Monthly Archives: August 2011

Research: Starting Grad School

There are a lot of things that I could talk about (there are already four post-its on my monitor reminding me of this fact), so I’m going to be bouncing around quite a bit. I want to talk about grad school now, though, and air out some of my thoughts on the research I am doing/plan to do.

I’m taking three courses this semester. Two of them look like they’re going to consist of a lot of review (or at least looking at old concepts in new ways), but I’m also taking a linguistics course. It’s on formal semantics, so of course it’s related to the broad area of math/CS/logic/etc. that I’m interested in, but I think it’s going to be very helpful for getting me to think about things in the right way.

What do I mean by “the right way”? First off, I don’t mean objectively the right way; I mean the right way for my own style/interests. If I may paraphrase something that Bob Harper said when talking about the connections between programming languages, logic, and category theory: if you discover the same concepts arising independently in three different areas of study, it’s clear that you have hit upon a fundamental fact of the way humans reason.

My own butcherings and/or misinterpretations of things Bob said aside, I think this is an excellent thing to keep in mind when approaching research in any of these areas, for a few reasons. First, and most obviously, when you are studying something in one of those areas, think about the connections you can make to the others. Now, my category theory is still not really up to par, but the Curry-Howard correspondence (which is the coolest thing ever and the reason I’m in grad school right now) is an excellent example of a methodology. Thinking about logic? Consider how it would impact a programming language. Thinking about a programming language? Think: does it feel like something you could describe as a logic?

This has been done for a while, and even taught in a few undergrad courses that I’ve taken, but I think the other reason is a bit less emphasized, or maybe even a bit less teachable. If the connections between these things happened because they are fundamental to how humans reason, then what other, unexplored methods of human reason have applications in these areas? This, I think, is the area that I am really interested in, but I don’t think I’ve done a good job of making my meaning clear, so here are a few examples.

A while ago (as my livejournal friends know), I talked about a “logic of obligation”, as I’ve taken to calling it. It started when I was trying to formalize (in my mind, at least) what we mean when we say “X should do Y”. I think I’ve got a decent account of it now, though it’s been a while since I’ve thought about it; I should probably actually write something up about it at some point. But the point is that it came about when I took something I said quite often—“X should do Y”—and tried to think about it in a precise, formal manner.

Another example: a couple of weeks ago, I started working with some folks here on a (new, better) programming language for interactive fiction. The guy who approached me about it has actually been talking to Zarf, who is not entirely satisfied with the current state of IF languages. There are slides from a talk he gave on the topic, but the main idea was that he was thinking about things as rules, and exceptions to rules. As it turns out, there’s a logic for that (logics are kind of like apps!) called “defeasible logic” whose purpose is to deal with rules that may have exceptions. From what I can tell, defeasible logic hasn’t been studied very in-depth, which is something I would really like to fix. And again, it exactly matches the way Zarf thinks: “A, unless B, unless C, unless D, unless…”. Rules, and exceptions, and exceptions to exceptions, and so on. This doesn’t come out of nowhere, or from some contrived problem that someone came up with after being crammed in their office with no sunlight for a few weeks. This is the way we think, rigorously defined and closely examined.

Which brings us back to semantics. What better way is there to study the way we reason than to study the way we communicate? I already think about what the things we say really mean and ways to think about them formally; why not take a class on it? I’m sure my ideas about what a semantician does are a little naive, but regardless of how far off-base I am, I still think I will get some valuable insight into how to think about these kinds of problems.

I guess my point here is that cool stuff happens when you combine math and CS, and even more cool stuff happens when you take that combined approach and apply it to anything that looks like it should be formalized and understood. I have more to say about formalizing things (spoiler alert: I think it’s good!) and making them precise (even better!), but that’s now a fifth post-it on my monitor. That will probably be more of a legit blog; this was more of a rambly attempt to get some of my thoughts down. I hope I didn’t lose anyone along the way!

