Monday, April 30, 2012

Artificial Language

Words shape our thoughts. It is difficult to imagine things that we have no words for; at the same time creating new words for the specific enables our thoughts.

In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, an artificial language is used to dampen thoughts of dissent and rebellion, simply by removing the words corresponding to such thoughts. Of course, it is still possible to achieve the same thoughts through negations of the opposite concept, but the very convoluted nature of such thinking hampers dissent. After all, the human mind has a finite working memory, which ultimately places a ceiling on the complexity of thoughts attainable. Creating new words to condense complex concepts into a single, concise form is one way of side-stepping the problem.

Current languages are evolved more than constructed, born out of a series of conveniences rather than deliberate steps. I wonder if it is possible, in a fashion opposite to Nineteen Eighty-Four, to manipulate language in a benign manner. Would the removal of words related to race destroy discrimination? Would naming all implements of war with a single word reduce our taste for war? Would excising  words referencing the supernatural help us clear our minds?

I suspect it may.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Missing Keys in the Pocket

I have recently encountered an interesting problem online, which requires knowledge of conditional probability to solve.

You leave your apartment groggily one morning, closing the door behind you. Suddenly, you are hit by a terrifying question: Do you have your keys, or are you now locked out?

You stand there thinking about it for a few seconds, before deciding that yes, you probably have your keys, further estimating that 80% of the time, you have them. You also decide that there is an equal chance of your keys either being in your left pocket or your right pocket, and if they aren’t in either pocket then you don’t have them at all.

Slowly, perversely enjoying the sweat, you slide your hand into your right pocket, and find that your keys are not there. What should you now think is the probability that your keys are in your left pocket? 

The answer:
Two-thirds. To solve this without (much) explicit calculation, imagine all the scenarios where your right pocket is empty. 60% of the time, your right pocket will be empty (20% of the time because you forgot the keys, and 40% of the time where you remembered the keys but they were in the left pocket). The given information puts you in this 60%. Of this 60%, 2/3 of the time you actually have the keys. 

Of course, the above could be expressed more elegantly in equations.