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Hmm, so I was hoping to get back into blogging over the summer. Y'know, a sort of liveblogging on quals, like how people blog about their Google Summer of Code projects these days. Turns out, some part of my brain is all, "oh noes! blogging is a waste of time! You could be working or, y'know, playing videogames or something!" So that sucks. In part because my brain is stupid, in part because I've been reading so many awesome blogs by people at least as busy as I am and now I feed bad for not measuring up to some impossible standard I made up out of thin air.

So the summer was fun, albeit not relaxing in the slightest. I really need to work on that whole Day of Rest idea. Things that happened this summer:

  • Grace and Jason got married! So that's the second California wedding I've been to in as many years. Now I can quit complaining about never having gone to a wedding. It was great to see friends from college again. Of the ones I lost touch with over the years, one works in the game industry (both indie and corporate), and another works for Wolfram Alpha (indeed, with Mr. Wolfram himself). So that's pretty cool.
  • Went to NASSLLI in Austin. There were some awesome classes there. Craige Roberts is fabulous; definitely someone to keep an eye on. Got to meet Adam Lopez, who was recently working on stuff related to one of my quals. Adam was part of the Edinburgh SMT crew, who came to JHU shortly after I left so I hadn't met him before. And, of course, got to hang out with Ken and Oleg again. Also, awesome, someone there remembered my talk from NASSLLI 2010 and asked about followup work on it.
  • Read a bunch of fun books, or rather had them read to me. Licia got a kindle and loves reading aloud; she's the best ever. Fun books include: Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Seriously, they are both delightful and if you haven't read them you should. Competent women are the best. Also, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's (dude, what a life!), and most of God, No! and Drop Dead Healthy.
  • Bought Tales of Graces F on a whim and loved every minute of it. It starts off as your very standard JRPG about childhood friends, but then jumps ahead a few years after everyone has separated and grown up. The prologue is, as the reviews say, the least entertaining part; but it does a good job of setting the background for making the main plot poignant. Just saying people were childhood friends pales in comparison to seeing it and then seeing how they've grown apart. I haven't played any of the other Tales games, but the system is pretty similar to the Star Ocean system. Better done though, IMO. You have the fusion/cooking thing, but it's done in a way that's both extremely helpful and not obnoxious, so you use it regularly and actually care. The combat system is vibrant and engaging, and the system of badges is really cool. Overall the system has a lot of depth but doesn't get in the way of just playing. Some of the reviews complained about uneven difficulty, but I have no idea what they're on about. 10/10
  • And in a few weeks I'll be heading off to ICFP again. It'll be the first time I've been to Europe, can't wait.
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I've been playing a lot of games, watching old TV, and reading books of late. I've been meaning to write some reviews, but I've been burned out of late. Here are a few of the more recent ones.

God of War, SCE Santa Monica, 2005. God of War II, SCE Santa Monica, 2007. If you haven't heard of this series, then you haven't lived. Both games are a fantastic fusion of puzzle jumping and action adventure, where many of the puzzles require both wits and dexterity. As a series, God of War somewhat resembles the Halo franchise. The first game blows away all the competition with an innovatively simple system, and a compelling plot threaded with deep metanarrative seldom seen outside of the best RPGs. The second game adds a lot of new intricacies to the system, and they're all good improvements once you get used to the new style; but, while the plot seems to make sense at first, it doesn't really hold together very well and the miniquests seem more like excuses for a level than really being part of the plot. Both games are worthy of their best-of-the-best reviews. But beware, if you have hand problems then you should avoid them, especially the second one; and if you don't, you will.

Dirge of Cerberus: FF VII, Square Enix, 2006. A three-quarter view FPS/RPG following Vincent Valentine after the events of FF7 and Crisis Core. Rather than being a typical FPS, the play style is more similar to other action/RPG hybrids. In particular, common tactics like strafing don't work, whereas standing like a badass before blowing someone away does. If you're looking for a traditional FPS, this game isn't it (whence everyone else's mixed reviews). The game really is all about watching Vincent be pretty, though the plot makes as much sense as anything else in the FF7 line. Lots of fan service with the other characters showing up, though the new characters seem better developed. The ending is very well done, albeit with Lord of the Ring style: final battle, conclusion, final final battle, ending, final level, epilogue, epiepilogue, afterward,... I had fun with it, all in all a good game.

