... this is an expanding selection of pics and of some of my shorter pieces of writing ... and other bits and pieces ... in German and mainly English ... and other strange languages ... COME BACK AND CHECK IT OUT ... COMMENTS WELCOME

Thursday, June 22, 2017


Below is a very perceptive characterization by Gwenda Blair of Trump and his followers:

It is this combination – the hint of menace beneath the surface added to what appears to be an unpolished immediacy – that millions of listeners take as evidence of Trump’s authenticity and spontaneity. Indeed, the way he talks reminds them of the voice inside their own heads – a rich and sometimes dark stew of conversational snippets and memory scraps, random phrases and half-thoughts – and, by extension, it somehow seems as if they’re hearing the voice inside his head.

Twitter perfectly matches this state of affairs, what with ‘snippets and memory scraps, random phrases and half-thoughts’ being the main fare of so-called communication. It is perhaps not surprising that this mode of communication has become the mainstream news service as well, shaping public opinion in the slipstream of contemporary politics in Western democracies. That the proponents who provide the necessary machinations have become extremely rich in the process is also no accident. Trump, as a mere bit player, used his primitive, ruthless business instincts, combined with a jovial appearance, to play the game in any which way possible, exploiting every tax loophole there is. Dabbling in realty TV, golf courses, real estate and the female beauty industry landed him in a golden circle of like-minded entrepreneurs who define luxury as a golden toilet seat. With a hint of mild debauchery and good Calvinistic morals, the contradictions are many when subjected to rational analysis. The idea to elevate this game to the presidency of the USA is as outrageous as it is ludicrous. The idea that an amalgam of political mavericks, from Tea Party Republicans to KKK, could galvanize the American voters to put Trump into the Oval Office, was however not as daft as some would have predicted. Given that Trump’s verbiage was ideal for Twitter and other such moronic social media, the road to success was all but guaranteed. Ad hoc observation of the citizenry being glued to so-called smart phones and other such mobile devices, it is not too difficult to realize that a few clever algorithms could program a simple Pavlovian stimulus-response behaviour, especially tailored for American voters (see my previous blog on Mercer and Co.). Not that there was a choice anyway: Clinton was just a lesser evil, separated by two degrees. Only Putin perceived a wider gap and thus preferred a primitive businessman to a rabid politician, and thus contributed his two cents worth of cyber intervention, which now is taken as the one and only possibility to impeach Trump as a puppet on the string of Putin’s henchmen. To take the sting out of the investigation (Comey and Mueller – which is a joke in itself) Trump’s advisers will arrange for a few military strikes against the Russians in Syria, so as to prove Trump’s true Roman Christian patriotism in the face of a suspect Russian Byzantine Orthodox ideology. Putin will be even more confused – as seen in his recent interviews with Oliver Stone who as a supposed example of American rationalism demonstrates a poor grasp of Russian and world history.

Rational people operate by forming thoughts in their brains and then try to verbalize these thoughts as best as they can, given the operational restrictions that language has. In other words, the best minds are often those who match thought with language without losing any of the essential content. Irrational people, as the saying goes, speak before they think, uttering half-baked phrases, which the brain has difficulty with in actually interpreting as something that falls within the realm of reason and common sense. Such people do get hooked on very simplistic ideas that are then applied to all and sundry environments. Take for example the simple concept of ‘freedom’ and apply it to the world of business. It means, in Trump’s world, that a businessman ought to be ‘free’ of all encumbrances, dedicated only to the aim of turning a profit. Hence if a health insurance business were to be forced by government regulation to insure people with pre-existing health problems, then a basic ‘freedom’ is violated inasmuch you cannot turn a profit from insuring sick people who lack the resources to pay for their medical bills at private hospitals. ‘The freedom to bear arms’ is another brainless phrase, easily uttered, yet with devastating consequences when applied to non-sensical contexts. The freedom of keeping out unwanted guests from one’s private property, as much as from one’s own country, is another milestone – if not mill stone - in modern, archaic political discourse. By definition there cannot be ‘freedom’ to critique the proprietors and therefore protectors of freedom, especially if such critique or opposition involves rational thought expressed in scientific language. Climate change as a science project is to be dismissed as it infringes on the freedom to say otherwise, i.e. unthinking. Indeed it is most advisable to distrust all modes of deep thought as it invariably leads to Gordian knots that then need slashing with brute force. The question then arises why there are so many simple-minded people who vote for simple-minded people like Trump. While Blair’s quote seems to give the answer via ‘…the way he talks reminds them of the voice inside their own heads’ we note that this is not an answer as much as it is a restatement of the problem, namely that birds of a feather flock together. It is quite tempting to explain such a state of mind as pathology, worthy of entry into DSM-5. Not that Trump proved as yet as insane as some of his predecessors: leafing through The Great War for Civilization: the conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk (2005) one is reminded again and again that the Bush dynasties, and Reagan before them, were certainly on par with DSM diagnoses, or as Guardian correspondent Johnston puts it for Trump:

It’s laughable when pundits try to distill a Trump doctrine from his word salad. His own words illuminate the undeveloped space between his ears.

