Serendipities

“Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter.” - Julius Comroe

 

cover Eco

Umberto Eco's book, Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, is not a book about education or technology. It is about some riddles of history and the "linguistics of the lunatic." I am an Umberto Eco reader and first noticed him, as many people did, with his novel The Name of the Rose

That novel takes place in 1327 in an Italian Franciscan abbey that is suspected of heresy. Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate and the story is a medieval mystery with a series of seven murders. Eco is

and he mixes in Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon. There are secret symbols and coded manuscripts in a higher level version of the Dan Brown novel formula.

I was partially attracted to Serendipities because of the title, but it's not an easy to read novel, but rather a non-fiction study.

Eco looks at mistakes that have shaped human history. For example, Christopher Columbus assumed that the world was much smaller than it is, land so he assumed he could find a quick route to the East via the West. He was wrong, but he accidentally "discovered" America.

Cults such as the Rosicrucians and Knights Templar seem to have resulted from a mysterious starting place that was a hoax. That kind of start made both groups ripe for conspiracy theories based on religious, ethnic, and racial prejudices. 

Eco posits that serendipities and mistaken ideas can have fortuitous results. 

On The Writer's Almanac, there was a nice short history of serendipity, parts of which I have also written about here. The word “serendipity” was first coined in 1754, and is now defined by Merriam-Webster as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” 

“Serendipity” was first used by parliament member and writer Horace Walpole in a letter that he wrote to an English friend who was spending time in Italy. In the letter to his friend written on this day in 1754, Walpole wrote that he came up with the word after a fairy tale he once read, called “The Three Princes of Serendip,” explaining, “as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” The three princes of Serendip hail from modern-day Sri Lanka. “Serendip” is the Persian word for the island nation off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka.

The invention of many wonderful things have been attributed to “serendipity,” including Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Charles Goodyear’s vulcanization of rubber, inkjet printers, Silly Putty, the Slinky, and chocolate chip cookies.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after he left for vacation without disinfecting some of his petri dishes filled with bacteria cultures; when he got back to his lab, he found that the penicillium mold had killed the bacteria.

Viagra had been developed to treat hypertension and angina pectoris; it didn’t do such a good job at these things, researchers found during the first phase of clinical trials, but it was good for something else.

The principles of radioactivity, X-rays, and infrared radiation were all found when researchers were looking for something else.

A U.K. translation company put "serendipity" on a list of the English language’s ten most difficult words to translate along with plenipotentiary, gobbledegook, poppycock, whimsy, spam, and kitsch.

In Eco's intellectual history of serendipities, he includes dead ends and mistakes that were not fortuitous. Leibniz believed that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus. Marco Polo identified a rhinoceros as the mythical unicorn. 

Eco then turns to how language tried to "heal the wound of Babel." But throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, various languages were held up as the first language that God gave to Adam. Greek, Hebrew, Chinese, and Egyptian were alternately seen as the starting place for language.

These essays by Umberto Eco are prefaced with his conclusion that serendipity is the positive outcome of some ill-conceived idea.

Poetry and the Presidency

originally posted this at Poets Online and reposted it here in 2008, but it seems like something that might need to be read again in 2019.


 

I read in a post on the Library of Congress blog that in 1982, when Barack Obama was a 19-year-old student at Occidental College, he had 2 poems published in the spring issue of the school's literary magazine of the time.

Here's one of those poems:

Underground

Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.
Obama is taking on a job that is incomprehensibly difficult to most of us. I'm delighted that he even wrote poetry as a student, and I hope that it may still have a place in his life as reader and writer. But I'm surprised by the "analysis" that these two poems have been given in the press and online lately. (I know some of you are saying that I'm naive for even being surprised.)

The second poem, "Pop," is reported to be about his maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham.
Pop

Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes,
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the
Flim and flam of the world, since
Things have been easy for me;
I stare hard at his face, a stare
That deflects off his brow;
I’m sure he’s unaware of his
Dark, watery eyes, that
Glance in different directions,
And his slow, unwelcome twitches,
Fail to pass.
I listen, nod,
Listen, open, till I cling to his pale,
Beige T-shirt, yelling,
Yelling in his ears, that hang
With heavy lobes, but he’s still telling
His joke, so I ask why
He’s so unhappy, to which he replies...
But I don’t care anymore, cause
He took too damn long, and from
Under my seat, I pull out the
Mirror I’ve been saving; I’m laughing,
Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face
To mine, as he grows small,
A spot in my brain, something
That may be squeezed out, like a
Watermelon seed between
Two fingers.
Pop takes another shot, neat,
Points out the same amber
Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and
Makes me smell his smell, coming
From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem
He wrote before his mother died,
Stands, shouts, and asks
For a hug, as I shink, my
Arms barely reaching around
His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; ‘cause
I see my face, framed within
Pop’s black-framed glasses
And know he’s laughing too.