A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge, 1999. The summary on the back of the book sums it up quite well without giving too much away, so I won't repeat it. Hard scifi set in the far future, Vinge presents a rarity: a future that is both intricately developed and entirely believable. Vinge's scifi is not the classic "technological what if", but is rather a deeply human story (which happens to touch on the very human ways in which technology shapes our lives). I'd been meaning to read some Vinge for quite a while and finally got the chance when I forgot to bring a book with me on my last trip to DC. This is, apparently, a prequel to another of his books but it was the only one available at the time. Now I must hunt down A Fire Upon the Deep, and add a shrine for Vinge in my small pantheon. If anyone has heard me go on about C.S. Friedman or George R.R. Martin, then you'll know how how great a writer is Vinge, and how small the pantheon he shares.

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Remembering the Kanji, Volume I
(1977; 4th ed. 2004)
James W. Heisig

Heisig presents a simple but anti-traditional method for remembering the meanings and writing of kanji. He takes the simple idea that many students already try —taking the meaning of radicals and telling a story that gives the meaning of the kanji— but refines it into a proper method. First, rather than radicals, he refers to "primitives" which can be either radicals or other kanji, which allows building up of meanings in a better way by giving 'syllables' in addition to the 'letters'. Second, the simplest part of the method is reordering the presentation so that simpler kanji are presented before and alongside kanji which use them as primitives (e.g. 日、月、冒、朋、明、唱、晶、、). This is a consequence of the method being to teach all the 常用漢字 together, as opposed to the traditional method which teaches them in a way that you can test your knowledge incrementally. Third he focuses, not on the gist of a primitive, but instead chooses a specific "keyword" to help distinguish primitives with similar meanings (e.g. 如 vs 肖). This symbolism gives hooks for the stories to hang off of without them becoming a vague blur that's unhelpful for constructing the kanji from its keyword. Fourth, the focus is on studying from keywords to kanji, instead of the other way. Focusing on writing/recall rather than reading/recognition strengthens our associations since the latter comes for free from the former, but not the other way around.

Learning kanji is often named the hardest part of learning Japanese, and many voice skepticism at Heisig's claim that the method can teach the most common 2000 kanji in a few months. A quick web search will bring up many diatribes both for and against Heisig; if nothing else, it's certainly polarizing. Personally, I'm a big fan of it. I have never liked memorization, and the traditional approach of just writing the 常用漢字 over and over simply doesn't work (hence the notoriety of learning kanji). One of the things I like most about the book is the ways in which it formalizes the simple technique of telling stories. In the modern era we have lost our oral traditions for memory and many have lost their creative ability to tell stories. Heisig gives techniques to rekindle the oral and creative traditions of memory. It's alien to the modern era, which is no doubt why so many dislike it, but it feels like home to me.

Another piece of the controversy is that Heisig does not teach the readings of the kanji in this volume. At first I too was very skeptical. The separatist approach of teaching speaking vs reading in JSL is my principal complaint against JSL. After giving Heisig a try, however, I think that his approach is valid. The big thing to remember is that he is teaching kanji, not words. To the new learner of Japanese this distinction may seem baroque, but it is mirrored in the vast differences between kanji dictionaries vs word dictionaries (cf. etymological dictionaries vs 'real' dictionaries). Because of the nature of Japanese writing, it's not very helpful to learn the readings of kanji without learning specific words and compounds since a kanji's pronunciation is based in large part on the word it's in (e.g. 今日 is read 「きょう」 which is not built from the readings of 今「コン・いま」 and 日「ニチ・び、か」). Heisig's second volume deals with the (音読み) readings of kanji, for those interested in pursuing them.

