Archive for Nerdview

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:


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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Mixed cardboard only: a subtle case of nerdview

On a recycling dumpster outside an office building in Edinburgh: MIXED CARDBOARD ONLY. That, although it's subtle, is a case of the phenomenon for which I have been using the (not exactly ideal) term nerdview. It is an example of a linguistically misleading communication in which the failure is not of grammar or meaning but of failing to keep in mind the viewpoint of the reader rather than the specialist (possibly nerdy) view of the writer. Do you see why?

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Language Log readers may appreciate the following classic example of writing in technical terms from the perspective of the technician or engineer rather than from a standpoint that would seem useful to the customer or reader. I was engaged in reserving a rental car on the web, and got the date syntax wrong. Instead of having one of those little click-on-the-calendar widgets, the site required entry of the date of the reservation in a blank box using a strict syntax that it did not explain until the reservation failed and an error message was displayed. By strict syntax I mean (i) slash must be used as separator (continuous numbers will not work), (ii) day must be before month (American month-day-year syntax will not work), and (iii) the date must be four digits (two-digit year indications won't work). I'm not worried about having to know the date syntax of the culture I'm in; I can deal with that. And although the 4-digit year is a bit crazy (since time travel is impossible, the first two digits will be 2 and 0 for all reservations for the next 92 years, so they are not carrying much information), that piece of programming stupidness is not my concern here. The classic bit was the error message that popped up in red:

Please select a valid pick up date (DD/MM/YYYY) greater than today.

Have you ever said "I could do lunch any day next week greater than Tuesday"? Or "It would be helpful if you could deliver it greater than the 27th"? Or "I'm younger than my wife because my birthday is eight days greater than hers"? Of course you haven't.

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