The brain is no computer

Right with its development, the comparision of the computer and our brain started and it goes on till today. If I remember correctly, in the times before, the comparision was between complex mechanical systems as steam machines and the brain as you may see in idioms as "letting of steam". But todays allegories go further - people not only compare the brain with a computer but also think it would indeed work likewise. In the Machine Translation discursus sometimes there would be the argument, that a human brain would not use language e.g. like a statistics based system (and here comes Chomsky who claims it would work with a lexicon and a grammar which is also wrong). The answer often is the comparision with a plane which does not fly as a bird does - but it flies. The attempts to let planes fly like birds were not as successfull as those that used the internal rules (i.e. the laws of thermodynamics) but adapted them to large objects made of steel. So: It does not matter if the brain works like a computer, it matters if we do the right things with brains/computers to make them intelligent. Ok, not quite the discussion I started with. Here is a very interesting article about the brain and how it works and why it is not a computer at all:

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

aeon: The empty brain

Der In Der In Der In Der In

Recently I stumbled upon my own blog article on linguistic repetition plays. As I write most of my blog posts mainly to remind myself of things, it was a quite interesting read ;-) In the meantime I have found another German repetition play I really like. It is presented in the form of a riddle: "Bilden Sie mal einen Satz mit viermal 'der in'" ("Build a German sentence that uses four times 'der in'?") The solution ist as easy as it is surprising:

Der Inder in der Inderin.

Translation: The male Indian inside of the female Indian. 

Those "Can you say a sentence" jokes have been pretty popular when my parents were younger so there is quite a number of them:

Sag mal einen Satz mit...

  • Dresden -> Steckst nen Finger in die Nase und dresden (i.e. drehst ihn)
  • Weihnachtsfest -> Der Hirsch hält sein Geweih nachts fest
  • Weihnachtsstern -> Mich würd so ein Geweih nachts stern (störn)

On this page by Michael Schreiner are a lot of other examples

Jennifer Weist: Tattoos of the last Unicorn and Alchemy

As you may remember, I posted an article on a Rilke quote tattoed on Lady Gaga some time ago. (And there is another interesting post on Rilke and the series "The Magicians" as well). But the other day I stumbled upon the fact that the heavy tattooed German singer Jennifer Weist from the band Jennifer Rostock has a literary tattoo on her leg aswell, see photo. In this case, it is not Rilke, but a slightly modified quote from the movie "The Last Unicorn" or may be the book by Peter S. Beagle

In German, it goes like this:

Du kannst die anderen
finden, wenn Du Mut hast.
Sie verschwanden von allen
Straßen vor langer Zeit.
Er rannte dicht hinter ihnen
und verwischte ihre Spuren.
Als Kalb schon war er
gewaltig wie ein König und
seine Hörner sind riesige
Flammenspeere. Mit ihnen
wird er sie jagen, sie alle,
bis ans Ende der Welt.

The full version is interrupted by the butterfly and resolutes the pronous "Er" and "Sie" with "der rote Stier" (the red bull) and "Die Einhörner" (the unicorns) and you can listen to the text, which is told by the singing butterfly right at the beginning of the movie, in this gruesome edited clip (at 3:30):

The English transcription is, according to scifiscripts as follows:

BUTTERFLY: (strange voice) No, no, listen.  Don't listen to me, listen.  You 
can find the others if you are brave.
(Shows unicorns running down a path, and a great red mass chasing them.)
BUTTERFLY (voice only) They passed down all the roads long ago, and the 
Red Bull ran close behind them and covered their footsteps.
UNICORN: Red Bull?  What is the Red Bull?
BUTTERFLY: Hold tight.  Hold tight.  Hold tight, hold tight.  ...(same strange 
voice) His firstling bull has majesty, and his horns are the horns of a wild 
ox.  With them, he shall push the unicorns, all of them, to the ends of the 
earth.  Listen, listen, listen quickly!

So the tattoo would be in English:

You can find the others
if you are brave.
They passed down all the roads
long ago.
He ran close behind them
and covered their footsteps.
His firstling bull has majesty,
and his horns are the horns
of a wild ox. With them,
he shall push them, all of them,
to the ends of the earth.

