(Originally appeared in Lognet 96/3)

Profile of Alex Leith

By Wesley R. Parsons

Alex was born in London, England in 1935. He studied moral sciences (philosophy, formal logic, and psychology) at Cambridge University. In a long and rather varied career, he has performed research in experimental psychology, taught languages and compiled teaching materials for language laboratory use, and supported himself during extensive traveling through sculpting and quick sketch portrait artistry.

Somewhat late in his academic life, in 1975, he returned to Cambridge and did a year’s concentrated study in computer science, and has been involved in computer programming since then. He worked for a company in England, tailoring a turnkey system (PDP 11’s, compiled Basic) for commercial clients. He programed business systems involving accounts receivable and payable, payroll and stock control.

In 1981 he had the opportunity to invest in his own project with two partners. They pioneered an electronic memo pad, similar to Sharps and Casios nowadays. This brought him to California. The “Pad” was well conceived but ahead of its time. It suffered various set-backs and did not make Alex and his partners the fortune they had hoped for. At this point, Alex took early retirement and began experimenting with microcomputers, starting with the Osborne and moving to the Mac when that appeared. He acquired experience in Forth programing. His interest in programming and computing has persisted to this day.

Currently, Alex spends the winter near Santa Cruz, California, and the summer in Auvergne, France, two places he has found congenial in his travels, and maintains a dog in both locales. He has eclectic taste in art and music. He hates opera and rock and roll, except that he likes the very schmalzy country music and juke boxes in the western United States.

An odd fact about Alex is that his grandfather, around the turn of the century, paid the British Royal College of Heralds enough to persuade them to trace a very roundabout connection between that grandfather and one Thomas Burgh, who sat on a jury for one of Henry VIII’s divorces and was duly rewarded with a barony. This made Alex’s grandfather, and in due course Alex, the seventh and ninth (no one is quite sure) “Lord Burgh.” He may thus sign himself in correspondence simply as “Burgh.”

Alex originally encountered Loglan when he stumbled upon the 1975 edition of Loglan 1, 4 and 5 in a Santa Cruz public library. [This ought to re-mobilize our “Give L1 Away to Libraries” project ...which has, I fear, been languishing from lack of tiftua to man it. Write me if you’d like to help get this worthwhile project going again. Who knows how many more “Alex Leiths” there are, even now rummaging through public libraries in search of us and Loglan!—JCB] He later found the Loglan files in the CompuServe foreign languages forum. He is mainly interested in Loglan from a linguistic perspective.

At the time he found Loglan 1, 4 and 5, Alex was working on the idea of a “smart dictionary,” which would second-guess the words the user might need but had not thought of. In particular, he was considering how to establish a minimal, sufficient set of “little words” for the dictionary, and Loglan appeared to have already treated the situation. Other areas involved in the smart dictionary were “topic sets” (for example, all automotive vocabulary), which are common to all languages, and “lexical nets,” which are language specific: for example English has window where French has fenetre, vitre, vitrine, vitrail, ... Moreover, there are problems in that metaphors such as “window of opportunity” or “launch window” sometimes do and sometimes do not correspond in various languages.

Alex most likes the simplicity of the predicate in Loglan, and, along this line, the fact that Loglan is a language engineered from first principles rather than being modeled on natural languages. Alex believes that any computer that may eventually “understand language” will have to have a world view built in: Loglan could be a way to implement this in as culturally independent a manner as possible. Alex hopes to see Loglan become a world language someday...but rather doubts the possibility, unless it sneaks in via computer understanding. He describes Loglan to interested parties as a constructed or artificial language by which Loglanists hope to talk to computers in the same way that people talk to people.

Alex believes that Loglan most needs a larger user base and corpus of text materials, as well as growth in usages. He has at different times thought he would like different changes, but at the present time believes that Bill Gober was right when he said it was time to “shoot the engineer and start shipping boxes” (if we can find the customers to send the boxes to [and decide what engineers to shoot, soi crano]).

Alex has been very involved with “WordNet,” a hierarchy or net of English word associations. Alex still uses WordNet as a very comprehensive English thesaurus. An initial project of applying WordNet to Loglan has not progressed very far...mainly because he has been trying to learn enough Loglan to be able to see what needs to be done, which has led him down interesting side-tracks in word-making.

Developing a system that not only parses but “understands” is one of the most interesting ways that Alex sees Loglan developing. “Understanding” raises a whole host of tricky problems, but as a first attempt Alex would like to be able to tell the computer: ‘La Bab farfu la Djan. I la Djan laldo la Bab.’ And have the system say ‘Eh?’ and emit puffs of smoke. Actually, Alex suggest that one should not require “understanding”, but merely aim to equip the system with a suitable bunch of syntactic associations that would in itself incorporate a body of knowledge about the world. This might eventually lead to a system of which we could say ‘It understands.’

Like Alan Watts, Alex says that it is not true to say he is a Buddhist, but it is equally not true to say he is not a Buddhist.

Copyright © 1996 by The Loglan Institute. All rights reserved.