September 28, 2016 3:16 PM

Language, and What It's Like To Be A Bat

My recent post about the two languages resonated in my mind with an article I finished reading the day I wrote the post: Two Heads, about the philosophers Paul and Pat Churchland. The Churchlands have been on a forty-year quest to change the language we use to describe our minds, from popular terms based in intuition and introspection to terms based in the language of neuroscience. Changing language is hard under any circumstances, and it is made harder when the science they need is still in its infancy. Besides, maybe more traditional philosophers are right and we need our traditional vocabulary to make sense of what it feels like to be human?

The New Yorker article closes with these paragraphs, which sounds as if they are part of a proposal for a science fiction novel:

Sometimes Paul likes to imagine a world in which language has disappeared altogether. We know that the two hemispheres of the brain can function separately but communicate silently through the corpus callosum, he reasons. Presumably, it will be possible, someday, for two separate brains to be linked artificially in a similar way and to exchange thoughts infinitely faster and more clearly than they can now through the muddled, custom-clotted, serially processed medium of speech. He already talks about himself and Pat as two hemispheres of the same brain. Who knows, he thinks, maybe in his children's lifetime this sort of talk will not be just a metaphor.
If, someday, two brains could be joined, what would be the result? A two-selved mutant like Joe-Jim, really just a drastic version of Siamese twins, or something subtler, like one brain only more so, the pathways from one set of neurons to another fusing over time into complex and unprecedented arrangements? Would it work only with similar brains, already sympathetic, or, at least, both human? Or might a human someday be joined to an animal, blending together two forms of thinking as well as two heads? If so, a philosopher might after all come to know what it is like to be a bat, although, since bats can't speak, perhaps he would be able only to sense its batness without being able to describe it.

(Joe-Jim is a character from a science fiction novel, Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky.)

What a fascinating bit of speculation! Can anyone really wonder why kids are drawn to science fiction?

Let me add my own speculation to the mix: If we do ever find a way to figure out what it's like to be a bat, people will find a way to idescribe what it's like to be a bat. They will create the language they need. Making language is what we do.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General, Patterns

September 27, 2016 2:57 PM

Elrond, Agile Development Sage

Call me a crazy extreme programmer, but when I came across the Tolkien passage quoted in my previous post on commitment and ignorance again recently after many years, my first thought was that Elrond sounded like a wise old agile developer:

Look not too far ahead!

You aren't gonna need it, indeed.

This first thought cast Gimli in the role of a Big Design Up Front developer. Unfortunately, that analogy sells his contribution to the conversation short. Just as Gimli's deep commitment to the mission is balanced by Elrond's awareness, so, too, is Gimli's perspective applied to software balanced by Elrond's YAGNI. Perhaps then Gimli plays the role of Metaphor in this fantasy: the impulse that drives the team forward to the ultimate goal.

Just another one of those agile moments I have every now and then. I wonder if they will start happening with more frequency, and less reality, as I get older. They are a little like senior moments, only focused on programming.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Software Development

September 26, 2016 2:54 PM

A Lesson from Tolkien about Commitment and Ignorance

Elrond has just addressed the Fellowship of the Ring, reminding them that only the Ring-Bearer is charged with completing the task ahead of them. The others "go with him as free companions", to assist in whatever ways they are able. He enters into an exchange with Gimli:

"The further you go, the less easy it will be to withdraw; yet no oath or bond is laid on to go further than you will. For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road."
"Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens," said Gimli.
"Maybe," said Elrond, "but let him not vow to walk in the dark who has not seen the nightfall."
"Yet sworn word may strengthen the quaking heart," said Gimli.
"Or break it," said Elrond. "Look not too far ahead!"

This is a tension we all live: the desire to make unconditional promises about the future to our lovers and compatriots despite not evening knowing what is possible in that future. I love Elrond's response, "Let him not vow to walk in the dark who has not seen the nightfall." Members of the Fellowship found that their future contained evil beyond their comprehension and temptations beyond their imagination.