The only complaint I'll level against the book is that the author's background in Christianity and Freudianism can be quite overt in some of the stories. This lends a distasteful missionary flavor in parts, and I find the Christian stories disruptive to my memory (both because of my distaste for them, and because they are not as familiar to me as they are to him). Those without anti-Christian tendencies probably won't notice nor care. In counterpoint to this singular complaint, the primary goal of Heisig is to teach the technique, not the stories. The major part of the book provides only the kanji and keywords for them, leaving the reader to formulate the story to bind them together. For as infrequent as they are, in the portion where stories are provided it can be helpful to have a few which are disruptive (so long as they are illustrative) since this can drive the reader into coming up with their own stories earlier. Ultimately, as Heisig says, none of the stories will be helpful unless they click for the learner.

I'm a big fan of the book and the technique, and I highly recommend it. For those who want to get polarized before shelling out for the whole thing, the introduction and first (of three) parts (125 pages) is available for free online. For those interested in the rhetorical technique of mnemotechnics or general issues of pedagogy, here is an interesting paper about Heisig's approach to L2 learning.

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It would seem over the last year or two my blog has lapsed from obscurity into death. Not being one to let things rest, I figure this horse still has some beating left in it. About, what, a month ago I handed in the final project for my MSE and so I am now a masterful computer scientist. This means, in short, that I now know enough to bore even other computer scientists on at least one topic.

The funny thing is that both topics of my project —category theory and unification— are topics I knew essentially nothing about when I transfered to JHU from PSU a year ago. Of course now, I know enough to consider myself a researcher in both fields, and hence know more than all but my peers within the field. I know enough to feel I know so little only because I have a stack of theses on my desk that I haven't finished reading yet. I'm thinking I should finish reading those before recasting my project into a submission to a conference/journal. Since the project is more in the vein of figuring out how a specific language should work, rather than general theoretical work, I'm not sure exactly how that casting into publishable form should go; it seems too... particular to be worth publishing. But then maybe I'm just succumbing to the academic demon that tells me my work is obvious to everyone since it is to me.

One thing that still disappoints me is that, much as I do indeed love programming languages and type theory, when I transfered here my goal was to move from programming languages and more towards computational linguistics. (If I were to stick with PL, I could have been working with the eminent Mark Jones or Tim Sheard back at PSU.) To be fair, I've also learned an enormous amount about computational linguistics, but I worry that my final project does not belie that learning to the admission committees for the PhD programs I'll be applying to over the next few months. Another problem that has me worried about those applications is, once again, in the demesne of internecine politics. For those who aren't aware, years ago a line was drawn in the dirt between computationally-oriented linguists and linguistically-oriented computer scientists, and over the years that line has evolved into trenches and concertina wire. To be fair, the concertina seems to have been taken down over the last decade, though there are still bundles of it laying around for the unwary (such as myself) to stumble into. There are individuals on both sides who are willing to reach across the divide, but from what I've seen the division is still ingrained for the majority of both camps.

My ultimate interests lie precisely along that division, but given the choice between the two I'd rather be thrown in with the linguists. On the CS side of things, what interests me most has always been the math: type theory, automata theory, etc. These are foundational to all of CS and so everyone at least dabbles, but the NLP and MT folks (in the States, less so in Europe) seem to focus instead on probabilistic models for natural language. I don't like statistics. I can do them, but I'm not fond of them. Back in my undergraduate days this is part of why I loved anthropology but couldn't stand sociology (again, barring the exceptional individual who crosses state lines). While in some sense stats are math too, they're an entirely different kind of math than the discrete and algebraic structures that entertain me. I can talk categories and grammars and algebra and models and logic, but the terminology and symbology of stats are greek to me. Tied in somehow with the probabilistic models is a general tendency towards topics like data mining, information extraction, and text classification. And while I enjoy machine learning, once again, I prefer artificial intelligence. And to me, none of these tendencies strike me as meaningfully linguistic.

More than the baroque obfuscatory traditions of their terminology, my distaste for statistics is more a symptom than a cause. A unifying theme among all these different axes —computational linguistics vs NLP, anthropology vs sociology, mathematics vs statistics, AI vs machine learning — is that I prefer deep theoretical explanations of the universe over attempts to model observations about the universe. Sociology can tell you that some trend exists in a population, but it can make no predictions about an individual's behavior. Machine learning can generate correct classifications, but it rarely explains anything about category boundaries or human learning. An n-gram language model for machine translation can generate output that looks at least passingly like the language, but it can't generalize to new lexemes or to complex dependencies.

