Reflecting more on Amy Ko's recent work on Wordpla...
# thinking-together
a
Reflecting more on Amy Ko's recent work on Wordplay, I think part of what makes it successful is that it's an art project - playing with typography is just a really nice domain to make alternative programming languages in - playing with symbols, with symbols. It's a shame that the arts are often pushed out of 'future of coding' type circles. E.g. compare the first LIVE workshop on Live Programming which had loads of music-focussed contributions, with recent editions where the focus seems much more on abstract ideas for which 'real world' applications have not yet been found. My understanding is that part of the reason for this is that for CS academics, associating their work with creative applications is generally seen very much as a career-limiting move
Seems related..
c
Totally agree! Do you think Amy’s focus on youth education also had an impact of Wordplay?
a
That introduction sounds... well, it sounds like the author lives in a very different world than I do. He makes it sound like rigorous/non-natural languages are some conspiracy against communication, when the truth is that they keep convergently evolving because natural language simply does not do the job of communicating these things. People have tried doing math and computation in words over and over and it's miserable every time. More to the point, the abstract idea of an algorithm is very specifically a tool for communication, and evolved the way it did to be more effective in that role. Any argument that wants to claim it's actually an obstacle has a very heavy lift in front of it, and nothing in that intro suggests the author is aware of that. I would further claim than any notion of LLMs (I assume this is what he's referring to as "machine learning"?) breaking this trend is an illusion. They will either evolve some form of rigor or (more likely) produce inscrutable messes.
k
Algorithms and their mechanized forms we call computer programs are indeed merely the latest step in what I'd label as formal methods if that label weren't already taken by CS in some more specific sense. That's a line of thought that can be traced back at least to Leibniz and easily beyond, to antiquity. If there's a recent development that deserves criticism, it's the importance that algorithms have acquired in today's life. Computers have transformed them from a specialists' tool into one accessible not to everybody, but to a rather large elite, who is not always using it in the interest of the wider population.
a
I've only read the introduction of the book so far, but I don't think that's a fair characterisation of Binder's argument. Clearly granting mathematical abstractions objective existence is useful for sharing them, and he makes this clear. Ref 'machine learning' I think you're reading the promotional blurb which might well have been written by the series editor rather than the author.
I need to read more, but so far see this more as pointing out that the way we think about algorithms has been different in the past, and is changing now. It's a similar approach to Bret Victor in his "Future of Programming" talk. The 'future of programming' title seems to sometimes be taken unironically in this community but it's really about the past of programming, pointing out that in the early days, the possibilities were much more open than they are now, that programming has now got really stuck in a limited view of itself, and that we need to look back to look for ways of imagining an alternative future.
k
Thanks @Alex McLean for reminding is not to judge a book but a single page!
a
I'm interested to hear what his full argument is. I hope it's more specific than "the idea of an algorithm has changed over time". Anyway, the sole job of an introduction is to give you an idea of what the book is about, so I don't think it's unfair to pass provisional judgement on that basis.
a
I think the introduction is a really nice framing, and says much more than that.
I like this from page 12: "It is primarily these earlier ways of thinking—the ones that are noticeably different from modern computation—that I emphasize in this book. In the history of science, it is a methodological precept to avoid falling into the style called “Whig history”—to avoid, that is, describing historical developments through linear narratives of progress that implicitly side with the positions that won. Histories of mathematical symbols tend to be extremely Whiggish, complimenting authors who use notations that later became standard and chastising those who do not. I certainly do not mean to deny the advantages of symbolism, but my purpose is less to celebrate it than to understand it, and I accordingly hope to describe what was lost with the adoption of symbols as well as what was gained. I also hope to show that the symbolic method is not a fixed category. The ways people have understood symbols changed multiple times over the centuries, and the modern idea of algorithm is a product of particular circumstances and epistemological commitments."
I think there's an interesting parallel with musical staff notation here.. Some clear advantages in terms of communication, but also a great deal has been lost, e.g. the loss of canntaireachd in the scottish highlands
j
Whenever someone suggests that there’s something artificial about inventing formal notations, I’m reminded of this Bertrand Russell quote: “Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.”
a
@Jack Rusher hmm, artificial in what sense?
l
Hey I'll be presenting at this year's LIVE with a very art-for-arts-sake thing :) I've been pleasantly surprised with how positively people in the 'sphere' seem to respond to that sort of thing
j
@Alex McLean “attempts to maintain a disciplinary boundary separating technical knowledge from the languages people speak day to day” -> this doesn’t require a guild or gatekeepers or anything of that kind, as formal languages are required to communicate precisely (which is also one of the limiters of the natural language to software pipeline some would like to see LLMs produce)
a
@Lu Wilson that's great! I talked with the original organisers about this though and they were really open about the fact that they needed to disassociate their work from the arts for the sake of their careers. That's why they called it 'live programming' rather than 'live coding' - they wanted to create a new community that was separate from the existing community focussed on applications in the performing arts. That's totally understandable, but it's been a bit sad to see it drift away from acknowledging that community exists at all. To be fair there are probably similar separating forces on the other side.
@Jack Rusher Yep agreed that formal languages are required to communicate algorithms precisely, but again I don't think Binder's argument is that mathematics is bad or anything like that. It's more that people have worked with algorithms in different ways in the past, and that there are a lot of possibilities for the future. I'm a bit surprised to see pushback for this idea here - isn't that what the 'future of coding' is about?
I'm not personally interested in LLMs at all though.. I'm too old to really engage with another 'AI' wave. I'm here for the more general idea of looking at the history of language and algorithms as a way to see and work beyond contemporary assumptions.
j
As others mentioned above, we have only the extended description to go by without reading the text. The description (which I agree was likely not written by the author) leans in the direction to which I’m reacting. I’ll be happy to read your more accurate review of the book! 🙂
a
I've quoted a couple of bits from the introduction.
l
@Alex McLean That's interesting, thanks! Some people don't realise that art and science are often more intertwined than they seem. It's not one or the other