Our challenge is to constantly balance this tension: to live with the confidence of Gimli, but tempered by the pragmatic awareness of our ignorance that Elrond offers. Sometimes, commitment gives us the strength to continue on in the face of fear. Sometimes, though, there is no shame in turning back.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General

September 25, 2016 9:40 AM

There Is Only One Culture, But Two Languages

W.H. Auden, in A Certain World, on the idea of The Two Cultures:

Of course, there is only one. Of course, the natural sciences are just as "humane" as letters. There are, however, two languages, the spoken verbal language of literature, and the written sign language of mathematics, which is the language of science. This puts the scientist at a great advantage, for, since like all of us he has learned to read and write, he can understand a poem or a novel, whereas there are very few men of letters who can understand a scientific paper once they come to the mathematical parts.
When I was a boy, we were taught the literary languages, like Latin and Greek, extremely well, but mathematics atrociously badly. Beginning with the multiplication table, we learned a series of operations by rote which, if remembered correctly, gave the "right" answer, but about any basic principles, like the concept of number, we were told nothing. Typical of the teaching methods then in vogue is the mnemonic which I had to learn.
Minus times Minus equals Plus:
The reason for this we need not discuss.

Sadly, we still teach young people that it's okay if math and science are too hard to master. They grow into adults who feel a chasm between "arts and letters" and "math and science". But as Auden notes rightly, there is no chasm; there is mostly just another language to learn and appreciate.

(It may be some consolation to Auden that we've reached a point where most scientists have to work to understand papers written by scientists in other disciplines. They are written in highly specialized languages.)

In my experience, it is more acceptable for a humanities person to say "I'm not a science person" or "I don't like math" than for a scientist to say something similar about literature, art, or music. The latter person is thought, silently, to be a Philistine; the former, an educated person with a specialty.

I've often wondered if this experience suffers from observation bias or association bias. It may well. I certainly know artists and writers who have mastered both languages and who remain intensely curious about questions that span the supposed chasm between their specialties and mine. I'm interested in those questions, too.

Even with this asymmetry, the presumed chasm between cultures creates low expectations for us scientists. Whenever my friends in the humanities find out that I've read all of Kafka's novels and short stories; that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is my favorite play, or that I even have a favorite play; that I really enjoyed the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham; that my office bookshelf includes the complete works of William Shakespeare and a volume of William Blake's poetry -- I love the romantics! -- most seem genuinely surprised. "You're a computer scientist, right?" (Yes, I like Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Bradbury, too.)

Auden attributes his illiteracy in the language of mathematics and science to bad education. The good news is that we can reduce, if not eliminate, the language gap by teaching both languages well. This is a challenge for both parents and schools and will take time. Change is hard, especially when it involves the ways we talk about the world.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Personal, Teaching and Learning

September 22, 2016 3:03 PM

RSS > Email

Newsletters delivered by email seem all the rage these days. I subscribe to only two or three. Every once in a while, the bulk mailer used by these folks gets blacklisted by some spam filtering service used by our mail server, the mail server respects the blacklist, and I don't receive my newsletter. We've whitelisted the senders of two particular newsletters, but even so I occasionally don't receive the message.

 the standard icon for RSS subscription, via Wikipedia

This is one reason I still love RSS. My newsreader is in control of the exchange. Once authors post their articles and updates their feeds, my newsreader can see them. I hit refresh, and the articles appear. RSS is not perfect; occasionally a blog updates its feed and I see a bunch of old articles in my reader. But I've been following some bloggers for well over a decade, and it has served us all well.

Do not expect me to hit you up for your email address anytime soon. I understand some of the reasons for going the newsletter route, but I think I'll keep publishing on my blog with a newsfeed for a while. That said, I love to hear from readers. Send me email any time, or tweet me at @wallingf.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General

September 18, 2016 3:49 PM

Talking Shop

a photo of the Blueridge Orchard, visited by cyclists on the Cedar Valley Farm Ride

I agree with W.H. Auden:

Who on earth invented the silly convention that it is boring or impolite to talk shop? Nothing is more interesting to listen to, especially if the shop is not one's own.

