Archive for December, 2012

Geoffrey West on From Alpha to Omega

An excellent summary of Prof. West\’s research into complexity theory and the scaling laws that determine the lifetimes of both biological organisms and socioeconomic systems. I have referred to his work here to try to explain why large-scale, hierarchically organized socioeconomic systems (cities, economies, nation-states, etc.) exhibit superexponential growth, for a time, but then inevitably run out of resources, be they fossil fuels, fresh water and farmland or fresh ideas and cultural innovations, and collapse.

For those of you who are justifiably wary of mathematical models, please understand that this is different. These are not attempts to model one complex system using another complex system, such as the models used by economists and climate scientists. (The climate models are far from worthless, but they do seem to have significantly underestimated the effects of anthropogenic climate change, while the models the economists use are in fact complete garbage.) Prof. West uses simple math, which takes into account such basic elements as the dimensionality of spacetime and the fractality of networks, to make accurate predictions about the behavior of complex systems.

Incidentally, in listening to this podcast I found out that Prof. West and I both left the field of high-energy physics for the same general reason: the cancellation of the Superconducting Supercollider experiment, which can certainly be viewed as a collapse of a complex socioeconomic system. The project got canned as the size of its budget showed signs of approaching a singularity. From collapse to collapse, if you will—from alpha to omega.

Oh, and Happy New Year to all 19,469 of you who have visited this blog over the past month, as well the rest of my 991,615 visitors, should any of you decide to stop by.

Escape from the Merry Christmas Zone

Feng Zhu

I am not in the US at the moment, but in Russia. This means several things. First, today is not Christmas. (Christmas is on January 7th, having something to do with the Julian calendar. It is 3/4 of a day per century fast, but since it is only used for religious holidays, nobody cares.) Second, even for the Christians here, Christmas is a minor feast, far behind Easter. This is quite understandable: sure, virgin birth (not to be confused with immaculate conception, as some technical-minded reader has pointed out) is a bit of a trick, but it is nothing compared to the trick of rising from the dead after being crucified. Now that is one act you just never want to follow!

Third, the big holiday here is not Christmas but the New Year, which I much prefer. Actually, I would prefer to celebrate Winter Solstice, which is an actual observable astronomical event rather than an artificial date on an artificial calendar. That is what these holidays really were before the priests co-opted them: celebrations of light. Christmas was Winter Solstice, and Easter was Spring Equinox. And so, for once, I don\’t feel compelled to even pretend that Christmas exists. But since this just happens to be the 25th of December—the day many readers of this blog happen to celebrate Christmas—and since this year it happens to fall on a Tuesday—the day of the week on which I publish a blog post—today I will blog about Christmas.

In all the years I\’ve spent living in the US, I have always felt the urge to get the hell out of the country whenever Christmas approached. This is because it is a season when Americans are \”struggling to celebrate the holiday with some semblance of normalcy\” (I just heard this very phrase on NPR\’s All Things Considered. The context is the mass murder of schoolchildren in Connecticut, but I find that it applies every year.) It is a stressful time when people rush around trying to find presents on which to deplete their meager savings (or, more likely, run up some more credit card debt) in order to maintain a commercially imposed fiction of normal family life. This often causes them to be overcome by feelings of alienation, depression and despair. As with that other great American holiday, Thanksgiving, people compensate for their misery with a bout of pathetic, self-destructive gorging.

Now, I am certainly not against celebrating, whatever it is you want to celebrate; celebrating is good. I am not even opposed to celebrating Christmas (as I mentioned, immaculate conception is quite a trick, although the Egyptian god Horus clearly did it first). But I am against celebrating this most toxic of all American holidays: the holiday of Christmasshopping. Please kill it, and in so doing celebrate your vaunted freedom of which I have heard so much but seen so little. It shouldn\’t be that hard: there is already a tradition of company Christmas parties, which are never held on December 25th. Now, just extend it to family Christmas parties. Hold them some time in January. Do buy some presents, if you wish, but be sure to buy them after Christmas, when the prices are lower. Use the savings to rent a hall, hire a band and have the occasion catered. Include not just the family but friends and neighbors. As for December 25th, throw a zombie party or something. Everyone loves zombies nowadays. Then maybe I\’ll stop trying to flee the country every Christmas season.

Regularly Scheduled Programming


Horsemen of the Apocalypse
on Parade
Red Suqare, Moscow
Regular readers of this blog must have noticed by now that for the past few weeks we have been off on a bit of a tangent from the usual fare of collapse-related social and economic commentary. There are several reasons for this.

