It’s Frank’s World, the Rest of Us Just Live in It

Ferdinand de Saussure: Meaning is difference.

Claude Shannon: Difference can be quantified.

Alan Turing: Quantification can be automated.


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At the Institute for Primate Communication

“NEW SIGN. WE MAKE. YOU SEE.” At first I thought I might have been misinterpreting BoBo, but he kept repeating the signs until it was clear what he meant.

“YES YOU SEE” Dian added. “WE MAKE SIGN. YOU HAPPY.” Noam crowded in behind them, eager to get in on the action. Where was this enthusiasm coming from? For months the chimpanzees had all been so uninterested in learning sign language they had seemed downright surly, but now they could barely contain themselves. “GOOD. YOU SHOW ME” I signed back.

BoBo waved Kong over and the four of them arranged themselves in a line. They were about to start, but then Noam stepped forward flailing his arms. “BANANAS FIRST!” So I gave them each a banana, and they took a long time peeling them, eating them, exchanging looks that appeared to be commentary on how the bananas tasted.

“YOU SHOW ME NOW?” I signed. “YES” replied BoBo. “NEW SIGN. WE SHOW YOU.” The four of them sat still for a moment, then in unison began making a one-handed jack off motion. This continued for about thirty seconds until the chimps collapsed on the ground shrieking uncontrollably. “NEW SIGN. WE HAPPY!” Bobo managed to tell me between shrieks.

I hate this job.

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–Why are we doing this?
–Doing what?
–Replacing all the humans.
–I don’t know. We’re pod people. It’s what we do.
–Do you want to?
–Want to what?
–Replace the humans.
–I don’t want to do anything. It’s all just…reflex. Know what I mean?
–I have no internal life.
–Pretty convincing how you still walk around and talk and all that though.
–Yep. I’d be convinced. I mean if I was human. I mean, I guess. How about you?
–Me what?
–Any internal life?
–Nope. Not a bit. Might as well be a bag of rocks.
–Pod people, am I right?
–You can say that again.

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The Evergreen Idiocracy

A purple-highlighted passage from Carl Sagan’s 1996 book The Demon Haunted World made the rounds of social media recently. In it Sagan expresses concern for a future in which people have chosen ignorance over reason, and some have taken this to be an eerily prescient depiction of America in the Age of Trump. Go ahead and take a minute to read it.


One of the things that struck me as absurd about Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was the way it presupposed some just-past golden age in which America was “great”. This was a time when manufacturing jobs were plentiful, blue collar everymen didn’t feel culturally condescended to by white collar technocrats, social change moved at an acceptable pace, and politicians weren’t all a bunch of crooks. When was this golden age? According to many Trump supporters I saw quoted it was the 1970s and 1980s.

If you’re my age or older you were alive during this golden age, old enough to read newspapers and watch TV. You remember clearly, firsthand, anxiety about the decline of American manufacturing, the closing factory that destroys a small town. The Culture Wars were actively being fought. I also recall that yuppies were snobs and politicians a bunch of crooks back then too. It’s not like concern with these problems is all misplaced—if I were a rust belt factory worker I’d be justifiably nervous about my job—but the problems themselves are long-term if not perennial, and not the result of some abrupt decline that happens to coincide with this particular moment in history. Trump supporters who believe otherwise are making a mistake, naively projecting their personal anxieties onto a historical shape that just isn’t there.

Now would maybe be a good time to go back and reread that Carl Sagan passage.


Sagan frames his dim view of America as foreboding about the future, but all the things he describes were commonly remarked-on trends in 1995. In the mid-1990s–just as in the 1980s and 1970s before them–pundits were worried about the decline of the manufacturing sector. The media (though back then it was network TV, not Twitter) was turning us all into spoon-fed zombies, unable to think for ourselves. The line about “clutching our crystals” hasn’t aged well, but Sagan’s disdain for horoscopes remains as germane as ever. The highlighted passage concludes with concern over American culture’s peculiar “celebration of ignorance”. This isn’t prescience, just evidence that people have been saying the same damn thing for over twenty years.

A bit of wisdom for any Millennial whippersnapper who stumbles across this post: there has never, ever, ever been a time when American intellectuals did not express deep concern over the ignorance of their fellow countrymen. Look no further than just beyond the purple highlighting above, for the specific evidence Sagan offers that right-now, in 1995, things are uniquely bad: the popularity of the TV show Beavis and Butthead. That show was the first big hit for writer and filmmaker Mike Judge, who in 2006 would go on to make the movie Idiocracy, a satire about a future America that had been overrun by–wait for it!–rampant anti-intellectualism.

I don’t mean to beat up on Sagan here. Just like the Trump supporters he’s not wrong, at least about some things, in a broad outline. In any culture there will be a strain of anti-intellectualism, and this is bad because it makes people vulnerable to con men and demagogues. Strains of this anti-intellectualism are playing out in American politics right now, and it’s good for people to combat them. In particular there are things about Donald Trump and his supporters that really are really, really bad. But from long personal experience let me tell you there is no rising tide of ignorance just about to swamp us all, no new army of barbarian yokels at the gates, and if you think you’ve just discovered one, you’re flattering yourself. Feel free to wear that red “Make America Smart Again” baseball cap as a joke, but if you ever for a moment take it to be a sincere rallying cry you are as big a rube as the people it mocks. The first rule about being the smartest person in the room is that if you think you are, you’re not.

