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[00:00:04]

Listener supported WNYC Studios. Wait, you're OK? You're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

[00:00:29]

This is Radiolab to start things off today.

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A couple months ago, we also got to a small community in America in that magical, forgotten time before the coronavirus, our reporter Simon Adler somewhat mysteriously walked me a few blocks from our office making hand to a coffee shop.

[00:00:49]

OK, with our coffee purchased. Let's go stand in the corner where it's maybe a little less loud. Sort of a fancy one. Exposed brick bear Eddison bulbs.

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So let let's gaze out upon the hipsters of Lower Manhattan in the survey and count the number of laptops. Yeah. So how many laptops do you think are here. I get a kick starting from the left. We're going to circle around. We got one, two, three, four, five, six, two more on the four more on the bar.

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And they're all typing the same way. Right. Or they're all using a quirky keyboard.

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Yeah. Yes.

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And the reason he dragged me there as I now know it now let's imagine we're in Shenzhen in a Chinese Starbucks was to point out a massive cultural difference hidden in plain sight and to propose a bit of a reporting trip.

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Are you going to send somebody to to Starbucks in Shenzhen?

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Well, that's my hope, that I will be the one sent to a Starbucks in Shenzhen, Wellfleet, Adler.

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Now, you did not bite on that reporting trip. No. Plus, pretty soon thereafter, traveling to China became a lot more difficult.

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So, OK, I'm in this big Starbucks shop here in Hong Kong to play out this comparison I had in mind.

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Instead, we hired and sent local reporter Yangyang to scope it out for us.

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There are about 50 people here, maybe 30 laptops or tablets open because and here is where we get to the point.

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Everyone in this Starbucks, you know, typing and writing and browsing on the Internet, we're all using their keyboards in a different way.

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What do you mean? So using it in different ways and in the way that they use the keyboard or that the keyboard that they're using themselves are different, the physical keyboard is going to be the exact same thing there. QWERTY keyboards, just like here in New York. Oh, okay. I didn't know that.

[00:02:44]

But like, even if everybody in this Chinese Starbucks was really into dogs, it was a dog convention. And so they were all typing the word going, which is dog in Mandarin. No two people would be typing the word dog the same way. That's right.

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There could be 50 different ways that that keyboard is being used to type the Chinese language.

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This is Professor Tom Tambellini. I'm professor of Chinese history at Stanford University.

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OK, and this is the the doorway into the grand mystery, it would seem.

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Yeah, because, I mean, in theory, there are an infinite number of different ways to type Chinese with the Cordie keyboard. I don't even know what that means. How would how is that possible?

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Well, it turns out that figuring out how to type in Chinese on a keyboard was one of the most complex engineering, linguistic and conceptual puzzles of its time.

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It's a puzzle that threaten to erase an entire culture, merely prevented China from becoming the technological superpower that it is today, and says a whole lot about where all of our communication is headed.

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All right, so before we get into why typing in Chinese is such a crazy difficult problem to solve, let me introduce you to one of the guys who who actually set out to solve it.

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Hello. What was that?

[00:04:20]

Hello, Simon. Hi. Hello.

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Is everybody here? Can you all hear us? Professor Wang Young Men.

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Yes. Professor Wong is here to talk to him. My interpreter, fixer and really co reporter on the China side of this, Yangyang and I spoke with him a couple of months back.

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Professor Wang, I think of you as sort of almost like the Chinese Steve Jobs.

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Is that a fair way to think of you in the sense that you intend to juggle?

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He says that he is nowhere close to the wealth. Steve Jobs had a famous.

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But in terms of his fame and reputation. Yes, it's it's a fair comparison.

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Professor Wang was born in the 1940s in a small rural village, modest, modest.

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Growing up in this village. They had wheat and corn in the countryside, his family farm and his dad was also a carpenter.

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But it was a hardscrabble existence.

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His family was so poor that he they couldn't afford any clothes for him. And because they were dirt poor, he just stood at a very young age that going to school was not a small thing. So he studied extremely hard to do what he told you.

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He said that from the first grade, all the way to university, you only had no one.

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Always did. No. OK, I am always the number one and all that hard work paid off.

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He was selected to attend the University of Science and Technology of China, which is basically the equivalent to MIT.

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And after graduating from college, he was assigned by the government to a research institute located in this remote district.

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And this wasn't just any research institute, but most important, it was a top secret, highly classified National Defense Research Institute.

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Even the locals didn't know what these people were doing there.

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And the top secret, highly classified work that was going on there with building computers, which which in China wasn't just an engineering question, it was much deeper.

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Keep in mind, this was the early 1970s and everyone that was paying attention knew that computing was going to change the fabric of economy warfare. Again, historian Tom Melany communication everything.

