Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

November 21 Bucket o' Links: "Language, Languages, and Words, Words, Words" Edition

I'm going to continue calling these my Friday linkwraps, in the hopes that I'll (1) actually publish one on Friday someday, or, failing that, (2) not slip to a write-on-Saturday, publish-on-Sunday schedule if I call them my Saturday linkwraps instead.

I'm still running an updated-almost-daily feed of readworthy links at My Faults My Own | Reading Feed. Check it out if you're a fan of these BoL's!


I've recently stumbled upon the Urbit project, which is one man's effort to found a programming language on Saint-Exupéry's maxim:

Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.

From an explanation of the project:

Few of us have been to Mars. But science fiction has filled in many of the gaps. We know that the Martian civilization is immensely old. Its software technology, therefore, must be similarly antique. Obviously nothing like it exists on earth - though those of us who remember VMS might be deceived.

Whether we remember VMS or not, some of us are unhappy with the state of Earth software. Therefore it behooves us to consider an alternative. Since we have not yet established communications with the Martians (who retreated into tunnels as their planet froze), we cannot just FTP their code. We could, however, try to write it.

What is Martian code actually like? There are two possibilities.

One: since Earth code is fifty years old, and Martian code is fifty million years old, Martian code has been evolving into a big ball of mud for a million times longer than Earth software. (And two million times longer than Windows.)

Two: [A]t some point in Martian history, some abject fsck of a Martian code-monkey must have said: fsck this entire _fsck_ing ball of mud. For lo, its defects cannot be summarized; for they exceed the global supply of bullet points; for numerous as the fishes in the sea, like the fishes in the sea they fsck, making more little _fsck_ing fishes. For lo, it is _fsck_ed, and a big ball of mud. And there is only one thing to do with it: obliterate the trunk, fire the developers, and hire a whole new _fsck_ing army of Martian code-monkeys to rewrite the entire _fsck_ing thing...

For each of these attempts but the last, of course, the result was either (a) abject failure, (b) another big ball of mud, or (c) both. But the last, by definition, succeeded. This is the crucial inference we can draw about Mars: since the Martians had 50 million years to try, in the end they must have succeeded.

The result: Martian code, as we know it today. Not enormous and horrible - tiny and diamond-perfect. Moreover, because it is tiny and diamond-perfect, it is perfectly stable and never changes or decays. It neither is a big ball of mud, nor tends to become one. It has achieved its final, permanent and excellent state.

The authors are dead-serious about attempting to write a language which very well could be 'Martian'. As for how well they're succeeding, well... full documentation here; github here. Warning: very deep rabbit hole.


Urbit's github README opens with the quote:

Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.

-- Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

This, as I found with a little poking, is quoted from an essay by Jorge Borges (translated from Spanish) about the strange places he found chasing down a quotation. Borges turns toward flowery language at times, but then again, he's an author, so can you blame him? -- it's a fascinating read throughout, if long.


Talking about language, lies, and truth... Scott Alexander, writing at Slate Star Codex in The Categories Were Made for Man, Not Man for the Categories, has a lot of clever things to say about what we really (should) mean when we argue about whether whales are really fish, tomatoes are really vegetables, whether Pluto is really a planet, where countries' borders really lie, and whether we're really deluding ourselves in basing gender on self-identification and not, say, biology.

Excerpt from early on (when we're still talking about whether whales are fish, despite being biologically mammalian):

You try to explain that no, Solomon is wrong, dag [fish] are actually defined not by their swimming-in-sea-with-fins-ness, but by their genes...

Solomon says oh God, you are so annoying, who the hell cares [about genes]. In fact, the only thing Solomon cares about is whether responsibilities for his kingdom’s production of blubber and whale oil should go under his Ministry of Dag or Ministry of Behemah. The Ministry of Dag is based on the coast and has a lot of people who work on ships. The Ministry of Behemah has a strong presence inland and lots of of people who hunt on horseback. So please (he continues) keep going about how whales have [fish genes].

