## Famous last words

Guest post by Karen Stollznow

In recent weeks we've been following the tragedy and mystery of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 that vanished on March 8 with 239 people on board. Less than an hour after taking off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing all communication was cut off. The plane diverted unexpectedly across the Indian Ocean and disappeared from civilian air traffic control screens. There has been much controversy surrounding the transcript of the last incoming transmission between the air traffic controller and the cockpit of the ill-fated flight.

We tend to have a morbid fascination with people's last words. We assign profound meaning and philosophical insights to the final words uttered by those who face their fate ahead of us. There are numerous books and websites that chronicle the linguistic legacies of famous people such as Douglas Fairbank's ironic, "I've never felt better," to Woodrow Wilson's courageous, "I am ready," and the betrayal expressed in Julius Caesar's "Et tu, Brute?" Planecrashinfo.com maintains a database of last words from cockpit recordings, transcripts, and air traffic control tapes. These are disturbing announcements of impeding doom, including: "Actually, these conditions don't look very good at all, do they?" through to an assortment of cuss words, and moving farewells like, "Amy, I love you."

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## The sparseness of linguistic data

Gary Marcus and Ernest Davis say in a New York Times piece on why we shouldn't buy all the hype about the Big Data revolution in science:

Big data is at its best when analyzing things that are extremely common, but often falls short when analyzing things that are less common. For instance, programs that use big data to deal with text, such as search engines and translation programs, often rely heavily on something called trigrams: sequences of three words in a row (like "in a row"). Reliable statistical information can be compiled about common trigrams, precisely because they appear frequently. But no existing body of data will ever be large enough to include all the trigrams that people might use, because of the continuing inventiveness of language.

To select an example more or less at random, a book review that the actor Rob Lowe recently wrote for this newspaper contained nine trigrams such as "dumbed-down escapist fare" that had never before appeared anywhere in all the petabytes of text indexed by Google. To witness the limitations that big data can have with novelty, Google-translate "dumbed-down escapist fare" into German and then back into English: out comes the incoherent "scaled-flight fare." That is a long way from what Mr. Lowe intended — and from big data's aspirations for translation.

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## The future of Chinese language learning is now

When I began learning Mandarin nearly half a century ago, I knew exactly how I wanted to acquire proficiency in the language.  Nobody had to tell me how to do this; I knew it instinctively.  The main features of my desired regimen would be to:

1. pay little or no attention to memorizing characters (I would have been content with actively mastering 25 or so very high frequency characters and passively recognizing at most a hundred or so high frequency characters during the first year)

2. focus on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, particles, morphology, syntax, idioms, patterns, constructions, sentence structure, rhythm, prosody, and so forth — real language, not the script

3. read massive amounts of texts in Romanization and, if possible later on (after about half a year when I had the basics of the language nailed down), in character texts that would be phonetically annotated

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## Swype and Voice Recognition for mobile device inputting

In late 2012, while visiting my son Tom in Dallas, I noticed that he was doing something very odd with his cell phone.  Most people enter text into their cell phone by pressing their thumbs (or their fingertip) on the letters of a small keyboard, whether virtual or actual.  But Tom was doing something altogether different:  he was sliding his finger over the glass surface of his phone and somehow, by so doing, he was able to enter text.  I was dumbfounded!  What amazed me most of all was how casual he was about it.  He'd be talking to me about something, then glance down at his cell phone, move his fingertip around on the glass, and — presto digito! — he'd have typed a message to someone and sent it off.

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## Edinburgh, Taiwan (Province of China)

I got a royalty check from Chicago today, and I stared in astonishment at the home address on the payment advice. It was roughly correct in the first four lines, but the last line, after "EDINBURGH EH3 6RY", where the country name "United Kingdom" should have come, said "TAIWAN, PROVINCE OF CHINA".

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## One apostrophe short of a good hoax

The LulzSec hackers who broke into the computer systems of The Sun by exploiting a weakness in a mailback page on an outdated Solaris server really can program; they would never expect a script to work with a misspelled variable name, or a closing single quote omitted. But spell English correctly? They couldn't even write a simple four-word headline without a tell-tale error:

They meant media mogul's body. A nice spoof front page ruined by a failure to recall that genitive singular nouns are spelled with ’s in English. The curse of the forgotten letter strikes again.