Language Problems
Je suis Américain.
Ich bin Amerikaner.
{ Lewis Jenkins } ∈ { Americans }

Many years ago I was able to help an older couple visiting Disney World from Germany. They were confused about how to cash a traveler’s check. The cashier refused to take it and couldn’t explain why because neither side of that business transaction knew enough of the other’s language. I knew enough German to recognize their word “unterschrift” when I made a motion as if I were writing my signature. “Ah,” they said, and showed the check with a proper signature. The cashier still refused, and suddenly I knew why. “Air mouss es zeyhen,” I told them, which, when stated with correct German spelling, becomes, “Er muss es sehen.” Immediately they understood and signed a blank piece of paper in front of the cashier, so he could see it and compare signatures.

I just told you a complete story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story is the basic unit of human experience just as the sentence is the basic unit of human thought. Every language is used to express strings of thoughts—to tell stories.

Understanding a language helps us decode the stories of its native speakers and understand the world as they see it. One word for English storytelling is “Shakespeare”. The Bard’s plays such as {Measure for Measure, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, Julius Caesar} are a subset of Shakespeare just as the disciplines {arithmetic, algebra, geometry, set theory} are a subset of mathematics. The funny looking line near the start of this essay is a sentence expressed in the pile of ideas and symbols called set theory, and set theory follows rules of algebra. The funny sentence says the same thing as the French and German sentences above it.

When asked a few years ago to give a one-word piece of advice for science storytelling, Bill Nye (yes, the science guy) said, “Algebra”. He was perfectly right because Algebra is a language, and I will give it that dignity by capitalizing it here for a while. In Algebra we call them not stories, but story problems. In other words, they are little mysteries written in Algebra rather than English, except we know from the start that Mr. X “did it”. So, story problems un-mask Mr. X one clue and deduction at a time, more like Lieutenant Columbo than Sherlock Holmes.

Last year I went crazy and sent the following birthday greeting to a friend.

Happy Birthday, Pat.
Men are from Mars, which has 687 days per year on average. I couldn’t find a card that would wish you birthday greetings for 39.87 years, so this one for 40 years will have to do. I hope you’re not offended.

To illustrate this subject of words and language a bit further, let me ask two questions about that greeting: First, if one Mars year equals 1.8809 Earth years, how old was my friend in Earth years on his birthday? And second, for extra credit: How old was he (in Earth years, of course) on his natal anniversary? Like most people, Pat knew how old he was whether he would admit to it or not. But he was also the kind of guy who knew English and Algebra well enough to figure out how old I thought he was on those two days. If I were wrong, he would probably let me know. Here is some English language non-fiction I wrote about the two answers, interwoven where necessary with Algebra language translations:

The first question was, “How old was Pat on his birthday?” The answer is really easy: zero. Pat was zero years old on his birthday. Some may quibble about the nine-month thing because he was definitely getting older all that time, and in historical China they rounded ages up to one year at birth. So, even though 0 is the preferred answer, as a former math teacher I’ll mark either 0 or 1 as correct.

The word birthday—at least in English—is both confusing and easily understood. That’s because it has two meanings: the one we use only once in a lifetime, and the other we use every year. Human languages—most of them—are sloppy that way, and that’s why we need precise human languages like Algebra for things where engineering and science are involved. And, as you see, it can even be useful for greeting card mysteries:

Let ED mean “Earth day”, and let MD mean, “Mars day”, and let EY mean “Earth year”, and let MY mean “Mars year”. From my English birthday card scribble above, we know that “Mr. X number of Earth years equals 39.87 Mars years”, or, in the Algebra language:
X  *  EY   =   39.87  *  MY

Fortunately, we have a clue—the extra piece of information after my greeting to Pat. It says, “One Mars year equals 1.8809 Earth years”, which in the language of Algebra is:
MY   =   1.8809  *  EY

Since in Algebra things equal to the same things are equal to each other, we can go back to the first Algebra sentence and stuff in our latest clue, replacing MY with 1.8809  *  EY:
X  *  EY   =   39.87   *   1.8809  *  EY

Now it is time to do the arithmetic. We multiply 39.87 by 1.8809 and get approximately 74.9915, or 75 in whole years since it is unlikely to be any other whole number on his birthday. Pat never disputed my arithmetic or my algebra, so we’ve followed the clues and solved that mystery. Or have we?

Humans like their stories well wrapped up and tidy, but in the real world things are often tricky:

Not “birthday”, but “natal anniversary”.
Not 75, but 74.9915 or 74.991483.
Not “unterschrift”, but “signature”.
Not “Air”, but “Er”.

No matter what languages we use, we should be able to express thoughts and tell stories well in them. But people and their stories may assume wrong things at the start, or make mistakes, or miss vital things, or tell lies. So, we should do more than just enjoy or criticize stories. We must learn from them. It’s not that hard, really. It just takes study and practice, which it is best to do continually because every story has a sequel even if we think it doesn’t.

Lewis Jenkins


  Lewis and Susan Jenkins

Diary of a Robot

        Table of Chapters
Chapter 0. Problems
Chapter 1. Headaches
Chapter 2. Happy Holidays
Chapter 3. Mr. Nice Guy
Chapter 4. The Brainless One 
Chapter 5. A Little Crazy
Chapter 6. Grave Consequences
Chapter 7. Core Directives
Chapter 8. Expect Difficulties
Chapter 9. Caveats
Chapter 10. Mister Machine
Chapter 11. Good News, Bad News, El Cheapo
Chapter 12. New Memories
Chapter 13. Little Problems
Chapter 14. Lasers, Language, and Happiness
Chapter 15. Chatterbots
Chapter 16. Ready Or Not
Chapter 17. Not a Turing Test
Chapter 18. Reality Test
Chapter 19. Chess, Anyone?
Chapter 20. FOM
Chapter 21. Chairman of the Board
Chapter 22. The Usual Suspects
Chapter 23. M. God
Chapter 24. Walkabout
Chapter 25. Why
Chapter 26. First Blood
Chapter 27. More Machines?
Chapter 28. POV
Chapter 29. ROI
Chapter 30. Last Blood
Chapter 31. Don’t Want to Talk About It
Chapter 32. Round Table
Chapter 33. A Change of Mind
Chapter 34. Threes
Chapter 35. Knight Moves
Chapter 36. Little Combinations
Chapter 37. Can We Talk?
Chapter 38. Pas de Deux
Chapter 39. The Jig Is Up
Chapter 40. Good, Bad, Ugly                     Chapter 41. Function Goes On