My wife went on a forty-mile bike ride this morning, a fundraiser for the Cedar Valley Bicycle Collective, which visited three local farms. At those stops, I had the great fortune to listen to folks on all three farms talk shop. We learned about making ice cream and woodcarving at Three Pines Farm. We learned about selecting, growing, and picking apples -- and the damage hail and bugs can do -- at Blueridge Orchard. And the owner of the Fitkin Popcorn Farm talked about the popcorn business. He showed us the machines they use to sort the corn out of the field, first by size and then by density. He also talked about planting fields, harvesting the corn, and selling the product nationally. I even learned that we can pop the corn while it's still on the ears! (This will happen in my house very soon.)

I love to listen to people talk shop. In unguarded moments, they speak honestly about something they love and know deeply. They let us in on what it is like for them to work in their corner of the world. However big I try to make my world, there is so much more out there to learn.

The Auden passage is from his book A Certain World, a collage of poems, quotes, and short pieces from other writers with occasional comments of his own. Auden would have been an eclectic blogger! This book feels like a Tumblr blog, without all the pictures and 'likes'. Some of the passages are out of date, but they let us peak in on the mind of an accomplished poet. A little like good shop talk.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Personal, Teaching and Learning

September 16, 2016 12:41 PM

We Are All Mashups

Sheldon reminds Leonard that he never really had a personality, on The Bib Bang Theory

There is a scene in The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon laments that, without realizing it, he had allowed his girl/friend to alter his personality. Leonard responds, "Well, you didn't really have a 'personality'. You just had some shows you liked."

This scene came to mind when I read a passage from Kenneth Goldsmith's Uncreative Writing earlier this week:

I don't think there's a stable or essential "me". I am an amalgamation of many things: books I've read, movies I've seen, television shows I've watched, conversations I've had, songs I've sung, lovers I've loved. In fact, I'm a creation of so many people and so many ideas, to the point where I feel I've actually had few original thoughts and ideas; to think that what I consider to be "mine" was "original" would be blindingly egotistical.

It is occasionally daunting when I realize how much I am a product of the works, people, and ideas I've encountered. How can I add anything new? But when I surrender to the fact that I can't, it frees me to write and do things that I like. What I make may not be new, but it can still be useful or valuable, even if only to me.

I wonder what it's like for kids to grow up in a self-consciously mash-up culture. My daughters have grown up in a world where technology and communication have given everyone the ability to mix and modify other work so easily. It's a big part of the entertainment they consume.

Mash-up culture must feel hugely empowering in some moments and hugely terrifying in others. How can anyone find his or her own voice, or say something that matters? Maybe they have a better sense than I did growing up that nothing is really new and that what really matters is chasing your interests, exploring the new lands you enter, and sharing what you find. That's certainly been the source of my biggest accomplishments and deepest satisfactions.

(I ran across the passage from Goldsmith on Austin Kleon's blog.)

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Personal

September 10, 2016 10:41 AM

Messages Rather Than Conversations

Kevin Kelly, in Amish Hackers:

One Amish-man told me that the problem with phones, pagers, and PDAs (yes he knew about them) was that "you got messages rather than conversations". That's about as an accurate summation of our times as any. Henry, his long white beard contrasting with his young bright eyes told me, "If I had a TV, I'd watch it." What could be simpler?

Unlike some younger Amish, I still do not carry a smart phone. I do own a cell but use it only when traveling. If our home phone disappeared overnight, it would likely take several days before my wife or I even noticed.

I also own a television, a now-déclassé 32" flat screen. Henry is right: having a TV, I find myself watching it on occasion. I enjoy it but have to guard vigilantly against falling into a hypnotic trance. It turns out that I form certain habits quite easily.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Personal

September 06, 2016 2:44 PM

"Inception" and the Simulation Argument

If Carroll's deconstruction of the simulation argument is right, then the more trouble we have explaining consciousness, the more that should push us to believe we're in a ground-level simulation. There's probably a higher-level version of physics in which consciousness makes sense. Our own consciousness is probably being run in a world that operates on that higher-level law. And we're stuck in a low-resolution world whose physics doesn't allow consciousness -- because if we weren't, we'd just keep recursing further until we were.
-- Scott Alexander, The View From Ground Level
two characters from the film 'Inception' walking in a dream world where space folds back on itself

In the latest installment of "You Haven't Seen That Yet?", I watched the film Inception yesterday. There was only one person watching, but still the film gets two hearty thumbs-up. All those Ellen Pages waking up, one after the other...

