Wait! What? Chomsky is wrong about something?

Noam Chomsky

I am a Chomsky enthusiast, admittedly. I have read several of his articles and books, and have viewed countless videos. I am no expert in Linguistics, but would sit through a video of his lectures on it.

So, when Tom Wolfe wrote in Harper’s magazine, an article entitled The Origins of Speech, I learned about the fallability of one of the “most important intellectuals alive”. Not that this is tragic. After all, who cares if an intellectual makes a mistake or not? It would be beyond naive to think that Chomsky’s pronouncements on any topic are flawless, and I am sure that Chomsky would subscribe to that admission, although much has been made on the part of others about his legendary rhetorical skills, which had served him well in live public debates and his countless speeches.


Tom Wolfe mentioned Chomsky’s insistence that Linguistics be seen as a science. As a science, it is unique, as Wolfe states, in that it requires zero field study. Linguistics is the only “science” that does this. Rather than be seen as, say, another Linus Pauling or Frederick Banting, it would be better to see him as an ancient Greek philosopher like Democritus. Democritus asked the question about the essential nature of matter and came up with “atoms” without all the bother of needing to observe samples under a scanning tunnelling microscope, for which he would have had to wait 2500 years for such a microscope to be invented.

toddler-blocksSimilarly, Chomsky asked the question about the essential nature of language acquisition as a philosopher. He asked the question of how children first acquire language from truly degenerate and imperfect samples found in the environment around him. The child is a toddler, perhaps age 2, so there is no way for the child to look up words somewhere on Google; no way to get perfect grammar samples; no way to know the parts of speech. The child’s cognitive skills are not up to a sufficient level, nor his motor skills, nor his reasoning skills. In addition, toddlers acquire language in very adverse situations, where the parent’s education and vocabulary are not great, and the growing environment is not the best. So, Chomsky reasoned, acquisition of language must be innate to our species. We chat up a storm just as surely as beavers build dams and birds build nests. Therefore, language acquisition must be tied to neurological processes more than it is tied to processes outside of the language learner. So, maybe there is a “language centre” in the brain, and maybe a universal grammar … ?

That’s a lot of reasoning, and a true scientist would demand “real-world” evidence, such as those obtained from field study, but as Wolfe points out, Chomsky himself downplayed that. That still doesn’t fault Chomsky, since that could still be for others to do, and I am sure a great deal of this has been done over the past 60 years that Chomskyan Linguistics has been around, if only by detractors of Chomsky’s theories and would try to knock it down somehow.

Peter Norvig

There has, and any linguistics based on samples and statistics have been treated as a separate paradigm of thought. While these would be dismissed by Chomsky and his followers, it did give us Google Translate. Google Translate, invented by Google research director Peter Norvig, is a unique beast. Google Translate knows nothing about any language, relying only on statistical occurrences of actual use of specific words and phrases in documents on the Internet. It uses what linguists call “corpus” linguistics: the study of language as it is actually used and observed to be used by people in the real world. And it does it with a significant degree of success. I have used it extensively, and can attest to its usefulness. Corpus linguistics would be dismissed by Chomsky as one dismisses a paradigm that is outside of one’s own.

Chomsky and those invested in his paradigm would have not been able to create Google Translate from universal grammar (UG) theory. UG is touted to exist, but such a UG is not fully realized, at least not to the point where a translating engine could auto-detect your language and translate it to another one for you the way Google Translate does. Corpus Linguistics appears to do the real work manifest in our techhnologies and education systems, while UG is that shiny new theory, 60 years old but largely still on the drawing board, attractive but too new to be applied to existing technologies right now. UG is like the wave mechanical model in physics, where you are better off with high school physics most of the time. Einstein may have been right and Newton may have been wrong, but you can still build bridges and skyscrapers with Newtonian physics.

Wolfe does not go into any of this stuff about paradigmatic differences, by the way. While there is effectively a schism between modern linguists, Wolfe chose to attack Chomsky in ways that border on ad hominem. Wolfe has been criticized for misinterpreting actions of Chomsky to fill out a particular narrative. He was painted, for example, as a kind of defensive person, unresponsive to criticism. This is laughable, since he is famous for responding to email from just about anybody. I had even corresponded with him in the past, and to this day I have never met him in person. His correspondence with me had always been thoughtful and helpful, and far from defensive or unresponsive.

#: The pound (?) sign?

I prefer to call the symbol “#” a crosshatch, as it is in many dictionaries. But this symbol has gotten quite a beating over the years since the computer age some decades ago.