Still, all we have to go by so far, as far as Trump is concerned, are his demented twitter messages but not much action yet. Sure he is continuing covert military operations all around the world, just like Obama did, but he has not yet started any new wars – that he is itching to start one with North-Korea may be on the cards however.

Maybe Trump will turn out to be a somewhat harmless, narcissistic gadfly, bent on entertaining his followers, doing shady business deals on the side … but what if his words (and those put in his mouth by his ghostwriters) are translated into action by maniacs hell-bent on self-destruction? The cabal surrounding Trump range from the demented to clever dicks and chicks, the latter who just see a great opportunity to feather their own beds, while the former, mainly military types, want to see how far their brinkmanship will take them.

There is an obvious analogy with the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (as told by Gibbon) whereby a long list of emperors (read ‘presidents’) become more and more unhinged (Nero and Caligula being outstanding examples) until the whole edifice crumbles in the dust of history. The only worry now is that the ‘dust’ will engulf the whole world and we will literally experience the end of history. Or else it could be a protracted decline – assuming that no nuclear war breaks out – by way of climate change deniers, heralding a gradual but accelerating descent into the hell of a global storm. In the meantime, the show must go on, babies must be born, lives lived, menial jobs to go to, money to be made, bubbles to be made of real estate, billionaires to be created, feudal states to be celebrated, slaves voting for their masters, climate refuges drowning in the oceans, esoteric science to be funded very well, escapist entertainment quadrupled (give the people bread and circus), fashionistas designing body bags, artists encrusting the latter with diamonds, the Internet bulging with fake news and bodies, sex robots looking for customers, people with good insurance cured of old age, a little love here and there, a sunny day after weeks of rain, a lonesome flower … all punctuated by ever more bizarre presidential and prime ministerial campaigns in Western countries while the Orient (China in particular) will remain true to its mysterious machinations, political and economical, but all the same gripped by the maelstrom that goes from Trump to Trumper and eventually to the Trumpest, creating instant history as a farce.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017



Chomsky’s 1959 review of Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour saved us from ‘gross and crude’ behaviourism in linguistics, if not in psychology itself. In fact, behaviourism in the world of business (marketing and advertising) still rules supreme, and if not checked will lead to neo-fascist models of behaviourist manipulation, as Chomsky also warned.

It is my contention that this threat to human civilisation has been further exacerbated by what one can call either an extension of behaviourism or else a new development occasioned by computational linguistics. Initially popular science was enamoured by the idea that language can be compared to the computer in terms of the human brain being some sort of hardware which can be programmed by some clever software. The software in question would have to be something like Chomskyian parsing programmes, embedded in Artificial Intelligence, with the ability to acquire language like children do. Given the slow progress in this seemingly impossible task, this raised the ire of the business community that wanted results so that language could be commercialized – in combination with military applications of course.

The enfant terrible in this case, unlike a somewhat benign Skinner before him, is one Robert Mercer, who not only subverted computational linguistics but also made a fortune from it and now bankrolls the likes of Trump and Bannon. The story is described somewhat diffidently in a Guardian article subtitled ‘With links to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage, the rightwing US computer scientist is at the heart of a multimillion-dollar propaganda network’.

Mercer, a non-linguist, had the brilliant idea that voice recognition and machine-translation can be achieved by simple statistical matching: when you say ‘hello’ when you phone your insurance company about a claim, the voice recognition program immediately constructs a digital oscillation and compares it to a stored model recorded by an average speaker, and if there is a match within an allowable range, the computer program accepts your ‘hello’ and then responds with a phrase that has a high statistical value in the context of an insurance claim, like ‘hello, we value your call, please state your claim number’. Similarly if I want to translate this phrase into German, the program will check the data bank for previous translations of this phrase and select the one with the highest statistical value, given some context that is calculated by some clever algorithm. Given the advent of ‘big data’ just about everything that has ever been said and written can be stored in digital format and can be statistically matched to anything you say or write.

The commercial application is fantastic: language is automated, making call centres redundant (even the ones that employ cheap labour in India or the Philippines). The military complex is equally jubilant, what with secret services now being able to monitor and analyse all voice and written traffic all around the world. The Orwellian nightmare of your TV watching you as much as you watch the TV has become a reality. Leonard Cohen’s line that the rich will monitor the bedrooms of the poor – for entertainment – has equally become true. The Huxleyan dystopian vision in Brave New World also rings true: information overload as a sedative, pills that make you happy and dissidents kept in human zoos. Orwellian newspeak and linguistic subversion (‘all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others’) have become the stuff of fake news and Breitbart rhetoric.

