Archive for category Birds of Canada

Eight of Spades: The Synaesthetist

I’ve mentioned before that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia. That means that I intuitively associate each letter or number with a colour. The colours have stayed the same throughout my life, as far as I remember, and they are not all the same colours that other grapheme-colour synaesthetes (such as my father and brother) associate with the same letters. I still see text written in whichever colour it’s written in, but in my mind it has other colours too. If I have to remember the number of a bus line, there’s a chance I’ll remember the number that goes with the colour it was written in rather than the correct letter, or I’ll remember the correct letter and look in vain for a bus with a number written in that colour.

Well, I’ve been wondering whether it could work the other way.

  • Could grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to look at a sequence of colours that correspond to letters in their synaesthesia, and read a word?
  • Could this be used to send code messages that only a single synaesthete can easily read?
  • Could colours be used to help grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to read a new alphabet, either one constructed for the purposes of secret communication, or a real script they will be able to use for something?
  • What would be the difference in learning time for a grapheme-colour synaesthete using their own colours for the replacement graphemes, a grapheme-colour synaesthete using random colours, and a non-synaesthete?

I know that for me, there are quite a few letters with similar colours, and a few that are black or white, so reading a novel code wouldn’t be infallible, but I suspect I would be able to learn a new alphabet a little more easily or read it more naturally if it were presented in the ‘right’ colours. I wonder whether the reason the Japanese symbol for ‘ka’ seemed so natural and right to me was that it seemed to be the same colour as the letter k.

It occurred to me that, as a programmer and a grapheme-colour synaesthete, I could test these ideas, or at least come up with some tools that scientists working in this area could use to test them. So I wrote a little Mac program called Synaesthetist. You can download it from here. In it, you choose the colours that you associate with different letters (or just make up some if you don’t have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and you want to know what it’s like) and save them to a file.

Then you can type in some text, and you’ll see the text with the letters in the right colours, like so:

But even though this sample is using the ‘right’ colours for the letters, it still looks all wrong to me. When I think of a word, usually the colour of the word is dominated by the first letter. So I added another view with a slider, where you can choose how much the first letter of a word influences the colours of the rest of the letters in the word.

This shows reasonably well what words are like for me, but sometimes the mix of colours doesn’t really resemble either original colour. It occurred to me that an even better representation would be to have the letters in their own colours, but outlined in the colour of the first letter. So I added that:

Okay, so that gives you some idea of what the words look like in my head. And maybe feeding text through this could help me to memorise it. Here’s an rtf file of the lyrics to Mike Phirman‘s song ‘Chicken Monkey Duck‘ in ‘my’ colours, with initial letter outline. I’ll study these and let you know it it helps me to memorise them. To be scientific about it, I really should recruit another synaesthete (who would have different colours from my own, and so might be hindered by my colours) and a non-synaesthete to try it as well, and define exactly how much it should be studied and how to measure success. But I’m writing a blog, not running a study, so if you want to try it, download the file. (I’d love it if somebody did run a study to answer some of my questions, though. I’d add whatever features were necessary to the app.)

But these functions don’t go too far in answering the questions I asked earlier. How about reading a code? Well, I figured I’d be more likely to intuit letters from coloured things if they looked a little bit like letters: squiggles rather than blobs. So first I added a view that simply distorts the letters randomly by an amount that you can control with the slider. I did this fairly quickly, so there are no spaces or word-wrapping yet.

I can’t read it when it gets too distorted, but perhaps it’s easier to read at low-distortion than it would be if the letters were all black. Maybe I’d be able to learn to ‘read’ the distorted squiggles based on colour alone, but I doubt it. This randomly distorts the letters every time you change the distortion amount of change the text, and it doesn’t keep the same form for each occurrence of the same letter. Maybe if it did, I’d be able to learn and read the new graphemes more easily than a non-synaesthete would. Okay, how about just switching to a font that uses a fictional alphabet? Here’s some text in a Klingon font I found:

I know that Klingon is its own language, and you can’t just write English words in Klingon symbols and call it Klingon. But the Futurama alien language fonts I found didn’t work, and Interlac is too hollow to show much colour.

