Sunday, October 23, 2016

Languages which mess with your head

Ian Watson now languishes in Spanish obscurity. He wrote, however, some wonderful science-fiction including the unsettling "The Embedding".

Extract from this review.
"The novel opens in a British research institute, where the linguist Chris Sole teaches a rare form of language to four children living in an artificial environment. The language is English, but grammatically restructured by a computer: an English "auto-embedded" that no person regularly socialized can speak. The aim of the experiment is to discover if the grammar is inherent in the human brain, or if you can train individuals to think in more complex grammars, which would open new possibilities for the mind."
Here's an example of the auto-embedded language: 'This is the malt that the rat that the cat that the dog worried killed ate.' A computer system translates the researchers' conversation into this embedded form and plays it to the children - so this is the grammatical form in which they are forced to acquire language. On the assumption the brain is plastic enough that this could happen.
"Meanwhile, in Brazil, a friend of Chris Sole is studying an Indian tribe known as xemahoa. A flood threatens the territory of the xemahoa because of a large dam built by the Brazilian military government with the financial and technical assistance from the United States. Anthropologist Pierre Darriand is proud to have discovered that xemahoa speak two kinds of language: everyday language and a second language, rhapsodic, employed under the influence of a drug. This "xemahoa B" is a language "autoembedded" with a seemingly incomprehensible syntax, very similar to the artificial language Sole teaches the four children in England.

"A third element appears in the story. An alien spaceship arrives, and Chris Sole is sent to the United States to try to communicate with the occupants of the ship. The aliens call themselves sp'thra and learn English very quickly. Sole discovers that languages ​​are its main concern: they want to exchange technology for live human brains, "programmed" to speak different languages ​​on Earth and grow greatly excited by the discoveries of Pierre Darriand in the Amazon basin and ask for some live xemahoa brains."
It does not end well.


There is a category of programming languages which are intentionally beyond difficult. They are know as esoteric programming languages (sometimes shortened to esolangs).

The class includes the mellifluously-named 'brainf**k' but my favourite is Malbolge, invented by Ben Olmstead in 1998 and named after the eighth circle of hell in Dante's Inferno.
"Malbolge was specifically designed to be almost impossible to use, via a counter-intuitive 'crazy operation', base-three arithmetic, and self-altering code." *
In fact the author of Malbolge was unable himself to write a program in it.

In the end it required an AI system to write the first program, using a form of 'best-first' search in the space of all possible programs.

Here is the "Hello World!" program in Malbolge.


Don't ask!


* Malbolge design trivia.
After each instruction is executed, the guilty instruction gets encrypted so that it won't do the same thing next time, unless a jump just happened. Right after a jump, Malbolge will encrypt the innocent instruction just prior to the one it jumped to instead.
And here's a picture of one of the denizens of the Malbolge.

Seems like a typical programmer to me ..

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