chomsky

Markets also have a very bad psychological effect. They drive people to a conception of themselves and society in which you’re only after your own good, not the good of others and that’s extremely harmful.
—  Noam Chomsky 

“The consistent anarchist should be a socialist, but a socialist of a particular sort. He will not only oppose alienated and specialized labor and look forward to the appropriation of capital by the whole body of workers, but he will also insist that this appropriation be direct, not exercised by some elite force acting in the name of the proletariat. Some sort of council communism is the natural form of revolutionary socialism in an industrial society. It reflects the intuitive understanding that democracy is largely a sham when the industrial system is controlled by any form of autocratic elite, whether of owners, managers, and technocrats, a vanguard party, or a State bureaucracy.”
- Noam Chomsky

  • One of the more important interviews you'll read this year:
  • NOAM CHOMSKY: One of the few institutions that's worried about climate change is the Pentagon, because they're going to be in trouble, like the Navy -- the Norfolk Naval Base will be inundated when the sea level rises, and they're worried about the fact that just plain sea level rise and other dangerous weather systems are going to cause huge floods of refugees.
  • Just take a look at Bangladesh. It's a coastal plain -- a couple hundred million people. What are they going to do if this gets worse -- what's going to happen then, you know?
  • DANIEL FALCONE: With the emergence of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it looks like business as usual with the cabinet members and their institutional roles. Is this cabinet in particular especially dangerous to the planet?
  • NOAM CHOMSKY: It's incredible what's happening, and what's more astounding still is that there's no comment. By now -- since November 8 -- the United States is literally alone in the world in first of all refusing to join in efforts to do something about it -- but even worse, dedicated to making the situation worse. Every part of [the world] is trying to do something. The United States alone is trying to destroy it, and it's not just Trump, it's the whole Republican Party. You just can't find words for it. And it's not reported. It's not discussed.
  • I mean the most important event on November 8 -- which I've talked about a couple times, but nobody will listen -- is that as you may know, at that time, there was an international conference going on in Morocco that was a follow up for the Paris conference -- to put some teeth in the Paris agreements. But on November 8, the conferences stopped. The question was, Will we survive? Not a word about it. Even more amazing, the world is looking to China to save them. The US is the wrecking machine that is destroying everything. The world is hoping that China will somehow come to the rescue.
  • DANIEL FALCONE: What does that mean about our establishment -- that we look to China?
  • NOAM CHOMSKY: What it means is the United States is absolutely the most dangerous country in the world.
  • DANIEL FALCONE: It doesn't say a good thing about democracy or a hope for it.
  • NOAM CHOMSKY: It doesn't have much to do with democracy, because a democracy barely functions under the neoliberal system. But most of the population is disenfranchised. It doesn't matter what they think. Just look at the passionate rhetoric about how we can't stand by when a country uses weapons to kill innocent civilians.
  • Right now, the United States is supporting Saudi Arabian military attacks and a famine policy -- a starvation policy -- overt policy of starvation in Yemen that is going to kill tens of thousands of people; it already is, in fact. But is anybody saying anything about it?"

‘Some of the rural workers in Brazil have an interesting slogan. They say their immediate task is 'expanding the floor of the cage.’ They understand that they’re trapped inside a cage, but realize that protecting it when it’s under attack from even worse predators on the outside, and extending the limits of what the cage will allow, are both essential preliminaries to dismantling it. If they attack the cage directly when they’re so vulnerable, they’ll get murdered.’

– Noam Chomsky, The Common Good (Interviews with David Barsamian), Odonian Press, 1998, p.85
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There is a terrible assumption buried here, namely that the cage protects the workers from murder. This is glaringly false. Workers are being murdered by the millions all over the world, inside the cage. The anecdote throws up a false image in other ways as well. The predators are not outside the cage, they, and their practices, are the cage. The cage itself is lethal. And when we realize that the cage is as large as the world, and that there is no longer any outside to escape to, then we can see that the only way to keep ourselves from being murdered, or otherwise brutalized and oppressed, is to destroy the cage itself. The cage is not made with metal bars, however, but with people. It consists of real live people who use various means to constrain others. Destroying the cage does not necessarily mean killing these people, but only destroying their ability to function as jailers. Picture a community of people, and intermingling among them are businessmen who say they own everything but that they will offer money to anyone who wants to work for them, armed guards who beat or shoot anyone who actively rejects this arrangement, schoolmasters who instill debilitating ideas, usurers who induce workers to borrow money, priests who preach a fatalistic acceptance of things as they are, entertainers who seduce workers to buy fun, counselors who try to adjust workers to their suffering, and politicians who persuade workers to depend on them to fix things. This is the cage. It should not be protected, but attacked, at every conceivable point and at every conceivable opportunity.

—  James Herod, “Breaking Out of the Cage and Destroying Our Jailers”
A note on the Chomsky hate

It’s cool in the Tumblinguistics community to hate Chomsky.  It is.  Don’t pretend it’s not so.

I’m not here to defend Noam Chomsky, generative grammar, or linguistic universals.  As linguistic theories, they have not lived up to their original expectations, to say the least, and the man himself is better known for his political views than his linguistics at this point.

Nonetheless, we can’t live without his work.

Don’t believe me?  Look at the computer or smartphone you’re presumably viewing this on.  You’re using an app(lication) written in some programming language that was compiled into executable machine and assembler code, allowing your device to actually run it.

In programming languages, you find none of the weird irregularities in them that you find in natural languages (that make natural languages so interesting).  In any programming language, all valid statements can be predicted by a given set of rules.  These rules allow you to define concepts recursively to ascending levels of complexity, and they are generative.

This is classic Chomskyan context-free grammar.  Ironically, while generative grammars have failed to bear out an explanation of human understanding of grammar, modern compiler theory is based almost entirely on the concept of context-free grammars, where a finite set of rules can generate a possibly infinite set of “sentences” or concepts, and the compiler can automatically check and process 100% of these for grammaticality, guaranteed.

(Why only “possibly infinite”?  The language equality question—can two given context-free grammars generate the same language?—is undecidable.)

Nonetheless, certain of Chomsky’s theories have proven to be extremely powerful, just not in the areas he originally developed them to be.  One could actually argue that this lies at the heart of many of the problems faced by AI, especially in regard to natural language understanding problems.  If natural language cannot be explained by Chomskyan theory, but we’re using a toolset built on those same theories, will we ever close that understanding gap between humans and machines?

Generativists argue that the features of a generative grammar arise from the much-derided universal grammar.  If this is true, we could say that programming languages operate on a set of universals that natural languages do not (and since all code evaluates in the end to binary, this would seem to bear that out).

Allow me to posit a scenario: Aliens arrive with a thoroughly different conception of grammar, scan our natural languages and find no regularity or universals, and are unable to communicate with us.  Until they find our GitHub repositories.  Once they realize that all this different code is a form of “language” and that language operates on inferable universals… and after they’re done laughing at our coding standards… what we could achieve could actually be communication.  We might not be able to talk to each other, but our computers could talk to theirs.

“If any of you have ever looked at your FBI file, you discover that intelligence agencies in general are extremely incompetent. That’s one of the reasons why there are so many intelligence failures. They just never get anything straight, for all kinds of reasons. Part of it is because of the information they get. The information they get comes from ideological fanatics, typically, who always misunderstand things in their own crazy way. If you look at an FBI file, say, about yourself, where you know what the facts are, you’ll see that the information has some kind of relation to the facts, you can figure out what they’re talking about, but by the time it works its way through the ideological fanaticism of the intelligence agencies, there’s always weird distortion.”
- Noam Chomsky, Q&A with community activists, February 10, 1989.