Lost in translation

Ask an English person how many European languages they speak, and they’ll probably say none. It will be a genuine answer too, not a political statement*.

According to Ethnologue there are some 2,700 languages that have 10,000 or more first-language speakers, with just 5 languages covering 1 in 3 of the world’s population. Using 1999 data we get this concentration curve:

There are another 4,000ish languages spoken by less than 10,000 people, to make a total of nearly 7,000.

Imagine there are only 10,000 people you can communicate with. How many will be within +/- 5 years of you? (For reference, I calculate that 987 is the average secondary school size in England.) What are the chances that most of this cohort can be matched up between each other so that everyone has an ideal life partner. Pretty slim. There are plenty of other issues with scale too.

As half of the world’s languages are expected to disappear this century, this type of inefficiency should fade away. But are there any downsides to a langauge going extinct? Some content would be lost, but it could quickly be replaced. Take Wales for example. I’m sure there is plenty of worthy cultural stuff that has been generated there in the past 1,000 years (though I only find something in English), but as Wales only represents 0.04% of the world’s population we can imagine that an equivalent corpus of works could be created in half a year in a global language being used by everyone. Not to pick too much on Wales, they just often seem to be chosen for comparisons, especially by More or Less.

The utility of a language is in the fact that the sender can encode his thought into a common medium/protocol for the recipient. If fewer and fewer people are using a particular protocol then it will fade away, and resources should not be spent trying to save it. Forcing children to learn a dying language to maintain its existence uses up time that could have been spent learning other subjects, putting those children at a disadvantage to other ethnic groups, ceteris paribus. Indeed, there are probably people in Wales who didn’t get taught essential physics like what happens if you drop a ball down a hole drilled from one side of the earth to the other. Mae eu colled.

Related posts:

How many words do you know?

*Another interesting question to ask is are you English or European. If in the same way you asked Germans,”are you German or European?” and so on across the continent, can you guess which population are most likely to say European? And which are least likely? Finland and England. I don’t think I need to clarify which way round it is…

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How Twitter Rumours Evolve

The Guardian has a good analysis of selected rumours that were propagated by Twitter during the London Riots.

They’ve analysed 2+ million tweets based on their hashtags, performed a Levenshtein distance calculation across them all, and interpreted each as being either supporting/opposing/querying the rumour. The result is a moving graphic of how a rumour evolves.

Here’s another post on the London Riots

What defines an English person

Interesting result if you type that into Google today… Maybe some people are upset with us.

Last minutes of flight AF447

A transcript of the cockpit voice recorder  in the final minutes of flight Air France 477 was leaked in the book Erreurs de Pilotage, and in turn a good article was created here. I’ve excerpted a few bits of dialogue below, but plenty more in the full version.

02:08:07 (Robert) Tu peux éventuellement prendre un peu à gauche. On est d’accord qu’on est en manuel, hein?
You can eventually pull it a little to the left. We’re agreed that we’re in manual, yeah?

Just then an alarm sounds for 2.2 seconds, indicating that the autopilot is disconnecting. The cause is the fact that the plane’s pitot tubes, externally mounted sensors that determine air speed, have iced over, so the human pilots will now have to fly the plane by hand. The plane has suffered no mechanical malfunction. Many airline pilots subsequently flew a simulation of the flight from this point and were able to do so without any trouble.

02:10:06 (Bonin) J’ai les commandes.
I have the controls.

02:10:07 (Robert) D’accord.
Okay.

Bonin reacts irrationally. He pulls back on the side stick to put the airplane into a steep climb, despite having recently discussed the fact that the plane could not safely ascend. The stall warning sounds, a synthesized human voice that repeatedly calls out, “Stall!”, followed by a loud and intentionally annoying sound called a “cricket.” For the duration of the flight, none of the pilots will mention it, or acknowledge the possibility that the plane has indeed stalled—even though the word “Stall!” will blare through the cockpit 75 times. Throughout, Bonin will keep pulling back on the stick, the exact opposite of what he must do to recover from the stall.

02:11:21 (Robert) On a pourtant les moteurs! Qu’est-ce qui se passe bordel? Je ne comprends pas ce que se passe.
We still have the engines! What the hell is happening? I don’t understand what’s happening.

“If the person in the right seat is pulling back on the joystick, the person in the left seat doesn’t feel it,” says Dr. David Esser, a professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “Their stick doesn’t move just because the other one does, unlike the old-fashioned mechanical systems like you find in small planes, where if you turn one, the [other] one turns the same way.” Robert has no idea that, despite their conversation about descending, Bonin has continued to pull back on the side stick.

02:13:40 (Robert) Remonte… remonte… remonte… remonte…
Climb… climb… climb… climb…

02:13:40 (Bonin) Mais je suis à fond à cabrer depuis tout à l’heure!
But I’ve had the stick back the whole time!

At last, Bonin tells the others the crucial fact

02:13:42 (Captain) Non, non, non… Ne remonte pas… non, non.
No, no, no… Don’t climb… no, no.

02:13:43 (Robert) Alors descends… Alors, donne-moi les commandes… À moi les commandes!
Descend, then… Give me the controls… Give me the controls!

Bonin yields the controls, and Robert finally puts the nose down. The plane begins to regain speed. But it is still descending at a precipitous angle. As they near 2000 feet, the aircraft’s sensors detect the fast-approaching surface and trigger a new alarm. There is no time left to build up speed by pushing the plane’s nose forward into a dive. At any rate, without warning his colleagues, Bonin once again takes back the controls and pulls his side stick all the way back.

02:14:23 (Robert) Putain, on va taper… C’est pas vrai!
Damn it, we’re going to crash… This can’t be happening!

Why did the pilot ignore the stall warning?

According to the article,

the reason may be that they believe it is impossible for them to stall the airplane. It’s not an entirely unreasonable idea: The Airbus is a fly-by-wire plane; the control inputs are not fed directly to the control surfaces, but to a computer, which then in turn commands actuators that move the ailerons, rudder, elevator, and flaps. The vast majority of the time, the computer operates within what’s known as normal law, which means that the computer will not enact any control movements that would cause the plane to leave its flight envelope.

But once the computer lost its airspeed data, it disconnected the autopilot and switched from normal law to “alternate law,” a regime with far fewer restrictions on what a pilot can do. “Once you’re in alternate law, you can stall the airplane,” Camilleri says.

According to Camilleri, not one of US Airway’s 17 Airbus 330s has ever been in alternate law. Therefore, Bonin may have assumed that the stall warning was spurious because he didn’t realize that the plane could remove its own restrictions against stalling and, indeed, had done so.

Other airplane posts:

Back, after the break

A short pause in posts, after the last one on Belgian train ticket machines. Where do you go from there really?

A few articles that caught my attention recently: