About a year ago, while overwintering back in St. Petersburg, Russia and helping take care of our newborn son, I conceived a scheme for making written English easier to learn and more accessible to everyone from special needs students and dyslexics to home-schooled children to just about everyone who has ever struggled with the horribly irregular English spelling. This scheme, which I called "Unspell," uses a dialect-neutral phonemic representation of spoken English. I invented a special set of symbols for this purpose. A year of work went into perfecting a system that captures all the significant phonological distinctions of English and that is easy to read, easy to write and easy to learn. Two pieces of software—called “unspell” and “respell”—will convert from English text to this representation and back in a process that is largely automatic, allowing people who have good command of spoken English to read and write perfect English without having to so much as look at English spelling!
While I was writing and speaking on the subject of collapse I was often asked what my qualifications are for doing so. Am I an economist, a historian, an anthropologist, a sociologist? Alas, I am none of the above, and that makes me an amateur. But as far as Unspell is concerned, I have all of the requisite qualifications: I have an advanced degree in applied linguistics, a degree in computer engineering, and well over a decade of experience working as a software engineer, engineering manager and systems architect in a variety of high-tech start-up companies.
I have been able to complete the design for Unspell in my spare time working together with a few volunteers. But now that it is time to develop and deliver software, this model will no longer suffice. I have to register and organize a company, buy software licenses, lease servers, pay contractors and so on. The first step is to raise some seed money, which will be used to put together a demo that can be shown to prospective investors. I hope to raise the seed money this month and to complete the demo during the first quarter of 2014.
And this is where I need your help. Writing and talking on the subject of collapse was interesting and perhaps useful. It was also very time-consuming, and definitely nonrenumerative. I hope that, in recognition of my efforts, you will consider helping me raise the seed money I need to launch this venture, either directly, by donating yourself, or by spreading word of Unspell among people you know. In return, I promise to do my utmost to give you the satisfaction of having helped create a major public good.
To find out more about Unspell, please visit http://unspell.it.
To donate, please go to the Unspell crowdfunding campaign at Indiegogo.com.
I have purchased both your books and appreciate all the effort and attention you have given to illuminating the process of collapse.
It is interesting (and telling?) that you are attempting this well thought out and noble project as we lumber through the early stages of collapse. I wonder if you can get uptake and adoption to critical mass before the lights go out...?
The project reminded me of Esperanto, which I just learned was created by a doctor from Bialystok, then part of the Russian Empire.
Hi, have enjoyed this reading this blog over the last couple of years. Giving a lil back's the least i can do.
I like the elegant simplicity of the Unspell project - it deserves to take off!
Can't offer much, Dmitry, but I'll get together what I can. I'll spread the word too.
I have been telepathising this past few days the feeling that Dmitry's been slogging away at this unpaid worldhelp work for some years now, and it can't go on as it is forever...
Thanks for the profound enlightenments about what's really happening; amongst the deepest around at the moment, in my estimate, right from that first appearance on Mike's FTW website, of hallowed memory.
Wanted to say too: I've been trying for some time to write a review of 'Five Stages...' which would do it justice; my copy's getting really dog-eared; the one you sent to Liz Allen in Warwickshire, GB, which she'd cashcarded for me (don't keep 'em myself).
In the end, I thought that the best thing I could do to spread the exposure of 'Five Stages' would be to publish short - sort of 3-to-five paras, plus intros from me to prime the audience - clips from the text; and keep doing this over a period, to accelerate an interest and a following. Does this sound acceptable to you? If yes, should I send you pre-copy of each post that I would do, before I posted it elsewhere? My initial venue for these clips would be the MediaLens Message Board:
You can contact me direct at Rhisiart@DDraigGoch.org to speak of this, if you like the idea.
Spasiba tovarisch! RhG
I am just now reading your thoughts on English's difficult spelling and writing in The Five Stages of Collapse. You have a sentence where you write (p 239), "It is about time somebody addressed this problem by providing a workable alternative while the lights are still on and the information is available in a digital form."
I thought (just hours prior to this post on your blog) that you seem like a good person to take on this task. Lo and behold, you have! I'll toss a little something your way both because I want to see unspell succeed and as thanks for all your slogging (blogging?) away at the collapse conundrum.
Dimitry, Your new venture sounds like a wonderful thing. I can't imagine learning English as a second language. I wish I could help but I'm destitute and job searching. (You don't need a very talented copy writer do you?) I just wanted to thank you for writing this blog. The amount of time it must take to write such well written essays each week has often crossed my mind. I have enjoyed them immensely, especially these last few months. Good luck on your new venture. You will be missed.
