“The ASCII standard begins with a set of control characters,” she explained. “If you type the last of these on a modern computer, an invisible character is added, one that usually doesn’t do anything. It’s a relic from another time called the ‘delete’ character, number 127. These days, programmers sometimes use it as a placeholder, but for the most part, it’s obsolete.”

“Is that what the backspace key is there for now?”

“Sort of, but they’re not really the same thing. Think of it this way. Back when computers conveyed information on punched tape, typing character 127 was akin to punching out every available space when you made a mistake. It was a way of telling your computer, ‘ignore whatever I put here and move on.’ There was no realistic way to backspace through a set of holes, so you needed a way to disregard them instead.”

“That’s pretty cool. How do you pronounce it?”


“How do you pronounce character 127? Being able to erase things out loud would be useful.”

She paused for a moment. “Seriously?”

“If you can say it to a computer, why can’t you say it to a person?”

“Well, let’s see. Where do I even begin?” She exhaled loudly, then continued. “First of all, the delete character works because it tells the computer that there’s nothing there to see, and the computer is trained to ignore it. Human beings don’t have a similar reflex- the senses don’t turn on and off based on what another person says. As long as someone speaks, the total length of what they’ve said gets copied to the brain’s local memory- that is, as long as they’re heard it correctly. The notion of being able to undo one’s words in someone else’s head without, I don’t know, a lobotomy, is ridiculous.”

Szhtyckhe. Alright, forget I said anything.”

She tilted her head. “What did you just say?”

“What, Szhtyckhe? It’s something my mother always used to say when she’d done something stupid, like ‘shoot’ or ‘damn.’ She said that it was a Romansh word, whatever that means.”

“No, before that. What were we talking about?”

Player pianos pronounce control characters in a more expressive language.

A handful of people can actually pronounce a carriage return properly.

Humans are not known for their skill with designing universal languages.