Anyhow, maybe with practice I’ll be able to read that ‘Klingon’ easily. I certainly can’t read it fluently, but even having never looked at a table showing the correspondence between letters and symbols, I can figure out some words if I think about it, even when I copy some random text without looking. I intend to add a button to fetch random text from the web, and hide the plain text version, to allow testing of reading things that the synaesthete has never seen before, but I didn’t have time for that.

Another thing I’ll probably do is add a display of the Japanese kana syllabaries using the consonant colour as the outline and the vowel colour as the fill.

Here’s a screenshot of the whole app:

As I mentioned, you can download it and try it for yourself. It works on Mac OS X 10.7, and maybe earlier versions too. To use it, either open my own colour file (which is included with the download) or create a new document and add some characters and colours in the top left. Then enter some text on the bottom left, and it will appear in all the boxes on the right side. If you change the font in the bottom left, say to a Klingon font, it will change in all the other displays except the distorted one.

This is something I’ve coded fairly hastily on the occasional train trip or weekend, usually forgetting what I was doing between stints, so there are many improvements that could be made, and several features already halfway developed. It could do with an icon and some in-app help, too. I’m still working on this, so if you have any ideas for it, I’m all ears.

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Six of Diamonds: Don’t Leave Me

A six of diamonds featuring a sour-looking man sitting in an armchair, possibly clutching a crooked U magnet which is between angelic face and mad face magnets, above another six of diamonds featuring a black ternWhen it’s hard to cope,
don’t leave me.
When there’s not much hope,
don’t leave me.
When I don’t understand,
don’t leave me.
When I won’t hold your hand,
don’t leave me.
When you see a better man,
don’t leave me.
When you realise that you can,
don’t leave me.
When you balk at all your duties,
don’t leave me.
When you see me flirt with beauties,
don’t leave me.
When we fight and the police intervene,
don’t leave me.
When your blood leaves a mess at the scene,
don’t leave me.
When I pace the whole day at your bedside,
don’t leave me.
When I show you the peace of the dead side,
don’t leave me.
I need you,
don’t leave me.

When it’s hard to cope,
don’t leave me.
When there’s not much hope,
don’t leave me.
When you don’t understand,
don’t leave me.
When you won’t hold my hand,
don’t leave me.
When I see a better man,
don’t leave me.
When I realise that I can,
don’t leave me.
When I balk at all my duties,
don’t leave me.
When I see you flirt with beauties,
don’t leave me.
When we fight and the police intervene,
don’t leave me.
When my blood leaves a mess at the scene,
don’t leave me.
When you pace the whole day at my bedside,
don’t leave me.
When you show me the peace of the dead side,
don’t leave me.
I need you,
don’t leave me.


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Eight of Diamonds: The Village of Silver

Although many stories end up coming full circle, the first step is always finding a few good lines to lead into it. The steps are too steep for me to climb, I will wait and watch.

All the best pictures have canoes in them. As the boat left the wharf, they did not know that they would soon be the first victims of the biggest eruption in history. They used the clock tower to localise themselves in time and space. The people did not know that the tower would soon fall. It was big.

The butterfly said, “Some creatures are bigger than they have any right to be. The problem with rankings is that the first and second always crowd out the third. I am not going to react to that in the way you expect.”

The butterfly does not know what you have called him, he just lives.

The frog said, “I know a man who collects frogs. Hair brushed back to impress you, he has addled your brains, you no can no longer call yourselves human.

Why do you keep calling me a bull? I don’t wear armour and spikes to threaten you, but to protect myself. Standing on the stump of what was my home, I can’t help but wonder if there is any more of a future for those who destroyed it. After all their adventures, one diamond is still missing.”

A line of spikes separated the riches from the untamed sea. Many colours, reaching to the sky. Each stalk is topped with a permanent snowball. Scientists rushed to tend to the glowing backbone. The crowd rejoiced as they saw their work fall away.

Their neighbour was richer than they thought. A giant living diamond thrashed its way forward through the sea. A single female to perpetuate the genes of a thousand men.

And a gold-crazed fool said, “This is no more possible than a flower growing from another flower. I sent e-kisses over the internet before my first real kiss. I have two pillows, but there is no room for another in this bed.”

The trick in gathering treasure is to leave room for more. They got on like two flowers in a pod.

A village of silver, covered in white snow, one lasts and the other is precious.


Rearranging the components of your point does not make it any sharper.

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Queen of Hearts: Why?

