The brains of the trainee interpreters had changed […] but not in the way you might expect

November 26th, 2014

In other words: inside the lives and minds of real-time translators

Looking down over the delegates at the IMO, I was reminded of the view from a captain's bridge, or the gallery of a television studio. I had a feeling of control, a perverse reaction given that control is one thing interpreters lack. The words they utter and the speed at which they talk are determined by others. And even though [on-duty translators] Pinkney and Soliño had copies of some of the speeches that had been prepared for that morning, they had to be alive to humorous asides. Puns, sarcasm, irony and culture-specific jokes are an interpreter's nightmare. As one interpreter has noted in an academic article, "Puns based on a single word with multiple meanings in the source language should generally not be attempted by interpreters, as the result will probably not be funny." Quite.

Go for the amusing anecdotes about mistranslations, stay for a fascinating look at how the hell the human brain copes with listening to one language and speaking another in real time.

[Via MetaFilter]

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'Exposure and quackery'

December 14th, 2013

An amazing list of actual reasons for admission into the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum from the late 1800s.

"Masturbation for 30 years" and "Suppressed masturbation"? The ideal was to find a happy medium, presumably. Also, to try not to succumb to "Excitement as officer."1

[Via LinkMachineGo!]

  1. Whatever that was…

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Love in a cold climate

September 18th, 2013

The Wellcome Library blog tells the tale of the Common Cold Unit:

Volunteers were kept in strict isolation from the outside world and from others taking part in the trial. But as one CCU press release puts it, 'isolation is not as bad as it seems. All the flats are connected by phone so you can talk to that smashing blonde in the next flat'.

Another volunteer information sheet in the collection warns that 'chatting up other volunteers in a different flat can only be by telephone, or at a very long range outside.' Romances did bloom despite the isolation and blocked noses; on his ninth visit to the unit, one guitar-strumming volunteer wooed a neighbouring oboist by playing duets at 30 feet. Love in a cold climate.

I'm slightly surprised that nobody ever exploited such comedic gold for a sitcom. Probably made by the folks behind On the Buses or Mind Your Language or Man About the House.1

  1. I don't know why, but something about the premise just screams 'early 1970s sitcom' to me.

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Numbers don't lie

July 7th, 2013

Statistic of the day:

Parachuting for charity: is it worth the money? A 5-year audit of parachute injuries in Tayside and the cost to the NHS.

Authors Lee CT, et al.

Injury. 1999 May;30(4):283-7.

Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Perth Royal Infirmary, Scotland, UK.


All parachute injuries from two local parachute centres over a 5-year period were analysed. Of 174 patients with injuries of varying severity, 94% were first-time charity-parachutists. The injury rate in charity-parachutists was 11% at an average cost of 3751 Pounds per casualty. Sixty-three percent of casualties who were charity-parachutists required hospital admission, representing a serious injury rate of 7%, at an average cost of 5781 Pounds per patient. The amount raised per person for charity was 30 Pounds. Each pound raised for charity cost the NHS 13.75 Pounds in return. Parachuting for charity costs more money than it raises, carries a high risk of serious personal injury and places a significant burden on health resources.

[Via Extenuating Circumstances]

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Learning to Talk

September 23rd, 2012

Learning to Talk by Lauren Daisley:

When a voiceover artist temporarily loses the use of her primary asset, the struggle back to speaking unearths what's gone unsaid for too long.

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November 30th, 2011

Siri's apparent unwillingness to provide useful responses to search queries relating to birth control makes Apple look terrible. I wonder how much embarrassment it would take for Apple to cite the program's 'Beta' status and pull it for a while so they can work the bugs out?

For what it's worth, I'd be astounded if the behaviour people are reporting is the result of a deliberate strategy on Apple's part of trying to avoid giving information about contraception, rape and so on. If it is, it's clearly very poorly implemented, both because the iPhone will happily let you google for them1 and because it's such a hot button subject that there's no way it would have gone unnoticed for long.

I strongly suspect that Siri's anomalous behaviour will turn out to be some combination of the user's location, the quality and consistency of data in the databases and directories Siri is acting as a front end for, and some rough edges in Siri's code. Running natural language search queries against third party databases is hard: doing so when your data providers may themselves be erring on the side of caution when it comes to tagging and categorising the data you're accessing is never going to be close to completely accurate. Doing all that and having Siri respond in colloquial English rather than displaying less user-friendly but more informative error messages like "Connection refused" or "0 records found", and thus making every failed query look like the result of a conscious decision on Siri's part. isn't helping one little bit.

Whatever the reason, it'll be interesting to see how Apple respond.

[Via MetaFilter]

  1. Thus shredding any argument Apple might make that they're attempting to shield young iPhone users from information that some jurisdictions might not want them to be able to access.

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The Case of the Disappearing Knees

November 12th, 2011

I have just been to Naples to see Vesuvius and would you believe it the bloody fools have let it go out.

Spike Milligan, from his correspondence with BUPA.1

  1. Yes, really.

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August 11th, 2011

Comment of the week, in response to a post about the Headline of the Week: "Success! Functioning Anal Sphincter Grown in a Petri Dish".

