Such a wet robin….

Draft of 2018.08.25

May include: puzzlesword gamesphilosophy&c.

It’s raining steadily here, this morning. I glanced out the window, and there were two robins perched on the power lines in the back yard, looking very damp.

I thought to myself, “Such damp robins.”

I frowned for a moment.

Then I thought to myself, “Such a wet robin.”

Maybe it’s the relative lack of caffeine so far today, but it struck me that there is a single copy of each English vowel (setting aside “y” for the moment) in that brief phrase. It’s succinct, too.

Then I thought to myself, “I wonder how many others there are, and what they’re like.”

And then I thought to myself, “I already know I’m nowhere near the first person to think about this.”


There are pangrams: Sentences with every letter in an alphabet. “Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs,” and so forth.

This little subset of letters (the vowels, as letters) must therefore be a “partial pangram”, I guess? I don’t see it called out in the Wikipedia, but that may simply be because it’s trivial. I mean, there are even single words that contain all five English vowels: precarious, for example.

So call it “noteworthy”. I noted it, at least. Perhaps it’s not puzzling.

Then I started thinking about “panphonetic” phrases, and that it turns out is (1) more interesting, but also (2) more complicated. Here’s a thread on StackExchange on the subject, and it’s interesting in its own right. But it also exposes some of this same pushing-out-and-resisting dynamics going on in my head already.

For example, somebody produces this sentence, used by English actors to exercise “all the vowel sounds”:

Who would know aught of art must learn and then take his ease.

But then the discussion bends back, to point out that there are some—but not all—of the English diphthongs in that sentence as well. Did we want all the vowel sounds? Do those include diphthongs? Or are those “extra” in this context? Hmmm….

This is a fertile land for “sidesteps”, it seems. For seeing something, and then changing its definition slightly, and then adapting our expectations.

There are lipograms (maximally long passages of text lacking a single letter). There are pangrams, and these “panphonemes”. There are lists of words containing all of a subset of letters, though probably the most common subsets that will fit in a word are vowels. There are interestingly different constraints, such as the notion of the pangrammatic window of a naturally occurring text, which is the span of characters required to encompass one of each letter of the alphabet. And the panalphabetic window, which is a passage of text where the letters include (with insertions of course) all the letters of the alphabet in alphabetical order.

And so on.

What it feels like

We take a peek into some abstract space. “Phrases with all vowels.” We find there are a lot of those, so we adjust the boundaries by twiddling constraints. “Sentences with all phonemes.” We find that the definition of “phonemes” we’ve been using might not include diphthongs, and things become combinatorially hard when we try to include all the phonetic sounds including diphthongs… more like something a computer could do, but we don’t know how to do that in our heads. But there on the sideline, when we glance in its direction, pops up this new notion of examining “natural texts” instead of “constructed texts”, and we start thinking about how much of a span one needs, in various circumstances and various passages, to encompass (by “accident” as it were) all the letters, or all the sounds, or all the sounds in pairs….

And so on.

It’s open-ended, isn’t it?

Such a wet robin.

An idea comes. We make a thing with that in mind, an experiment or example or test case or prototype or step towards our idea. The thing we’ve made, though, it’s not done.

Now it’s the thing’s chance to tell us something.

What it says, it says on behalf of something out there in the world, the real stuff like “facts” and “rules” and “limits of knowledge”. What it says is a sort of “resistance”, a disparity between what we expected when we first made the thing, and what the thing we’ve made can pass along—from what it “represents”—to amend our expectations.

This is what being of use means, in some circumstances at least. Perhaps in the circumstances when we’re “trying to see what’s going on”. Perhaps in others as well.

The thing told us to step in a new direction. Before the thing existed, we could have stepped in any direction, arguably. Or many more. But now, having seen the thing, there are fewer directions we can call “interesting”, and new ones we can view as “interesting”.

What is this weird thing I’m calling “conversation”?

Of course the thing we’ve made—“Such a wet robin”—doesn’t “speak” or “resist” or “represent the world” at all.

But yet but yet but yet… it does. Having seen “Such a wet robin” and considered it in the context of the problem at hand, I have learned something about the space in which my exploration was taking place that I didn’t have in mind before I started.

I have been told something.

Puzzles we pose for ourselves are not homework problems. They are conversations.