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[meta] Leitmotif

purple hair
It occurred to me that I should say a little about the common thread that underpins pretty much everything I've written here since lifting radio silence, and will continue to do so for some time.

So I alluded to the whole aspie thing1 a few posts back. The interesting thing there is, when I first decided to look into the various non-normative functions of my brain, just before I started grad school, I was actually diagnosed with a non-verbal learning disorder. I fit all but one of those symptoms extraordinarily well -- and indeed, everyone asked, "but how come you're so good at math?" Still, "close" counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and psychology; at the time I had recently graduated with a BA in English (minor: African Studies2) after washing out hard in the hard-science/math weed-out courses, was working as a tech writer, and was preparing to start an MA in linguistics. It seemed reasonable to conclude that trig, while enough to land me a part-time job tutoring high schoolers for the math SAT, was about the limit of my native intelligence as far as math went.

A year later, Teodor Rus poached me into a PhD (that I never finished) in computer science, and, well, we all know where that ended up.

Apparently I am actually kind of good at math as long as I can treat it as a language.

(Granted, I have been doing most of my mathematical explorations on the discrete side of the house, but there are fields that bridge the discrete and continuous realms -- michiexile's specialty, algebraic topology, being one of them. And since michiexile and I are pretty good at finding ways to convey ideas to each other up to and including inventing them, there has been something of an osmosis effect, though really I need to just buckle down and get a solid grounding in group theory and then go devour algebraic topology and see whether that goes any more smoothly than, I dunno, going through calculus again on Coursera and then maybe diffeq or something. But I digress.)

I didn't mention this in my post about Len, but Twitter was a lifeline for my sanity in the weeks after he died. There was so much I needed to express, but the last fucking thing I wanted to do was have to talk to somebody in person and have to deal with whatever their reactions were. I tried to write, but I couldn't string ideas together for more than a few sentences. The written language was there -- for the thirty seconds at a time I could focus on anything. And, well, bramcohen had tweeted the news shortly after I called him3 anyway; the shoe fit well enough, so I wore it. Watching your brain put itself back together after severe emotional trauma can, as it turns out, be a fucking fascinating process -- and I was already primed, with help from a kickass therapist back during grad school who basically gave himself the equivalent of an associate's degree in computer science in order to help me come up with a set of coping mechanisms built out of CS metaphors that have significantly reduced the severity of my social anxiety, to treat my internal state as an algorithm with a panoply of inputs and outputs.

It is not too far a leap from that to "what else can language, both formal language theory and the physical science behind how organisms communicate, be a useful framing device for?" I guess when all you have is a hammer, everything really does look like a nail. This has nothing to do with why that library has that name, but it is an unintentionally hilarious coincidence nonetheless.

Anyway, there's that. Hopefully it provides some context.

1SID is pretty common among the autistic.
2It started with the Physical Anthropology 101 class I took for a social science gen ed, wended its way through primatology, human evolution, and archaeology, and rapidly turned into "Holy shit Africa is way more complicated and interesting than World History in high school ever let on."
3He was in fact the first person I called.

Comments

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
michiexile
Jun. 13th, 2013 08:49 pm (UTC)
Oh there is a LOT that language works as an approach for. A ridiculous amount of science, really.

Tying formal tie knots for instance. :-)
maradydd
Jun. 13th, 2013 09:48 pm (UTC)
Once upon a time I read a few things about knot theory, but you are going to have to unpack that one.
michiexile
Jun. 13th, 2013 09:55 pm (UTC)
So Fink & Mao published a few articles back at this past «mille anni passi sunt»; using ideas from statistical mechanics (read combinatorics) to figure out a classification of possible tie knots for formal neckties.

Turns out that what they did was to articulate a formal grammar for tie-tying. Once you've started tying your tie, it basically builds up a Y-shape across your front.

So you can describe a tie-knot by the sequence of areas (right/left/center) that the active end moves into. Fink&Mao explicitly signal which area you move to, and which orientation your tie has -- but also articulate axioms for their language that reduces it to basically free strings in the alphabet { Clockwise, Anticlockwise } with added decorations to show how and when you push the tie underneath itself. Not only that, but checking whether you can dissolve a tie (pull out the passive end and it unknots itself) can be determined by using a few simple rewriting rules on your tie description string. If the string vanishes under these rules, it will unknot itself, if not, then not.

Together with Anders Sandberg and Primoz Skraba I'm working on an extension of their work that demonstrates this reduction, and studies tie knots that fall outside their (too narrow) demarkations.
whswhs
Jun. 14th, 2013 01:13 am (UTC)
I'm not sure that I buy the theory that formal language and the stuff human beings actually use to communicate have an interesting genus in common. It seems to me that calling them both "language" may be an equivocation.
rjgrady
Jun. 14th, 2013 06:38 am (UTC)
In my work as a counselor, a lot of what I did was teach people to use language to unpack their thinking. In a lot of ways, good counseling techniques are cybernetically grounded.
moof
Jun. 14th, 2013 07:51 am (UTC)
Logopolis always was one of my favorite Dr Who episodes.
00goddess
Jun. 16th, 2013 02:03 am (UTC)
Wow, that NLD link sure took me back.
eugthinks
Jun. 17th, 2013 12:53 am (UTC)
You don't know me; I started following this LJ some time ago after seeing some interesting post that's currently lost to memory. Most of the time I have very little idea what you're talking about, but it's interesting anyway, and I usually come away with a few interesting Google searches, at least. I found some points of vague commonality with your sketch of your background here: I did my undergrad in English Literature, but I tend to do my thinking hard sciences-style--though I have no foundation in them--and I've been finding my way into computer science.

I've been struggling with depression, anxiety, and ADD for a long time, both with and without help, and things have been going pretty downhill. I've already been in a pretty bad way, and then my live-in girlfriend of 7 years, the person getting me through many days, left me last week. I've been spending the days since then trying to fight off the loneliness and think of reasons why I should continue living.

The point of all this is that this post of yours helped me somehow. I don't know that I can pinpoint it without more time--something to do with using Twitter to fight grief, or using CS metaphors to repair mental issues. Anway, I wanted to comment and let you know that you did this for me, vague as it may be. Thank you.
maradydd
Jun. 17th, 2013 03:05 pm (UTC)
You're welcome, whatever it was.

I hope you're able to find the rest of the help you need, too.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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