If you’ve been around on the internet for a while, you’ve certainly seen this amusing – if transparently nonsensical – claim:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
This is hogwash, of course. The best counterexample I’ve seen is part of Matt Davis’ refutation of the scrambled-letters myth: “the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet.” The reality is that you infer a whole lot from context, and based on these cues you can very quickly reduce the set of plausible candidate words for any scrambled lump to a set of one. Human communication is quite redundant.
However, that does suggest a way to make text harder to read:
WRD_ACCORDING WRD_TO WRD_A WRD_RESEARCHER WRD_AT WRD_CAMBRIDGE WRD_UNIVERSITY, WRD_IT WRD_DOESN’T WRD_MATTER WRD_IN WRD_WHAT WRD_ORDER WRD_THE WRD_LETTERS WRD_IN WRD_A WRD_WORD WRD_ARE, WRD_THE WRD_ONLY WRD_IMPORTANT WRD_THING WRD_IS WRD_THAT WRD_THE WRD_FIRST WRD_AND WRD_LAST WRD_LETTER WRD_BE WRD_AT WRD_THE WRD_RIGHT WRD_PLACE. WRD_THE WRD_REST WRD_CAN WRD_BE WRD_A WRD_TOTAL WRD_MESS WRD_AND WRD_YOU WRD_CAN WRD_STILL WRD_READ WRD_IT WRD_WITHOUT WRD_PROBLEM. WRD_THIS WRD_IS WRD_BECAUSE WRD_THE WRD_HUMAN WRD_MIND WRD_DOES WRD_NOT WRD_READ WRD_EVERY WRD_LETTER WRD_BY WRD_ITSELF WRD_BUT WRD_THE WRD_WORD WRD_AS WRD_A WRD_WHOLE.
Human cognition feeds on probabilities, plausibilities and likelihoods. We need the succession of shapes, voids, heights and depths, first to tell things apart, then to bring them back together. When dissimilar things are too similar, we perceive the whole as static noise on a fundamental level.
There is a whole slew of consequences in all manner of areas that could be tangibly illustrated using this example; from writing to music to linguistics to programming.
F.ex. it reminds me of something Larry once wrote about language design:
I was reading Umberto Eco’s The Search for a Perfect Language, and he makes the point that, over the centuries, many of the designers of “perfect” languages have fallen into the trap of trying to make similar things look similar. He goes on to argue that similar things should look different, because when you don’t, you end up with too little redundancy for effective communication.
It also reminds me of the followup to Imperfect Sound Forever, an excellent essay about how compression (in the sound engineering sense, not the computer science sense) is destroying the “soul” of music.
It reminds me of many things. Cognition and perceptions are endlessly fascinating topics of great import, with lessons that cross interdisciplinary boundaries. I have to admit I didn’t actually have any particular one of them in mind in writing this. There is no take-away I will offer here. (The links may provide interesting fodder for reading, of course.)
I just had to get this out… isn’t all this stuff and the connectedness of it all just neat?
(My mind rarely works by following a discernible trail of thought. When I am forced to work my way through one, it is stressful and exhausting. Rather, I tend to have a jumbled mesh of related ideas and concepts – not infrequently with only tenuous relations –, in which I flit from place to place, letting the similarities, differences and nuances sink in. I’m not really smart; I just have a good memory and some aptitude at drawing on it to recall possibly-relevant stuff. Anyway, this meandering waffle is by way of an explanation for the preceding meandering waffle. It was just stuff has been rattling around my noggin for a while.)