The purpose of language by Chomsky

In the following Google video, Noam Chomsky raises and answers the interesting question: what amazing insights into language have linguistics revealed, which the public does not know about?.

He answers that human natural language was propably developed to support the human thinking process, not to serve as a means of communication. He believes that language might have evolved long before it was first used for communication. He goes as far as saying that the design of human natural language makes it unfit for communication.

I find his language-is-for-thinking point is very interesting. I’m currently finishing a PhD, and it would explain the difficulties I sometimes have when trying to convert between language for thinking into language for communicating my thoughts. There is even a phd-comic about it.

As very often with Chomsky, the talk weaves in and out between political and linguistic topics. Interestingly enough, he does not shy away from mentioning and criticizing Google’s part in state oppression through cooperation with NSA. That might seem like a breach of some sort of social etiquette, however, he was strongly encouraged to “speak truth to power” by the person introducing him. Be careful what you ask for.

Recursive relationship between humans, computers and human societies

This post is influenced by a talk I had with Marcos Vaz Salles and a debate that happened between Foucault and Chomsky in 1970.

The relationship between humans and societies is a recursive relationship. Human beings influence societies and societies in turn influence human beings. Next, humans are influencing the societies that they themselves have been influenced by. Total entanglement. A composite and recursive organism.

Recently, we have added a new recursive layer to the already recursive organism of humans plus society, namely the computer. When computers were first created, the relationship between humans and computers seemed non-recursive. Naïvely, in the good old days, humans coded computers, not the other way around. That may no longer be true, and perhaps it never was. Increasingly, computer algorithms are influencing the structure of human societies, e.g. through algorithmically controlled social networks. By transitivity, the influence that computers have on societies is propagated to humans. Furthermore, computers have recently gained the ability to code human beings directly. Computer algorithms are now used to synthesize new gene sequences for human beings, some of which are actually born. These human beings in turn can code computers, and again we come full circle. At this point in history we are a three-way recursive organism: humans plus computers plus societies.

In a debate between Foucault and Chomsky, Foucault raises the question whether we can discover and encode the system of regularity and constraints that makes science possible, outside the human mind. This question was preceded by the consensus that the human creative process can achieve complex results exactly because it is limited and governed by finite rules. Furthermore, it was agreed that humans, because we are limited, can only formulate certain theories. Do societies have the ability to construct classes of theories that human individuals can not, and what happens when we add the computer to the recursive definition? If so, can these otherwise unreachable theories be codified in a way so they can be understood by humans? Can humans instruct computers to use theories that we do not have the ability to discover or even understand ourselves?

Do What You Want

The message of this movie is “do what you want”. The video is a meditative portrait of a man who was once a successful medical doctor, and who as 60+ lives in a small studio in Los Angeles (i think). Every day, he goes out to skate the beaches of Southern California with a big smile on his face. He does not seem crazy, although I don’t know for sure. He tells us that he had an opportunity and took it. He decided to stop being an asshole, and start being spiritual.

If, like me, you are a parent of a two-year old and a four-year old, I hope you will interleave the “do what you want” part with an adequate or more dosis of “take care of your children”. Another message of the video is that it is never to later to realize yourself. Even when you are 60+ years old. Until then, happy grinding!

Slomo from The New York Times – Video on Vimeo.

The scale of the Danish cyber effort

How much money does Denmark spend on cyber defense, compared to the U.S? In total and per citizen. This is what I’ll look at in this post. I’ll also try to get an initial idea of what is going on. Why am I doing this? Actually, just out of curiosity, and to kill some time before I have my hair cut.

Picking up the paper-paper (Politiken) this morning I read a short opinion-piece about the intelligence branch of the danish armed forced (FE: Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste), and in particular the new Center for Cybersecurity. The concern is that this new center is going to spy on ordinary Danish citizens (NSA-style). It made me curious, and I decided to investigate for myself.

Web soldiers during combat. Not entirely sure that’s not World of Warcraft.

In 2011 the center was established, with a fairly modest annual budget of 35 million DKK a year (out of a 90 million DKK budget in 2014 for cyber efforts by the Danish Ministry of Defense; increased to 150 million DKK in 2016). This is a modest budget, given the amount of money truly skilled IT-professionals charge an hour and what IT equipment costs in general, but also compared to what other institutions in Denmark receive. For example the Danish Geodata Agency, which I’ve had the great pleasure of working for, has annual budget of more than 200 million DKK.