Otto says:
10 Aug 2011 at 11:46 pm

Question: How, exactly, do they know it's "functioning"? Ewwwwwwww….

jwz says:
11 Aug 2011 at 1:00 am

To quote Lauren Bacall, "You know how to whistle, don't you?"

1 Comment »

Coming next: a study of how Wile E Coyote survived all those falls

July 3rd, 2011


Academics have carried out a detailed analysis of the 700 head injuries suffered by characters in the Asterix comic books, in a paper published by a respected medical journal.


The researchers, led by Marcel Kamp of the Neurosurgical department at Heinrich-Heine University in Düsseldorf, conclude: "The favourable outcome is astonishing, since outcome of traumatic brain injury in the ancient world is believed to have been worse than today and also since no diagnostic or therapeutic procedures were performed." […]

[Via Ansible 288, July 2011]

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Finding Emilie

February 17th, 2011

Seeing this MetaFilter post reminded me that I'd listened to the Radioab podcast's account of the same story, Finding Emilie, a few weeks ago.

In this segment, we take an emotional left turn to a story of a very different kind of lost and found. We begin with a college student, Alan Lundgard, who fell in love with a fellow art student, Emilie Gossiaux. Emilie's mom, Susan Gossiaux, describes her daughter, and the terrible phone call she recieved from Alan nine months after he became Emilie's boyfriend. Together, Susan and Alan tell Jad and Robert about the devastating fork in the road that left Emilie lost in a netherworld […]

I'm not a huge fan of Radiolab1, but this episode was first rate. I defy anyone to listen to Emilie's story all the way to the end and remain unmoved.

  1. I keep subscribing to their feed, then finding myself with a backlog of Radiolab podcasts to listen to and unsubscribing, only to find myself subscribing again a few months later when someone points out a particularly good episode and I convince myself that this time I'll stick with it. A bit like the way I watch House.

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Streptococcus rudolfus. Who knew?

December 15th, 2010

Santa's GP speaks out in the Xmas edition of the British Medical Journal:

Father Christmas (FC) registered as a patient with Stirchley Medical Practice in 1991, using the name Nicholas S Claus. His relationship with GPs and staff has been, for much of the past 20 years, somewhat tense, but despite his repeated threats to leave our list, we have managed to maintain engagement with him.

He has not been the easiest of patients to deal with. Despite our policy of encouraging patients to consult a named "usual GP," he seeks care impetuously, electing to consult medical students, registrars, or other young doctors, rather than wait for a booked appointment with his own GP. […]

Younger practitioners are often perceived as more likely to comply with the patient’s agenda, and many juniors have proved to be very gullible when he has been booked into their surgeries. Records show that he has consulted dozens of students and registrars over the years. These consultations have provided background material for tutorials on subjects such as the angry patient, the demanding patient, and the ethical dilemmas of receiving gifts. Hopefully those students and young doctors have been educated by the experience. […]

[Via MetaFilter]

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December 13th, 2009

Having been diagnosed with breast cancer, Barbara Ehrenreich found herself being urged to look on the bright side of life:

[Perhaps…] the most pernicious notion she encountered was the common idea that a positive attitude will actually help fight the cancer. Drawing on the scientific literature, Ehrenreich convincingly rejects this as pure dogma. Staying positive may help your immune system operate more successfully, she argues, but unfortunately the immune system counters foreign disease-bearing microbes, and cancer cells are not foreign, they are the body's cells gone mad.

So forget the chanting and the meditation, forget the unburdening of toxic feelings, because you might as well believe that your cancer cells can be removed through telekinesis.

The feisty Ehrenreich never did get "positive," but she did get royally pissed off. And luckily for the world's other grumpy old bastards, she survived to write this witty and insightful book.

Bright-sided exposes the intellectual and spiritual emptiness that lies at the heart of America's obsession with positive thinking. If you've ever been lured to an Anthony Robbins seminar under false pretences, or suffered through a "team building exercise" led by a grown man with a ponytail, or been trapped in a hospital waiting room and forced to watch Oprah, then this book will make a lot of sense.

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H1N1 quantified

September 5th, 2009

It turns out that the H1N1 virus really is tiny but deadly:

So it takes about 25 kilobits – 3.2 kbytes – of data to code for [the H1N1 virus, which] has a non-trivial chance of killing a human. This is more efficient than a computer virus, such as MyDoom, which rings in at around 22 kbytes.

[Via Bruce Schneier]

1 Comment »

Kill or cure?

July 23rd, 2009

Kill or cure?

Help to make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.

[Via Ben Goldacre]

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Anti-terrorist bra-mask

April 30th, 2009

If we do end up in the middle of a swine fever pandemic, three Illinois residents have a plan:1

U.S. patent #7255627 was granted to Elena N. Bodnar of Hinsdale, Illinois, and Raphael C. Lee and Sandra Marijan of Chicago on August 14, 2007 [for …]

"a garment device which converts into one or more facemasks. In one embodiment, the garment device is a bra or a brassiere garment. The bra has two cups…. The inner portions of the cups are disconnectable, and the outer portions of the cups are disconnectable. As such, the bra is separable into two halves. Each halve is securable to a user's face to form a facemask."

