Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

A Million Times

08 Feb 2008

So I'm sure you've all seen this lovely little paragraph that has been passed around several times as chain emails. How many times that has happened, no one specific person really knows. I think the first time I came across this paragraph was sometime in Grade 9. Yes friends, that's about five years ago.

But the paragraph looks something like this. There's a lot of spins on the same gimmick, but this is the version I've seen the most number of times:

fi yuo cna raed tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too

Cna yuo raed tihs? Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

i cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Azanmig huh? yaeh and I awlyas tghuhot slpeling was ipmorantt! if you can raed tihs forwrad it


Well, no, WAIT! Don't forward it if you can read it. Pretty much everyone can read it actually. It's just not you. You don't really have a strange mind. You're not special or anything. In fact, it's when you can't read it or have difficulty reading it that you should start doubting your intellectual capacity. You probably have some issues you should be sorting out first before proceeding ahead.

And of course, if you haven't seen the above paragraph before, you're probably dealing with much bigger issues anyway.

But if this is the first time you're reading the above paragraph and you can't read it, man, let's not even get there.

Such was my naïvety when I read the above paragraph for the first time. I thought I was actually smart for once since I conveniently equate strangeness and smartness. How little I knew. And what was worse was that I actually believed it was true. And that too only because it said it was a research study at the Cambridge University. They didn't tell me which Cambridge. Cambridge, Ontario, perhaps? Gee, I didn't know they had a university of their own.

Anyways, past is past. By the end of grade 12, when I received the above paragraph for the umpteenth time, I began to seriously doubt its validity. Well, I agreed with the fact that the human mind does not read every letter by itself but the word as a whole, but are we generalizing our conclusions a little too much here? So I decided to put the pedal to the metal and test it out for myself. What ensued was an intense fifteen-minute coding session where I ended up writing a script that takes an arbitrary paragraph as input and shuffles all but the first and last letters of each word. The script is available for free download (PHP source - 1.61 KB).

So I was telling my friend the other day that it turns out that you are able to read the above paragraph specifically due to special grammatical structure and contextual information available within the paragraph. Contextual aid simply means that you'd easily know "bseuhl" was an anagram for "bushel" if I had already talked about apples before. I went on to say that I actually took the effort to write a script that takes a random paragraph, without any context information, from say Wikipedia or something and shuffles the inside letters. I realized that a lot of my friends including myself were not able to read it, at least, not nearly as fast as you could read the paragraph in all those chain mails.

Sometime in August of 2007, I was waiting at one of the ferry docks of Victoria, BC. My ferry to mainland Vancouver was delayed. It was around 10:30 PM or so. One of our family friends Ash, also a professor at the school of engineering science, Simon Fraser, confirmed my suspicion as we were casually talking about the phenomenon. I was actually right: the chain emails had all been a scam. The clever rogues had me tricked!

Now, here's why I think it's all a scam. Let's look at this excerpt from the first chapter of Myths That Every Child Should Know, an anthology of classic myths of all times for young people by Blanche Ostertag. Chapter 1 is entitled "The Three Golden Apples". I picked this particular anthology because it is highly unlikely that anyone would've read this excerpt previously except for me.

Did you ever hear of the golden apples that grew in the garden of the [...]

[...] hundred terrible heads, fifty of which were always on the watch, while the other fifty slept.

Now I shuffle all the letters, except of course the first and last letters of each word. And I keep all punctuation intact:

Did you eevr haer of the gelodn alepps taht gerw in the gaedrn of the Hpeirseeds? Ah, tsohe wree scuh appels as wloud bnrig a geart pcrie, by the behsul, if any of tehm colud be funod gwoirng in the ordarchs of nwaydoas! But tehre is not, I soppuse, a gafrt of taht wedfruonl fiurt on a signle tere in the wdie wlrod. Not so mcuh as a seed of tshoe alpeps esxtis any lonegr.

And, eevn in the old, old, hott-grlfofean temis, breofe the gdearn of the Hpeireesds was orervun wtih wdees, a gerat mnay pelope dtuboed whteher trehe culod be rael teres taht broe alppes of silod glod uopn tehir bacehnrs. All had herad of tehm, but noobdy rmbeemreed to hvae seen any. Crlidhen, nheslreeetvs, uesd to litsen, omhn-ueteopd, to stieros of the gdloen alppe tere, and reeolsvd to dieoscvr it, wehn tehy shuold be big eougnh. Aoduturvnes ynoug men, who driseed to do a bvaerr thnig tahn any of teihr fwlleos, set out in qsuet of tihs friut. Mnay of tehm retenurd no mroe; nnoe of tehm buroght bcak the aplpes. No wodenr taht tehy fuond it imsopslbie to gtaehr tehm! It is siad taht trhee was a daorgn beenath the tere, wtih a herundd triberle hdeas, ftfiy of whcih wree alawys on the wctah, wlihe the ohetr ftify slpet.

How good were you? How fast were you? What? Want to try again with a slightly different shuffling? Sure. Be my guest.

Did you eevr haer of the gdelon aeppls taht gerw in the gderan of the Hesedierps? Ah, tohse wree scuh aelpps as wulod birng a garet pcrie, by the bsuehl, if any of tehm culod be fnuod gwrniog in the odrhcars of naoawdys! But terhe is not, I sopuspe, a garft of taht wdenoufrl fiurt on a slnige tere in the wdie wrold. Not so mcuh as a seed of tohse aelpps estixs any legonr.

And, eevn in the old, old, hgft-aloerfotn tiems, beofre the gdearn of the Hdspireees was orrvuen wtih wdees, a gaert mnay ppoele dtueobd wehehtr trhee colud be rael teres taht broe aeplps of sliod glod uopn thier banhcres. All had hread of tehm, but ndooby rmemeeerbd to hvae seen any. Credilhn, neehlsrvtees, uesd to ltsien, omht-oeeupnd, to stoires of the godlen aplpe tere, and rovesled to dsecivor it, wehn tehy shuold be big egnouh. Aouervtunds ynoug men, who dsereid to do a braevr tnhig tahn any of tehir fewolls, set out in qseut of tihs fiurt. Mnay of tehm rutrneed no mroe; nnoe of tehm boguhrt bcak the appels. No wdoenr taht tehy fnoud it imopbslsie to gheatr tehm! It is siad taht terhe was a dgoran btaeneh the tere, wtih a hnredud trebrile hdaes, fitfy of wichh wree awlyas on the wctah, wlhie the otehr ffity selpt.

So where are we going with this, you my honourable reader might rightfully ask. I guess the conclusion is that the true analytical mind never stops at the surface. The true analytical mind isn't the skimpy goldfish which always swims only near the surface and can't survive in anything but freshwater environments; the true analytical mind is rather the daring dolphin who will go to the very bottom of things to find the treasure chest it seeks — for only the daring dolphin knows that treasure chests are always found at the bottom, seldom at the surface.

For in the end, it is the naïve who lose the game.

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