One is that I have recently finished the manuscript for the Five Stages of Collapse, having worked on it more or less continuously for half a year, and editing hasn\’t started yet. At the moment the topic of collapse has worn some grooves in my brain, making me want to think about something else for a while. And so I devoted a few weeks to an exercise in applied anarchy, which was to define an alternative way of writing English, one that follows the phonological form of the language and replaces spelling (an entirely artificial and useless skill) with elocution (which is quite useful). Several people have pledged their support to this project, which is quite far along already, and is now going to be taking shape at, so please direct any additional comments you have on it there, not here. A lot of people are in favor of providing a way to read English that is more like listening and less like deciphering oddly garbled strings of symbols that bear minimal relationship to the actual sounds of the language. And a lot of non-native speakers of English would appreciate it if some of the native speakers learned some elocution and became easier to understand. That project will get interesting once the software to do mass conversion of English text is in place and the entire Project Gutenberg is unspelled.
Another reason for my desire to temporarily stay off the topic of collapse is that I am spending the lengthy Russian holiday season with my family in Russia (where Christmas through mid-January is one continuous country-wide federal holiday). Russia is definitely not collapsing; it is getting stronger and richer. If you listen to the paranoid ramblings of Secretary of State Clinton, it is also getting bigger, by absorbing several resource-rich former-Soviet tin pot dictatorships to the south which the Americans erroneously thought might be their cold war prize.
St. Petersburg, where I am spending the winter, is still dark and snowy—it is currently -15ºC (5ºF) and promising to head lower—but it is now also full of luxury cars, swank boutiques, gourmet shops and restaurants (the place has gone sushi-mad). There are now cafés with free WiFi that are open 24/7. Everywhere, even in the government offices, the service is now prompt and courteous. There is simply a ridiculous amount of culture going on—opera, concerts, theater, art exhibits, and so on. It is one thing to keep up a stream of collapse-related commentary from a place that\’s collapsing; it is quite another to try to do the same from a place that\’s experiencing a rather remarkable rebirth.
In one sense the rebirth is quite literal: Russian birth rates now exceed death rates and the population is once again growing. The low birth rates were partly the legacy of the Soviet era, where cramped living conditions often limited the size of families, and partly a cultural change that made having just one child socially acceptable. That the trend toward falling birthrates has been reversed is a major feat, accomplished through many different means, among them vastly improved, free prenatal and postnatal care, financial aid to families with young children and a large cash award given to women who have more than one child. All of this has resulted in a baby boom: there are children and baby carriages everywhere and all the better nurseries have waiting lists.
Another transformation taking place is the conversion of Russia from a lawless bandit-state run by oligarchs and the mafia to a law-abiding society. This process began just a dozen years ago and is by no means complete. An overhang of that lawless time, and of the Soviet legacy before that, is Russia\’s very high prison population. While not as high, per capita, as that of the United States, which is the shame of the world, it is still quite shameful. With Putin\’s pronouncement, around 2000, of “dictatorship of the law” the emphasis was given to shutting down protection rackets and mopping up all the petty crime that erupted as a result of professional thugs suddenly becoming unemployed. Now the emphasis seems to be shifting to shutting down corruption at higher levels. The recent corruption-related dismissal of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov was highly publicized even in the West. A more obscure corruption scandal, but one involving similar amounts of money (around 100 million USD), recently erupted right here in St. Petersburg: Vladislav Petrov, the person in charge of the city\’s steam mains, is being questioned (St. Petersburg is heated using cooling water discharged from power plants, which is distributed throughout the city via buried pipelines). Petrov oversaw a scheme in which some 600km of large-diameter steam pipe was replaced using substandard, salvaged gas pipe which was purchased from Gazprom. The inspection certificates were forged, and the difference in price was pocketed. This came to light when, with the start of the heating season, geysers of steam erupted in various parts of the city, requiring emergency repairs and shutting down traffic. These are by no means isolated cases: it is impossible to keep corruption entirely under control in a suddenly wealthy, rapidly transforming country that had only recently lived through a bout of almost complete lawlessness.
But what is most stunning is the pace of economic development: Russia seems to be developing into the United States of the 1990s, while the US seems to be developing into a vast wasteland of boarded-up strip malls and suburban slums surrounding abandoned downtowns. That this is not a good development model should be obvious to all and does not bear repeating here. A lot of the new development here is car-centric; Russia has recently surpassed Germany in car sales, with Lexus and Infiniti leading among the newly popular brands. Big box stores are erupting everywhere, and the arrival of the global consumer culture is quickly making Russia just like any other prosperous place on earth, with the same global brands on sale as anywhere else. I can only hope that this trend does not run to completion, as it has in the US, with its deadweight of underwater suburbs, ridiculously overbuilt retail space, and very little else. But from what I have observed, Russia is quite capable of making rapid changes in direction. Also, although private cars and big box stores are all the rage now, they have not shut down public transportation or local shops, so that, when this development model is discovered to be a dead end, there will be a path back.
Of the two largest (and related) problems affecting the planet as a whole—national resource depletion, oil and gas in particular, and global warming—Russia seems to be spared. (I tend to discount all of the recent nonsense about fracking; it seems to be a scheme to defraud investors, with gas and oil only figuring as dirty, overpriced byproducts of this process. I also tend to discount the efforts to control climate change; the recent fiasco of a conference at Doha is a case in point.) Russia has 70 years of natural gas left at current production rates from already developed sources, and probably somewhat less oil. There may be much more of each to be found in the rapidly thawing Russian arctic. With regard to global warming, the UN climate change effect maps I have looked at show the US and Europe as major losers with regard to their ability to feed themselves, while Russia appears to be the greatest benefactor, with longer growing seasons and more plentiful rainfall. And while many coastlines in the world are under threat from rising oceans (the Eastern Seaboard in the US a prime example, with the recent damage from Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey just a small taste of things to come) Russia\’s population centers are mostly inland. St. Petersburg, the second-largest Russian city, is on the water, but is on the far side of the Baltic, does not have tides, has built a dam to shield it from storm surges, and is not forecast to experience significantly higher water levels any time this century.
If there is one thing that Russia should be doing but isn\’t it\’s this: Russia should stop helping sanitize US government debt. In this, it should not do it alone but join other countries and stop buying US debt. Currently, when Russia exports products, it then uses a share of the revenues to buy up US debt, in the form of US Treasury paper. That paper then sits at the central bank, accruing approximately 0% interest (always far below inflation, which Americans systematically underestimate) and eventually dwindles to nothing as the USD loses virtually all of its value over time. Why subsidize American defense and other government spending when this money can be invested productively? For instance, it can be distributed as loans to Russian-owned businesses that have a good business plan for replacing imports with domestic production.
In a couple of months I\’ll be heading back to the US, and back to collapse. The book will be out in May, and I will be traveling and talking about it both before and after that. No doubt people will ask me: “What about Russia?” You see, I have compared the USA to the USSR, showing that the USA is not as well-prepared for its inevitable collapse as the USSR was. I did not compare the USA to Russia. Although some Americans continue to use USSR and Russia as synonyms, they really should make an effort and try to sound a bit more intelligent. The USSR is dead, and modern Russia came after it died. What will come once the USA is also dead is anyone\’s guess.