[Via The Sideshow]

  1. Or, at any rate, a patent.

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April 15th, 2009

In the middle of a fascinating LRB article comparing the use of pardons in the US and British legal systems, former Lord Chief Justice Tom Bingham relates an intriguing anecdote:

[It was accepted…] that a commutation of sentence could be offered subject to a condition which the defendant was free to accept or not. […] More unusually, a condemned man was pardoned in 1730 on condition that he allow one Cheselden, a celebrated surgeon, to perforate his eardrum in order to study the effect on his hearing.

A bit of googling this evening turned up what appears to be a reproduction of a contemporaneous newspaper report of the pardon:1

24 December 1730 Last night a reprieve came down to Newgate for respiting the execution of Charles Ray, condemn'd for stealing 5 watches, and he is shortly to undergo the experiment of having the drum of his ear cut out, and is afterwards to have his Majesty's most gracious free pardon. [Grub-street Journal]

7 January 1731 The experiment to be try’d on Cha. Ray in Newgate, is in order to discover, whether deafness cannot be cur’d by purging. It is to be done by an instrument, which is to cut the Tympanum, or drum of the ear, which will demonstrate whether the hearing proceeds from the Tympanum, or from the nerves that lie between that and the conseptor of the ear, it being the opinion of several eminent surgeons, that deafness is principally occasioned by obstructions in the said nerves. The tryal of the experiement is put off to next week. We hear it is laid aside. [Grub-street Journal]

  1. Although the excerpt I quoted makes no mention of Dr. Cheselden, later reports quoted on the same page do refer to him as the surgeon in question.

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A good question

December 24th, 2008

From the British Medical Journal's Christmas issue: Rugby (the religion of Wales) and its influence on the Catholic church: should Pope Benedict XVI be worried?


In recent times, an intriguing urban legend has arisen in Wales: "every time Wales win the rugby grand slam, a Pope dies, except for 1978 when Wales were really good, and two Popes died". We used historical data to examine whether the Vatican medical team caring for Pope Benedict XVI should be especially vigilant in this, a year in which Wales won the grand slam. […]

[Via MetaFilter]

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Are Down's syndrome births up?

November 29th, 2008

Ben Goldacre bangs his head against the brick wall one more time:

As usual, it’s not Watergate, it’s just slightly irritating. “Down’s births increase in a caring Britain”, said the Times: “More babies are being born with Down’s syndrome as parents feel increasingly that society is a more welcoming place for children with the condition.” [List of further feel-good newspaper headlines follows…]

Their quoted source was no less impeccable than a BBC Radio 4 documentary presented by Felicity Finch (her what plays Ruth Archer), broadcast on Monday. “The number of babies with down syndrome has steadly fallen, that is until today, when for the first time ever that number is higher than before, when testing was introduced.” I see. “I’m keen to find out why more parents are making this decision.” They’re not. “I was so intrigued by these figures that I’ve been following some parents to find out what lies behind their choice.” Felicity. Wait a second. The entire founding premise of your entire 27 minute documentary is wrong. […]

The sad thing is, the core point being made in the documentary – that there's more widespread knowledge about the sort of support required by children born with Down's syndrome nowadays – is quite possibly correct; it's just that the statistics quoted by the press don't address that point.

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Google Flu Trends

November 13th, 2008

Google Flu Trends uses an analysis of search terms entered into their search engine as a means of identifying localised flu outbreaks well before the aggregate data flowing through official channels identifies the existence of an epidemic.

We compared our query counts with data from a surveillance system managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and discovered that some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in various regions of the United States.

My one qualm about this sort of thing is that the efficacy of such a fairly benign real-time search query analysis is only going to encourage some government to demand real-time access to Google's search query data so they can carry out this sort of data mining for themselves. I can hear the minister on the Today programme now: "If we can prevent just one [insert hot topic of the day here] then the loss of privacy is a small price to pay."1

For the avoidance of doubt: the problem isn't with the concept of analysing search query data for trends and patterns that might not show up as rapidly by other means, it's with the prospect that the government might end up being the ones doing the searching. I'll freely concede that there's not the slightest suggestion that this is an imminent prospect, but I guarantee you that a certain mindset will find the idea extremely appealing. You know the sort: ministers who go round claiming that people keep coming up to her in the street and begging her to hurry up and issue them a National ID Card.

[Via Kevan Davis]

  1. In case you're thinking that the data can easily be anonymised, consider the AOL fiasco.

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A stroke of insight

August 11th, 2008

Jill Bolte Taylor's My stroke of insight was linked to all over the web when it was published a few months ago, but I only got round to listening to it today.

Jill Bolte Taylor got a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions — motion, speech, self-awareness –- shut down one by one.

Her account of how she felt as the two halves of her brain effectively took turns at the wheel is utterly fascinating: if you haven't heard or seen it, I strongly suggest that you rectify that omission right now.

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