Someone asked Harold Bloom at Yale University to review it and he said it was “not bad—a good enough folk poem with some pathos and humor and affection... It is not wholly unlike Langston Hughes, who tended to imitate Carl Sandburg" and further says it is much superior to the poetry of former President Jimmy Carter whom Bloom calls "literally the worst poet in the United States."

I never knew critics were so interested (or tough!) on poetry in college literary magazines.

I picked up a book of Jimmy Carter's poetry in the library a few years ago, and I recall liking a few poems about fishing that were there. Great poetry? No. The worst poetry? Definitely not.

Presidents taking their chances on writing poetry is not without precedent.

How about this acrostic poem by George Washington?

From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you'l Find
Ah! woe's me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish'd, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was't free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.

John Tyler wrote several poems that have survived. One was written when his three-month old daughter Anne died in July 1825. Here are the opening stanzas to that elegy:

Oh child of my love, thou wert born for a day;
And like morning's vision have vanished away
Thine eye scarce had ope'd on the world's beaming light
Ere 'twas sealed up in death and enveloped in night.

Oh child of my love as a beautiful flower;
Thy blossom expanded a short fleeting hour.
The winter of death hath blighted thy bloom
And thou lyest alone in the cold dread tomb. . . . [4]

And we also have the precedent for the inclusion of poetry at Presidential inaugurals. Robert Frost recited "The Gift Outright" (PBS transcript) at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural. (Frost actually recited that poem from memory because he was unable to read the text of "Dedication" (PBS transcript) which he had written for the occasion because the sun was in his eyes. (video of Frost reading "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration)

Maya Angelou read "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural. (video of the reading) James Dickey read ''The Strength of Fields'' at Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural gala at the Kennedy Center.

Are any of you with me on thinking that having a President that reads, writes or at least has written and read poetry at some point is a GOOD thing?

Teaching the Language and Grammar of Film

The past few years, I have gotten back into teaching filmmaking. When I was doing graduate work in media with a focus on film and video, I came to believe that films can be treated as "texts" and that they can be "read" and analyzed, as I had done in my undergraduate studies in literature.

If films can be read like texts, then the language that films use must also have a kind of grammar that can explain its structures.

Roger Ebert used to do "shot at a time" workshop where he would examine a film closely. A film, like a novel, is very controlling. I think a film is even more controlling than a novel. When I read The World According to Garp, I had an idea about how Garp looked. My original sense was he looked like the author, John Irving. But after I saw the film version, Garp became - and still is - Robin Williams. Atticus Finch is Gregory Peck. When you watch a film, you only see what the camera’s eye shows us. The director, editor, cinematographer, actors, set designers, costumers and many others control (and at times manipulate) viewers. 

Knowing about the grammar of film allows you understand how that is done and can give you back some control over the way the film works. Part of the grammar is knowing the reasons why a long shot, medium shot, close up, or an extreme close up was chosen. Studying the language and grammar of the shot, the grammar of the edit will make you consider whether a high angle, a low angle, or eye level is used. Is the camera being objective or subjective? When the camera is subjective, we become one of the characters, and that can be like reading a first-person narrated novel. How does the pace of the edit affect an audience?

Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane offers many opportunities to illustrate film grammar

Every language teacher talks about composition. Every film teacher talks about the composition of shots and scenes. Look at how the director has arranged actors, objects and lighting.

Besides showing and discussing films, to teach the grammar of film you should really have students make films. Otherwise, you are teaching grammar in isolation. I learned through decades of teaching writing that grammar should be taught along with writing. Teaching grammar in isolation is not only boring, it is not effective.

You can start to teach students to make films on paper. Not every teacher has access to filmmaking gear - although today, many students are carrying a video camera in their pocket that is many times more powerful than the Super8 film cameras and video camcorders I first used in classes when I started teaching. Then and now, I have students use storyboarding as a way to really think about shots and angles and building a scene.

A wonderful "side effect" of teaching how to read a film and make a film is that it fosters critical thinking.  

I recently discovered Pixar in a Box which is a behind-the-scenes look at how Pixar artists do their jobs. It allows you to animate bouncing balls, build a swarm of robots, and make virtual fireworks explode. The program connects to math, science, computer science, and humanities in very natural ways. The project is a collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy and is sponsored by Disney. 

