Saturday, 27 September 2014

On The Improbability of Art

In my work as a psycholinguist, I have opportunity to compute the exact chance probability (given a distribution of words in a very large corpus of human-created text) of a particular sentence; i.e. to compute how probable it is that you would come across a particular sentence by chance. (I have a fun job!) Even very ordinary and very short (three-word) sentences have (to me) astoundingly low probabilities, easily below 1 in 10,000,000,000 and often ten orders of magnitude less probable. Weirder sentences would be much less likely. 

 I enjoy then thinking about the absurd improbability of any really long set of words. Any normal length novel is so improbable as to be incalculably unlikely (of course, novels and sentences do not come about by chance, so the calculation is perhaps somewhat misleading...this doesn't really make any difference to my point, but I won't get into that here). It is no wonder that I enjoy the musings of the Soviet statistician Andrei Kolmogorov (1956, from this interesting article on his life in Nautilus magazine) “Is it possible to include [Tolstoy’s War and Peace] in a reasonable way into the set of ‘all possible novels’ and further to postulate the existence of a certain probability distribution in this set?” His point, of course, was that it is not. Art is vanishingly improbable and therefore singular. Perhaps that is one reason why we like it.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

I enjoyed this paragraph from David Graeber's essay in Strike magazine On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:
"Once, when contemplating the apparently endless growth of administrative responsibilities in British academic departments, I came up with one possible vision of hell. Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at. Say they were hired because they were excellent cabinet-makers, and then discover they are expected to spend a great deal of their time frying fish. Neither does the task really need to be done – at least, there’s only a very limited number of fish that need to be fried. Yet somehow, they all become so obsessed with resentment at the thought that some of their co-workers might be spending more time making cabinets, and not doing their fair share of the fish-frying responsibilities, that before long there’s endless piles of useless badly cooked fish piling up all over the workshop and it’s all that anyone really does."

Saturday, 6 September 2014

On Being Confident That We Are Having Fun

Edde Addad came up with the idea of using JanusNode to make Socratic dialogues. His original idea was to cut up the lines of the Socratic dialogs and allow the program to randomly put them together. I added a few other twists myself, most notably by inserting lines from Wittgenstein into the mix, by allowing for a little more randomness in some of the quoted lines (I intend to add more in the future), and by adding some snarky mostly-canned lines by a character named 'JanusNode'.

Here's a few select examples of the output.

SOCRATES: And is this condition of ours satisfactory?
WITTGENSTEIN: Do you believe that your question leaves no doubt open about the way I have to go?
SOCRATES: But does he do what he wills if he does what is evil? Why do you not answer?
WITTGENSTEIN: We think of a chessboard as being composed of thirty-two white and thirty-two black squares. But could we not also say, for instance, that it was composed of the colors black and white and the schema of squares?


WITTGENSTEIN: I look at the Internet.
WITTGENSTEIN: It is as if all these more or less inessential processes were shrouded in a particular atmosphere, which dissipates when I look closely at them.


SOCRATES: And would you still say that the evil are evil by reason of the presence of evil?
JANUSNODE: I think you need Bayes' Theorem to figure that out.


SOCRATES: Then he lives worst, who, having been unjust, has no deliverance from injustice?
JANUSNODE: You should post that on Twitter!


SOCRATES: Will you ask me, what sort of an art is cookery?
JANUSNODE: Do you have any gin? Or is it just the hemlock?


SOCRATES: And is this condition of ours satisfactory?
JANUSNODE: Words, words, words. What we need right now is some good music.

SOCRATES: Then in some things we agree, but not in others?
JANUSNODE: You are not taking into account Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.

JANUSNODE: Are we having fun yet?
WITTGENSTEIN: Is our confidence justified?