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The Oracle at that time, China was just starting to enter this field and we had Vietnam was lagging behind.

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I mean, the best estimates I could find say that around that time in the entire country, with a population of nearly a billion people, there were only 3000 computers in use. Why is that?

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Well, the simple reason is the Chinese language could not fit inside a computer.

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Meaning what?

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So in English, we put our words onto the page or the screen by shuffling around these 26 letters. Right.

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Same with me. A, B, C, each one representing a sound in the word F, and the writing, in fact, tells you how to say the word B I g big.

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Well, Chinese writing is completely different. The person character is placed next to a tree to convey the idea of resting.

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When you write in Chinese, you're writing down the sounds of the words so much as you're drawing a picture of each word. Three trees here are combined in the character for some to mean a forest. This Chinese writing goes back at least three thousand years and in fact, some of the earliest known examples of it were found on artefact in Professor Wang's home province. I did spend years on this writing system.

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These characters grew out of an attempt to represent the actual things in the world around us. Water, stars, animals, actions, feelings confuse the car lot.

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You can be a thing with me, a picture, a long history in a Chinese character, so that today there are more than 70000 of these Chinese characters, each a unique visual representation of a word or an idea. And so the problem was in the 1970s, computers had only a few bytes of memory, not even enough to store a single email message.

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And so the available memory on most of these on all of these computers, commercially available computers, couldn't even store the Chinese character set or display them on a screen or even print them like again back in the day, the 1970s.

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The way we're printing things is with dot matrix printers, right?

[00:09:34]

Oh, I remember. Yeah. OK, where these tiny needles strike the paper composing letters out of a set of little dots, paper pixels, paper pixels.

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Exactly. It takes way more pixels to produce a Chinese character than it does to produce a letter of the Latin alphabet.

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And so inside these printers, those little needles weren't packed densely enough to tattoo illegible character onto the page.

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And if you take those pins and shrink them to get more paper pixels in a pinhead, well, what happens is they bend and break because they are not tuned metallurgic.

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They're not tuned to being that size. So it's not as if China could simply just buy these computers wholesale because the English language, the Latin alphabet, was, in effect being baked into the architecture, in some cases the very matter in materiality of these machines.

[00:10:39]

Wow, that's funny. Like, you know, we talk sometimes about algorithm bias, but I had never realized there was this huge cultural barrier in the basic hardware of the computer. Totally. And and I mean, for China, this was seen as an existential threat. Like consider the fact that because of these limitations into the 80s, they were forced to conduct and tabulate their senses with pencil and paper. No.

[00:11:09]

And so by Lord, if China couldn't figure out a way to computerize Chinese or to Chinese ize computers, then it was going to be on the outside looking in.

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So this was the problem they were trying to solve at that top secret research institute and the full magnitude of it of this problem really smacked Professor Wang in the face when he saw his his first fully formed Western computer, which amazingly, because he'd been focused on such hyper specific electrical problems, didn't happen until about eight years into his research.

[00:11:58]

Now he remembers seeing it in a local printing shop, the first ever in real life here.

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He was totally amazed. You what? Yeah, I mean, that was incredible.

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But then he says he looked down at the keyboard attached to the computer and saw the Latin letters and he thought, like, wait, how how am I supposed to type 70000 characters with just those 70 keys?

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Like, how are we going to fit the Chinese language on this thing?

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That would be the equivalent of trying to get all 26 letters of the Latin alphabet onto less than one key.

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And as Professor Wang began looking into this, he found that the consensus at the time was it simply couldn't be done.

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At that time.

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There was a saying that that Germany computers are the diggers of Chinese characters. Gravedigger's?

[00:13:02]

Oh, totally. People were making very loud calls for the absolute abolition of character based writing.

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You mean like throw out Chinese characters altogether? Yeah, that's what it was like a doom day because of this very thing.

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It was a big part of it.

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And so tons of folks in the field of computing were arguing, we've got to replace Chinese with Esperanto or with English or with something else so that we can participate in global modernity.

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Behind the plans is the realization that China must modernize or start. There was even a government body, the State Commission on Language Reform, that was looking into how to do this. However, what typically happens is that one wasn't convinced what he thought, there has to be a way to type in Chinese and save the Chinese character, what he called it destiny.

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He felt like it was fate.

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And he was convinced that if he couldn't do it, if he couldn't find a way to save the character, what would you Chinese culture?

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Would it be over? Was it to censor the book? Well, I quote unquote, so I didn't know if I would succeed. I didn't know if I would fail. There was no return, regardless of life and death. Whoa.

[00:14:23]

So dramatic. It's so dramatic. But it was it was really pressing for him. Yeah.

