Month: February 2011

Languages are Languages – follow up

There are some interesting comments to my “languages are languages” post that I wanted to highlight — a disadvantage of blogs is that comments are often the best bit but are subservient to the posts they are on.  I also brought the subject up on the PPIG (Psychology of Programming Interest Group) mailing list, again prompting some enlightening discussion.

By the way, PPIG are holding a Work In Progress meeting here in Sheffield from the 18th-19th April.  A call for abstracts is out now.  Heartily recommended!

Languages are languages

Ian Bogost has an interesting argument that computer languages are not languages,  but systems.

He starts off arguing that learning a programming language shouldn’t meet a curricular requirement for learning a natural language.  That’s a fair argument, except he does so on the basis that computer languages are not languages at all.

”the ability to translate natural languages doesn’t really translate (as it were) to computer languages”

It clearly does translate.  You can either translate literally from C to Perl (but not really vice-versa), or idiomatically.  It’s straightforward to translate from C to English, but difficult to translate from English to C.  But then, it’s difficult to translate a joke between sign and spoken language; that doesn’t mean that sign language isn’t a language, indeed sign languages are just as rich as spoken ones…  The experience of signing is different from speaking, and so self-referential jokes don’t translate well.

We can approach translating from English to C in different ways though.  We can model the world described in a narrative in an object oriented or declarative fashion.  A human can get the sense of what is written in this language either by reading it, or perhaps by using it as an API, to generate works of art based on the encoded situation.  Or we could try to capture a sense of expectation in the narrative within temporal code structure, and output it as music.

From the comments:

”If we allow computer languages, we should allow recipes. Computer codes are specialized algorithms. So are recipes.”

This seems to be confusing utterances with languages.  Recipes are written in e.g. English.  Computer programs are written in e.g. C.

“[programming code is] done IN language, but it ISN’T language”

You could say the same of poetry, surely?  Poetry is done in language, but part of its power is to reach beyond language in new directions.  Likewise code is done in language, but you can also do language in code, by defining new functions or  parsing other languages.

The thing is that natural languages develop with a close relationship with the speaker, words being grounded in the human experience of their body and environment, and movements and relationships within it.  Computer languages aren’t based around these words, but we can still use the same symbolic references by using those words in the secondary notation of functions names and variables, or even by working with an encoded lexicon such as wordnet as data.  In doing so we are borrowing from a natural language, but we could just have easily used an invented language such as Esperanto.  Finally the language is grounded in the outside world when it is executed, through whatever modality or modalities its actuators allow, usually vision, sound and/or movement.

… replacing a natural language like French with a software language like C is a mixed metaphor.

Discussing computer language as if it were natural language surely isn’t a mixed metaphor, if anything it’s just a plain metaphor.  But both have strong family resemblances, because both are languages.

The claim that computer languages are not languages reads as an attempt to portray computer languages as somehow not human.  Get over it, digital computation is something that humans do with or without electronic hardware, we can do it to engage fully with all of our senses, and we can do it with language.  Someone (who I keep anonymous, just in case) said this on a mailing list recently:

“Having done a little bit of reading in Software Studies, I was surprised by just how many claims are invalidated with a single simple example of livecoding.”

I think that this is one of them.

The tyranny of deadline extensions

At least in my world, it has become normal and expected for deadlines to be extended by around a week. The only explanation given is something like ‘numerous requests by authors’. However I get the strong impression that the paper committees always intended to extend the deadline, and built it into their only schedules. So many conferences do this now that it is expected; I suspect that if a conference didn’t, they would get very few submissions.

There are particular conference seasons, and so often deadlines fall around the same date. This uncertainty can cause a lot of scheduling problems. It can also annoy those organised folks who work to original deadlines.

Most recently, a Monday deadline extension to the following Friday wasn’t announced until the Friday before. Until it was announced, I was wondering how much time I would be able to spend with my family over that weekend. To get around this kind of thing a couple of times, I have written to paper chairs a week or so before a deadline, politely asking whether their deadline will be extended, saying I have a tricky schedule. This worked once, although the other time I didn’t get a reply (unsurprisingly, the workload of a paper chair is unenviable).

So I propose a different approach; that deadline extensions are announced alongside the original deadlines, in the original call for proposals.

Obviously this makes no sense, but we (Nick Collins, Thor Magnusson and I) are trying it anyway in our call for video submissions, and it’ll be interesting to see how well it works. By pre-announcing the extension but being vague about what it will be, hopefully people will put the original deadline in their calendars and work to that. However while doing tricky scheduling they’ll be able to keep the extension in mind and avoid unwarranted stress…

Workshop output

The Text live coding workshop went really well, surprisingly well considering it was the first time anyone apart from me had used it and (so I found out after) most of the participants didn’t have any programming experience. The six participants took to the various combinators surprisingly quickly, the main stumbling block being getting the functions to connect in the right way… Some UI work to do there, and I got some valuable feedback on it.

Once the participants had got the hang of things on headphones, we all switched to speakers and the seven of us played acid techno for an hour or so together, in perfect time sync thanks to netclock. Here’s a mobile phone snippet:

The sound quality doesn’t capture it there, but for me things got really interesting musically, and it was fun walking around the room panning between the seven players…