Applied Anarchy Part III: The Design Phase


[Six-month update. The project is alive. To see what it looks like now, scroll down.]

[Update: There is now a reasonable bitmap font that hints of brush calligraphy; the chart and the sample below have been updated. The sample now shows stressed vowels as elongated.]

[Update: By popular demand, I included a little poem at the end, so that it\’s clear what text looks like, and for your deciphering pleasure. Please note that font design is yet to be done.]

If you have been following along for the last two weeks, you probably have some idea of what happens next; if not, you will need to catch up: here is a description of why English spelling a problem, and here is an explanation of what can be done about it. In short, English has the world\’s worst orthographic system that happens to be in common use, and it causes a great deal of damage. Just the cost of the several extra years of schooling needed to learn English spelling (much of it to no avail), together with the opportunity cost of not learning something more useful, runs into many billions of dollars a year. The economic damage caused by widespread functional illiteracy is harder to quantify.

There has been a lot of discussion since I published these two posts, along with numerous expressions of support. Several software developers who are also linguists stepped forward with offers of help. Given this level of interest, I intend to push forward with this project.

The task at hand is to create a new, better way of writing and reading English (of the General American variety)—one that is entirely regular and represents each psychologically real speech sound (phoneme) with exactly one symbol (glyph) and, unlike the current system, takes a minimal amount of time to learn for either a native speaker or a student of English. The goal is to design and write software that will provide an alternative way of rendering English text and to make it available for web sites, electronic books and electronic documents of all kinds.

The task at hand is not to reform English spelling. Nor is it to indulge people who want to waste time discussing such futile endeavors. It is to create an alternative, not a replacement.
The task at hand is not to create a new way of writing English using the Latin alphabet, since that\’s already been done, in spots and in stripes. It\’s called Lolcat. If that is of interest to you, o hai, blessinz of teh Ceiling Cat be apwn yu, srsly. nuf sed. Kthbye!
The task at hand is not to scare up the requisite number of random squiggles and doodles, either from foreign alphabets, or from previous failed experiments at phoneticizing English, such as Shavian. This has to be an original design.
* * *
The process of coming up with something out of nothing is always a mystery. Be that as it may, what appears to work best is a process that starts with setting forth a set of requirements, followed by a very strange period of time during which nothing productive seems to be happening. This can take a long time, and if there happen to be project managers wandering about asking futile questions like “How long do you think it will take?” or “When do you think it will be done?” then it can take forever, because that is how long it can take to calculate what is incalculable. This period of time ends either with a design that fulfills the requirements, or with failure. In the worst case scenario, the design is done by a committee, it is agreed that failure is not an option and that furthermore we are out of time, and next thing you know there is an unspeakable horror of a design scampering about demanding to know why mommy doesn\’t love it. Given how many such horrors have come to inhabit our world, I have come to view design failure as just a special kind of success.

The Requirements

1. A set of unique symbols for each of 35 generalized phonemes of General American English.
2. Must not have interference effects with Latin or produce unwanted associations with English spelling.
3. Must not resemble the writing of any known foreign or artificial language, dead or alive, any existing decorative style, motif or esthetic, and must be as free of pre-existing associations as possible.
4. Must be easy to read and to write. Must not pose a problem for dyslexics, people with limited manual dexterity or people who have learning disabilities. Must not require superior penmanship to produce perfectly legible, professional-looking results by hand.
5. Must be easy to learn: Related sounds must be represented by related shapes and make use of Latin cognates when possible.
6. Must be optimized for mobile devices. Must allow easy text entry using numerical keypads, touch pads and multitouch screens. Must not require a keyboard layout. Must not degrade visually when rendered using a minimum number of pixels.
7. Must work well for multiple applications such as carving in wood or stone, rendering on paper using calligraphy brushes and pens and on walls using spray paint. Must not require breaking up symbols into sections when making stencils, which, by the way, are becoming an increasingly important form of public art.

