Context-free

February 26, 2008 at 12:23 am | Posted in artsy, books, computers, design, geeky, internet, school | 3 Comments
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Community of Variation
[via Context Free Art Gallery and Community of Variation]

For a computer science assignment last week I wrote a program with a friend in Scheme that generates sentences using context-free grammar. By specifying a few basic rules for parts of speech and including a simple word list, you can get some remarkably coherent results — coherent, that is, in a strictly grammatical, minimalist sense. There’s actually no attention paid to the meaning of the words used, or to their relationship with each other, a consequence of the grammar being “context-free.” We had a few laughs using our program to generate bogus math proofs, but instead of puzzling you with a slew of inside jokes and insomnia-induced geekiness, I’ll point your way to a much more impressive — not to mention amusing — application of the same algorithm, this time used to generate an entire scientific paper. You can even put your own name down as an author! Here’s an example passage:

We question the need for digital-to-analog converters. It should be noted that we allow DHCP to harness homogeneous epistemologies without the evaluation of evolutionary programming [2], [12], [14]. Contrarily, the lookaside buffer might not be the panacea that end-users expected. However, this method is never considered confusing. Our approach turns the knowledge-base communication sledgehammer into a scalpel.
[Stribling et. al (PDF)]

Not too bad for randomly generated babble, is it? Continue Reading Context-free…

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The Harvard Cooperative Monopoly

September 26, 2007 at 3:22 pm | Posted in books, news, opinion, school | 6 Comments

textbooks.jpgMore brouhaha brewing at everybody’s favorite campus bookstore, the Harvard Coop, the latest confrontation involving members of the Harvard Undergraduate Council and some friends from the Cambridge police department. More eyes are watching this time, since boingboing has linked to both this Crimson story and an earlier incident as well (boingboing link for that is here).

This all started last year, when a few guys decided to found an online textbook comparison-shopping website called crimsonreading.org for Harvard classes. The website eventually partnered up with the Harvard Undergraduate Council (UC), but failed to garner any sort of support from the administration, nor the permission of the Coop to access the ISBN numbers of all the textbooks in the store. These ISBN number are crucial to providing the right books for each course, because they are unique to the each edition and printing. Usually these numbers are solicited from professors directly via phone or email, or for a small minority classes, they are available online from the course syllabus after classes have begun. The painstaking process of getting these numbers quickly before each semester is both the reason the Coop is so protective of its book list, and also the reason that it has been able to levy unnecessarily high mark-ups on books without suffering from significant competition. Very simply, there is no other place to get the right books for a course, and even students who care about saving money often have no choice but to buy from the Coop.

One alternative that has been available to students is to order books online. Continue Reading The Harvard Cooperative Monopoly…

I’m going to learn german.

April 1, 2007 at 8:48 pm | Posted in books, music, philosophical, rambling, silly nonsense, wistful musing | Leave a comment

Just kidding! Well, it might happen at some point in the unforeseeable future. To be honest, I never got past being mono-lingual. Telling people I’m fluent in Mandarin and French gives a nice warm fuzzy feeling and all, but speaking the two languages occasionally really is not like knowing them. If anything, there is a stage in language acquisition after the initial joy of picking up the alphabet and counting to ten and naming vegetables where formulating any sort of sentence is a dreadful experience. It’s just when that rote procedure of swapping words for concepts begins to become more — a new sort of consciousness, both culturally and probably linguistically as those networks of language synapses starts to coalesce and take on higher-order structures in your brain. That last statement was a metaphor, because I know nothing about the neurobiology of language acquisition or really of anything. See, bullshit like that would have been very hard to formulate convincingly in French. Or god forbid, Mandarin — who knows if the Chinese even admit the existence of metaphors.

I love that. The intractability of language. The fact that no translation is perfect, that it is hopeless to convey a concept (not really; “cultural-historical monument” is more like it) like “Liebestod” (love-death, a Wagner aria with massively Nietzschean connotations) or “C’est la vie” (well you understand that, but imagine if you tried to say it in English) through anything but an understanding of the entire culture that gave rise to it.

The challenge is almost like a sort of sensory-intellectual overload — I try to speak something, approach it with a half-assed English thought-concept that gets squeezed through a translation in my brain and comes out disfigured. I sense something lost in the translation but don’t know how or what. Or, I think in the foreign language, but can’t get the right answers — like there is an itch in the middle of my brain I can’t reach to scratch.

I don’t have any answers. Hopefully some day I will have a chance to be immersed in the language and culture of my interests, but now I’m going to keep being puzzled, as is the pathological wont of one whose extracurricular interests don’t lend themselves to any sort of practical purpose whatsoever. To continue this allusion-filled elitist musing inspired by the manner of, but inferior to, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the next paragraph will be a rapid-fire series of references to cultural works that I don’t understand and never will, and which you won’t either. Stay tuned for next time, when I will give a nihilist’s interpretation of The Wasteland, along with select verses by Billy Collins.

Here goes. This bit of underwhelming, overenthusiastic rambling was brought to you by Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, along with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and the movie from the last post. I’ll probably be studying (and not understanding) some Schopenhauer next and thinking about stringing together words and capitalizing them to make myself sound more intellectual, not to mention listening to some SongsOnTheDeathOfChildren. Rest assured though, I’ll be avoiding such gems of dubious literary/moral merit as Mein Kampf, as well as stuff that might make my brain explode all over my desk, including long essays mentioning the word “Oedipus” that aren’t written by a playwright or in Greek.

Where my parents should have sent me

January 6, 2007 at 8:52 pm | Posted in books, rambling | Leave a comment

[John Dewey’s elementary school] incorporated into the practical business of making lunch: arithmetic (weighing and measuring ingredients, with instruments the children made themselves), chemistry and physics (observing the process of combustion), biology (diet and digestion), geography (exploring the natural environments of the plants and animals), and so on. Cooking became the basis for most of the science taught in the school. It turned out to have so much curricular potential that making cereal became a three-year continuous course of study for all children between the ages of six and eight…

This is from the Metaphysical Club, a book that I’ve managed to leave unfinished for the last year and a half. Among the American idea-men featured is John Dewey, apparently (and to my dismay) not the same guy who classified library books. No worries–he redeems himself by establishing a sort of home economics dictatorship commune elementary school. I know, right? Brilliant, right? If I could be brainwashed anywhere in the world, I want it to be at John Dewey’s “school.”

Oh, and there’s also some great stuff about philosophy in there, some silly guys named Oliver James Wendell or William Holmes, something like that. It’s pretty historically accurate too. Oh, I guess Amazon.com calls it a “history of philosophy,” ah well that would explain it. Check it out.

The Metaphysical Club

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