I really love the movie and think that Jennifer took an impressive choice with this quote - I would have never ever even come to the idea to chose this quote as a tattoo - but now as I see it I really adore it and its message, style and tone.

There are two other tattoos by Jennifer Weist I have been interested in. The one is a songtext right down at her ankle of the other leg. It's "Comin' home" by City and Color, a really beautiful song about someone travelling the world by always longing to come home. 

The other one is a combination of four obviously meaningful symbols on her side (take a look here at Jennifers Instagram account) . Although I spent quite a lot of time on it, I was not able to decode them satisfactorily. One idea I came up with is that the symbols are alchemical symbols for the four elements, although one has to change alphabets to read them (i.e. there is no single alphabet of alchemical symbols that contains all four of them). Another idea would be planets, but I haven't found them neither. 

  1. A circled dot represents the sun or fire or gold in classic alchemy
  2. A small delta δ - following my theory of the four elements, this would be "air". Unfortunaltey, I don't find a reference for this. Except the Delta Airline, of course. ...
  3. A cut triangle pyramid on the top represents earth in classic alchemy
  4. The letter upsilon Ʊ represents life according to this list of basic alchemy symbols; as it looks like a goblet it may also refer to water

So, this remains mysterious for me. The four elements, btw., are generally represented symbologically like this: 

Feuer = fire

Erde = earth

Luft = air

Wasser = water

So, after all this discussion on tattoos on Jennifers body, I want to get you an impression of Jennifer Weists art: she is one of the best German writers and has a very impressive voice. This is my favorite song by Jennifer Rostock, "Schlaflos": 

And the lyrics with translation:

SCHLAFLOS (by Jennifer Rostock)

Straßenbahnfahrpläne, altbekannte Landkarten,
Schädel voller Schandtaten, Taschen voller Pfandmarken
Geh' nach Haus, schlaf' dich aus, es ist schon spät.
Schrecksekunde, Sperrstunde, noch die letzte Runde schmeißen,
bis mich die Hunde beißen. Altbekannte Wunden reißen auf,
geh' nach Haus, schlaf' dich aus, so gut es geht.

Ich bin der letzte Schatten, der noch durch die Gassen irrt,
In meiner Hand ein Licht, das mit der Zeit verblassen wird,
Lass' das Streicholz brennen, solang' es geht.
Ich nehm' die letzte Bahn, wieder diese Strecke fahr'n
Zuhause Decke über'n Kopf und an die Decke starr'n
Der Schlüssel steckt, ich sperr dich aus, doch es ist zu spät.

Du bist so laut in meinem Kopf und alles dreht sich,
Ich versuch' dich zu vergessen, doch es geht nicht,
Ich lieg' wach und bleib' ratlos,
Was soll ich tun? Du machst mich schlaflos.
Die Stille liegt mir in den Ohren und es zerreißt mich,
Ich zähl' die Stunden bis zum Morgen und ich weiß nicht,
Was muss passieren? Ich bleib ratlos.
Was soll ich tun? Du machst mich schlaflos.

Schlaflos, schlaflos, schlaflos...

Mitternacht, Kopfkino, Super-Acht-Projektion,
Ach, die Gedanken sind in Bild und Ton unsynchron,
Ein Projektor der nur stottert, nur funktioniert.
Die Tapete in den Zimmern hört nicht auf sich zu errinern,
Deine Schatten sind noch immer hier und flimmern
Wie durch unsichtbare Blender an den Wänden projeziert.
Der Filmstreifen hängt in immergleichen Schleifen fest,
Die Bilder springen wie ein Insekt, das sich nicht greifen lässt,
Das Geschwirre macht mich irre und es hält mich wach.

Wie unter Fieber werden Glieder heiß, Atem kalt,
Was sich mit Wiederhaken dann in meine Laken krallt,
Ist die Angst vor der Nacht und was sie mit mir macht.