Kill the state within yourself
8. Must be able to represent stress (since English has lexical stress) and intonation (since English has fixed word order and uses tone for topicalization) without requiring additional symbols such as accents or other diacritics.
9. The design must be sufficiently general, and at the same time sufficiently highly constrained, to allow for a wide variety of artistic renderings without causing ambiguity or loss of legibility.
10. Must employ a minimum number of distinguishing features in specific configurations, to allow it to be directly mapped to fingertip-readable Braille-like patterns, Morse code-like sequences, bugle calls, drum beats, semaphore signals, dance steps (with or without pompoms) and so on without requiring one to memorize a separate code table in each case. A business card-sized laminated card of easy-to-follow instructions should be all that is necessary in each case.

The Design Process

The process of coming up with something new is, by definition, ill-defined; if you know what it is you are looking for, then it is, by definition, not new. All of the most important human activities, such as coming up with scientific discoveries, mathematical proofs, artistic breakthroughs and the like fall into this category. There are just two broad, sweeping generalizations that apply to them. One is that broad, sweeping generalizations do not apply to them.
The other broad, sweeping generalization (that doesn\’t apply to them either) is that people like to have an explanation for how something came about, and find it deeply unsatisfying to think that all the great new things are, in fact, accidents. This usually makes it necessary to retrofit an explanation for how something new came about before people will leave you alone about it.
And so, to indulge this very general penchant for wanting to know the details of something about which no detailed information exists, here, for your enjoyment, is a story of how I came up with this particular set of symbols (glyphs) to represent the sound system of English.
* * *
Some things are immediately obvious just by looking at the requirements. For example, the need to be able to make stencils without breaking up the shapes means that there can be no closed geometries such as circles. The need to be able to easily and accurately render the symbols using pens, brushes and chisels, together with the need to limit the number of distinguishing features, indicates the use of strokes within a largely rectilinear pattern. The need for easy numerical keypad and touchpad entry limits the number of basic elements to what fits on a numerical keypad. But how to put it all together?

Aboard the No. 49 bus
In search of inspiration, I took the No. 49 bus to the Russian Museum. It has a huge art collection spanning many centuries. The older works are mainly portraits of dead Russian aristocrats. Many of them look like somebody took a toilet plunger to their faces, and I find that amusing but not inspiring.

The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also large collections of works by some of my favorite painters, including Repin, Levitan and Aivazovsky. But it is the modern art exhibited in the Benois Wing that is capable of inspiring an abstract design of the sort needed. Of that, the Suprematist works by Kazimir Malevich turned out to provide just the right foundation for this project.

Kazimir Malevich, The Black Square

Malevich came from humble beginnings (his father, a Polish immigrant, worked at a provincial sugar factory). He was largely self-taught, and rose to international prominence during the heady period around the Russian revolution during which Russian avant-garde art took the world by storm. He was the founder of the Suprematist movement, which sought to succeed the Constructivist movement by liberating art from any physical or social constraints.

Kazimir Malevich, Self-Portrait

Malevich contended that true art existed in the realm of pure feeling, of form and color unrelated to physical objects and freed from utilitarian demands. His Suprematist works were wildly successful. Writing in 1915, the establishment art critic Alexandre Benois, brother of the one who architected the Benois Wing, had this to say about his masterpiece The Black Square:

This is not a simple joke, not a simple challenge, not an accident or a small, insignificant episode… this is one of the acts of self-assertion of a new direction, which leads to filth and squalor, and which boasts that, through pride, through arrogance, through trampling all that is lovely and tender, it will lead us all to perdition.”
I believe Malevich\’s work stood on its own merits, but such lavish praise certainly couldn\’t have hurt. If your art opening serves up perdition, you can safely skimp on the wine and the cheese and crackers. Needless to say, his art languished during Stalin\’s reign, when the artistic dictate from the very top was to adhere to Socialist Realism—art in the service of the people—which is just the sort of utilitarianism and attachment to social convention and physical form that Malevich despised. In later years his masterpieces were again exhibited, although rumor has it that The Black Square, in an affront to all that is good and decent in this world, was for a time exhibited upside-down.
There is much to say about The Black Square that I hardly know where to begin. I suppose it may be hard to tell what it is you are looking at from an image on a web page, but when viewing it directly the normal reaction is along the lines of “Oh my God, there it is, that\’s the one!”—for you have now seen it. Note the definite article “the”—it is there for a reason. What painter would ever paint another black square? (An ironic one, I suppose, and call it “Yet Another Black Square”—but that would be so derivative.) In an infinite universe of black squares, Malevich has achieved what amounts to a singularity. Look at it another way: note that The Black Square signifies itself and only itself. Is it not the textbook definition of a black square? And is it not also a painting of one? It is denotation and connotation rolled into one. It does not exist in contrast or in opposition to anything else. Its only relationship is to you, the person standing in front of it at the Russian Museum, thinking “Oh my God, there it is!” and in this sense it is not the black square at all; it is your experience of it. Or, rather, your lack thereof, because, after all, what is there to experience? After all, it\’s just a bloody black square, isn\’t it? And so maybe you are not experiencing it; maybe it is experiencing you. To paraphrase Nietzche, “If you gaze long at the black square, the black square also gazes at you.” Magic, isn\’t it?