My latest pleasure reading is Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God: A history of fundamentalism. In the first few chapters Armstrong presents a religious lens on the history of the late-fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. Towards the beginning of this history the concepts of mythos and logos are considered complementary forces each with separate spheres of prevalence. However, as Western culture is constructed over these centuries, logos becomes ascendant and mythos is cast aside and denigrated as falsity and nonsense. Her thesis is that this division is the origin of fundamentalist movements in the three branches of the Abrahamic tradition. It's an excellent book and you should read it, but I mention it more because it seems to me that my academic interests have a similar formulation.

One of the reasons I've been recalcitrant about joining the ranks of computer scientists is that, while I love the domain, I've always been skeptical of the people. When you take a group of students from the humanities they're often vibrant and interesting; multifaceted, whether you like them or not. But when you take a group of students from engineering and mathematical sciences, there tends to be a certain... soullessness that's common there. Some of this can be attributed to purely financial concerns: students go into engineering to make money, not because they love it; students go into humanities to do something interesting before becoming a bartender. When pitting workplace drudgery against passionate curiosity, it's no wonder the personalities are different. But I think there's a deeper difference. The mathematical sciences place a very high premium on logos and have little if any room for mythos, whereas the humanities place great importance on mythos (yet they still rely on logos as a complimentary force). In the open source movement, the jargon file, and other esoterica we can see that geeks have undeniably constructed countless mythoi. And yet the average computer geek is an entirely different beast than the average computer scientist or electrical engineer. I love computer geeks like I love humanists and humanitarians, so they're not the ones I'm skeptical of, though they seem to be sparse in academia.

I've always felt that it is important to have Renaissance men and women, and that modern science's focus on hyperspecialization is an impediment to the advancement of knowledge. This is one of the reasons I love systems theory (at least as Martin Zwick teaches it). While I think it's an orthogonal consideration, this breadth seems to be somewhat at odds with logocentric (pure) computer science. The disciplines that welcome diversity —artificial intelligence/life, cognitive science, systems theory, computational linguistics— seem to constantly become marginalized, even within the multidisciplinary spectrum of linguistics, computer science, et al. Non-coincidentally these are the same disciplines I'm most attracted to. It seems to me that the Renaissance spirit requires the complementary fusion of mythos and logos, which is why it's so rare in logocentric Western society.

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Momus tells me that I should blog every day. Or well, he says that to blog one should do it every day. And I think it wise advice. Like practicing a language or an instrument or other writing, things get rusty when left too long. So I'm here to say: no, I'm not going to blog every day, good gods are you nuts? I don't have time for that. But, I will say that I mean to get back into writing more often, like I used to; this I think will be good. And for a time at least I should be able to manage it.

In other news, I finished A Feast for Crows, the fourth book of A Song of Ice and Fire. For those who aren't familiar with the series, it's a medieval low-fantasy setting and George R.R. Martin is one of the gods of writing; thusly, start at the beginning. And when you get to the end, stop. Or read what's out, read his other stories, harass him endlessly over email about when the next book'll be out, and then go and read his blog like everyone else does you ingrate.

For those who are familiar, admittedly, this volume is weaker than the first three. For the vaguely familiar, the series was slated to be six books but what was to be the fourth book grew too long and ended up being split into this and the forthcoming fifth. Rather than telling half the story for all the characters he decided to tell all the story for half the characters; fair enough. Unfortunately, given the nature of the story and how spread out all the characters are, doing this means that the book feels unbalanced. The switches from fast to slow, from intrigue to war, from mystery to resolution, all seem a bit flatter than usual, though because of the missing characters and not the quality per se. All the same, it's a good book rife with all that we love and love to hate, even if short on the jalonqar, the dragons, the men in black, and their fiery new cultists.