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And for good reason because in fact, Chinese writing had nearly been wiped out once before to set the scene.

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It's the 19 teens. China is emerging as a nation out onto the world stage and they're noticing technological advancements in the West.

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A Chinese visitor to the U.S., let's say he goes for the Ford company corporate headquarters, historian and collector Martin Howard.

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Well, walking in through the front door and down the halls to the administrative area, what they're going to hear is a cacophony of sound, OK, it's going to get louder and louder. And then he's going to turn the corner and he's going to be faced with rows and rows of hundreds of pickiest. Typing away in these typewriters, in businesses across the United States, we're literally remaking English communication. Simon, it was a revolutionary machine, a paradigm shift.

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Typewriter speed queens are lined up to show the world how fast they are for three basic reasons.

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Number one, then there are speed setting the keyboard. One could type four times faster than a clock, could write with a pen.

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One hundred and forty nine.

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Number two, you know what it's like reading other people's handwriting. Some some people's handwriting is goddamn awful legibility.

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Awful to read a tremendous step forward. And the third reason, making copies. Think about that, if it's four times faster and you're producing 10 copies at the same time. One could argue that's 40 times faster. I think my math is right that I think, though, if it's 20 copies, then it's 80 times faster. That's just mind tingling. Right.

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And so China's like we have to have that speed, that efficiency. We have to have these machines.

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And so some 50 years prior to Professor Wong's problem, you had people saying we've got to get rid of Chinese. I mean, Mao himself advocated for either throwing the Chinese character out completely or at a bare minimum, adopting an alphabet so that they could spell out the way characters sound.

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Yeah, he was one of the chorus. And so the thought there was that if you alphabetize the Chinese characters, you could then lay it out on a keyboard and the problem goes away. Exactly.

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OK, now, obviously, Chinese writing did not disappear and there was actually a Chinese character typewriter, several of them, in fact. And what's striking about it, the model that that one the day is just how a typewriter it is. This is a typewriter with no keyboard.

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It's this clunky yet eloquent device with just two levers, one for your left hand, one for your right, and then this big tray bed full of metal characters.

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And using those levers, you move the tray bed vertically and horizontally to to line up the character you want and then press down on the lever that your right hand is holding and in one fell swoop sort of pop up.

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The metal character gets sucked into the type chamber. The character swings further up towards the page on this metal arm like a jukebox, the way it reaches in and lifts up a record.

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Exactly.

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And on its way up, rubs against a spool and then strikes the paper, printing the character onto the page before finally the arm swings back down.

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And the force of it doing so spits that metal character back into the Trebeck Dang and well, you could only type about half as fast on one of these as you could on a quarte English typewriter.

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I mean, it worked. It was enough to stave off the death of the character.

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Go back and look for Professor Wang 50 years later.

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It was assigned to. This is a sign that instead of forcing the Chinese language to bend to the will of technology, technology could be bent to the will of the Chinese language, the Chinese character, not just some of the.

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And so to do that, he actually started by breaking down the Chinese characters themselves because well, let's face it, even though Chinese doesn't have an alphabet, that doesn't mean that every character in Chinese is absolutely unique and singular. In a snowflake. There are pieces and components and shapes that reappear over and over in these different characters.

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So just imagine this in chemistry, there were tens of thousands of molecules in chemistry, but there are only 100 or so atoms was one you stand.

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Professor Wang believed that if he could just figure out what the atoms of Chinese characters were, most of the components of characters like a like a like a shape alphabet, and you'll see that he could put those on the keyboard and that people could then quote unquote, spell Chinese characters not by sound, but by shape.

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Now, to help visualize this, let's take the character for River Zhang, which looks like a capital AI with three dashes to its left to near the top in one near the bottom.

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Got it.

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Now this character Gyung contains two components. The first is that capital letter AI and the second is those three dashes now on its own. That capital letter AI is actually the character for work.

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And those three dashes actually represent water, huh?

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So work plus water equals river. Correct.

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And just as with this character Zhang, these quote unquote work and water components often appear in combination with other components.

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So for example, those three dashes, the water component, are present in the characters for juice and sweat and soup.

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Anyhow, so what we just did, taking a character and breaking it into its parts.

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This is what Professor Wang began to do as he searched for the most common and fundamental of these components.

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He got himself a. Emptied it out of everything but a couple of desks and with a small staff, he'd assembled. He took 10000 characters and began breaking them apart and making note cards.

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Yeah, note cards, one note card for each component of each of the ten thousand characters he was dissecting.

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So, like Gyung River would get to note cards, one with the eye on it, one with the three dashes on it, you guys away when this was all said and done, what he had laying out on these various desks?