The set of symbols I tasked myself with creating is quintessentially Suprematist. They are severed from all social convention or pre-existing esthetic. They are intended to trigger a direct, unmediated response in you, their viewer, and that response is to want to utter phonemes—objects with no physical reality that only exist within your mind. Their function is to create an experience: the experience of visualizing a speech sound as an abstraction. It is the experience of standing before an abstract shape and feeling the /æ/ (as in \”cat\”) or the /ɚ/ (as in \”squirrel\”) rise up inside you—in spite of there being no cats or squirrels or any other objects or words present, depicted, or alluded to. They seek to wire your visual cortex directly to your speech center, bypassing all that could possibly stand between you and the language that resides in your head. The only conventions by which they are constrained are the conventions of the symbols\’ own geometric shapes. Aside from the need to learn which symbol represents which speech sound, the meaning of each symbol is defined not by anyone else but by your own subjective experience of it—the experience of recognition of something that is already within you: “Oh my God, there it is!”

* * *
But the work I found most germane to the task at hand was not The Black Square but another masterpiece by Malevich, displayed alongside it: The Black Cross. It also is earth-shatteringly, breathtakingly, eye-wateringly obvious, but it gave me so much more to work with. Rather than just one square, it has nine: five black ones, four white ones. Viewed on another level, the image consists of two intersecting strokes: one horizontal, one vertical. And so here is our first symbol:

Kazimir Malevich, The Black Cross
My next steps were obvious as well: fill each of the remaining eight squares with a distinctive pattern of strokes, as few strokes as possible, using the black cross, in the central position, as the seed. Make the strokes flow top to bottom and left to right with a minimum of discontinuity or backtracking. Make the set of symbols look coherent by making sure that they all have an element in common. I chose it to be the lower part of the cross, giving each symbol a convenient mounting point. I also chose the horizontal line of the cross as the baseline that runs through all the symbols, so that all the symbols hang from that line, making them easier to align visually while writing and to scan through quickly while reading. Here are snapshots of my creative process:

These symbols fulfill all of the requirements except one: there aren\’t enough of them. We need exactly three times as many symbols as this.

* * *

I wandered the exhibition halls in search of an idea that might help me break out of this impasse, and eventually found myself in the museum gift shop. And there I found it!

Troika bearing Grandfather Frost and the Snow Maiden

It is holiday season, and there were holiday greeting cards on sale. The biggest holiday in Russia is the New Year, and New Year\’s greeting cards often depict two stock figures of Russian folklore: Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and Snegurochka (the Snow Maiden), his sexy female side-kick, putatively his granddaughter but let\’s not pry. Greeting cards often depict this duo riding a sleigh laden with gifts pulled by a troika of horses. Unlike a mythical character like Santa Claus, children have no trouble believing in these two because they do in fact exist: on New Years Eve many thousands of instances of them are spawned and fan out across the landscape, ringing doorbells and distributing presents. The Snow Maiden is particularly popular with the children.

Typical specimens

And then it hit me: hitch each of the nine symbols up to a troika! Nine symbols times three horses gives us 27, and with 8 additional variants that will be created by adding a voicing mark we will reach 35—the exact number we are looking for! Note that all of the nine symbols have a constant element: the foot. This foot can now be made to have three variants: short, medium (with a curve, to symbolize the shaft bow that is part of the harness of the central horse in a troika) and a long one.

With the addition of the troika our set of symbols expands to 27, and my work is almost done:

But how do we distinguish the 8 voiced consonants from their unvoiced counterparts? What will the voicing mark look like? Malevich to the rescue again. Here, we make use of his third masterpiece of the series, which is sometimes called his Triptych: The Black Circle.
Kazimir Malevich, The Black Circle

And here are the eight voiced variants, with the voicing mark inspired, once again, by the great Malevich:
* * *
My last task was to match our new symbols to the 35 phonemes. This I did with the help of a phonemic frequency table, making sure that the most frequent phonemes require the fewest, shortest strokes with the least amount of backtracking. I arranged it so that, when writing, a third of the symbols is rendered using a single unbroken line in a single flowing movement. In addition, I visually distinguished the vowels by mapping all of them to symbols with the short foot, and matched up the five symbols that have obvious Latin cognates (I, F, T, S, J) with their corresponding phonemes. I also made sure that related phonemes (in terms of shared phonological features) mapped to related symbols (in terms of graphical elements); thus, /æ/ is a variant of /a/ and so on.

Stress will be represented by horizontally elongating the vowels, while tone will be shown by shifting the baseline—the horizontal line that runs through most of the symbols—up and down slightly. I believe that this set of symbols (glyphs) fulfills all of the requirements I set out, but please do check for yourself and let me know if you discover anything that is problematic.

And here, for your deciphering pleasure, is a fragment from a poem by Lewis Carroll:

Six-Month Update

After a year of steady refinement, here\’s what Unspell looks like now
And here are your ABCs unspelled. Sing along! (The ones at the bottom represent English sounds that are missing in Latin1.)

