Applying the Logogen Model to the West-Gate of Moria

Let’s talk about The Lord of the Rings. Specifically, let’s talk about the scene in front of the West-Gate of Moria from The Fellowship of the Ring.

Maybe you’ve read the book, maybe you’ve seen the movie. Maybe you’ve done both. Either way, you may recall that Gandalf has to rack his brains a bit before figuring out what the West-Gate’s “open sesame” is. His only clue is the Fëanorian inscription at the top of the door, which reads:

“Ennyn Durin Anan Moria: pedo mellon a minno.”

which, in the mode of Beleriand, translates to:

“The Doors of Durin Lord of Moria: [speak/say] friend and enter.”

Note the hinge of the Gandalf’s problem: he interprets the script as saying “Speak friend and enter” (which, in English and Tolkien’s Common Tongue vernacular, should take two commas around “friend”). Since “speak” is a traditionally intransitive verb, it makes little sense for it to take the object “friend”, and so the word “friend” appears to be a direct address. Eventually, one of the hobbits (Merry in the book, Frodo in the movie) figures out that the Quenyan or Telerin word Gandalf interprets as “speak” may actually be a more general term for “speak/talk/say/utter/etc.”, and have both transitive and intransitive forms. Thus, the meaning of the “pedo mellon a minno” can be interpreted as “say ‘friend’ and enter”.

Let’s shift gears now to logogens. John Morton developed the logogen model of word recognition in 1969 to try and explain how human beings recognize words. Notably, his ideas are applied with regards to wordstringslikethisone, from which readers can extract words despite their truncation. For example, how do our networks of activation respond to thiswordstringhere as compared with djdjdthisonejdjdj or this: oikansjdwealk? The logogen model essentially proposes that words are tagged with various elements: their sound, orthographic appearance, constituent phonemes, etc. When these elements enter a neural network via the senses, they can produce activational effects that eventually allow a word to reach threshold and get recalled. Think of it as a game of charades; in order to get players to guess a particular word, you have to provide enough “tags” to narrow their search space until they figure the word out.

Going back to the West-Gate of Moria, we can see that contextual effects, such the lack of punctuation after pedo (“speak/say”), can serve as logogens to cue activation of a transitive form of speaking (“saying”) that would take mellon, or friend, as an object. Well reasoned, wee little hobbit folk! Of course, it may be a convention of Elvish languages not to use the same punctuation as the Common Tongue, but as Tolkien uses Elvish (anywhere I’ve seen it, anyways), his word order and punctuation are the same as in English. So the hobbits may have assumed correctly by luck or by intuition.

Skynet: An Artificially Unintelligent System

When it comes to evil, self-aware robots in fiction, a Skynet reference is obvious (if not flatly overplayed). Let us not mistake self-awareness for cleverness, however; Skynet may have recognized humans as threats to its existence, but it fails to effectively terminate them. Therefore, it seems inappropriate to dub Skynet an artificially intelligent system; rather, it exemplifies AU–artificial unintelligence.

Skynet's true face

Another example of AU.

To elaborate, let’s start with the very basics of Skynet’s failures in the Terminator universe. After gaining self-awareness in 1997, the system fired missiles at Russia, resulting in the death of over 3 billion humans by virtue of MAD. In 1997, there were just under 6 billion people on Earth, meaning Skynet’s play had over a 50% success rate. That’s excellent! Now all Skynet needs to do is continue firing missiles at remaining human civilizations, and use bio-warfare tactics to finish off whatever the missiles miss.

But no. Clearly the way to finish of the rest of humanity is to make robotic human doppelgangers. This means scraping together the resources needed to clone or synthesize organic materials for some skin, blood, sweat glands, and other human traits in addition to all the of metal and research needed to produce a functional robot. Somehow, this exhaustive feat of engineering is the optimal strategy–not just synthesizing some virus or selecting for a particularly virulent, highly antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria and releasing it upon the world.

Virulent strain of influenza? $200. Cyborg hunter? $2,00,000. Artificial systems caring about making something flashy for the sake of a story's aesthetics? Priceless.

But of course, we know Skynet didn’t stop with the T-600 though T-800 series of Terminators. They came up with pure super-science; the “poly-alloy liquid metal” that basically turns any Terminator into Majin Buu.

Too bad the T-1000 wasn't designed to absorb people, then it could gain all of John Connor's abilities in addition to removing a critical threat.

It’s impossible to say how much outlandish R&D went into developing the T-1000, but it’s a good wager to say designing a bio-weapon would be far easier. This scenario is a bit like designing an atomic bomb to kill a fly when you could just make a fly swatter (or better yet, just use your hand). It’s also redolent of that story about the Russians using a pencil in space when Americans put millions of dollars into designing a zero-gravity space pen, (which turned out to be a myth).

