Saturday, March 31

natural language and its discontents

I just downloaded the fresh Linux binaries for Graham Nelson's Inform

. They come with a perfectly1 useless,
broken text menu wrapper, but there seems to be no reason you couldn't use them
for development.

No source, unfortunately - and though it's coming eventually, it seems unlikely
to be released under a libre license. This is hardly ideal. I've tended to
think of closed development tools roughly the way I think about credit card
companies, automotive dealerships, and collection agencies ever since HyperCard
and QBasic broke my heart. On the other hand, I don't really think of Graham
Nelson or the interactive fiction community in general as a bunch of evil, rent
collecting bastards. Also, it's not like there's any rent to collect. Writing
textual IF, in this day and age, is like writing poetry - if you ain't doing it
for love, you ain't doing it.

Anyway, the core idea of I7 is this: Write your adventure game declaratively in
more-or-less plain English. This is an interesting idea, though I'm not sure
it's a good one. Most of the programming languages I've ever seen with plain
English claims have been somewhere on a continuum between "vaguely annoying"
and "unmitigated disaster". HyperTalk to COBOL, roughly. Perl is a damned good
tool, and it's certainly informed by linguistic ideas2, but it rarely looks
anything like English.

Verbosity is one serious problem with this sort of thing. More importantly,
though, it's almost as if the flexibility, ambiguity, and structural
possibilities of natural languages cause some kind of massive impedance
mismatch when you encounter a programming language that mimics them.3 It
actually seems to be harder to build a correct structure in a context which
suggests, falsely, that a human-parsable English sentence will be a valid,
machine-parsable code fragment.

1 One even suspects deliberately - it's almost enough to motivate me to
write a GUI.

2 Like the idea that Perl makes the simple things simple (which is true as
long as you don't take multi-dimensional data structures or pain-free passing
of parameters to be "simple"), this is part of the official propaganda. It
seems to be true nonetheless, although it's not always an asset to the
language. Sigils which change dependent on context are not the worst idea in
the world, and there are clear precedents for this sort of thing in English,
but after 8 or 9 years I still write @list[1] where I mean $list[1] all
the time.

3 I stole this thought somewhere.

Friday, March 30

we know nearly / every thing too late / and not well

wednesday, march 28

i get pretty high on the way to the bar
afterwards, we go to the happy dragon
i discover in myself a heretofore unknown
competence with chopsticks.

Tuesday, March 27

Elizabeth is making an assemblage for a class assignment. She's going
through stacks of photos and transparencies - kids from the Free

, kids she's nannied. Children
everywhere. Guys she used to date. People playing guitars and running
around in the woods. The ocean.

I've got artifacts like these too. It all feels like it's from some
parallel existence. Not one so much in the past as it's just in a life
that I never really lived, but can somehow remember anyway.

This is what happens.

Sunday, March 25 has a feed again, in case anyone was

I mention this mostly in order to plug yet another CPAN module.
turned out to involve much less XML-related suffering than rolling my own
markup the last time I did this.

Friday, March 23

It's good to have the tools in hand. Hammers, text editors, knives,
internal-combustion engines. Necessary things. But a fetishism of tools seems
like as much a trap as anything.

I found myself complaining the other night that I haven't got a real office
of my very own with a proper desk in it so that I can get things done. This way
lies madness. What do I need that I haven't got or cannot fashion from the
materials at hand?

To hell with this entire chain of thought. It ends in believing that some
brand new Apple product makes me a better artist, or a similar descent into
raving triviality.

Monday, March 19 New documentation, a feature or two.

Sunday, March 18



Saturday, March 17


Over on Language Log, a couple of
interesting pieces - Learning to Read in


and one largely on the politicization of reading


Interesting because I haven't really given this stuff a lot of thought
beyond noticing the American not-so-crypto-fascist right's obsession
with the idea that Phonics is Ordained from On High. I hang out with
teachers, so I've heard the conversation often enough, but I've been
operating under the impression that for most people who actually teach
reading there's a false dichotomy at work in all the ideological

Liberman et al. say that there's something real at stake, that
"whole language" instruction is a big factor in the way American
schools presently teach reading, and generally a Real Bad Idea,
despite what the politics of the debate would lead decent observers to
guess. (Say what you will about logical fallacies; there's a pretty
fair precedent for assuming that James Dobson is on the wrong(est
available) side of a given discussion.)

And then again, I hang out with folks in democratic ed.
The working free school teachers I've spent time with seem to have a
fairly pragmatic, do-what-works approach to the actual teaching of
reading, but they're also deliberately laid-back about the timing of
the thing. "They'll read when they're ready, why force it?" seems to
be the defining attitude.

a short list of things badly or not at all understood by yours truly

Basic biology. Chemistry. Physics. Linguistics. The work of Friedrich
Nietzsche. The general history of technology & science. JavaScript.
Bookbinding. Woodworking. Statistics. Brewing, distilling, winemaking, and
the cultivation of cannabis. Basic automechanics. Functional programming.
Classical Greek. Stringed instruments. Electricity. Cameras. Sewing. SQL.
James Joyce. Meter. Architecture. Engineering. Typography.

other notes collected from paper

Self-deception is a higher order function.

I've been reading The Evolution of Useful Things, by one Henry
Petroski. The thesis seems to center on incremental change, context,
and (most importantly) failure. He had a ~500 page history of the
pencil on the shelf next to this one. I'm tempted. Judging by
Petroski's cites, it looks like there's a larger body of work on the
history of technology than I'd suspected.

Via David, Jos{e'} Ortega y Gasset: Humans have not a nature but a

Note taken at work, watching a presentation to publishing industry
executives: Fuck Howard Gardner.

Resignation Song: enjoy your illusion of freedom while you still
have got it, you poor son of a bitch.

On a bathroom wall in a Boulder coffee house:

The Laughing Goat:

real? no, just fancy.

more graffiti, please.

2 girls with interesting hair in Environment Colorado shirts
iterate over the passing crowd, take passing abuse. Two dudes
busk by the door - guitar and bongos. The guys a table over
are talking poker.

Too much state, too many systems.

The lazy susan in the corner cupboard is, like so many things, a good
idea on paper. It's like hierarchy in wiki software. In theory there
are practical benefits; in practice, it's just bad. Bad bad bad. Fuck
the lazy susan. We should migrate to a tiered spice rack.

Friday, March 16

Brent: Yes, they are.

sunday, march 11

first of all, substance:
excess is a narrow road
and the ditches are littered
with unconscious teenagers
in the end, you're headed
for the same place
but there may be sunrises
along the way

the second thing is that
antony was right: a man
wars with his own heart

and last, folly:
through the lenses
of mornings after
the foolishness of days
just past always seems to
run together.

monday, march 5

sunlight straight
down pearl street
through the trees
buskers bums and
beggars — mothers
and merchandise
the unstained plastic
white of a new walk sign
assholes on cellphones
coffee and commerce.

Sunday, March 4

small movements in a direction

Thursday, March 1

Come again?