Sujith Jay Nair Thinking Aloud

Language Articles

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    Mute Buttons Are The Latest Discourse Markers

    Every one, and their mom, is on a video call at least once a day now. There is a tiny second-order effect brewing in these video calls. It’s do with the mute buttons.

    Let me describe a common-place scenario in conference calls. In a call with a fair number1 of participants, we tend to keep our microphones muted. It’s common etiquette, and the reason to do so is pretty plain. You do not want to burden the speaker & other participants with your background noise; and this helps to keep the conversations as distraction-free as possible. So, what happens when you want to speak? You unmute the microphone. Simple! And once you have spoken, you “concede the conversation” by muting yourself back.

    In short, mute buttons are functioning as discourse markers, and are our latest language innovation. This also reminds me a bit of Hyrum’s Law:

    … all observable behaviors of your system will be depended on by somebody.

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    Natural Languages are Interfaceless

    In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman talks about the temperature knobs on his refrigerator:

    I used to own an ordinary, two-compartment refrigerator - nothing very fancy about it. The problem was that I couldn’t set the temperature properly. There were only two things to do: adjust the temperature of the freezer compartment and adjust the temperature of the fresh food compartment. And there were two controls, one labeled “freezer”, the other “refrigerator”. What’s the problem? Oh, perhaps I’d better warn you. The two controls are not independent. The freezer control also affects the fresh food temperature, and the fresh food control also affects the freezer.
    In fact, there is only one thermostat and only one cooling mechanism. One control adjusts the thermostat setting, the other the relative proportion of cold air sent to each of the two compartments of the refrigerator. It’s not hard to imagine why this would be a good design for a cheap fridge: it requires only one cooling mechanism and only one thermostat. Resources are saved by not duplicating components - at the cost of confused customers.

    Norman is talking about the lack of a (good) interface here: a layer to translate (and hide) the structure of the underlying mechanism to the users of the mechanism. 1 The need to translate to the user arises in two scenario:

    1. There is a divide between the want of the user, and the how the mechanism is structured. I like to call it the what-how divide. 2
    2. Although the mechanism & the user’s want are aligned, the mechanism is too convoluted for the user to use in a direct way. A facilitator is needed.

    In both cases, a translation is needed, and the translator is termed an interface.

    Languages are Interfaceless

    (Inter)Faceless a.k.a No-Face

    (Inter)Faceless a.k.a No-Face

    (Natural) Languages are the quintessential human way of communication. Our advanced languages are arguably the lone differentiators of our species from our cousins in the primate family, and the larger animal kingdom. 3

    We have been inventing, honing, assimilating, and discarding languages since the start of our existence as a species. But we do not develop languages with an intent for it to be translated. Languages are not meant by its inventors to be translated. Every language is developed as if it is the only language in existence, and everyone else understands it.

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