Why are there poodles?
Why are there cats?
Why are there Bellan wrasse?

Cross-breeding of oodles
For eating of rats
To boost ocean biomass

Why are there leatherbacks?
Why is there beer?
Why is there Notre Dame?

We’ve banned aphrodisiacs
To free us from fear
In an effort to sauver nos âmes.

Is there a god who says, “It’s ’cause I say”?
Is it for people who like it that way?
Is it ’cause particles followed some law?
Is it just random events, nothing more?

Why corythosaurus?
Why Holsteiner horse?
Why are there Cooper pairs?

To kill time before us
To show feats of force
They send thirteen thousand amperes

Why are there wood hedgehogs?
Why are there clothes?
Why are there queens of hearts?

For Lumpi to teach French dogs
To hide what God loathes
So the kings can enjoy their parts

Is there a god who says, “It’s ’cause I say”?
Is it for people who like it that way?
Is it ’cause particles followed some law?
Is it just random events, nothing more?

Why Malahide Castle?
Why’s there Lake Sils?
Why are there tundra swans?

To use a land parcel
It rains, the hole fills
Now there’s no room for mastodons

Why are there butterflies?
Why are there birds?
Why did they bridge the Arve?

It’s so we don’t shut our eyes
To free falling turds
For the sake of appearing suave

Is there a god who says, “It’s ’cause I say”?
Is it for people who like it that way?
Is it ’cause particles followed some law?
Is it just random events, nothing more?

Why Maison du Mayet?
Why are there hares?
Why cruise in Georgian Bay?

It’s a raison de payer
For chic furry wares
‘Cause it’s ever so trendy that way

Why the Venice regattas?
Why the Rhine falls?
Why are there crested grebes?

Dear historical matters
For souvenir stalls
To eat the spare dough in Thebes

Yes to the god who says, “it’s ’cause I say!”
Yes for the people who like it that way.
Yes to the particles following laws
Yes to the random, its wonderful flaws.

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Seven of Hearts: Varied Words for Snow

It’s macaronics de nouveau
écrit sur l’air de Words For Snow.

Des mots pour la neige (a line-by-line ‘literal’ translation of Words for Snow)

A seven of hearts featuring varied thrush sitting on a snow-laden branch

A seven of hearts featuring a varied thrush sitting on a snow-laden branch

Je respire l’anglais, l’air de rien
mais quand je respire le français,
c’est l’eau qui semble m’étouffer.
I took the plunge, and I’m aware
si je remonte, c’est moi qui perds.
Je parle français un peu de plus,
The air of English spreads diffuse
des petites bulles dans l’eau française,
a snow of words that Benoît says
C’est clair comme du cristal, même plus
I wish such grace could reproduce
My tongues hang out, mouthwat’ring pair.
Je veux en boire des rivières.
In melting snow I want to stay,
to swim like fish in Angel Bay
in fluid French that’s clear and fun.


Wine and cakes (a lipogram missing an English drink)

English is air I exhale,
French is a splash I expel,
choking on wine of my grail,
drowning in yield of my well.

l’Anglais je prends à la louche,
le français je crâche vers le ciel.
L’eau à la bouche qui me bouche
L’eau me lessive mais m’appelle.

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Six of Hearts: Synaesthete’s blues

Sixes of hearts featuring a yellow-headed blackbird, a dunkelbrauner bläuling, and some blue lettersTwo vodka oranges ’cause now I’ve got the blues
I cannot see the letters in the colours that you choose.

To start, the way you write your S
imparts a way-too-bright fluoresc-
ence, but it is for you, synes-
thete, near enough to true finesse.

‘Twould not be such a foreign ges-
ture, if it were an orange S,
but it’s a sin for you, es-
thete, saying it’s a blue S.

Two votes to orange S ’cause now I’ve got the blue S,
I cannot see your letter S in the colours of the true S.

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Five of Hearts: Amiaivel


Five of Hearts featuring a Barn Swallow, with the letter R and a castle turret

Once upon a time a queen was blessed with twin sons, which she named Nosch and Amiaivel.

Nosch fought his way out of the womb a few minutes ahead of Amiaivel, and thus thought himself the eldest. He knew that this meant he would become king, so he always demanded too many entitlements, and looked upon his twin as a slave. Amiaivel had a kind soul, and could not allow himself to deny his own twin’s demands. But the wise queen saw this, and as she began to get old, she announced to the people that Amiaivel would become king when she died.