There is now incredible confusion over what to call it. When interacting with Ma Bell, the telephone company calls it a “pound sign”. How on Earth could “#” be confused with “£”? I understand that “£” appears in place of “#” on a British computer keyboard (both are SHIFT+3). In its place, “#” is on American keyboards, in use even in Canada. My keyboard is a US keyboard, and “£” is a special character that I have to conjure up with some kind of HTML hocus-pocus. “££££££” (OK, so now I’m cutting and pasting). I would think, however, that the British have “#” on their telephone keypads; and the prospect of a British “#” being mistaken for a “£” would likely make them cringe. There is an indication that it is likely to literally mean pounds of weight in the old Imperial/US system, so that 12# could stand for “12 pounds”, for instance.

Now we have Twitter, and now everyone is calling it a “hashtag”. Well, yes, it is a hash (a kind of crosshatch) that tags a message to another one so a sender can stay under the character limit. It is certainly a hashtag if you use Twitter-speak, but that is because it is a symbol that has meaning to the computers and humans which run amok in the Twitter-verse.

To help things, some phone messages are now asking you to press “the number sign”, which is less wrong I suppose, and I am happier to press a “number sign” than I would be to press a “pound sign”, unless it is actually a “£” sign. If you actually call it a crosshatch, and say  in your phone message “Press crosshatch to continue”, few people would know what you are talking about. This is just sad, and reveals the awful truth that most people really don’t know what to call it. Conversely, we all know that it is a symbol which represents a number or a quantity, so the simplest thing to say to a stranger is “number sign” when you mean “crosshatch”.

And some people who want to be really fancy call “#” an “octothorpe”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was invented in 1973 by Bell Labs precisely to describe the “#” character on their newfangled touch-tone phones. The word octothorpe did not appear in the OED until the Fourth Edition (2004), and says that the origin is uncertain, but defaults to the claim by Bell Labs. Another website seemed to say that an octothorpe used to refer to 8 parcels of land surrounding a central square section of land. So that would make the property lines kind of like this: #. The most common spelling of octothorpe is without an “e”, but the OED says it’s OK to use it with one. By the way this backstory has never been confirmed, only claimed.

But you hardly hear of “octothorpe”, since there are so many other terms for it. The OED calls it a “hash sign”; and I’ve already mentioned “crosshatch”, “pound sign”, and “number sign”. There can also be “hash symbol”, and Twitter calls it a “hash tag”, but according to the OED, my preferred term is not exactly used for “#” (although other dictionaries say so). Instead the OED, spelling it “cross-hatch” (with a hyphen), says it can be used to mean two pairs of parallel lines crossing each other (kind of like #, but referring to the pattern generally).

El-Cheapo Video Finds: Beowulf on Blu-Ray

Beowulf (Blu-ray)Beowulf is the first heroic tale ever written in the English Language, written over 1500 years ago in Old English, which by now is a nearly unrecognizable language.

There have been many versions of Beowulf published in books, audiobooks, DVD, and now Blu-Ray — this one, found in a delete bin at a video store. The version I saw was completely done in computer animation. This allowed for Grendel to be a terrible deamon as in the book, but there were times, you would think that much of Grendel’s appearance was stolen from Gollum, from Lord of the Rings.

If you want to be blown away by animation and sound effects, and if you don’t mind that many liberties were taken with the original plot and character development, then you probably won’t mind this movie. Attempts to infuse vulnerability into Beowulf’s (or Grendel’s) character appeared to be done at the last minue without much sensitivity to the story, and thus came off appearing cheesy and cliche.

Optional video goodies are few, but one option lets you see how they did the CGI for every part of the film, as a picture-in-picture while the movie is playing. But there were passages in the movie that were spoken in Old English which never had a Modern English translation in the closed-captioning. That seems like a careless omission, and any fans of Beowulf would probably have appreciated that being put into the captioning.

El-Cheapo video finds: A Blu-ray of 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (Blu-ray)
The Blu-Ray box for Kubrick’s film.

Back in 2007, we witnessed the release of the Blu-Ray version of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a classic movie produced by Stanley Kubrick, and written by Arthur C. Clarke. I actually hadn’t seen the movie since the 1970s, and had to see it again. It does not seem terribly out of date, 46 years since its release in 1968. I found this recently near a Best Buy delete bin going for cheap. Cheap enough to make me yearn for nostalgia.