Jeff Kaufman, picking up the idea but keeping it less theoretical and more practical, asks a provocative question toward the trans* community about what, if any, useful role gender is actually serving:

If we were to keep our current social environment and just drop gendered pronouns it would be an awkward tradeoff. Some people would be very happy that they could mostly sidestep the question of gender; others would feel like they were losing the only way they currently get any acknowledgement of their gender, any counterbalance to the many subtle ways people continuously misgender them. I think it would be an improvement on balance, but I'm not sure.

It seems like the real problem here, however, is using apparent gender in deciding how to treat people. Thinking through examples, I haven't found any that are beneficial or even benign. Keeping explicit recognition of gender via pronouns seems like the wrong way to handle this: fight excessive gendering with more gendering?

Repeat and amplify: Does the notion of gender (as a distinction that we draw between people in order to treat them differently) have any non-essentially-problematic benefits that we should be trying to salvage? Are there things in masculinity and femininity worth saving? Is there baby that we should avoid throwing out with the bathwater here, or should we merely be throwing the whole thing out as fast as possible?

(This is a real question; if you have thoughts, sound off in the comments or send me stuff by email, snailmail, Facebook, or in person.)

EDIT: Apparently, Jeff is a timelord, because he posted his a day before Scott's.


Here's a wonderful op-ed in the Crimson, in response to Stephen Pinker's Why Academics Stink at Writing, titled, tersely, Why I Write Bad. Excerpt:

This is why my academic writing stinks. I’ll hammer out a response paper the hour before it’s due, throwing in as many “normative”s and “dichotomy”s as I can muster. “Do I sound smart yet?” my writing pleads. It’s all icing—like the staple and the font choice—layers and layers of icing on a tiny, bland cake. My TFs will often tell me I’ve improved as a writer over the semester, when really I’ve just figured out which kind of bullshit they prefer. Why risk writing something good in the hopes it’ll be recognized as good, when I can write garbage I know will be recognized as good?

Confession: One of the main motivations I have for writing this blog is to learn to communicate better -- not to my graders, but to actual people who I care about communicating to. If you, as a reader and a friend (or at least, perhaps someone who cares a bit for your humble author), notice that my prose is veering toward vapid and melliflous pontification, do let me know? I appreciate it.


Speaking of academic writing, here's a paper that got accepted to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology:

Academic-looking paper, whose text is merely the sentence "Get me off your fucking mailing list." repeated.

Maybe don't pay $200 to have your paper published in the IJACT?


Completely unrelatedly, this happened in Toronto this Tuesday:

(When the mic cuts out in the middle of The Star-Spangled Banner, a hockey stadium of Canadian hockey fans pick up the slack.)

And I wouldn't bring it up, except that reminded me of this video from April 2013:

(The national anthem starts at 3:50ish.) For more on being in Boston that week, I wrote a thing this May, reflecting one year after the fact.


And, while we're talking about sports, today is the 131st playing of the Harvard-Yale game. (I pray that those of you not in Cambridge now forgive a little shameless school pride here; it's the one time of year any of us care about sports.) We won, of course, marking the eighth straight Harvard victory. Sic semper veritas!

But I digress. To commemorate the meeting of the most prestigious school in Connecticut with the most prestigious school in Cambridge, Mass. west of Central Square, Harvard UC President Gus Mayopoulos and internet-famous Yale student Sam Clark met in a staged, but humorous, debate on the merits of their respective schools, featuring an unscripted guest appearance by Yale student president Michael Herbert, famous for challenging Gus to a boxing match.

Featuring such intellectual back-and-forth as:

Herbert: Well, Harvard students are on video saying the US is a greater threat to world peace than ISIS.

(crowd boos)

Mayopoulos: Okay, so this is the number of nuclear warheads America has. (writes 9,500 on the board)

Herbert: Alright, but how many of those would we use? Zero!

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Michael Herbert, elected president of the Yale student body. Goodnight.