Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Ling Space: How Do We Capture the Truth of Beliefs? Type Theory

(The Ling Space)

Before I get too negative here, let me start with the positives:
God bless the people at The Ling Space for making these videos.  It's really great to have what is essentially a graduate-level course on linguistics available on line completely for free.
Truly, the Internet is helping us live in a golden age of free information.

But that said, a lot of this video was over my head, and I found it frustrating.

Like a lot of The Ling Space videos, this video started out with a list of videos to watch first.  3 in total.
Since I have an anal-retentive personality, I set out to watch all the prerequisite videos first.  I clicked on the first link to watch What Does "Most" Even Mean? Generalized Quantifiers.  But then that video had two more videos I was supposed to watch before it.  So I clicked on another link.  And then that video had two more videos I was supposed to watch before it.  Then that video referenced back to the video in topic two.

I worked my way back through all of the prerequisite videos, and by the time I even got to this week's episode, I had watched like 10 videos as prerequisites.  (I've got a certain personality type.  It would have given me a nagging feeling of incompleteness if I would have skipped one of the prerequisite videos.)

Now, technically, I had watched all of these prerequisite videos before.  Or at least listened to them.  In my first encounter with The Ling Space, I had put all of the videos on a playlist, and had them on in the background of my apartment.
But re-watching them, I realized how complicated a lot of them were, and how little I had absorbed by just playing them in the background.
I tried to watch them now with a focused attention.  I had to pause and rewind the videos frequently to make sure I was understanding everything, but I mostly got it.

Until I got to some of the more technical mathematical videos (here and here), when I started not to understand things, and gradually became more and more lost.

By the time I got to this week's featured video, I was already mentally exhausted, and frustrated.

And I didn't understand all of this week's video either.
I got the general concept of the notations (e= entity, t= truth value) but I never understood why they were nestled the way they were.  And the explanation given "one of them has a closer relationship with the truth" didn't help me at all.  Why does one have a closer relationship with the truth?

From there, the various other formulas and semantic trees just confused me more.

I began to wonder if this was my fault or  the videos fault.  Was the video not explaining it well, or was I just a little bit dense?

I checked the youtube comments to see what the reaction from the rest of the Internet was, and it looks like it's just me.  The other youtubers were making comments like:

This is a fantastically lucid explanation.
* You are amazing!! thanks a lot!!
I had a course on this topic last semester in my masters, and you basically covered and explained almost everything in 10 minutes.

As someone whose true love is history, and has been trying to move into linguistics simply on the basis of my experience teaching English, I sometimes wonder if my brain is really cut out for linguistics.  Videos like this make me doubt my ability.


Stephan Hurtubise said...

Hi, Joel!

I just read this post and really wanted to write to you, because I hate the idea of you doubting your ability on account of me (I wrote this episode)! Writing is such an art, and it's one I'm so very far away from perfecting. I like to think I'm improving; at the very least, every passing episode gives me more mistakes to reflect on and (hopefully) learn from. I'm definitely happy about the time you take to watch out content, and I feel tremendously grateful for your input.

For whatever it might be worth, the more mathematical material (e.g., any lambda calculus stuff) is something you can easily never encounter, despite getting an entire undergraduate degree in linguistics. The quantifier stuff and the intensional semantics stuff, in particular, are topics you might even manage to avoid in grad school. It's very far from intuitive, and not really something a short video can do justice to. But, I'm defiantly passionate about the subject matter, so I keep trying. I will add that there are definitely things I would go back and change if I could, like in our episode about "most" (I feel like that episode was written more for me than for someone who's never seen this material before, which is not ideal).

This kind of stuff is only a very, very, very small part of linguistics, and each member of our team has their own area of expertise. There are episodes I simply could never have written myself, and the same goes for my teammates. So, I don't think you should be too hard on yourself. But if I can help with something in particular, let me know (also, see below). And maybe consider checking out the extra materials that we write for each episode, since they often recap some or all of what's been covered, while adding a bit more information or context.



P.S. The line you mention is a bit poetic. What all that bracketing is really meant to represent is the order that words combine in, so it's a little like more syntax. For instance, "{e{e{et}}}" means we've got a verb like "give" or "put" on our hands, since each one combines with a direct object (the first "e"), an indirect object (the second "e"), and then a subject (the third and last "e"), finally producing a sentence that's either true or false (type "t"). That last "e" -- the subject -- is the one that actually completes the sentence, and is in some sense 'closer' to the truth than the other two (which are separated by layers of brackets).

Joel Swagman said...

Oh wow, thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. (I know your series has a considerable audience, so I appreciate you taking the time to interact with me personally.)

I appreciate what a difficult task writing is.
Since you guys at the Ling Space are big fans of Stephen Pinker, I'm sure you've heard him talk about "the curse of knowledge" as a problem for writers, and how hard it is for someone with knowledge to assume the mindset of someone who doesn't have that knowledge.

Although my blog has nowhere near the circulation of your video series, in my own small way I've struggled with that in my own writings.

So I get it.

I'm still not entirely sure the fault isn't with me. (You guys seem to be aiming for a very savvy audience over at the Ling Space, and I may not fall within your target audience.)

But I'll tell you what: in the future I'll try to leave more detailed feedback on exactly what I did or didn't understand. For example if I was tracking perfectly with you until one particular sentence through me off, I'll try to highlight that particular sentence in my comments in the future.
Maybe that kind of feedback would be more helpful than just a vague "I didn't understand" comment.

I definitely appreciate what you guys are trying to do--take linguistic knowledge out of the universities and make it freely available to the public--and I support your mission.