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Yeah, sure. What number? 120000 cards. If you stack them all together, they were like 12 metres tall, about the height of a three storey building.

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But of these 120000 cards, many of them were duplicates or triplicates or quadruplets, like there would be at least four cards with the same water component on them. Right.

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One from the character for River, another from soup, and two more from sweat and juice by the soldier.

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So from there, what he did was with sorted all of the common components together, all of the water components on that table, the the components over there leaving him now with just several thousand piles, several thousand components, clearly still way too many to put onto a keyboard.

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So he did it again, broke each of those components apart and made more note cards and regrouped and repealed the new common components on that.

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And he did this again, boiling down lower again and lower again and again.

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Still lower and lower restacking pieces of paper. Yeah, just passing cards.

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Wow.

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Professor Wang did this for five years until he had it down to one hundred and twenty five components of the periodic table of Chinese as he referred to it, and then how would you type with this periodic table?

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Well, just like texting on a flip phone, you remember texting on a flip phone where each number represents three different letters so that to type say the word dad, you just type three, two, three.

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Well, just like that. That was your father.

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Professor Wang placed five or so of these components on each key of the Cordie keyboard so that by typing in the component pieces of a character, the computer would sum them up for you and generated on the screen.

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He named his creation with the Ruby method and described it will be as a sacred invention.

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All he had to do now was convince the rest of the world.

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He got that opportunity in 1984. Mr. Secretary General, thank you for granting me the honor of speaking on this first day of the 30th session of the General Assembly.

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So, yes, he was invited to the United Nations to present his invention.

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When he arrived, he sat down, set up his computer, you know, to demo it.

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And with a bunch of people watching him, he took a deep breath and started typing.

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And immediately the deputy secretary saw the lawyer who was standing over his shoulder watching was astonished how you will to see what Chinese characters rapidly appearing on the screen.

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In fact, she was incredulous. You know, they they saw one had played a trick on them.

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What did they asked them to stand up and step away from the computer, and they flipped a keyboard looking for some hidden piece of hardware.

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And at that time, one replied, I wonder what you know, what is your keyboard? It's just your keyboard. It's the same keyboard.

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And after this, he and Alby went viral. He became one of the top ten biggest names in China.

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He and Ruby were on the front page of newspapers.

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He was licensing will be all over the world that this sound is actually from an infomercial for Ruby, filled with flying photos of Professor Wang sitting next to important people, I mean, for China's version of July 4th.

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Occasionally, China's National Day, you he was chosen as the head of ceremonies of Hunan Province.

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I'm imagining him as like the leader of the parade with his baton in hand, marching down the street.

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Totally. Totally. Yeah. And then that same year, his his crowning achievement.

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Dramatic political and economic changes are taking place in the world's most populous country because in April the 4th, 1984, a new leader who y'all banged up on the jawbone, the head of the Communist Party came to visit Professor One.

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Why don't we all. And sitting down with him, the most powerful man in China at the time.

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After Wong explained his invention, Hu Yaobang stood up to da dum dum and asked, Will be the comrade Yao Ming, do we still need to forsake Chinese characters?

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And one replied, Well, we'll dazzle you. I don't know.

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No, Chinese characters don't need to be replaced. They can be efficiently input, just like English.

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Hu Yaobang went back to Beijing and according to Professor Wang, not long after the State Commission for Language Reform, that government body looking into how to do away with the Chinese character was closed, shut down in no small part because of one's invention.

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Companies were using will be students were taught to use be learning. Ruby became synonymous with learning how to use the computer. He had saved thousands of years of the Chinese language and given it a place in the modern world. And as far as Professor Wang was concerned to be, this person was to be placed alongside, I don't know, Ford, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, perhaps Steve Jobs. Yeah, this sort of singular genius inventor, what he as well.

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So he sort of at this point has slayed the dragon. He is the victor. Give it to you. He he was or he thought he was.

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The battle hasn't finished.

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In fact, it was only beginning. When we come back break Chinese typing gets predictive and the keyboards start directing us.

[00:28:21]

Hi, my name is Rachel Mlima and I'm calling from Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.

[00:28:34]

For more information about Sloan at Sloan, Doug Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science. Sandbox is Science Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.

[00:28:57]

Jad Radiolab, back to producer Simon Adler. So before the break, Professor Wong had seemingly solved this massive technological linguistic challenge and saved the Chinese character, he'd found a way to type Chinese with a plain old Quartey keyboard.

[00:29:14]

But thinking back to the beginning, when you took me to that cafe, Simon and we heard about all the different ways people were using the keyboard in that Hong Kong Starbucks.

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How did we get from Wang doing the making his method to suddenly like infinite ways of typing?