Applied Anarchy

Jean Julien

A lot of people have been wondering aloud what prompted last week\’s diatribe against the inanity of English spelling; others found it accurate and refreshing. I suppose I should come clean about what motivated me to write it. Along the way, I also want to spell out (pardon the pun) what it is I specifically think can be achieved.

I think it would be useful to provide a systematic alternative to English spelling, one that would get children reading, not at some specific level, but reading anything that\’s written, after a year or so of not very rigorous instruction. It would, ideally, be so simple that it could be taught in full to illiterate or functionally illiterate English-speaking adults in a single adult education course at a community center, or an online course. It would be great if it were found to be useful in teaching English as a Second Language, specifically to people who do not particularly need gain command of written English, but do want to be able to speak correctly. For reasons that I hope are obvious, it would not serve as a replacement for English spelling. It will not be used for law, business, engineering, medicine or science. It is intended as an alternative, simpler way of reading and writing English. It is a way of providing English with a human-readable soundtrack. It would be helpful if it had a visual appeal and a countercultural mystique, so that artists and designers, including tattoo and graffiti artists, added it to their graphical repertoire. It would be lovely if it went viral on the internet.
The idea came to me as I was thinking of a good demonstration project for an exercise in practical anarchy, where a few individuals acting autonomously can make a big difference and provide an alternative to a vast, entrenched, dominant, horribly flawed system. First, it is a problem begging for a solution: functional illiteracy rates in English-speaking countries are the shame of the developed world, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that English orthography, frozen in mid-17thcentury, does not reflect how the language now sounds, has numerous patterns and even more numerous exceptions and takes a ridiculously long time to learn. Second, English is the lingua franca throughout the world, and foreigners who learn English generally have no interest in etymology or history of the English language, and to them the spelling system is simply an obstacle.
On the other hand, English is a fairly simple language that could easily be written in a way that follows its phonological form. I believe I can solve it because I happen to be a trained linguist, and although I haven\’t delved too deeply into English phonology (until now) I know the principles. I also happen to be a software engineer, and, as it happens, the task of making this project work is 1% linguistic analysis and 99% software engineering. I think that it is realistic to make the 40,000 or so books available through Project Gutenberg also available in this new form by piping them all through a piece of software, which is yet to be written. The actual conversion process should only take a few minutes and can probably be done on demand. I think that it should also be possible to provide a browser plug-in that will convert English text on the fly. A somewhat bigger challenge would be to create a smartphone app that would allow users to photograph pages of English text and render them in a phonological alphabet.
This is an idea that is made for just this moment in time, when most text is digital, or available in digital form via the internet. In previous ages, the process of converting entire libraries of books would have been so labor-intensive as to be unthinkable. Each book would have to have been converted by hand, proofread, and then printed and distributed. If a new alphabet were to be used, this would require new typefaces to be cast and new typewriters to be made. To carry this project out would have required a huge clerical staff that would have had to be specially trained for this task, which, once it were completed, would have made their skills instantly obsolete. None of this would be possible without ample government funding. In short, it would have been a boondoggle writ large. Now, however, it is a matter of writing some software.
This is also an idea for a time to come. Access to information in digital form is only as reliable as the electric grid, which, recent experience has shown us, is not particularly reliable at all, with an exponentially increasing incidence of blackouts. Let us extrapolate some trends from the past decade to a time a decade or two into the future. Fossil fuels are still plentiful but so expensive that nobody would think of running a tractor, or a tractor-trailer, to bring food to the people, and so the people have to go where the food is growing. At the same time climate change is making large-scale industrial agriculture increasingly untenable, so that people have to grow their own food using labor-intensive pre-industrial methods. The educational system, which is currently producing high school students with 5th-grade reading skills, has long fallen by the wayside. But people will still want to be able to read to their children by the campfire at the end of a long day in the fields, and they will want to be able to teach their children to read. Will they want to teach them to read by spending years explaining to them hundreds of spelling patterns and making them memorize thousands of exceptional cases? Or would they rather have them learn a small set of symbols, teach them to use them to sound out syllables and to put them together into words, and then turn them loose on any book they can find?
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The many responses that came in after I published last week\’s post showed that a great many people have no idea that there even is a problem, never mind what the problem might be. A constant refrain was “Works for me!”—I learned English spelling, and so should everyone else. Many more people wrote to tell me that spelling reform is politically impossible. One educationalist accused me of being against phonics—which is a way of teaching English reading by pointing out the various ways that letters can map to sounds, versus the “whole word” approach. Actually, I consider phonics to be the lesser of the two evils. One reader thought that English should be written using Cyrillic alphabet. Too late, it already is. Just look at the storefronts in Moscow and St. Petersburg: they are crammed full of transliterated English, some of it barely recognizable as such. Another made the commonsense but not entirely workable suggestion that we use the International Phonetic Alphabet. IPA is the professional tool which linguists use to describe speech sounds, but it has never been used directly to create an orthography for any language that I know of, for many reasons, one of which is that it\’s really quite ugly and hard to decipher. Only one actually went as far as acknowledging that there is a problem, but several expressed incredulity that the problem even existed. Perhaps I should have provided more references. Well, better late than never, and so here is a short summary of the problem, from the English Spelling Society:
English grammar and punctuation are relatively easy. But English spelling is quite the reverse – probably the most irregularof all alphabetic systems. Not only can you not tell how to spell a word from hearing it spoken; you can’t even be sure how a word is spoken from the written word – a unique “double whammy”.
The reasons for this irregularity are complex and largely historical. But the economic and social costs are serious. English speaking children take on average three years longer to learn to read and write than others and some never succeed. Our dyslexics struggle in a way that Italian and Spanish children do not. Adult illiteracy remains stubbornly high (23%).
I think the 23% number is being too kind; the functional illiteracy rate is much higher. If you click the irregularities link, above it will take you to a sort of English spelling cathedral of shame which, if you read through the entire list and try to make sense of it all, will probably leave you shaken. Is it really that bad? (Yes, it is.) And does making our children learn it classify as child abuse? (You decide.) Lastly, is all of this artificial complexity even necessary? (No, definitely not.)
