The logo at the head of my Web pages is a souvenir of an occasion when my work impinged on the national press. In 1986, when I was recruiting a researcher for my first project on parsing by simulated annealing, my job advert caught the eye of the Daily Telegraph columnist “Peter Simple” (Michael Wharton). The combination of grammar with engineering struck him as yet another revolting manifestation of modernity, to be anathematized as only he knew how. The cartoon illustrated his column; it must have been one of the last produced by the cartoonist “ffolkes” (Brian Davis, 1925–88), and I display it by kind permission of the Telegraph. (The journalistic genius Michael Wharton himself died, much mourned, in 2006.)
The irony, of course, was that Peter Simple/Wharton evidently took me for one of those dreadful trendy lefty dons one hears about, whereas in reality my general social attitudes are barely distinguishable from his own. Robin Haigh (the successful respondent to the job advert) is likewise a man with a sound appreciation of traditional values. Consequently, although in the context of the column it probably wasn’t meant that way, I choose to take the cartoon as depicting myself in the bosom of my research group. (It is actually not a bad likeness of Robin and me.)
Again with the permission of the Daily Telegraph, I reproduce below the Peter Simple column of 2 Oct 1986.
THE University of Leeds is advertising for an engineer to work on an Annealing Parser Project which is “developing a parser for unrestricted English using the connexionist technique of simulated annealing.”
How very different this sounds from the methods of parsing and annealing we use in our own columnar workshops! The word “unrestricted” suggests that English expressions will be used which are unsuitable for family reading by the fireside. The word “simulated” with its suggestion of underhand practices — and, I fear, worse — is most distasteful.
Our columnar workers would be shocked at the idea of using a machine for parsing. Every one of them, from the humblest young full-stop inserter to the skilled apodosis turner in the conditional clause shed, is trained in parsing and can identify parts of speech in an instant, though some of the new hands may occasionally stumble over gerunds and present participles, blushing painfully as their workmates pretend not to notice.
As for annealing, the final process by which the column is shaped, hardened and polished, this work is the prerogative of craftsmen grown old in the service.
Some of them, as they work at their antique desks, peering through spectacles of horn at each individual letter and making delicate adjustments with spatula, tweezers and miniature blowlamp, might easily be taken for monks in some mediaeval monastery, lovingly working through drowsy afternoons at their illuminated manuscripts.
Some of them believe that is what they are — a pleasant illusion which is not discouraged.
Since all the best websites these days display favicons, I thought I might as well follow suit; however, I have a limited grasp of the technology and (for reasons that I do not understand) it currently displays only in some browsers, not in others.
For those of you who can see it, the favicon is based on a couple of motifs from my family’s arms.
last changed 15 Feb 2006