With Siri and Alexa, the computer science of natural language processing (NLP) is finally ready for prime time. In IEEE Spectrum, Oscar Schwartz wrote a fascinating essay linking NLP, "linguistic interactions between humans and machines," with 13th century Jewish mysticism. I've always enjoyed smart writing that pulls threads between technology and occult practices, and Schwartz's short piece is a fine example of that. From IEEE Spectrum
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In the late 1200s, a Jewish mystic by the name of Abraham Abulafia sat down at a table in his small house in Barcelona, picked up a quill, dipped it in ink, and began combining the letters of the Hebrew alphabet in strange and seemingly random ways. Aleph with Bet, Bet with Gimmel, Gimmel with Aleph and Bet, and so on.
Abulafia called this practice “the science of the combination of letters.” He wasn’t actually combining letters at random; instead he was carefully following a secret set of rules that he had devised while studying an ancient Kabbalistic text called the Sefer Yetsirah. This book describes how God created “all that is formed and all that is spoken” by combining Hebrew letters according to sacred formulas. In one section, God exhausts all possible two-letter combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.
By studying the Sefer Yetsirah, Abulafia gained the insight that linguistic symbols can be manipulated with formal rules in order to create new, interesting, insightful sentences. To this end, he spent months generating thousands of combinations of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and eventually emerged with a series of books that he claimed were endowed with prophetic wisdom.
I love Hugo and Nebula-Award winner Jo Walton's science fiction and fantasy novels (previously) and that's why it was such a treat to inaugurate my new gig as an LA Times book reviewer with a review of her latest novel, Lent, a fictionalized retelling of the live of Savonarola, who reformed the Florentine church in the 1490s, opposing a corrupt Pope, who martyred him (except in Walton's book, and unbeknownst to Savonarola himself, Savonarola is a demon who is sent back to Hell when he is martyred, then returned to 1492 Florence to start over again).
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For many of us, the Cliven Bundy story started when a fringey rancher got a bunch of his militia pals to flex their white privilege by threatening to shoot federal law enforcement officers who'd demanded that Bundy stop stealing public land and grazing; then Bundy's loathsome offspring led a terrorist takeover of a wildlife refuge in Oregon.
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Fortune-telling games help us fumble toward deeper truths, at the junction of technology and mysticism
In 1891, Kennard Novelty Company, makers of the first commercial talking board, needed a name for their product, so they asked the board to name itself. Smithsonian's Linda Rodriguez McRobbie looks at "The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board." Above, my favorite Ouija Board moment in film. From Smithsonian:
Contrary to popular belief, “Ouija” is not a combination of the French for “yes,” oui, and the German ja. (Ouija historian Robert) Murch says, based on his research, it was (Kennard Novelty Company co-founder) Elijah Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters (who was, Bond said, a “strong medium”), who supplied the now instantly recognizable handle. Sitting around the table, they asked the board what they should call it; the name “Ouija” came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, “Good luck.” Eerie and cryptic—but for the fact that Peters acknowledged that she was wearing a locket bearing the picture of a woman, the name “Ouija” above her head. That’s the story that emerged from the Ouija founders’ letters; it’s very possible that the woman in the locket was famous author and popular women’s rights activist Ouida, whom Peters admired, and that “Ouija” was just a misreading of that.
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