") and language constructors ("conlangers") a bit more generally, and most specifically with respect to their use in Hollywood. (That 'their' is purposely ambiguous.)

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Microsoft tech writing noun pile blog post madness!

Fans of noun piles will enjoy the recent blog post by Mike Pope, a technical editor at Microsoft, "Fun (or not) with noun stacks." Mike shares a few of the lovely compound noun pileups he's encountered on the job:

  • data bound control table row action links
  • failed password security question answer attempts limit
  • reduced minimum OS partition space available requirement

Mike goes on to explain why he thinks these problematic constructions continue to crop up in technical writing, driven by imperatives of terseness and concision at the expense of comprehensibility. He also gives helpful advice for untangling technical noun piles into something more user-friendly. That's all well and good, but you have to wonder just how deeply enmeshed in nerdview a writer must be to produce a whopper like "failed password security question answer attempts limit."

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Xtreme nerdview

I don't do surveys, so don't ask. I cannot afford a quarter of an hour answering an ill-designed list of questions for you so that your manager can use the scientifically worthless results to make out a case that your service unit is doing a good job. And don't call me on the phone and tell me you're doing some social science research, because I just know there will be a follow-up call trying to sell me carpets or enrol me in a political action committee. However, my colleague Bob Ladd encouraged me to do a survey about the new building in which the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences lives its generally happy life at the University of Edinburgh. He told me there would be a treat at the end in terms of what I have dubbed nerdview. And boy, was there a treat. The survey was terrible — hopelessly designed, and will yield worthless results — but the feedback to the user at the end did indeed give me the best example of nerdview I ever saw.

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Firemen, dental practice, and danglers

Said the story in the Ottawa Citizen:

The woman was trapped in her car unconscious for about 20 minutes while firefighters performed an extraction, he said.

And alert Language Log reader Diane commented: "I had no idea our firefighters were also trained at dentistry!" She also asked me whether the misleading phrase an extraction was a dangler (an analog of the dangling modifier that prescriptivists warn against).

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Annals of human-computer interface improvement

In the old days, when a proposal was ready to go out from my university to NSF or NIH or whatever, a pile of paperwork was circulated around so as to get the needed cascade of signatures: principal investigator, department head, budget office, and so on. A couple of years ago, the office of research administration replaced this inefficient process with a new web-based system.

Such systems can be a great thing. Several years earlier, NSF automated its submission procedures via a system called "FastLane", and in my opinion, it's been a big success. Submission, reviewing, and reporting have become much easier. The system is pretty much self-explanatory, and there are good help pages for aspects that may be confusing.

But our new internal review software was different.

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It's just the TAM LED

On the base station for the wireless telephone system at my apartment there is a red light. I looked up in the manual to see what the semantics was. The relevant diagram was clear and explicit. The line pointing to that light on the picture of the base station unit said: "TAM LED". Neither "TAM" nor "LED" had been previously glossed anywhere in the manual (the diagram was fairly near the beginning, on page 10). That is a classic example of the sort of thing I refer to as nerdview.

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External use

"For external use only", it says on many poisonous ointments and other medicinal products that should not be orally consumed. But, the naive patient might ask, external to what? Is it all right to eat the product if I step outside the building? This is another case of nerdview, you know. The person who draws a distinction between internal medicine and external medicine is the doctor, not you or me. If saving the patient from eating menthol crystals or drinking rubbing alcohol is what they have in mind, why on earth don't they simply say "Don't eat this", or "Not for drinking", or "Don't put this in your eyes or your mouth", or whatever they exactly mean? It is because (and I answer my own question here) they have not switched out of the doctor's-eye view and considered what things are like from the patient's perspective. That's nerdview.

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Of garbage, seagulls, civic pride, and nerdview

I haven't revisited the topic of nerdview for some time now, but I thought of it again when I saw the utter, dispiriting uselessness of the sticky label I saw on Thursday morning:

THIS REFUSE HAS BEEN CHECKED FOR ILLEGAL PRESENTATION.

What the hell, I hope you are asking yourself, is that about? You need to live in Edinburgh's New Town to figure it out instantly. For the rest of you, I will explain.

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