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I know I've been gone for a long while now. Next term is looking to be a lot nicer than this term was. Hopefully I'll be able to get back into writing (and reading) LJ then; there're quite a few posts I have built up if I ever get the chance to write them out. Well, now for the last few months in review:

~

My schedule was updated, though I never got around to mentioning it. Well, it's been updated again! As always, that link is reachable from my profile and will be the place I try to keep all that info up to date and disseminated.

~

Accepted: Indiana (3/7)
Pending: JHU
Red Rubber Ducky Stamp of Doom: Berkley (2/21), MIT (~3/5), Urbana–Champaign (3/5)
(Dates are when the letters were written and are for the benefit of those doing statistical analysis.)

Well, it looks like the winnowing process is well on its way. Indiana only offered me a nominal award which is unfortunate (though I may get to work with Michael Gasser or Doug Hofstadter, both of which would rock). Still waiting to hear from Johns Hopkins. In other news, I've been offered a programming(!) assistantship at PSU were I to stick around here. Tempting, but I'm pretty sure in the long run Indiana would make up for the price.

Of course now I'm getting tempted to just go for a PhD again, but then what the hell would I do with two PhDs? From the looks of it IU limits transfer credits for MS to 8 (a little more than a quarter) of the required 30 meaning I'd have ~7 classes to go, or a year. The PhD program requires 90 hours, but the transfer cap is 30 (of which I'll be at 21.3~23.3 at the end of next quarter) which'd be 22~23 classes, or just under four years taking it easy (possibly as low as two if I go for summer courses). And of those 90 credits, that includes a required minor which could mean 4 or more of those classes in linguistics (or cognitive sci, or systems sci). Awfully tempting if I could do it in just an extra year, even if only an extra two with either of the guys noted above and a decent fellowship or assistantship.

JHU only allows two classes to transfer (of 6~8 required) for the MSE, which means a year or just under. Whereas the PhD program requires two more classes, and doesn't specify the transfer cap. Hells, at this point if feels like with all I've put in I might as well just go for the doctorate rather than being overeducated for the slip of paper I'll have to wave around, especially if I'm going to go through the trouble of transferring (I'll have 28~32 of the 45 credits required at PSU after this spring, meaning I'm 5~6 classes away from the degree (i.e. barely two quarters) only one of which is required to be CS, so the rest could be ling if I can get my advisor to swing it).

Bah, just the same temptation as when I was filling out those damn apps. Why must I keep convincing myself I'm not really a computer scientist? Just because I'm good at it, I must keep remembering that linguistics is my passion. Fuckin' A, mate. What do y'all think I should do? Think it's worth an extra year or two knowing I'll have to go through the whole dissertation thing again another four years later?

~

Just finished "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" not too long back. For those who haven't read it yet, it's a fabulous book. Hilarious, engaging, quirky, intelligent. Everything you'd ever want from a scientist. This was my bus-time reading for a few weeks, and let me tell you how hard it was to keep from laughing out loud every page or two turned. All the same, my smiles were deafening and turned many a head in those few weeks. There's a spot around two thirds on where his inveterate womanizing tendencies bleed through into something of a bitter cynicism, but he cheers up again by the end. In all, an excellent read and highly recommended.

~

As I mentioned in a screened post a while back, another application I filled out recently is for going off to Seoul for a couple months this summer to learn Korean. I should hear back from them mid- to late-April just a bit after I accept my grad school. Depending on finances, timing, and the details of the program exit, I may also try to stop over in Japan for a brief trip on the way back. In addition to going back to the country, there're a few friends out there it'd be nice to see. Of course all that depends on when and where I'll be moving in the fall and arranging housing there et al.

~

And now I must be off to sleep. Else I'll piss off the sexiest vixen by being late to pick her up tomorrow morn. I hope to be able to write a bit more afore classes start up again, though somehow I doubt that'll happen :)

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So, you may be wondering what it is I've been up to since winter break started and I finished my grad apps. Well, among other things I've gotten back into my reading. And so, since it's been some time since my last real post I figure a few quick reviews might be in order.