Thank you. Not only for your blog postts which confront the reality of collapse with such a sharp wit. If action is the antidote to despair humor is action's cousin. It makes it possible to swallow the red pill.
But thanks for addressing the English spelling issue. My wife struggles with spelling, as do my two youngest daughters. The solutions the public schools have is to continually beat the horses of rule and rote memorization till they drop deap. Best of luck brother! When I can scrimp a few extra bucks, you can count on my support.
Years ago I saw an English text spelled phonetically. As a native English speaker I was able to read and understand it immediately and thought that it would be far easier for everyone to learn to spell English that way.
Why didn't you use the IPA symbology for Unspell? I think that the learning curve would have been about the same for those new to English and it might have eventually supplanted conventional English spelling, a wonderful side effect.
The IPA is probably too complicated for some. I am betting Dmitry has a far better system in mind.
The first thing that came to mind after the sadness that an old wise seer was no longer going to have fireside chats as often to comfort and humor those who know they are on a sinking ship was another way to clean up the English language.
Perhaps cutting our tongues out of our heads came to mind, but it appears humans have been on average as equally vile to each across the globe. Instead, I thought of eliminating all those &^%$ French words...you know, the ones with those consonants and vowels that are never enunciated.
On the other hand, if the Normans hadn't invaded the Anglos, Saxons, and Jutes in 1066 AD we'd be speaking a much more guttural language like German. Not pleasant when you have a severe cold or sinus infection, so I guess it's a mixed blessing.
We should all donate at least some token gesture of appreciation. A newborn child from a man my age. I can see why Dmitry tries to remain positive. Congrats. Your message affected me more than anything else I learned in my entire life, and that was just from reading the 5 stages of collapse I believe in late 2008. I went from there to the 5 stages survival toolkit and anything else I could read in between. Now I understand why politics/a political solution is a complete waste of time.
The wall of denial you and others have tried to surmount. You should always feel proud no matter what ensues that you tried your best.
I hope you will still give periodic interviews, like lifeboat hour, RT television, and others. I still watch those on youtube every now and then, collapse of the titans...the best way to compete with the Walmart model is to not compete with them...let them choke off their oxygen supply. Your interviews with that sincere, powerful, piercing set of eyes and matter of fact way of speaking from the mind of a genius have the best affect of anyone yet I have seen speak on the subject of peak oil, resource depletion, and collapse
Other witty comments "the three stooges wading around in paper shoes in radioactive brine" or "unless you are particularly deft or juvenile" regarding the Ted Nugent(??) type who suggested that every living organism should be sacrificed just to save one human life with the analogy to destroying the automobile but saving the steering wheel....priceless. A little humor along with the pain is great antidote.
Many thanks, Dmitry.
I hope Dmitry is right about this development being a "public good." I am reminded of Douglas Adams' novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the novel, Adams invents a creature called the Babel Fish, which, if you stick it in your ear, is able to translate the sounds being spoken by others into your language, and also translate what you say into the languages of others. [It is where the online translation site, Babelfish, gets its name ?].
In his book, Adams noted that the Babel Fish had effectively removed all barriers that prevented people from communicating effectively and making themselves clearly understood by anyone throughout the universe, and therefore, had been responsible for more and bloodier wars than any other organism in history.
But without electricity and computers, what good will software do! My guess it will hit the qwertyuiop barrier, But nevertheless all the best!
Dmitry, I'd like to echo the feeling of gratitude others have expressed for bringing the message of collapse to us.
Re your unspell effort, I wish you luck. The main hurdle, it seems to me is finding enough people who would want to go to the trouble of learning the new alphabet and also to start using the new alphabet in street and store signs. I suppose we could do things like have signs in more than one alphabet, like here in Oakland Chinatown where the street signs are in both English and Chinese.
The actual learning of a new alphabet is actually much easier than I thought. This summer we went to a wedding in Ukraine and took along a Cyrillic cheat sheet which we carried with us everywhere. After about two weeks in Ukraine our Cyrillic reading ability was probably that of a first grader. I still couldn't grasp whole words on sight and had to sound out words a letter at a time, but had we staid longer, we would no doubt have become reasonably fluent. Obviously, some worlds such as cafe or restaurant one learns quite quickly. Others take a little more doing, especially the ones that represent sounds that English doesn't have. Still, I was delighted that learning Cyrillic was much easier than I had imagined. And so, I imagine learning your alphabet would be quite easy and would have the obvious reward of delivering to us sounds that we already know the meaning of.
Dmitry, I'm going to miss your wisdom, I've really benefited from your writing. So yes your unspell idea is a great one we have often commented on how english spelling is a remnant of the british class system, lets get rid of it. Happy to contribute.
See - people HAVE been paying attention. Maybe not enough, but you have to start where you are...
@Pyrolysium, the software is just a bridge. In a post-collapse world, I suspect it will be much easier to print Unspelled text than traditional text.
@Dmitri, I read over your roadmap to development, and I think you're missing an opportunity. If you really want Unspell to take off, offer a simple chat app for iPhone and Android, without the respell capability. Once kids find out that they can write texts that their parents and teachers can't read, it'll really take off :-)
I have enjoyed your blog over the last couple of years. Your weekly thoughts have made me a better person. It is a pleasure to contribute to your project.
John Wheeler, that simple unspell chat app is a brilliant idea. I'll add it to the road map. Kids who learn unspell instantly start using it to pass notes in class. Not only does it save them the trouble of spelling, but.the teacher can't read it.
There is something I can't get: 7 years writing and talking about collapse and now you have a project for the future that needs grid, servers, founding...
Is for you the collapse something theoretical to talk about just like studying how bacteria reproduce and die in a petri dish? Or is something that will happen but we still have decades to live business as usual?
As you say, some people have made major changes in their lives, but did you change your mind and now we can enjoy BAU for the next 30 years?
I guess you haven't read my books, or you'd know the answer.
Although I'm Spaniard, now I'm living in a country where is not as easy to buy from Amazon. Anyway I have read some extracts and I'm a regular reader of your blog since I discovered it two years ago. I don't read every entry because I'm not interested in all the subjects you are but I think at least I have a general idea about your approach: why industrial societies will collapse (you are mainly centered in the USA), how a collapsed country looks like and how people manage it to survive because what was important before it's no longer important an vice versa.
Anyway, in a collapsed world (the collapse in the USA involves the world collapse) I see no way of producing electronics because they require the global industrial society of nowadays. If you think I'm wrong I would be grateful if you explain me why.
Thank you for your time, our most valuable asset, in the pre and post collapse world.
Yes, a post-collapse world is unlikely to have universal internet access and other things we take for granted. Some technology is sure to remain for a few decades, through, nursed along by people who have the know-how. I hope that Project Unspell produces a large quantity of unspelled books, printed on acid-free paper, that will remain accessible to most people even after universal public education ceases to exist and conventional English literacy becomes as rare as it was in the 18th century.
I linked your project up on Max Keiser, seeing as you've been friendly enough to reply to me on several precious occasions.
Still (sorry to be a stick in the mud) unconvinced about it being a great public good because despite it being exceedingly clever it's not going to change human nature any, and that's the source of the world's problems according to this blog, not the language used.
Easy example? In ten years time, if this succeeds, the instructions on electric crowd control batons will be written in unspell so that even previously unemployable goons can zap the starving masses into submission.
There's no technical solution for the human condition, though we might get a raised standard of slavery through innovative stuff like this. But you're an engineer, so the rational solution habit is hard to shake, I suppose.
Do you have any idea of a higher purpose to technology, some sort of ontological lens through which you view it ? Something transformative, which makes you believe in it ? Something like creating a new species to launch into space 2001 style ? Over and above it's role in wealth creation and resource acquisition for a soon to be obsolete species ?
No, I don't see a transcendent purpose to technology. It's just tools. English spelling is like handcuffs. Unspell is like a key that unlocks them.
No, I don't see a transcendent purpose to technology. It's just tools. English spelling is like handcuffs. Unspell is like a key that unlocks them.
One thing for your critic who say Unspell is too technologically dependent: when I saw the Unspell alphabet, I thought it was much more suited to tapestries than the Roman alphabet.
And here's an Unspell twister for you: "I must admit the peak were exhilarating, even though I thought the troughs we went through were thoroughly tough."
How will unspell deal with homonyms?
Unspell is WYSIWYG, with one grapheme per phoneme, so homonyms are by definition also homographs. Homonyms do not need to be distinguished graphically, because our brains pick out the right meaning from context. See this for a full explanation of why that's a non-problem to which English spelling is a non-solution.
That makes sense. Does Homonyms provide more of a challenge to the respell portion of the project?
I think it would certainly simplify voice recognition software considerably, especially dictation software.
Voice -> unspell -> respell would be a powerful combination.
Homonym selection is hard to automate fully, so respell will fall back to prompting the user when there are multiple possibilities, illustrating the differences in meaning through synonyms.
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