Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Those slightly disabled Swedes

This view from my study window has been Photoshopped to remove the washing line across the garden and an ugly street lamp. Click pic for greater grandeur.

In yet another BBC4 programme devoted to popularising science, a frenetic Swede set out last night to make me love statistics.

Many believe statistics is simply columns of figures. That’s data*. Statistics is data put to use – averaged out, for instance. Statistics tells us on average Swedes have 1.99 legs – reconciling the fact that some unfortunates have only one leg, or perhaps no legs, whereas none have three legs. “Thus we can say,” said the Scandinavian prophet, “that most Swedes have slightly less than two legs.”

But this was mere skittishness. Statistics is serious. It’s generally admitted that whatever suffering Florence Nightingale alleviated at Scutari wasn’t ultimately as important as the data she gathered and interpreted, proving that the so-called hospitals there were far more dangerous than the battle-field. Infection killed more than shells.

However it’s not history that’s astonishing, it’s the future. Google offers computerised translations of websites into seventy languages based on statistical analysis of language. Grammatical and syntactical rules aren’t good enough. Complex sentences in Swedish were uttered to Google’s research wonk who received them on his laptop which precisely and immediately translated them. The next step: mobile phones which allow users speaking in two different languages to hear the result in their native tongues.

Speaking as someone who has spent three decades wrestling with French I’m somewhat depressed.

* Yes, I know data is the plural of datum and I treated it accordingly while still working. But I now think it’s a lost cause.