This level of complexity and irregularity imposes a large cognitive processing overhead on those trying to learn to read and write English. Here is a diagram from a paper by Ram Frost titled Orthography and Phonology: the Psychological Reality of Orthographic Depth. He looked at the difference in the process of deriving sound from graphical form between the “shallow” orthography of Serbo-Croatian, where each letter represents a phoneme, and the “deep” orthography of English, where no such one-to-one correspondence exists. Apparently, the mind of a person who is learning to read and write English is crammed full of such nonsense. By the time the learning process is complete, the reader starts looking up the phonological form of the whole word, as if it were a random hieroglyphic; thus, no matter what the teaching process is, in the end learning to read English involves rote memorization of the written form of each word. It is little wonder that so many people never complete the process. Is there a better way? Well, not at the moment, but, obviously, there ought to be.
* * *
Babies are born ready to learn a language (or two or three): it is part of their innate developmental program. They do not need to be taught to babble. From just a couple of months old they start to spontaneously produce consonants and vowels. They start with just a few consonants and with just about every vowel and diphthong imaginable. Over time, their consonant repertoire increases while their vowel repertoire shrinks down based on what they hear around them. They start with single syllables, and eventually learn to string them together into words and phrases. Eventually the two complementary systems involved in language perception and production—the perceptual and the articulatory—become dialed in to a specific language, with its specific inventory of phonemes and phonological rules.
Phonemes are not physical but psychological in nature. They are not something that can be picked up by a microphone or analyzed by shooting an x-ray film of a speaker\’s mouth. Those are allophones, which are speech sounds produced by feeding a sequence of phonemes through a set of phonological rules. Phonemes are at a higher level of abstraction, and evidence for them, as with all psychological phenomena, is indirect. However, the existence of a phonemic inventory for each language is perfectly uncontroversial. The set of phonological rules is learned automatically and unconsciously, along with all the other automatic processes of language acquisition. One set of rules determines which phonemes are mapped to which allophones under what conditions. Another set of rules, in English as well as many other languages, such as Russian and Portuguese, governs vowel reduction: unstressed vowels decay to something shorter and generally indistinct, often called a “schwa.” (Think of the difference between the sound of the first \’o\’ in “psychology”/ “psychological” or the second \’o\’ in “photography”/”photographical”).
Consider the following minor (very minor) miracle: speakers of different English dialects can learn to understand each other without being taught to do so in school, and, in fact, without much effort at all. This is true even for those of them who are entirely illiterate. This is because they all have substantially the same underlying, psychological representation of English in their heads, which they express differently, via different sets of phonological rules. These rules do not need to be taught but are learned spontaneously, simply by listening. Most people learn the perceptual portion of the rules, allowing them to understand other dialects. Some people learn the articulatory portion as well, allowing them to sound British or Scottish or Irish or Australian, or, my personal favorite stealth dialect, Canadian. Thus, what makes English one single language has little to nothing to do with the way it\’s written. It is one language because it has a common phonological representation in the minds of its speakers. This allows them to understand each other without any reference to the way the language happens to be written.
Having thought about this for a couple of months now, I have come up with a set of conjectures that make the task of creating a shallow English orthography much easier. Here they are:
1. There is a specific phonemic inventory that is largely invariant across all the major English dialects
2. English dialects only vary mostly in their phonological rules; the underlying phonemic representations are substantially the same across English dialects
3. There is no phoneme corresponding to “schwa”: there are only vowel reduction rules which are learned spontaneously and automatically and do not need to be reflected in the orthography
4. Differences between English dialects that cannot be captured using a common set of phonemes are lexical differences that no orthographic representation can ever hope to bridge. Simply, certain words have to be written differently across certain dialects.
5. Thanks to Hollywood films (which make money by being shown without subtitles in all English-speaking countries) the best-understood English dialect throughout the world is General American, so that\’s the best one to serve as the basis for the alternative orthography. However, the phonological representation of GA can be relatively dialect-agnostic.
What is this common phonemic inventory? Here is the entire phonemic inventory for every dialect of English. It is an excellent tool for capturing the exact sounds of every dialect of English. But it is simply too large to serve as a basis for an orthography. But I have discovered that it can be pared down substantially for representing the phonological representation of English that is valid across dialects. Here is what I think is a minimal set, which I derived by looking at the presence of minimal pairs across major dialects. (The phonemes are shown between slashes, the allophones—in square brackets.) The vowels are the most troublesome, because there is potentially a very large inventory of them across dialects. But they can be pared down substantially by paying attention to the distribution of minimal pairs.
/ɪ/ , /i/ (shit/sheet) — rather important distinction
/ᴧ/, /ɑ/ (cut, father) can be expressed as one phoneme /a/ because there are no minimal pairs except, perhaps, come/calm and bum/balm, but since the \’l\’ is sometimes pronounced, why not just write it that way?
/æ/ (cat) — in RP (British “Received Pronunciation”) it is often pronounced [ɑ], causing ambiguity
/ɛ/ (bed)
/o/, /ɔ/ — can be taken to be two allophones of /o/ which sounds different depending on its context within a word
/ʊ/, /u/ (pull/pool)
Thus our minimal vowel inventory across all dialects is taken to consist of just these eight:
/ɪ/, /i/, /a/, /ɛ/, /æ/, /o/, /ʊ/, /u/
Liquids: /l/, /n/, /r/, /m/
Syllabifying consonants:
/ḷ/, /ṇ/, /ɚ/ (bottle, button, butter) — these are consonants that act like vowels. Plenty of dictionaries insert a schwa in front of them, but, as I said, at the phonological level the schwa doesn\’t exist
To simplify things further, so-called “r-colored” vowels I take to be just regular vowels coarticulated with a following /r/, while diphthongs are taken to be just two coarticulated vowels: /oʊ/ = /o/+/ʊ/
The rest: /j/, /s/, /z/, /w/, /ʧ/, /ʤ/, /t/, /d/, /h/, /ŋ/, /k/, /g/, /f/, /v/, /p/, /b/, /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /θ/, /ð/
This gives us just 35 phonemes that need to be represented using unique symbols, which is a perfectly reasonable size for an alphabet. But it can be paired down further. Observe that there are eight consonant pairs that differ in just one feature: one is unvoiced, the other is voiced: /s/-/z/, /ʧ/-/ʤ/, /t/-/d/, /k/-/g/, /f/-/v/, /p/-/b/, /ʃ/-/ʒ/, /θ/-/ð/. It also turns out that, of these, the voiced ones occur only half as frequently as the unvoiced ones in English speech. Therefore, there is no reason to waste an entire separate symbol on each eight voiced ones. We can represent them as unvoiced ones with a “voicing mark” such as the one used in the two Japanese syllabaries: /g/ = /kv/, etc. This gets us down to just 27 symbols—one more than the Latin alphabet.
However, the Latin alphabet happens to be the wrong choice. Yes, it contains 26 different letters, but they are not the ones we need. It is possible to borrow diacritical characters from other languages, but the result will look foreign. (You may think that foreign looks cool, but I think that extraterrestrial looks even cooler.) Also, any attempt to recycle the Latin alphabet would result in something that looks like English horribly mangled and misspelled. For all its faults, written English does have a certain consistent aesthetic, which the alternative would lack. It would start out as a graceless hack, and would be instantly despised. It is better to start with something that is, at the outset, completely illegible, but where a few hours of effort later the sounds of words start to spontaneously pop right into one\’s mind with no additional processing required.