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So first of all, well, Professor Wang really cracked this thing open. He wasn't alone. I mean, there were others who had been hammering and chipping away at this problem as well.

[00:29:43]

So from the beginning, you had a few variations, a few different ways to type.

[00:29:48]

However, after Ruby, things do really explode because underlying Ruby was was this subtle but spectacular departure, the keyboard change from something where what you typed was what you got to a system where you were telling the machine certain features or characteristics of the Chinese character that you wanted on the page or I guess on the screen.

[00:30:14]

Again, historian Tom Marlenee.

[00:30:16]

That seems like a minor distinction when you say it. But once you do that, once you have entered into a reality in which A is not equal to a I don't I push the button that has the little symbol on it. And I no longer expect that symbol to appear on the paper, the screen effectively. I can set the letter AI equal to any property of the Chinese character that I want a could equal that water component or that work component or something far more abstract.

[00:30:49]

Anything goes. And so in the early 1980s, different ideas about how to do this started to flood in. Oh, you mean beyond Ruby? Oh yes.

[00:31:00]

As I time many people and companies around their own.

[00:31:04]

I mean, this is Jo Ming, so Ming computer scientist in Microsoft Research Asia, and he was really on the front line of this development.

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Today there are over 1000 metasearch developed and put into this.

[00:31:20]

So just a couple of quick examples. Here is some of these broke the characters into components that look like English letters. I mean, look at the characters and be like I think there's a D in that picture. Exactly. And then place those components on their English look alike key. So A represented a sort of mountain peak looking component while others look to English spelling. So the component for Tree was represented by the letter T, others had you input just what was present in like the four corners of the character and then going even further afield.

[00:31:54]

Some of these don't even use letters at all. They just use the numeral bank of the keyboard. You know, that square number pad on the right side of of most keyboards. In essence, every character was given its own numeric code that you would tap in there for three zero three dog, nine zero eight zero fire, almost like a clerk ringing up vegetables at a grocery store checkout. And we're just scratching the surface here.

[00:32:20]

I was starting to dawn on me.

[00:32:21]

What you mean when you say if we go to that, that Starbucks, everybody would have their own preferred way of going from those twenty six Roman letters to the thousands of different Chinese characters? Right. And I'll say the competition between these methods got heated.

[00:32:40]

Yeah, people are actually fighting each other really, really based on Ming says at one conference he attended, someone actually had to be thrown out because of a fight.

[00:32:51]

This kind of thing happens.

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And what they were fighting and arguing over was just like with the typewriter way back when speed every single new input system.

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The inventor claimed we haven't achieved maximum speed yet and that my system, it's easier to use and faster.

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And one way they went about this, pushing the limits of the speed was by trying to predict what it was the typist was trying to say.

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Both predictive text and auto completion were anticipated in Chinese information technology decades before they were in English language computing and new media to get to the character you want faster and faster.

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So the way this began was you'd be typing in the components of the character, but before you'd finished typing them all in, it would guess what it thought you were going for and offer you a couple of options.

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And they would give you those options ranked by the probability that this is the one you want.

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But then even that wasn't fast enough. Almost immediately people started to think about next character.

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Suggestion's so predicting and suggesting not just the character you were trying to tape, but also the next character, the next word you were going to type, and so if someone types in the character Bayeh meaning North, it is a very high likelihood that the very next character is going to be gene for Beijing or maybe Baihong for Northern. So I'll give you that as a suggestion.

[00:34:18]

And keep in mind, this is the 1980s, a full decade before we had anything comparable here in the United States anyhow. Right.

[00:34:28]

As all these technological changes were taking place, the Chinese language itself changed.

[00:34:34]

Tomorrow, ABC News will begin conforming to the Chinese standardization of its language, spelling and pronunciation in units called China.

[00:34:42]

Went all in on Pinyon, Pinyon, Pinyon, Pinyon is a way of using the Latin alphabet to spell out the sounds or the pronunciation of Chinese characters and words.

[00:34:54]

Interesting.

[00:34:55]

So it's an oral or oral? Oral, yes. A you AIU. It's an oral translation. Correct.

[00:35:02]

The big advantage of opinion is that it more accurately reflects the actual Chinese pronunciation of a name or place.

[00:35:08]

So for example, a Beijing B.i.g. G is pinyon for the two characters Bei and Jing.

[00:35:18]

Now Pinyon had been around for a while, but in the 1980s, right around the time Professor Wang saved the Chinese character from the threat of computers, the Chinese government started to prioritize pinyon in the classroom so that when a Chinese kindergartner begins developing literacy and reading and writing, they learn pinyon at the same time or even earlier than they start to learn Chinese characters.

[00:35:44]

Really?

