Thursday, September 07, 2006

Do it again - a repeated string

A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:263]
It was suggested that I start a discussion. Oddly enough, I thought I had - anyone notice the dissonance between a computer scientist posting on the ACS blogg and an article in the latest issue of the ACS magazine? Hee hee hee!

But "Chestertonian" asked about my reference to a "repeated string" in The Everlasting Man so I will explain that now. Actually it is a very simple idea, which even children understand, though they don't use such technical terms. Let's take a simple example:

"Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly." [Orthodoxy CW1:325]

In this sentence, the word "can" appears twice. However, speaking in terms of characters (which we read):

"I can't take the cant of Kant."

does NOT repeat the word "cant" - not precisely, anyway - imagine it was your password! - though the sound of the word (depending on one's accent) repeats three times.

And yet! There IS a triple repeat there, but it is harder to see. One must look at this strange sentence as if it were written in Russian or Sanskrit, and look at the symbols representing the sentence, not at the words. I will show you, with some color to assist me:

"I can't take the cant of Kant."

Ah. The "string" of characters, which is a little "a" followed by a little "n", is repeated three times in our example sentence.

The child says "Do it again" and again... It is a teaching technique to repeat; I am told that Hebrew uses repetition as an intensifier (e.g. Holy, Holy, Holy in Isaiah). And Chesterton revealed some even more unusual effects of repetition:

Holbrook Jackson: Familiarity breeds not contempt, but indifference.
GKC: But it can breed surprise. Try saying "Boots" ninety times.
[Platitudes Undone 15]

Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.
[The Napoleon of Notting Hill]

Have you ever tried the experiment of saying some plain word, such as "dog," thirty times? By the thirtieth time it has become a word like "snark" or "pobble." It does not become tame, it becomes wild, by repetition.
["The Telegraph Poles" in Alarms and Discursions]

When the mind has grown used to its monotony, a curious change takes place which I have never seen noted or explained by the students of mental science. It may sound strange to say that monotony of its nature becomes novelty. But if any one will try the common experiment of saying some ordinary word such as "moon" or "man" about fifty times, he will find that the expression has become extraordinary by sheer repetition.
[The New Jerusalem]

Whew! Have I said it enough times yet?

So! The question to be asked - and answered - is: What is the longest repeated string in GKC's The Everlasting Man? Please don't struggle too much; unlike most grown-ups, the computer does not get tired. I will reveal the answer soon, but will defer discussion of the solution to an appropriate place.


  1. Repetition: I am told that Mark Twain, an accomplished lecturer, used to begin his lectures with a joke. The joke would get a solid and respectalbe laugh.

    He would then tell the joke again, word for word, without explanation. The audience again would laugh, but less than the first time, and in a somewhat confused or embarrassed manner.

    Mr. Twain would then tell the joke once again, word for word, the same as the first two times. This time the laughter was less than the audible shuffling of discomfort amongst the patrons.

    There would inevitably come a point where after yet another reiteration, the joke would be received with a horrible embarrassed silence, a moment of dread for any speaker or performer.

    Our intrepid humorist would nonetheless push on and repeat the opening joke once again word for word - and oddly, the laughter, just now distressingly absent, would begin to return.

    I am told that continued repitition would bring the audience all the way back to a point where not only was the laughter stronger than at first, but to where it became the uncontrolable laughter of hilarity and hysterics.

  2. Computer algorithms are one thing but language is quite another. The upcoming issue of Gilbert Magazine features a "Straws in the Wind" essay that addresses the nature of language.

    "For the truth is that language is not a scientific thing at all, but wholly an artistic thing, a thing invented by hunters, and killers, and such artists long before science was dreamed of. The truth is simply that—that the tongue is not a reliable instrument, like a theodolite or a camera. The tongue is most truly an unruly member, as the wise saint has called it; a thing poetic and dangerous, like music or fire." (G.F. Watts)

    In trying to fully quantify language--to strip it of its ambiguities and place it squarely under the thumb of technology--we rob it of its essential character, the wildness that makes words the best key we have to human thought and to our experience of reality. Instead, we render it little more than the chains that Wittgenstein originally believed language to be, that the use of words only locks away what actually happens in the mind.

    Language attempts to lift the veil on a mystery.

  3. Dr. T, what article in the latest issue of the magazine are you talking about?

  4. Computers attempt to be entirely logical--it being difficult, I am told, to represent the irrational, supra-rational, or extra-rational in ones and zeroes.
    The difficulty of this, in relation to language, is that ordinary language is not logical. There are constructed 'logical' languages, like Lojban, and they're essentially useless in normal life.
    That said, though, Wittgenstein was an idiot, essentially a Nominalist unaware we'd hashed all that out in the thirteenth century. I fundamentally think, for instance, that we would be able to translate alien languages, assuming they use a medium we can perceive, and not, say, ultraviolet color-changes and pheromones. There are universal concepts undergirding language--hot, cold, light, dark, good, evil, steel and air and propylene glycol. The difficulties really only arise with abstracts (since you can't point to them), but even then, I am Thomist enough to think that those concepts, too, would be universal.

  5. Wittgenstein was a victim of the Enlightenment, a 'golden boy' who began by denying that language could reveal anything worthwhile about the mind and ended by declaring that the abuse of language commonplace among academics was the source of much intellectual confusion. Not bad for a guy who tried everything, including giving up his personal fortune and taking a position as a simple gardener at a monastery, in order to restore peace to his soul. Baptized a Catholic (the Wittgensteins were German Jews) he was given a Catholic funeral. Wittgenstein appears to have been brilliant and utterly mixed up all at once. Eccentric, yes--homosexual and conflicted? There's plenty of documentation for that. But idiotic?

    Taking up your idea, Tom, I wonder--did Chesterton write on the subject of alien language? And if alien, how could we be assured that it would be indeed language?


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