So 90 million DKK for cyber defense versus 200 million DKK for geographical data (2014).

In the United States, the Defense Department allocates $4.7 billion on the annual budget for “cyber efforts”. Making the currency conversion, that is 25 billion DKK versus 90 million DKK, a ration of 277:1.

Red square is Danish budget, blue square is U.S. budget:

The population of the United States is 313 million people. The population ratio between the U.S. and Denmark is approximately 62:1. The United States thus spends roughly 4.5 times more money per capita on cyber efforts than Denmark.

Dollars spent on cyber efforts per person in the U.S and in Denmark:

When trying to understand the motivation for national cyber efforts, Danish independent media seems to focus on the threat posed by industrial espionage (from abroad?) against Danish companies (1, 2, 3). This is surely a real threat, and should be a primary mission IMO.

The stated mission of the center, as described on the homepage for the center, is a bit more vague. It goes something like this:

Styrke Danmarks modstandsdygtighed mod trusler rettet mod samfundsvigtig informations- og kommunikationsteknologi (ikt); Sikre forudsætningerne for en robust ikt-infrastruktur i Danmark; Varsle om og imødegå cyberangreb med henblik på at styrke beskyttelsen af danske interesser.

I’m not really sure what that means concretely. What the paper-paper (Politiken) is concerned about is that the center is going to spy on Danish and foreign citizens. Given the modest annual budget and the usual burn-rate in public administration, I think this is going to be a rather weak threat to our privacy. Another question is, what should the primary mission of the center be, and how should that mission be accomplished? In any event, 90 million DKK do not go a long way towards anything. That being said, I’d certainly curious about what the money IS spent on. If I learn, I’m not sure I’ll post it on my personal blog, so don’t hold your breath.

This was primarily a way to pass some time before I have my hair cut (in five minutes).

When to be most careful about catching the flu?

Continuing on my blogification of Peter Norvigs excellent talk, the question is, when to watch out for the flu, e.g. if you live in Denmark?

1) Go to www.google.com/trends/
2) Type in the word “influenza”
3) Select your geographical region (Denmark in my case)
4) See data up to year 2008, to avoid the graph being squished by the outbreak of A(H1N1) (which leads to unusually many people talking about the flu)

Turns out the answer is: watch out in October and February.

How long is a year?

How to find out how long a year is on Earth by only analyzing text? This approach is lifted straight from an excellent and very inspiring talk by Peter Norvig.

1) Go to www.google.com/trends/
2) Type in the word “Icecream”
3) Measure the distance between the peaks (turns out that the average is exactly the length of a year)

Playing with GraphViz and MathGenealogy data

Math in Genealogy is a great project (donate online). Sven Köhler from Potsdam, Germany has written a python script for visualizing the database, which I’m going to try.

First step is to clone the git repo:

$ git clone git@github.com:tzwenn/MathGenealogy.git

His instructions are quite simple:

$ ./genealogy.py --search 38586  # 30 seconds
$ ./genealogy.py --display 38586 > euler.dot  # 0.1 seconds

Next step is to install e.g. GraphViz, which is needed to visualize the dot file as a graph. Go to the download page for GraphViz, and follow instructions for your OS.

This should install the commandline tool also. Now you can visualize Leonard Euler’s supervisor family tree (direct descendants) like this:

$ dot euler.dot -Tpng -o euler.png

Looking at the database is easy. Every invocation of ./genealogy.py –search writes to a sqlite3 database file (genealogy.db).

$ sqlite3 genealogy.db

This opens up a prompt. Have a look at the schema of the database like this:

sqlite> .schema

And see what is inside the thesis table like this:

sqlite> select * from thesis;

Gregory Palamas 1363

This stuff blows my mind.

Gregory Palamas (1296–135), spelled Γρηγόριος Παλαμάς in greek, was a monk on Mount Athos, a place I’ve visited with my father two times. It is a beautiful peninsula in northern Greece, scattered with old monasteries, the entire half-island being the sole domain of men.

Simonopetra, Mount Athos.
Simonopetra, Mount Athos.

Palamas eventually became the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, which is a city I incidentally happened to live in from 1995-1996. Below is a picture of Gregory Palamas, in the form of an icon.

Gregorio Palamas
Gregorio Palamas

In his early youth, My father (Georgios Kefaloukos) was also a monk on Mount Athos. There he learned the art of icon painting, and could have painted one of Palamas, although I don’t think he did. Below is a picture of my father taken on Mount Athos.