To wit:
For ol ıts folts, rıtṇ Iṅglış daz hæv a sṛtn konsıstent esþetık, wıc ðe æltṛnatıv wud læk. It wud start aut æz a greisles hæk, ænd wud bi ınstantli despaizd. It ız betṛ tu start wıð samþıṅ thæt ız, æt ðe autset, komplitlı ılejibl, bat weṛ a fyu auṛz ov efṛt leitṛ ðe saundz ov wṛdz start tu sponteıniaslı pop rait ıntu wanz maind wıð nou ædışṇal prosesıṅ rekwaıṛd.

To illustrate my point, I spent a few minutes coming up with an IPA-to-Latin mapping that wouldn\’t look too ugly, borrowing a few letters from Old English/Icelandic, a couple more from Turkish, and a few more from IPA, but the result is still startlingly ugly. There is a strong interference effect, which no amount of fiddling with the mapping will ever eliminate. The symbols have to be fresh ones, with no preexisting associations of any kind, so that people who see them for the first time can pass no judgment on them. By the time they figure them out, they have breathed the air of freedom, realize what they have been missing, and the change in them becomes irreversible. So far, people have proposed using IPA, Extended Latin, Sampa, Cyrillic, Greek, Shavian and Deseret. None of these will work.

* * *
The experiment, then, is as follows:
1. Compile a phonemic dictionary of English from various text-to-speech dictionaries by running vowel reduction rules backwards
2. Invent a set of symbols to represent all the phonemes
3. Compile a corpus of English literature and a browsing tool that uses the alternative orthography, plus some learning tools
4. Wait for the epiphany: “OMG I can read this, and it\’s written exactly how it sounds! Wow!”
And after that, who knows what will happen. And that, I think, is the beauty of practical anarchy.