Over the last few years, I've heard many references to the idea from physics that we are living in a simulation, that our universe is a simulation created by beings in another universe. It seems that some physicists think and talk about this a lot, which seems odd to me. Empiricism can't help us much to unravel the problem; arguments pro and con come down to the sort of logical arguments favored by mathematicians and philosophers, abstracted away from observation of the physical world. It's a fun little puzzle, though. The computer science questions are pretty interesting, too.

Ideas like this are old hat to those of us who read a lot of science fiction growing up, in particular Philip K. Dick. Dick's stories were often predicated on suspending some fundamental attribute of reality, or our perception of it, and seeing what happened to our lives and experiences. Now that I have seen Memento (a long-time favorite of mine) and Inception, I'm pretty happy. What Philip K. Dick was with the written word to kids of my generation, Christopher Nolan is on film to a younger generation. I'm glad I've been able to experience both.


The photo above comes from Matt Goldberg's review of Inception. It shows Arthur, the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, battling with a "projection" in three-dimensional space that folds back on itself. Such folding is possible in dream worlds and is an important element in designing dreams that enable all the cool mind games that are central to the film.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, General

September 03, 2016 4:49 PM

The Innate Boundary

If you love a demanding task, one that requires both discipline and talent -- shooting hoops, playing drums, writing code -- you eventually discover an innate boundary: you can apprehend real virtuosity, especially as it's used to best you, but you can't quite incorporate it. You will never be more than almost-great.

-- Tad Friend, in Squash for the Midlife Slump.

Still, you get to love. That's a good thing.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General

September 02, 2016 4:12 PM

Be Open to What Students Think -- For Real

On the first day of my compiler class this fall, I had my students fill out a short survey to help me set the stage for the course. After I asked them to list the the three or four programming languages they know best, I asked them:

  • Based on your experience using these languages, list them in order from easiest to use to hardest to use.
  • Given what you know about them, list these languages in order from easiest to compile to hardest to compile.
We then used their answers to unpack what "easy" and "hard" mean in these contexts, and what it would mean even to be answer these questions.

While they were completing the survey, one student raised his hand and asked, "When you easy or hard to compile, do you mean for the programmer or the compiler?" I laughed almost immediately.

Fortunately, I've had all these students in class before, and they know that I'm not a mean-spirited person. Even so, I just as quickly apologized for laughing and let him know that I wasn't laughing at the question so much as laughing at my own surprise: It had never occurred to me that someone might interpret the question in that way!

I realized, though, that from a student's perspective, getting a Python program to the point of runnability is a very different thing from getting, say, a Java or Ada program to the point of runnability. For a beginner, to get his or her first few Ada programs to compile is indeed a chore. I remember feeling the same way when I learned Haskell as a relatively experienced professor and programmer, many years after I had last been a student in a classroom.

This story came to mind as I read Required Reading for Math Teachers this morning. It's actually pretty good reading for teachers of any subject. Toward the end of the post, the author reminds us that it helps for teachers to be legitimately open to students' thought processes, whether or not they think what we think they should be thinking. In fact, those are precisely the moments when we want to be most open to what they are thinking. These are the moments that help us to diagnose errors in their thinking -- and in ours.

This passage resonated with my experience:

I have throughout my career been repeatedly surprised by the discovery that nearly every time a student offers an idea authentically (i.e. not as just a random guess), it makes some sort of sense. Maybe not complete sense, and maybe it's not at all where I was headed. But if I can curb my initial reaction of "this kid is totally confused" long enough to actually take in the train of thought, there is almost uniformly some worthwhile reasoning inside it. Then even if I need to say "we're going to stick to the topic", I can do so after acknowledging the reasoning.

Acknowledging students' ideas and thinking is a matter of basic respect, but it also plays a big role in the environment we create in our classes. I hope that I have been respectful and open enough with these students in the past that my question-asker could trust that I wan't mocking him and that I was genuinely surprised. We all learned something that day.

As that blog post goes on to say, we have to make sure that the questions we ask students are legitimate questions. We communicate this intention by acknowledging people when they treat our questions as legitimate. We teachers need to treat our student's questions the same way.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Teaching and Learning