My Father, Georgios Kefaloukos on Mount Athos.
My Father on Mount Athos in 1966

When I first heard about the Math in Genealogy project, I was thrilled to find out that a Gregory Palamas, who lived long ago and was the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, apparently had a transitive relationship with people in science through an unbroken chain of mentoring (112861 “descendants” in total). I became curious, and wanted to find out which famous people he might be connected to.

While Palamas was the Archbishop of Thessaloniki he mentored Nilos Kabasilas (1298-1363), who later replaced him as Archbishop. Nilos in turn mentored Demetrios Kydones (1333-1397) and this lineage of mentoring continues in an unbroken line, through many scholars and countries, until we eventually arrive in Germany and at the famous mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauß in 1799.

Gauß himself mentored a few students, one of whom was Christian Ludwig Gerling (1788-1864), who went on to mentor Julius Plücker (1801-1868) and so forth. Again the chain of mentoring continues until we reach Marcos Vaz Salles, a Brazilian Tenure-Track Assistant Professor at the University of Copenhagen, which is the city I was born in… And here comes the surprising part, for me at least, because Marcos is now mentoring me, together with Professor Martin Zachariasen!

An unbroken line of guys mentoring guys:

  1. Gregory Palamas
  2. Nilos Kabasilas, 1363
  3. Demetrios Kydones
  4. Manuel Chrysoloras
  5. Guarino da Verona, 1408
  6. Vittorino da Feltre, Università di Padova, 1416
  7. Ognibene (Omnibonus Leonicenus) Bonisoli da Lonigo, Università di Mantova
  8. Niccolò Leoniceno, Medicinae Dr., Università di Padova, 1453
  9. Antonio Musa Brasavola, Medicinae Dr., Università degli Studi di Ferrara, 1520
  10. Gabriele Falloppio, Medicinae Dr., Università di Padova / Università degli Studi di Ferrara, 1547
  11. Hieronymus (Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente) Fabricius, Medicinae Dr., Università di Padova, 1559
  12. Adriaan van den Spieghel, Medicinae Dr., Université Catholique de Louvain / Università di Padova, 1603
  13. Adolph Vorstius, Philosophiae Dr., Medicinae Dr., Universiteit Leiden / Università di Padova, 1619, 1622
  14. Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius, Medicinae Dr., Universiteit Leiden / Universität Basel, 1634, 1637
  15. Rudolf Wilhelm Krause, Medicinae Dr., Universiteit Leiden, 1671
  16. Simon Paul Hilscher, Medicinae Dr., Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, 1704
  17. Johann Andreas Segner, Magister artium, Medicinae Dr. Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, 1726, 1734
  18. Johann Georg Büsch, Magister, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, 1752
  19. Johann Elert Bode, Handelsakademie Hamburg
  20. Johann Friedrich Pfaff, Dr. phil. Georg-August-Universität Göttingen 1786
  21. Carl Friedrich Gauß, Ph.D., Universität Helmstedt, 1799
  22. Christian Ludwig Gerling, Dr. phil., Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, 1812
  23. Julius Plücker, Ph.D., Philipps-Universität Marburg, 1823
  24. C. Felix (Christian) Klein, Dr. phil., Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, 1868
  25. Philipp Furtwängler, Ph.D., Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, 1896
  26. Nikolaus Hofreiter, Dr. phil., Universität Wien, 1927
  27. Edmund Hlawka, Dr. phil., Universität Wien, 1938
  28. Hermann Adolf Maurer, Ph.D., Technische Universität Wien, 1965
  29. Hans-Peter Kriegel, Dr. rer. nat., Universität Fridericiana zu Karlsruhe, 1976
  30. Bernhard Seeger, Dr.-Ing., Universität Bremen, 1989
  31. Jens-Peter Dittrich, Dr. rer. nat., Philipps-Universität Marburg, 2002
  32. Marcos Antonio Vaz Salles, Ph.D., Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, 2008
  33. Me, getting mentored in 2013

Daniel Grosu, an Associate Professor at Wayne State University has managed to track the mentor lineage through Palamas and even further back to John Mauropous (990-1092), who was a scholar at the University of Constantinople. He was a Byzantine Greek poet, hymnographer and author of letters and orations, living in the 11th century AD. And that is where the tale ends. For now.