[00:35:45]

Yeah. And so these computer scientists who had spent years trying to figure out how to visually relate Chinese characters to to the letters on a keyboard, they think to themselves, basically we have the Chinese educational system teaching a way of relating the Latin alphabet to Chinese characters.

[00:36:03]

Right. So it would be kind of foolish not to exploit that.

[00:36:07]

Like we should start inputting characters by typing their sounds in Pinyon.

[00:36:11]

And now, of course, Professor Wang was staunchly opposed to this when we used to type. So we lose sight of the Chinese characters form.

[00:36:25]

And the form is the soul of a character of like you're grabbing hold of a person and doing away with their flash.

[00:36:35]

Your fate was a fate that you can't express the meaning of a Chinese character by its sound.

[00:36:42]

Well, and the more people use pinging the Morse code, Chinese characters are nonetheless.

[00:36:49]

Beginning in the early 1990s, Chinese input moved to phonetic pinyon input, replacing character shaped systems like Professor Wong's.

[00:37:00]

Actually, at the moment, I don't know if you can hear me clearly.

[00:37:03]

I mean to the point that as Young Yang told me, if you go into a Starbucks in China today, yes, people will be typing, using different methods.

[00:37:13]

But most chances are they are typing with Pene, some sort of pinioned editor.

[00:37:20]

And I mean, that's that's one of the thing that actually saddens me after this interview. And because, by all means, Professor one, he is right about it, that you do forget how to ride Chinese if you are so used to typing in pinging. And that happens to me.

[00:37:42]

You know, it's throughout throughout our interviews, you know, that lasted so long, I didn't have the heart to tell him that I couldn't type in movie, which just to from that young generation has no hope in preserving the Chinese culture anyhow.

[00:38:02]

But even as young Chinese people, I don't know, as they sit down at their computers or stare down at their phones, are being drawn away from this long, rich history of Chinese characters and towards this pinioned phonetic future. The allure of speed and the search for the fastest way to type continues absolutely.

[00:38:24]

The question still remains, what is the best, fastest way to do this?

[00:38:30]

And so what you have today in China are these typing competitions.

[00:38:40]

Yeah, there are typing competitions in Chinese where these different methods and different typists face off and these things are sort of a big deal.

[00:38:50]

They take place at the local level, at the national level, they're sometimes even televised. In a certain sense, it's it's like America's Got Talent for input.

[00:38:59]

I don't this audio is from the finals of a competition back in 2016, took place at China's Youth Sports Hall in Beijing.

[00:39:09]

And the broadcast opens with the audience looking down towards a young lady emcee Jim Daojiong, who's standing in front of 10 or so desks, each with a computer on them.

[00:39:20]

And before the race can begin to take off, she invites the contestants out to to stand with her on the front of the stage, this crew of lanky glasses and T-shirt wearing Han Chinese folks.

[00:39:33]

Well, sure, I don't know how they introduce themselves one by one Mongan woman.

[00:39:43]

And then also this is this is a little bit like sponsoring race car drivers for your you know, for your brand.

[00:39:49]

So it will be in London, they declare which input method they'll be using because ofttimes the folks who designed the input methods have actually hired and trained these super speedy typists to use their input method.

[00:40:04]

Huh.

[00:40:05]

Now that they can out with the introductions done, the emcee sends the typists back to their keyboards, some of which are interestingly blank, like they have no script on them at all.

[00:40:17]

And in essence, what happens is a text appears on the screen that no one in the competition has seen the same text for everyone in the competition that could be held.

[00:40:28]

And then some ar e you know, the stopwatch starts and the races is just like I mean, they're just like it's like unbelievable the speed at which they're going. The room is totally silent, other than the clacking of keys the camera's cutting between contestants capturing these over the shoulder shots of their screens, just filling with text. And when they do linger on one typists screen long enough.

[00:41:04]

And really, you'd need to almost go frame by frame to catch this, but what you see is is a typist inputting a string of sort of nonsense letters, which prompts a little tiny box to pop up with five or so options, which they then select from with one final keystroke. How many like words, characters per minute can they type 244? What was the winning?

[00:41:39]

Yeah, that's insane. Yeah, I didn't understand.

[00:41:45]

I did not understand. Simon, that's so fast. Oh, my God. Yeah.

[00:41:50]

My dad, who's the fastest typist I know he will. He can only do like Haiti.

[00:41:56]

That's that's that is that's kind of wild. Well, and while they're still in this competition, the winning typist was using about one man who is in the will be with no one.

[00:42:16]

Really?

[00:42:17]

Yeah, the guy who typed 244 characters a minute was using Professor Wong's Wellby.

[00:42:22]

Wow. Whoa. Yeah, that's so they're they're they're clobbering us for speed, but also able to do that in a way that preserves character writing.