One part of the Art of Storytelling section is on the grammar of film

Basic Shot Types

 

Get Deeper Into This

How To Read a Film

Film Studies

Film Analysis

 

ELIZA and Chatbots

sheldonI first encountered a chatterbot, it was ELIZA on the Tandy/Radio Shack computers that were in the first computer lab in the junior high school where I taught in the 1970s.

ELIZA is an early natural language processing program that came into being in the mid-1960s at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The original was by Joseph Weizenbaum, but there are many variations on it.

This was very early artificial intelligence. ELIZA is still out there, but I have seen a little spike in interest because she was featured in an episode of the TV show Young Sheldon. The episode, "A Computer, a Plastic Pony, and a Case of Beer," may still be available at www.cbs.com. Sheldon and his family become quite enamored by ELIZA, though the precocious Sheldon quickly realizes it is a very limited program.

ELIZA was created to demonstrate how superficial human to computer communications was at that time, but that didn't mean that when it was put on personal computers, humans didn't find it engaging. Sure, kids had fun trying to trick it or cursing at it, but after awhile you gave up when it started repeating responses.

The program in all the various forms I have seen it still uses pattern matching and substitution methodology. She (as people often personified ELIZA), gives canned responses based on a keyword you input. If you say "Hello," she has a ready response. If you say "friend," she has several ways to respond depending on what other words you used. Early users felt they were talking to "someone" who understood their input.

ELIZA was one of the first chatterbots (later clipped to chatbot) and a sample for the Turing Test. That test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human, is not one ELIZA can pass by today's standards. ELIZA fails very quickly if you ask her a few complex questions.

The program is limited by the scripts that are in the code. The more responses you gave her, the more variety there will be in her answers and responses. ELIZA was originally written in MAD-Slip, but modern ones are often in JavaScript or other languages. Many variations on the original scripts were made as amateur coders played around with the fairly simple code.

One variation was called DOCTOR and was made to be a crude Rogerian psychotherapist who likes to "reflect" on your questions by turning the questions back at the patient.  This was the version that my students when I taught middle school found fascinating and my little programming club decided to hack the code and make their own versions.

Are chatbots useful to educators?  They have their uses, though I don't find most of those applications to be things that will change education in ways I want to see it change. I would like to see them used for things like e-learning support and language learning

If you want to look back at an early effort, you can try a somewhat updated version of ELIZA that I used in class at my NJIT website. See what ELIZA's advice for you turns out to be.

 

It's Not the Singularity Just Yet

There were some alerts this past summer that made it sound like an artificial intelligence (AI) system being developed at Facebook was taking over the world. At least that is what some anti-AI folks seemed to be saying. 

The story seemed to be that the AI had started its own conversation between two AI agents developed inside Facebook. They were speaking to each other in plain English. The revelation to the researchers was that because of a mistake in programming the AI had created its own language. It developed a system of code words to make communication more efficient. The researchers shut the system down when they realized it was no longer using English - and they didn't understand what the two agents were saying.

The "singularity" (at least the tech one, not the mathematical or gravitational versions) is the point hypothesized when an upgradeable artificial intelligence will enter a "runaway reaction" of self-improvement cycles. It improves itself to the point of being a superintelligence that surpasses human intelligence. It's when the machines are smarter than us. John von Neumann first used the term "singularity" back in the 1950s i talking about technological progress causing accelerating change.

Why is Facebook messing around with this? For one thing, they want to build chatbots that can have conversations and negotiate with humans in a way that mimics human responses so that they can then make decisions on their own.

Does that scare you?

Facebook was trying to get the chatbots working with a "partner" to divide up several objects that had different numerical points value. That requires negotiation to work out the best way to divide the objects and accumulate the highest possible number of points.

The event is not the first example of AI diverging from its training in English to develop its own language. The new language is nonsense to humans but has semantic meaning when interpreted by AI agents.

chatbotsA chatbot (like the ones shown conversing above) repeating "to me" five times might mean to run a routine five times. It's shorthand. A + B = C is the kind of unsophisticated math we can easily understand, but to the computer the “A” could mean thousands of line of code and that is when we are lost.

It's not that the Facebook chatbots gave up on using English in order to hide from the human observers, it was just more efficient to use another language.

The scary factor is that when Bob the chatbot says "I can can I I everything else” and chatbot Alice replies “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to” we really don't know what they are saying. 

At the OpenAI artificial intelligence lab founded by Elon Musk, they experimented with letting AI bots learn their own languages and it worked. This strikes fear in the hearts of many people, but there's not enough evidence to determine whether AI presents a real threat that could enable machines to overrule their operators.

The team that works on Google Translate believes that the AI created the most efficient solution to some problems.

The singularity is not here yet, but it is coming.