So why has no eminent linguist debunked Robert Mercer? Why has no academic linguist commented on the ‘gross and crude’ travesty visited upon human language by Mercer and his ilk? After all he received quite a few academic honours along the way. Why has no linguist pointed out that language as a creative human facility cannot be restricted to what is stored in a data base? Wasn’t it a Chomskyian dictum that language with its set of finite syntactic rules can create an infinite output of sentences? Isn’t that the basic idea of language? People who seek to stifle this creativity are of course troubled by its potential, namely to bring unlimited (infinite) freedom of expression to the people of the world, including ideas that provide social justice and a measure of economic well-being for all. Neo-fascists (alt-right) like Erdogan, Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Wilders, Petry, Bannon, Mercer and a million others who call others fascists fascists in an Orwellian merry-go-round of meaningless language, engaging in what Wilhelm Reich has called the ‘mass psychology of fascism’, emptying language of meaning, and substituting complex sentences with ever shorter slogans. The British author Ian McEwan quite rightly noted that ‘Brexit’ reminded him of the Third Reich whereby the voice of the people becomes a series of manipulated referendums.

Obviously Mercer and Co. exploit ‘big data’ not only for human voice recognition and machine translation but also for a new brand of ‘manufacturing consent’ (à la Herman & Chomsky) that forces language into a statistical straightjacket, allowing only for a algorithmic paradigm that supports the dominant discourse of the alt-right. The traditional vehicle for such manipulation – the mainstream media – has until recently played the part of benign collaborator of neo-liberal politics and capitalist economics but is now branded by Trump and Co. as the enemy lest they tow the line and begin to support with great enthusiasm the narcissistic leaders of the alt-right. Bypassing the traditional media with bizarre social media forums like Twitter and Facebook, the new media will dictate what can and cannot be said. Ever more blatant verbal attacks on perceived domestic opposition will eventually give rise to brutish violence, given many a historical precedent, e.g. the Nazi propaganda machine.

Unfortunately Mercer and Co. do understand the value of a human-specific language, hence in order to de-humanize large sections of the population, one has to limit if not to destroy language as the only faculty that makes us human. Wars cannot be fought by being polite and considerate: pathological aggression must be mirrored in narrowly prescribed language use – as the handbooks of all armed forces around the world will tell you. The categorical imperative of what one ‘should’ do is replaced by a simple ‘must’.

Computational linguistics as statistical modelling has already reached new heights in English language testing, as for example in the Pearson Test of English, which is totally computerized in all language modes, i.e. speaking, listening, reading and writing. While the passive modes of listening and reading have long been subject to education systems that control and limit freedom of expression, it is now the active modes that have been harnessed. The algorithms that check your essay writing will not allow sentences that  - while grammatically correct – find no match in the prescribed data base. If you write, à la Chomsky, that the United States are a terrorist state, along with North-Korea, Israel, Saudi-Arabia and any other state you care to mention, you will fail your English language test and in addition will be referred to various secret service agencies that mine such data for dissenting language. That all this is now possible without direct human intervention says a lot about the success of computational linguistics, devised and run by non-linguists like Mercer. Naturally these systems are ‘gross and crude’ and are subject to all kinds of hacking and cyber warfare – and are being disclosed by the occasional whistle-blowers like Snowden – simply because the underlying mechanisms of language use are as ‘gross and crude’ as that of Skinner, if not more so. Computational and corpus linguistics are therefore misnomers.  They reveal absolutely nothing about human language competence per se but tell us everything about language use, like the very high statistical probability that members of the Ku Klux Klan will use ‘race’ as a key concept in their daily discourse. Statistics of this sort only confirms what we know already. In a similar vein Chomsky pointed out that linguistic fieldwork of the descriptive sort will only confirm what we know intuitively about language. Why then are we sliding into this pseudo-scientific morass that elevates computational linguistics to the absolute heights of the human sciences?

The LinguistList used to mainly advertise jobs for linguists in universities; now there is a preponderance of jobs advertised for a plethora of private companies that specialize in computational linguistics. Sure, big money is to be made if you crack the code and develop a program that will ghost-write perfect speeches for Trump and Co. Obviously one of the requirements will be to repeat and repeat key sentences (slogans) so that the message will not be lost on those millions whose attention span is less than a millisecond. Tragically the computerized speech writer will produce dumb text that will be celebrated as the height of literary rhetoric (witness Reagan’s ‘axis of evil’, Obama’s ‘yes, we can’ and Trump’s ‘make America great again’). Human language will be reduced to passive click-bait consumption. The neo-feudalist class of super-managers surrounded by computer geeks will reap all the material benefits of the vulture economy and laugh all the way to the club of billionaires.

Eventually however, the irrepressible human facility for creative language will give rise to yet another French/Russian/Chinese/Cuban-style revolution that will transform societies as never before, and by the way reinstate bio-linguistics to the top of human sciences.