Du bist so laut in meinem Kopf und alles dreht sich,
Ich versuch dich zu vergessen doch es geht nicht,
Ich lieg' wach und bleib' ratlos,
Was soll ich tun? Du machst mich schlaflos.
Die Stille liegt mir in den Ohren, es zerreißt mich,
Ich zähl' die Stunden bis zum Morgen und ich weiß nicht,
Was muss passieren? Ich bleib ratlos.
Was soll ich tun? Du machst mich schlaflos.

Schlaflos, schlaflos, schlaflos...
Was soll ich tun? Du machst mich schlaflos.

Straßenbahnfahrpläne, alt bekannte Landkarten,
Schädel voller Schandtaten, Taschen voller Pfandmarken
Geh' nach Haus, schlaf' dich aus, es ist schon spät...

Evidence of beginning relationships in Facebook

Talking about personal data: Did you ever wonder what exactly Facebook is seeing in your data? This article describes an interesting example in Detail:

“During the 100 days before the relationship starts, we observe a slow but steady increase in the number of timeline posts shared between the future couple.”

The Atlantic: When You Fall in Love, This Is What Facebook Sees

Answering Client E-Mails

Have you ever been asked to join a project and having problems to find an adequate answer? Is the budget too low? The client a nonprofit? The timeline too short? This excellent Client Email Helper by Jessica Hische may be helpful. At first I thought this needs to be funny as such offers often try to be - but it is indeed a useful companion I want to truly recommend.

Negotiating incoming project terms over email is difficult for even the well-seasoned professional. I’ve created this handy tool to help you say “no” to free and low-budget work and to help ask for more favorable contract terms before the start of a project.

Jessica’s Client Email Helper

Interlingua in Google Translate

Machine Translation is the master discipline in the computational linguistics; it was one of the first major tasks defined for computers back in the times of Post-World War II. Warren Weaver, an American science administrator stated in a famous memorandum called "Translation" in 1949: „It is very tempting to say that a book written in Chinese is simply a book written in English which was coded into the 'Chinese code'. If we have useful methods for solving almost any cryptographic problem, may it not be that with proper interpretation we already have useful methods for translation?

After many ups and downs in the coming decades, the first real breakthrough came with fast PCs, fast web connections and the possibility to compile and process immense language data sets. But instead of compiling grammar sets in order to define one language and than another and their relationships, the use of statisical models became en vouge: Instead of years of linguistical work, they used some weeks of processing with similar results. While rules based systems created nice looking sentences with often stupid word choiced, statistics based systems created stupid looking sentences with good phrase quality. One thing, linguists as well as statisticians were always dreaming about was the so called Interlingua. A kind of a neutral language in between which would allow to translate the pure meaning of one sentence into this Interlingua and afterwards to construct a sentence in the target language that bears the same meaning. There is a common three step pyramide to the describe the raising quality of machine translation:
First level: Direct translation from one language to another
Second level: Transfer using one elaborated way or another, e.g. rules, statistics, etc.
Third level: Using an Interlingua.

There were many attempts, from planned languages as Esperanto up to semantic primes and lexical functions - the result was always the same: There is no Interlingua. "Meaning" is a to complex concept to model it in a static way.

In 2006, Google released Google Translate, a nowadays very popular system of MT that was statistics based originally, created by the German computer scientist Franz Josef Och (not at Human Longevity). This was an event that inspired me in a very personal way to focus my linguistics career on computational lingustics and inspired me to write my Magister Thesis with the Title "Linguistic Approaches to improve Statistical Machine Translation" (Linguistische Ansätze zur Verbesserung von statistischer maschineller Übersetzung) at the University of Kassel. This is 10 years ago. Recently, I talked to a friend about the success of the Google AI beating of the first Go-Master Lee Sedol using a neural network. Would this be able to change Machine Translation aswell? 

In September, Google announced in their research blog that they are switching their Translation system from statistics based to the Google Neural Machine Translation (GNMT), "an end-to-end learning framework that learns from millions of examples, and provided significant improvements in translation quality". This system is able to make zero shot translation, as they write in an article published three days ago, on November 22th. A zero shot translation is a translation between two languages while the system does not have examples of translation between those two, e.g. it is trained by examples to translate between English and Japanese and between English and Corean, a zero shot translation would be between a data-less translation Japanese and Corean.. As Google state in their blog:

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time this type of transfer learning has worked in Machine Translation. 
The success of the zero-shot translation raises another important question: Is the system learning a common representation in which sentences with the same meaning are represented in similar ways regardless of language — i.e. an “interlingua”?

