Saturday, March 31

natural language and its discontents

I just downloaded the fresh Linux binaries for Graham Nelson’s Inform 7. 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.

p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 31

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.

p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 28
tags: topics/poem

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 School, 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.

p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 27

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

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

p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 25

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.

p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 23

Sunday, March 18



p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 18

Saturday, March 17


Over on Language Log, a couple of interesting pieces - Learning to Read in Dulkw'ahke and one largely on the politicization of reading education.

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 noise.

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, José Ortega y Gasset: Humans have not a nature but a history.

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.

p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 17
tags: topics/colorado, topics/history

Friday, March 16

Brent: Yes, they are.

p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 16

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.

p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 11
tags: topics/poem

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.

p1k3 / 2007 / 3 / 5
tags: topics/poem