The film demands of the viewer a great deal of patience and an ability to deal with ambiguity. For example, the beginning of the movie had little in common with the rest of the movie, but all those primates running around and warring with each other for the same filthy water hole had me at least a little intrigued. One ape discovers that using a bone as a tool can make a deadly weapon, and it can help in one’s conquest of lots of water holes. So would begin, I suppose a “stick and bones” arms race among the primates, where one tribe of apes tries to technologically outdo that other tribe of apes on the far side of the water hole.

Am I digressing? I’m not sure, since the actors on the blu-ray voiceover track didn’t seem sure either. If I remember they were the lead actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood, obviously 46 years older.

The disconnectedness of the beginning is a well-known problem. Then there’s that monolith. These monoliths have a habit of half-burying themselves in the ground when no one is looking. At the end of the movie it is standing on the floor of a house lit from the floor. No one really knows what the monolith is about either, but it is supposed to give us an impression of an alien presence in a way that does not show us any aliens.

The end of the movie, like the last 20 minutes is pure excess. We are not sure what the light show is about, but it may not have as much deep meaning after you’ve stopped tripping on LSD. This is the sixties. Excess was in. Rock bands doing a 20-minute jamming session on vinyl was fairly common. This was kind of like that, except that this was visual, and they had these choruses of voices, which was slightly grating. It obfuscated and thus weakened the entire film.

The film was about what happened in the 2nd hour or so. It was a cautionary tale about being too trusting of technology, a message that never goes out of date. All future advances in technology will never make that reality go away.

The Lighter Side of The Epic of Gilgamesh (the first tablets)

What many believe to be the likeness of Gilgamesh.

I think Gilgamesh is an incredible story, my print version from the Norton Anthology of World Literature is easy to follow. However, there were major details missing that I had to look up. For example, none of the female characters seemed to have names. I had to look up the name of who was being referred to as the “Goddess of Love” (to become Gilgamesh’s wife in part 1), and in addition, who was being referred to as “the harlot”, who actually plays a crucial role in bringing Enkidu in union with the world of Mankind. The former appears to be named “Ishtar”, and the latter woman appears to be Shamhat.

I make no scholarly claims with my synopsis of part 1 that appears below. Think of this blog posting as kind of like part of a World Antiquities Amateur Hour.

Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk (imagine Iraq in the Bronze Age, around 2500 BC). He is a bit of a jerk. He seems to feel that all the women of the kingdom are at his disposal for his sexual pleasure, married or not. He also takes boys from their families as recruits for his army.

Enkidu, a really hairy wildman.

There is a wildman, Enkidu, running around the forests and lands outside the kingdom, living among the wild animals. As any street kid would tell you, no kid ever chooses the street. Enkidu’s situation was worse than the street. He was in wilderness, competing for food with gazelles, tigers, and other wild beasts, living on nothing but grass, not able to care for much more than himself. Kind of like Gilgamesh. It’s not Enkidu’s fault that he is a wildman. Enkidu was flung like a piece of dirt into a random wilderness area by his creator, the goddess Anu, and Enkidu just had to cope. That’s got to be pretty hard. Living on grass, no friends, no school, no PlayStation.

Enkidu is kind of cool for anyone who believes in animal rights, since he destroys Gilgamesh’s traps set up for wild animals, and lets any animals already trapped to escape. Gilgamesh may be the King of Uruk, but Enkidu has the rest of the animal kingdom on his side. While Enkidu seems to be a bit of a small-scale troublemaker, Gilgamesh realizes that Enkidu may well have the same God-like powers as he, so while he wants Enkidu brought to him, he does not want to do it in a way that would rile him if captured.

What follows is the first use of the Tender Trap known in world literature. How does one capture a wild man whose fighting powers compete with your own? You don’t fight him. You give him an offer he can’t refuse. Gilgamesh probably guessed correctly that Enkidu hadn’t had any sex throughout his whole life, and has a lot of pent-up sexual energy that has never been channeled properly, because he may never have been in bed with a woman let alone actually ever seen a woman. So, Gilgamesh has an idea.

Get a trapper to bring with him, as a “trap”, a hooker from the cathouse down the street. It would have to be a hooker who is attractive-looking, with some gentility and patience, since Enkidu has never “done it” with a woman before, and he would otherwise be all awkward and clumsy. Shamhat the Harlot was recruited to, upon meeting him, take her clothes off at no provocation, and use her feminine wiles to get him to “do it” with her.

