[Humanist] 22.678 text-analysis, speculations and news

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Apr 9 07:18:59 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 678.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (60)
        Subject: Turing, McCulloch & Pitts, Weaver and text-analysis

  [2]   From:    "Ian.Lancashire" <ian.lancashire at utoronto.ca>             (23)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.676 text-analysis in the news

        Date: Wed, 08 Apr 2009 13:51:22 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Turing, McCulloch & Pitts, Weaver and text-analysis

In the context of the possibilities for text-analysis, consider the 

1. In a letter to the editor in the Times Literary Supplement for 4 May 
1962, Karen Spärk Jones and T. R. McKinnon Wood pointed out that the 
problems and arguments concerning machine translation can be generalised 
to "any field which is concerned with handling language". In other 
words, what has happened in MT should, at least in principle, concern us.

2. In his memorandum of 15 July 1949, "Translation", Warren Weaver wrote 
the following:
> A more general basis for hoping that a computer could be designed which would cope
> with a useful part of the problem of translation is to be found in a theorem which was proved
> in 1943 by McCulloch and Pitts. This theorem states that a robot (or a computer) constructed
> with regenerative loops of a certain formal character is capable of deducing any legitimate
> conclusion from a finite set of premises.
> Now there are surely alogical elements in language (intuitive sense of style,
> emotional content, etc.) so that again one must be pessimistic about the problem of literary
> translation. But, insofar as written language is an expression of logical character, this theorem
> assures one that the problem is at least formally solvable.
In other words, MT links us, "insofar as written language is an 
expression of logical character", back to the work on the physiology of 
thought pursued by McCulloch and Pitts by means of networks of idealised 

3. This work on the physiology of thought had a number of sources, but 
certainly one of them was the Turing Machine, which linked the behaviour 
of humans and machines. As Tara Abraham puts it, in "(Physio)logical 
circuits: The intellectual origins of the McCulloch-Pitts neural 
networks", Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 38.1 (2002),
> Simply put, Turing was able to define the complicated process of
> computation in "mechanical" terms, with the notion of a simple
> algorithm so exhaustive, rigorous, and unambiguous that the executor
> would need no "mathematical knowledge" to carry out its task. Turing
> had linked the behavior of humans and machines: in both cases,
> "computing numbers" involved a finite number of "states of mind" or
> "configurations." These "states of mind," according to Turing, were
> irreducible: the "operations" performed by a logic machine or a human
> computer can be split up into "simple operations" so elementary they
> cannot be further divided.

So, we have the human person in one of his or her many roles (here doing 
calculations) rendered as a machine, which in turn serves in the design 
of an idealised scheme to explain how humans think. That scheme then 
contributes to another for rendering the strictly machine-like aspects 
of a specific expression of thinking in one language into another. And 
it lives on to teach us about the limits of what we can expect from 

Or does it -- teach us about limits, that is? Propositional statements 
are one thing, but when stylometric techniques applied to a literary 
text demonstrate consistency in the style, say, of Swift, or Poe, or 
whomever, then is it fair to say that what is found is an "expression of 
logical character" in that literary language? Is, then, that "logical 
character" extractable in some way from the statistical patterning of 

I have the sense that I'm going around in circles. Can anyone see around 
the next bend?

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

        Date: Wed, 08 Apr 2009 12:32:49 -0400
        From: "Ian.Lancashire" <ian.lancashire at utoronto.ca>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist]  22.676 text-analysis in the news
        In-Reply-To: <20090408082145.B161F2F662 at woodward.joyent.us>

Thanks to Willard for this note. The Agatha Christie paper and poster 
were quietly presented at the 19th annual Rotman Institute conference 
(on cognition and aging) last month. You can find both at


Somehow Anne Kingston found out and wrote a fine article on them in 
Maclean's Magazine last week at


which in turn attracted the attention of the Guardian and UPI.

The paper argues that my Christie findings confirm Peter Garrard's 
evidence (in analysing Iris Murdoch's novels) that a sudden decline in 
vocabulary richness is an early marker of AD. I used Rob Watt's 
Concordance for vocabulary and indefinite nouns, and TACT (still usable 
in a virtual OS on my PC) to collect repeating phrases. Graeme and his 
students are now developing software to analyze for degraded syntactic 
features. We are fortunate to collaborate with Dr Regina Jokel, a 
post-doctoral researcher at Baycrest in speech pathology and AD.

Anyone interested in this subject should read Peter Garrard's recent 
paper, "Cognitive Archaeology: Uses, Methods, and Results," in Journal 
of Neurolinguistics 22.3 (May 2009): 250-65 ... a study of Harold 
Wilson's contributions to questions period. Garrard also uses Rob Watt's 
Concordance and John Burrows' delta.

Ian Lancashire
University of Toronto

More information about the Humanist mailing list