This is indeed hard to tell: Neural networks are closed systems. The computer is learning something out of a data set in an intelligent but incomprehensible and obscure way. But Google is able to visualize the produced data and you've got to take a look at the blog post to understand this in detail, but: 

Within a single group, we see a sentence with the same meaning but from three different languages. This means the network must be encoding something about the semantics of the sentence rather than simply memorizing phrase-to-phrase translations. We interpret this as a sign of existence of an interlingua in the network. 

Google, this is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing!

Image: Mihkelkohava Üleslaadija 

On the tracks of Lovecraft

Two months ago I traveled the East Coast and urged my family to visit Providence / Rhode Island as well. We just made a minor stop there but I tried to see as many sites as possible that are related to the famous horror-, fantasy- and science fiction-author Howard Philips Lovecraft. Due to the fact that we were there for only a night and half a day we just saw the Lovecraft Square, one of his former houses, some streets near Brown University and, of course, his grave a the Swanpoint Cemetery. Unfortunatley, I was not able to visit the Brown University Library in order to study the Lovecraft Collection. I hope that I will have a chance to get there later.
In the Lovecraft Arts and Sciences Shop in the center of Providence I bought "The Annotated Lovecraft", a monumental tome with the most relevant stories by Lovecraft, completed by hundreds of interesting annotations explaining his inspirations, hidden connections and scientific or occult backgrounds. My salutations to the nice shop keeper - we talked a moment about living in Berlin and making music and it was so cool. Thanks!
(Note my Cthulhu-themed t-shirt by one of my favorite bands, the German independent gothic classic horror psycho chamber story-telling industrial rockers Janus)

Game of Thrones: Hodor Translation

One of my favorite characters in Game of Thrones is Hodor, the so called "gentle giant" although there are more nameworthy giants in GOT aswell. Hodor is only able to say his name, but as actor Kristian Nairn statet, he has found 70 different ways to do so. But, to be honest, his leaked script does not emphasize the one or the other way to pronounce it.

In the course of the show it became revealed, that Hodor was not always simple minded but that some incident in his past changed the stable boy to the Buddha-like Hodor we know. What happend, was revealed in Season 6 Episode "the Door". If you don't know it yet and don't want to be spoilered, you should avoid reading about GOT in the web. Otherwise you can see here a nice example of a classical translation problem: A word (the name "Hodor") reveals a hidden meaning a long time after you used it the first time so you have had no possibility to adapt the word in a way that allows to reveal the hidden meaning adequatly in the target language aswell - and now you've got to deal with this. How could one ever know, that "Hodor" is kind of an abbreviation of "Hold the door"? For languages similar to English as German, it was a comparatively easy task as the word "Hold" in German is "Halt" and the word "Door" may be translated with the related word "Tor" (which actually means "gate" but it may be tolerable to be used for doors aswell), so you can make "Hold the door = Hodor" to "Halt das Tor = Hodor" without problems. Other languages as Russian have had bigger issues with this, as you may see in this interesting overview or even hear in this "language test". 


Image: Kristian Nairn speaking at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con International in San Diego, California by Gage Skidmore

We all live in a Virtual Reality

Human civilization has always been a virtual reality.  At the onset of culture, which was propagated through the proto-media of cave painting, the talking drum, music, fetish art making, oral tradition and the like, Homo sapiens began a march into cultural virtual realities, a march that would span the entirety of the human enterprise.  We don’t often think of cultures as virtual realities, but there is no more apt descriptor for our widely diverse sociological organizations and interpretations than the metaphor of the “virtual reality.”  Indeed, the virtual reality metaphor encompasses the complete human project.

How VR Gaming will Wake Us Up to our Fake Worlds by Eliott Edge



Image: Virtual Reality Demonstrations; The 2015 ISOJ on the University of Texas-Austin campus, Apr. 18, 2015. Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/Knight Center