Oh, they do it all right. For seven whole days. And this was several thousand years before the invention of Vaseline. The story also makes it unclear as to whether they even had meal breaks. And my dad always warned me never to fall in love with a piece of tail. Since Enkidu never had a dad to listen to like that, he blew it forever by telling Shamhat he loved her. The animals of the animal world, as if they were jilted, now rejected him. His one-ness with the animal world was broken. Reduced to common humanity, his only hope now was to make whatever connections he could with the world of man. Maybe start by getting a haircut.

Shamhat sensed that Enkidu was not too clued-in about life inside the walls of Gilgamesh’s kingdom. Enkidu had that bravado about surviving the wilderness that a person who survived the street would have. He’s all like: “Bring on Gilgamesh! There’s nobody stronger than me! I’ll panel him to the ground any day!” And Shamhat’s all like “Don’t boost. Gilgamesh is moody and will become angry at the least excuse. He is also 2/3 God and 1/3 man. You don’t have a chance.”

Meanwhile, back in the Kingdom of Uruk, Gilgamesh had been waking up from disturbing dreams. They didn’t have psychiatrists 25 centuries before Christ, so Gilgamesh went and told his mom about his dreams. His mom said with clinical detachment, I think the imagery in your dreams, coupled with your excessive closeness to your mother (referring to herself in the third person) indicates latent homosexual impulses. You are going to meet up with some guy and he is very strong, and you will become drawn to him as if he were a woman, and he will be loyal to you.

Shamhat led Enkidu to the part of the kingdom where Shepherd’s tents were, and knowing that the Wildman had arrived, the shepherds offered Enkidu their best bread and wine and laid it before him. He thought meh! and felt like going back outdoors to run up to a wild female animal and suck milk from it like he always used to. But Shamhat pussy-whipped him into staying and respecting the customs of the kingdom. He drank the wine and ate the bread, and got plastered.

While Gilgamesh and Enkidu indeed become friends, and may have even sealed the friendship with a fist bump, I don’t think Bronze Age folks dressed like this. Looks like something from the Flintstones.

Then a messenger comes into the tent bearing news that Gilgamesh is about to marry Ishtar, the Goddess of Love. Then, upon hearing Gilgamesh’s name, Enkidu becomes enraged again. It was probably the liquor that triggered the rage, but now he goes to find Gilgamesh, and Shamhat follows him out of the tent. Now, Gilgamesh will meet his match, people thought as they recognized Enkidu when he passed them in the street, and we will be rid of this arbitrary ruler once and for all. Enkidu finally met Gilgamesh, and blocked his way, which you never do with a 2/3 deity. There were no words exchanged. Just men doing what men must do. They fought like bulls, and Enkidu was thrown. In the end there were no winners, and the fury of both were spent. Each realizing that the fight ending in a draw, they became bff’s.

(With pictures from wherever, scattered all over the ‘Net)

An Inquiry Into Junk Philosophy

[My book] should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either. — Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The above quote out of the introduction to Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance should be taken as cautionary, because while his book is not factual on Zen and motorcycles, the book is also not factually correct (or correct in any other sense) regarding science, math, or even philosophy itself.

One of the first things that struck me while reading the book is how flat the characters (such as John and Sylvia Sutherland) were outside of the narrator. One sensed that the narrator had trouble distinguishing between who the characters are and who he thinks the characters are. They never appeared to have an existence outside of the mind of the narrator, and it gave an overall feeling that this whole book was setting us up for a strawman style of argumentation. Or, as Chris Edwards put it so well, that he created a shadow and was holding it “in a headlock” in an effort to debunk the shadow of an argument that he created. Along the way, Pirsig commits numerous errors in interpreting Newton, Plato, and Aristotle. In fact, just about anything he touches becomes tainted and untrustworthy. And since he insists that “Quality” has no definition, I was left to wonder: why am I wasting my time reading this? It’s an edifice of weasel-words.

I have to acknowledge that with over 4 million copies sold, the book has its adherents, and there are many people that sing its praises. I couldn’t read past his first or second debunking of science and math. Well, actually, in the style of Pirsig, it is the debunking of what Pirsig understands math and science to be. Once again, having put a stranglehold on a shadow.

I once wrote a letter to a friend listing a good deal of the problems I saw with Pirsig’s interpretation of Newton, Einstein and the early philosophers, and itemizing each one against the facts from someone (like me) who has read all of these scientists, and of philosophers like Aristotle and Plato (whom Pirsig refers to a great deal). In the years since I had sold my copy of Zen, and I can’t be bothered to itemize all of the problems here. To be sure, each utterance he made about them had problems, and one could only have been an adherent if the reader had never dabbled in philosophy, nor in the writings of Mathematicians or scientists.