Nosch was incensed that the second twin would steal his position, so he called upon a witch to cast a spell upon Amiaivel. The spell made Amiaivel, his fiancée Bella, and his maids into toads, and locked them in a dungeon beneath the vegetable patch.

Much time passed, and Amiaivel contented himself with talking and singing to his toad maidens. One day, a pixie floated in on a golden plume.

“Soon, the son of King Nosch will come to see you,” said the pixie. “He will demand the most beautiful shawl in existence. If you give him the one that the elves gave Bella as an engagement gift, then you will soon become human again, and be let back into the palace.”

As soon as the pixie had left, a young man descended into the toads’ dungeon.

“Excuse me, good toad,” he said. “I am Tais, the son of King Nosch. I seek the most beautiful shawl in existence. Can you help me?”

Though it pained him to give away such a valued keepsake, Amiaivel asked one of his maids to give it to him, and said, “This is the most beautiful shawl in existence, and one of my most valued posessions. Take it. I wish you good luck.”

Tais thanked him and left. By and by, the pixie came back.

“I must again ask a good deed,” she said. “The king’s son will come back seeking the most beautiful jewel in existence. If you give him Bella’s engagement band, then you will soon become human again, and be let back into the palace.”

In no time, the young man came back. “I am most unhappy to have to annoy you again, but I must find the most beautiful jewel in existence. Can you help me?”

Amiaivel hesitated to give up the symbol of his and Bella’s love, but knowing that the love itself would not lessen, he gave Tais the engagement band. “On this band is mounted the most beautiful jewel in existence, and one of my most valued posessions. Take it. I wish you good luck.”

Amiaivel sat glumly in his dull dungeon, awaiting the pixie. She fell into the jail with a potato plucked out of the soil above. “I can not yet fulfil my pledge, I must yet again ask you to give up something you love,” she said.

“I have nothing left to give. Make me human, I beg you!”

The pixie paid no attention to his plea. “This is a magic potato. If you put a lady toad in it, she will become human,” she announced. “When the king’s son comes to see you next time, he will need the most beautiful maiden in existence. Let Bella climb into the potato and leave with him, and you will soon become human again, and be let back into the palace.”

In a little while, Tais came to visit. “Again, I am most apologetic to ask an act of kindness. But I must fetch the king the most beautiful maiden in existence. Can you help me?”

Amiaivel had lost too much to his hateful twin, and could not give his fiancée to him as well. He gave the potato to Tais and showed him Puzchunza, his most beautiful housemaid. “Hollow out the potato and put this toad in it. The toad will become the most beautiful maiden in existence, and the one that I love the most. Take the maiden to the king. I wish you good luck.”

So the king’s son hollowed out the potato, and put the toad inside. As soon as he had done so, the toad became a maid, and the potato became a coach. Tais kissed the maid, and they left.

Again, Amiaivel sat and awaited the pixie. But she did not come. Many weeks he waited, until finally somebody came. This time it was Tais.

“Thou hast shown me immense kindness,” he said. “Because of thee, I have become king. In thanks, I would like to help thee,” he continued. “A pixie told me that thou beest my uncle, locked in a toad’s body by the late King Nosch. So I have found a good witch, who gave me this potion to heal you. Alas, she could not make enough to save thy housemaids.”

Amiaivel swallowed the potion, and instantly became human, still as young as he had been when he was enchanted. He went up to the palace, and was taken to Puzchunza, and given Bella’s engagement band. “Since this is the lady thou lovest the most, she will be thy wife.”

At once Amiaivel began to sob. “I lied. She is but my maid. My fiancée is still a toad! Oh, if only I had not been so selfish!” With that, Amiaivel dashed back into his cave, and found the middle pieces of potato which had been left behind. He massaged Bella with them, and soon she became human. But alas, not enough potato was left. She still had one leg like that of a toad, and skin pocked with boils. But she was still his beloved.

Amiaivel helped his fiancée to the palace, and soon they wed. Tais had fallen in love with Puzchunza, and was glad that she was not, in fact, Amiaivel’s fiancée. Those two also wed, and the two couples united to lead the kingdom with wisdom exceeding that of any single king.

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