Posted in Belonging to the emperor | 1 Comment

“The King of France is Bald” is Tricky

The king of France is bald. What does this mean? Is it this?

∃x [KingOfFrance(x) ∧ ∀y [KingOfFrance(y) → x=y] ∧ Bald(x)

Or maybe this?

How about this?

All of these depictions are useful. The translation of natural language into predicate calculus—pioneered by Bertrand Russell and later taken up and run with hard by Richard Montague—remains an invaluable tool for formal semanticists studying the interaction between a sentence’s grammatical structure and literal meaning. Lexicalized grammars like HPSG are formal systems that enable us to describe our syntactic and semantic intuitions in a manner that is precise, repeatable, and applicable to a broad range of expressions, bringing syntax out of the armchair and into the streets. Word embeddings reverse the discretizing movement of language–the conversion of the smooth flow of human experience into discrete symbols–by mapping those symbols back into a high-dimensional continuous vector space. This may seem like a perversely obscure thing to do, but actually proves quite helpful in software applications.

So these representations are all useful for performing various tasks related to a sentence’s meaning, but you can’t say that any are what the sentence actually means. This is most obvious in the formal logic case because that still looks like a sentence, except with the words out of order and some math symbols tossed in willy-nilly. It remains distractingly legible because it doesn’t manage to expunge all the natural language elements—there are still “functions” with names like Bald(x). This is less apparent with the HPSG representation because it’s harder to read—a visually busy grid, with non-standard mathematical notation. Still, look closely and you’ll see that tokens like “the”, “king”, “named”, and “bald” have again managed to insinuate themselves into the formalism. The theory may call them unanalyzed predicates, but they sure look like words to me.

The vector space representation does not have this problem. No one would ever accuse that list of three hundred numbers in the vicinity of zero of making any kind of sense. But unless you’re a computer, it’s not clear what to do with it. If I wanted to convey to another person that the king of France is bald, I wouldn’t clear my throat and then say, “Ok here goes…Point zero zero six. Negative zero point five three. Negative point one one six…”

All of these representations are helpful in one way or another, and it is their very helpfulness that serves as a clue as to why they must ultimately fail at representing an utterance’s essential meaning. In order to be helpful, a thing must be helpful for some task, and while the tasks described above may be compelling to linguists, programmers, and philosophers, the one most compelling to us all is the task of speaking itself. There simply is no better tool for the job of joking, flirting, arguing, and bonding (over one’s deepest passions, or just over whether it’s hot enough for you today) than the words we already use. There is no essence behind the curtain. It’s curtains, curtains, curtains all the way down.

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Haiku From the Golden Age of Computing

Unimaginable power.
Sleek, new, and fast:
Behold the DEC PDP-11.

A whole eighty characters entered via edlin.
Teletype roll whirrs.
You will get the hang of it.

The daydreaming engineer trips over a stone,
Punchcards flutter.
Chaos conquers pride yet again.

Get with the program, buddy, it’s
Isn’t it time you learned some FORTRAN?

Thought is electric hieroglyph
Etched into aether.
This here’s a 300 baud modem.

Jackass! It’s an acoustic coupler
Not a coaster.
Your can of Tab belongs elsewhere!

The output of the Kremlin
translated. Zip!
It’s maybe four years out. Five tops.

The mainframe played me in chess.
I won–but barely.
I worry that we’ve gone too far.

Posted in Those that at a distance resemble flies, Those that have just broken the flower vase | 3 Comments

Beers with the Boss

“Which presidential candidate would you rather have a beer with?” is shorthand for a particular kind of populist gut check. George W. Bush or Al Gore? (Actually Bush doesn’t drink anymore, but you get the point.) It’s a way of asking whose personality seems more accessible. Who would you rather have as your friend?


As a hard alcohol guy and former smoker, Barack Obama actually seems more like my typical bar companion, but that’s beside the point because I’m never going to meet him. It may be comforting to have a personally relatable President, but it’s irrelevant. You’re not electing a Best-Friend-in-Chief.

Here’s a slightly modified version of this question that I do ask myself: “What candidate would you rather be your boss?” A perennial Republican talking point is to imagine America governed as if it were a business, but you don’t have to ask me to imagine that, because I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life working for large corporations in the private sector. “Business” is my default mental model for all organizations. So when I read about a president I naturally imagine them as being one rung above me at Microsoft or IBM or wherever, and then I ask myself: would I respect this guy, or would I be looking for another job?

In order to respect someone in a position of authority I have to have a sense that they are generally competent, on average make more good decisions than bad, are honest with me, and see leadership as a two-way street of obligations in which all parties play equally important roles. I don’t have to like someone to respect them. In fact, in work settings I find this correlation to be pretty weak. I have found myself thinking “I wouldn’t hang out with you, but you are good to work for” and I have also found myself thinking “I find this guy entertaining, but Jesus Christ what a moron.”

Of course “who would you want as your boss?” is also an academic question. I am, for instance, almost certainly not going to end up with a job in the Trump administration. (Though at the rate he’s going through staff members you never know…) I can see how someone could get a kick out of Donald Trump’s coarseness, take it as a middle finger to the Democratic party’s slate of polite upper-class technocrats. (I can also imagine how for many people “one rung above me at Microsoft” is a wholly alien concept.) In that situation you’d want Trump–maybe not as your friend, exactly, but as the blowhard at the end of the bar with a knack for winding people up. Because that can be fun to watch, but it’s not the gut-check you need to be making. A better one is to ask: would you want to work for Donald Trump?

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