[00:42:32]

And and this is not uncommon. Like oftentimes in these competitions, it's these older will be like input methods that win.

[00:42:41]

Ironically, by all accounts, they're top speeds are faster than the top possible speeds of phonetic input. Wow.

[00:42:49]

So wait, but then if he's made this thing that is like so blazingly fast and also is able to sort of preserve Chinese way of writing goes back thousands of years, why is it that these other input methods, these phonetic based methods?

[00:43:04]

Are winning in terms of usage, right?

[00:43:08]

Well, the reason there is is pretty much the Chinese government, the Chinese state, promote the idea of phonetic based input systems really for one major reason, one of the same reasons they prioritize teaching pinyon in school, the unification of the Chinese language.

[00:43:27]

Because although when we think of the Chinese language, we think, oh, there's Mandarin and Cantonese in reality, when it comes to speaking, there are dozens of different Chinese languages, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fuji's languages that sound totally different.

[00:43:43]

But on the page look the exact same because they're all using the same characters now with with a structure, shape based input like Ruby, where you're describing what the character looks like, you can type and still maintain your spoken language.

[00:44:00]

It doesn't care if you speak Cantonese or footedness or something or so forth because you're typing it based on what the character looks like, not how you pronounce it.

[00:44:09]

But if you get people having to learn phonetic based input systems, they have no choice, really, but to learn to type and speak the standard pronunciation of every character. And so now, in a sense, the ubiquity of the kriti keyboard is being deployed to a race difference and quiet dissent to this, Jeff. It does look no further than you would think at the very commission that was close down by the Commission on Language Reform.

[00:44:55]

I believe in coming to this year when they came back to life just this year and the kick that will be mastered out of scores.

[00:45:12]

And you can argue that which Taiping method you use, how you type, has a real impact that goes beyond the death of the Chinese character or beyond the government's desire for a unification of the language beyond China itself.

[00:45:29]

And so let me let me give you an admittedly small example of this, there's this aptly named thing called the quarte effect.

[00:45:39]

Have you heard of the Cordie effect? Go, go, go for it.

[00:45:41]

So this is an English study. It was initially done here in the States in the early 2000s. They did a bunch of tests on people trying to find what what feelings they associated with words.

[00:45:53]

And what they found was that people like words that have more letters in them typed from the right hand of a keyboard than not. No way.

[00:46:05]

Yeah. So the use and the L's and the PS in the case in the M's and the JS, those are having more positive associations than the Q WS excises hours.

[00:46:15]

Yeah. People like oh more than they like e this has been found in English and Spanish and German and in Dutch, both for right handed people and left handed people.

[00:46:24]

But it couldn't not just be that the keyboard was designed so that the letters that we like happened to just be on the right side, you know what I mean? Like, is it a chicken or the egg type of situation?

[00:46:35]

It likely is not that it's likely not that that those letters were intentionally placed there.

[00:46:42]

And there are a variety of stories about how the layout of the Cordie keyboard happened. But but sort of one of the undisputed facts is if you if you look at the top row of your keyboard, Cordeiro, it has all of the letters of the word typewriter in it.

[00:46:58]

T p e r t.

[00:47:01]

Yeah, they're all there. The story goes that the reason it was laid out this way is because you had these salesmen who would show up and want to demo the product demo this this typewriter. But these guys didn't know how to type, so they put all the letters for typewriter on the top row so they could very quickly punch out the word typewriter in their well.

[00:47:21]

So it's totally arbitrary, like the data. It was put in the order. It was put for reasons that have nothing to do with anything we're talking about.

[00:47:29]

Yes, correct.

[00:47:30]

And there is some evidence that the layout of the keyboard created those left right preferences rather than the other way around. So just a couple of years ago, researchers asked, OK, has our feelings towards letters changed over time?

[00:47:44]

And so what they did was they got Social Security records from the 1960s through 2012, and they looked at names of babies being born and they decided we're going to pick nineteen ninety as our year that the keyboard became ubiquitous. And let's look at the prevalence of names with more right handed letters than left before 1990 and after, and it spikes after.

[00:48:12]

Nineteen was crazy.

[00:48:14]

So suddenly a lot of palls and a lot of like Leia's and start to appear. Yep.

[00:48:20]

That is bizarre. So like Simon is four right hand one left hand Jadick one right hand to left hand. So you and I bear out the idea.

[00:48:32]

Yeah. You know it's funny, it's like there's what. Who is it. Was it Witkin Stein. I don't think it was. If you can sign Heidegger. Was it was it a Heidegger thing? Somebody one of those, like those nihilistic German philosophers, had this idea that the hammer isn't just a tool. The hammer actually feeds back, the hammer changes the hand. Right.