Learnability in Optimality Theory, Bruce Tesar & Paul Smolansky, 2000. For those who're interested in OT and curious about how such a theoretical framework might be implemented this is an excellent book. Pretty short and to the point, it makes for a quick read if you're already familiar with OT. Plenty of technical details are given on the RIP/CD model used, though not as many on how exactly the RIP portion is implemented. It seems that Tesar has moved on from the RIP/CD model in his more recent works, but the model still has some nice features. Not a book for non-linguists or non-machine-learning folks.

The Selfish Gene [wikipedia], Richard Dawkins, 1976. Written for a broad target audience, it doesn't go into excruciating technical detail though it does go pretty deep for pop science. A must read for anyone with an interest in genetics or adaptation whether from biology, computer science, systems science, or elsewhere. Dawkins goes about explaining why genetic evolution must work on the level of gene-selection, what that means, and why individual-selection, group-selection, and species-selection don't account for the behavior we see. In the final chapter is the infamous coining of the "meme" which, while it's interesting to see the original formulation before it was altered by other researchers, it's particularly interesting to read after getting a better understanding of how genetic systems evolve in the first ten chapters.

Leadership and Self-Deception, Arbinger Institute, 2002. An extremely quick read, very fluffy but it has some interesting ideas in it. The main thesis has to do with origins of interpersonal conflict and at one point does a good job of showing why actions we perform because we want someone to act a certain way often only reinforce them to act the opposite way. Worth an afternoon, but not more.

How to Become a Schizophrenic: The Case Against Biological Psychiatry (2nd ed), John Modrow, 1992. Half memoir, half polemic. In the first third of the book Modrow lays out his general thesis and background information, the second third is an account of his childhood leading up to a schizophrenic break, and the final third systematically goes through and disproves the various biological theories put forward for explaining schizophrenia. The first two thirds were the most interesting especially since personal accounts of schizophrenia are far less common than those for other disorders, though the last portion veers a bit too far into being clinical and polemical for my tastes. Halfway between a true memoir and an academic piece, it may not scratch either itch but it's worth reading for those into that sort of thing.

Geeks & Geezers, Warren G Bennis & Robert J Thomas, 2002. Another book I picked up in a wayward stroll through Powell's. In seeking to write a book about leadership, the authors discovered that today's greatest leaders fall into two groups: those under 30 and those over 70. The book then seeks to analyze what these two groups have in common, how they differ, and what it takes to make a leader. The writing is a little fluffy as befits a pop business book about leadership, but it manages to hold interest throughout even if a bit lighter than I'd have wished. Worth reading.

Grandia III, Square-Enix, 2006. An RPG set in a (mildly technological) fantasy world. Typical save-the-world-because-of-personal-connections-to-evil plot more in line with Enix's old games (e.g. Star Ocean series) than SquareSoft's fare. Great graphics, engaging plot, and a lot of well-paced cut-scenes. The combat engine is another variation in the action-rpg spectrum though it more closely resembles traditional rpg engines than most action-rpgs these days. And did I mention the combat engine rocks? One of the great things about how it's set up is that you can get better either by leveling your characters up or by just learning how the game works better, which means as you get the hang of it you can really tear through things. The game is consistently challenging and is very well paced. Towards the end the monsters scale up quicker than you level and so some of the final fights can take a while to finish even with powerful spells, though they manage to be neither boring nor repetitive. The plot is somewhat lighthearted but stays grounded and can get serious when need be. Excellent game.

Skin Game: A Cutter's Memoir, Caroline Kettlewell, 2000. I've always had a soft spot for memoirs of mental crisis. Like Caroline, I've always been compelled by the something dark within them, seeking a certain escape in the familiarity of the miserable. To be quite honest, there's no way to do this memoir justice in but a short review. It's hard to find the right praise for the books which remind us why we love their genre. This one is well written, literate, eloquent, and with short chapters it's a quick read (though not always an easy one). For those who've ever been confused by how someone would come to injure themselves, Kettlewell sheds light on the way so many people encounter their world. Some of the scenes early on are not for the squeamish, but for those who've ever cut, her descriptions of the impulse to go further and the fear of having gone too far are only all too familiar. Very highly recommended.

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