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Redistribution of Wealth

This is in part a response to libertarian ideology and in part a statement of my own thoughts on government, with somewhat more weight put on the former rather than the latter. I will elaborate more on my own views and goals in a future post, but this served as a decent framing device to get across some of my own views, so I think I will let it stand on its own as a first legit post on here. I have another post brewing that should implicitly serve as a set of commenting guidelines, but I think it needs a bit more tidying up, whereas this one stands on its own better (and I’m also eager to hear responses to it). Until then, I’ll summarize my proto-commenting guidelines with two words: be respectful. You may think I’m full of shit, but unless you have a better way to say it than that and some proof to back it up with, I’m not interested in hearing what you have to say. If you do have a reasonable way to say it and some proof to back it up with, however, I’m extremely interested in hearing what you have to say, so feel free to go for it.

From what I can tell, the key tenet of libertarian philosophy is that people are entitled to the fruits of their labor, and that, categorically, no one has the power to take away the fruits of another person’s labor. I will accept the first part of that philosophy, but I take issue with the second. It is impossible to create a system where compensation and reward accurately reflect one another; thus, it is important to have some kind of balancing system in place to ensure that wealth is reasonably distributed.

In an entirely farm-based society, it is much easier to balance work and reward. Suppose you farm turnips: if you spend so many hours farming turnips, you will probably get a bunch of turnips out of the deal. If your king tries to take away your turnips, it is probably not legitimate; all the king is really doing is acting like a big bully and not letting you have all the turnips you grew. Now, it’s possible that the king is instead going to jar and pickle those turnips for you and make sure that everyone has enough food in the winter or in a famine. I’ll get back to this in a bit, but presumably the reality was that the king would take everyone’s turnips and then have a giant turnip feast for him and his court. This is not okay.

It seems that libertarians believe that government today acts like that king: the establishment takes our turnips and has a giant party with them, stealing the fruits of our labor just because it can. But modern society is not the same as a turnip farm: it is much easier to assign a value of one’s effort to the turnips they farmed than it is to assign it to the money they earn. The use of abstract money allows for people to take advantage of the system in truly gratuitous ways that often have no bearing on the amount of effort put in.

For example, it is possible for someone to make huge sums of money just by already having huge sums of money. Maybe they also have to invest it, and that takes some cleverness, but the fact of the matter is that already having piles of cash is a more important factor in this money-making strategy than cleverness. Other people make money by exploiting those who work under them. The management of a corporation (for example, Verizon) can arbitrarily decide to take benefits away from its employees, all in the name of making (more of) a profit.

This is the part where I am accepting the first tenet of libertarians: people are entitled to the fruits of their labor. However, as we can see, this system explicitly prevents people from receiving those benefits, since someone with power over them can take it away for their own benefit. Things should start to sound familiar now—it’s not the government who’s acting like the turnip king, it’s the management of huge corporations. So where does the government fit into this mess?

In my opinion, the role of a government is to act as a redistributor of wealth. We need to acknowledge the fact that assigning monetary value to labor is subject to change, and that any system that attempts to do so will likely have gaping flaws in it. Being able to game the system should not entitle to you to hold on to the enormous stacks of cash that you managed to get essentially by cheating. In fact, it seems like libertarians should be up in arms about the fact that this sort of thing can happen! Some people spend their entire lives working as hard as they can and barely manage to scrape even, whereas some people are born into wealth and are able to glide on by their entire lives without lifting a finger.

This is not fair, and it is not reasonable. Denying the right of a government (or really, any regulating body) to take your money only perpetuates such a system. Any form of government should allow for the fact that the world is not perfect, and that we cannot come up with a perfect set of rules to correct any unfairness in the world. At the very least, one hopes that the government will make things more fair than they would be if the world were completely unregulated (and as bad as things currently are, I think we are technically succeeding in that area). Ideally, though, a government would make things very close to perfectly fair, and I think we can all agree that we are a long way off from that. But not allowing the government to correct for mistakes in the system and flaws in the conversion from work into money doesn’t fix the problem; it just makes things worse.