[00:48:49]

And it's interesting to me that this arbitrary, left over, arguably outdated QWERTY keyboard that we're all stuck with is actually influencing our preferences when it comes to naming our offspring.

[00:49:04]

What else is doing is probably doing all kinds of weird things to us. We do. We know.

[00:49:09]

Sorry, just to get back on track. Do we know. Yes. If this kriti naming thing is influencing the way Chinese people name their kids. Right.

[00:49:20]

Well, so with the effect in general, the lab that I spoke to looked into studying it in China. They had some Chinese grad students actually who who wanted to see if it applied back in China.

[00:49:33]

But in part, I think because there are so many different ways to type, they weren't methodologically able to figure out how to do it.

[00:49:41]

But I will say the idea you bring out of there, you bring up of the the hammer changing the hand like we're Chinese typing is going, I think is sort of the the hammer changing the hand on steroids. What do you mean?

[00:49:56]

Now we've got this new phase of this era of input, which is cloud input typing that uses artificial intelligence in the United States.

[00:50:07]

I would say the way that people are most familiar with this is the Google search bar that when you start to type, it will give you suggestions not based on the absolute mathematical probability of the frequency of a word that you might be doing. But really, what's hot in the news and what other people are searching for.

[00:50:26]

However, in China, this goes way. Beyond search engine suggestions in Microsoft Word, this is not a search field, this is like Microsoft Word and you say, OK, in the news today, some star has done something terrible and fallen from grace. And so some input user is starting to enter the name of this befallen pop star.

[00:50:48]

The system is smart enough to say, OK, this user has never entered this person's name before.

[00:50:56]

But up in the cloud, millions of people are entering this particular person's name. Let's give this local user that suggestion based upon what users elsewhere in the cloud are doing.

[00:51:10]

And so with this cloud based input, like everything you write, every keystroke, every word is being in some way influenced by what everyone else is typing.

[00:51:25]

It is totally unparalleled in the Western world. There is nothing even close to this. And in fact, now, arguably, over the last two decades, there has been an inversion in which Chinese in the computational world is arguably the fastest language in the realm of typing.

[00:51:48]

And so we're the ones now looking east, seeing these technologies and wondering like shit, how do we catch up?

[00:51:57]

Like in the course of 40 years, China, they've they've leapfrogged us. That's what it is.

[00:52:03]

It feels like a crazy leapfrog. Yeah.

[00:52:06]

But with this cloud input, there's also a question of like, do we want to catch up to that?

[00:52:12]

It's both invigorating, exciting, strange and also eerie and and, you know, and post futuristic because right now it's guessing what the writer already wants to say. But what happens when the speed of suggestion outstrips the speed of thought and the speed of intention and what it says is, you know, Simon, what if you did this and you say, wow, actually, that's a really good suggestion. Thank you. Yes, I will do that. At that point, we have co writing and once we move, once we move into the stage of further into the stage of suggested writing, then we're not it's it's it's kind of like a writing partner that's giving you a good suggestion.

[00:53:01]

But of course, it's a writing partner who's also the writing partner of thousands of other writers at that exact moment.

[00:53:09]

And that is, from my standpoint, a pretty terrifying scenario. Well, right.

[00:53:16]

Because it's a writing partner with an agenda potentially. Mm. It is a writing partner, I mean, and not not perhaps it has it there is agenda. Absolutely. I bet you will never type quite the same way again, Jad Abumrad. No, I definitely am looking at my comedy right now and I'm very I don't trust you got my eye on you comedy. It's watching you to side, apparently. Producer Simon Adler, the story was reported and produced by Simon with reporting assistance by young, young original music throughout the piece by Simon Special.

[00:54:08]

Thanks again to Young Young without her. The story would not have happened also to Tom Melany for his years of research on this topic and for sending us down this path to begin with and to Daniel Casa Santa for teaching us about the Cordy effect. Joshua Suiter, Marion Reneau, David Mosher, Chen, GAO Rinkel, Chang Martien Whiskery and Yingying Liu. Next week we're going to stay international, but in a very different part of the world.

[00:54:33]

I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening. Disparity calling from Bristol in the U.K., Radiolab is created by Jad Roche with Robert Krulwich and produced by someone that in case is a director of sound design. Lichtenberg is our executive producer. My staff include Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becky Bressler, Rachel Piecyk, David Gabal, Bessel Happy. Tracy Hunt, Not Guilty Ovando. Annie McKewon Lusciousness. Sara Quarrie, Ariane WEC Hatboxes Anthony Webster with help from Shenley, CyrusOne Buck Russell Greg.

[00:55:12]

Oh fact check it is Michelle Hirsch.