“Unintelligence” of this sort, of course, is perfectly natural. Humans beings, too, find scads of overly complex, costly solutions to simple problems all the time. We like to call this overthinking matters, and can be characterized as the sort of poor reasoning that results from abounding intelligence, ironically. As any gamer knows (especially when it comes to puzzle games), functional fixedness (not to be confused with analysis paralysis) can become a serious obstacle to progress, or a misguided, impractical approach to a simple puzzle. In the case of Skynet, the computer system may have become fixated on making Terminators early on as a result of bounded rationality or some other source of fallacious reasoning (maybe Skynet’s designers failed to prime its warfare instincts with examples of biowarfare throughout history). Rather than indulging new, simpler solutions to the problem of surviving humans, Skynet opted for a doppelganger solution, perhaps drawing from military strategies from WWII (consider the impersonation of Polish civilians by German Brandenburgers).

In any case, the Terminator approach was kind of a dumb idea, but by golly does it make for some good visuals. Contagion certainly can’t compete, what with its R0 values and diagrams of proteins. Audiences are just picky like that.

Stroop Da Whoop

on: You see that color in the Shoop da Whoop mouth? Name it.

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to recognize that specificity comes into play when reporting the “correct” color inside the mouth. Do we mean the color signified by the meaning of the word “BLUE” or the actual color of the letters making up the word? A phenomenon known as the Stroop Effect emerges when this issue is tested as a cognitive science experiment; when asked to report the color of the letters, experimental subjects tend to take longer when the color of the word doesn’t match its meaning. Basically, through competitive top-down networks of neurons, the brain takes a little extra time resolving the simultaneous signaling of pathways that activate color-related neuronal clusters. One of these pathways relates visual information about color (without relation to words) and the other relates semantic information about what words mean– in this case, the color blue.

Let’s switch gears for a moment. You’re probably familiar with synesthesia, a condition wherein perceptual sensory modalities and/or semantic networks are switched, linked, or otherwise bizarrely experienced. In the condition, there are stimuli called inducers and resultant synesthetic experiences known as concurrents. A number of famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt, and Olivier Messiaen were synesthetes, and reportedly experienced music-generated perception of colors, which serves as an excellent example of an inducer→concurrent relation. Another example is Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant to whom numbers are perceptually represented as shapes, which lends him extraordinary arithmetic abilities. Synesthesia is even implicated in at least one study as the underlying mechanism behind the ordinal linguistic personification, a condition in which personalities are concurrents to ordered sequences, like days of the week.

Technologies, art, and so on enable forms of “artificial” synesthesia. Any medium which relies on the simultaneous presentation of “unnatural” multimodal stimuli hearkens to synesthesia– from Carmen to Fantasia to the light organ and even those animal-themed alphabets we are so accustomed to seeing in elementary schools. The letter ‘Z’ must be forever entangled with semantic networks devoted to zebras across the United States.

found on: what is meant by “unnatural” combination of sensory modalities, anyhow? ‘Z’ really is for zebra; it’s not a spontaneous, unbidden association of concepts. Trees really do rustle. Cats meow. Brains form these associations on the basis of learning. But how does this differ from something like grapheme→color synesthesia, where indviduals see colors as concurrents to letters? Letters, after all, must be learned, but the colors associated are not inherent qualities of letters. In synesthetes, such colors are only seen in the “mind’s eye”, as it is called; for whatever reason, as a concept or sensation is learned and perceived, it becomes inordinately associated with another. Association is a staple hinge of neurological change underlying learning in all brains, so it can exhibit abnormalities like any other property of the brain. In this case, the abnormality exists in extravagant co-activation of networks without an external precedent. The association is formed largely on the basis of internal inclinations to strongly associate certain networks with others (since synesthesia is familial, it’s fair to call it an internal inclination).

So, let’s switch gears one more time before synthesizing (heh) the Stroop Effect with synesthesia. If you have not already relished the joy of watching Office Space, you should. It’s just one of many reasons 1999 was the best year ever. In any case, Office Space involves a bit o’ hypnotherapy, which is an odd, interesting means of altering “highly suggestible” people’s cognitive processes. It almost seems like it shouldn’t work, but it does.

In fact, according to some studies, hypnosis can completely disrupt synesthetic experiences in synesthetes as well as generate them in non-synesthetes, suggesting that disinhibition of associative pathways may influence synesthesia, not necessarily hyperconnectivity. And here’s the synthesis: the reaction time lag characteristic of the Stroop Effect, too, can be suspended via hypnosis.


"You're beginning to feel less Stroopy."

What’s most fascinating about these studies is the fact that they represent total top-down manipulation of associative networks normally considered unconscious. Daniel Tammet can’t help the fact that he perceives π as visually beautiful; it’s an unconscious, unbidden association. But in these studies, the competition for different pathways and the hyperconnectivty or hyper-disinhibition of networks is arrested through conscious means (certainly, being hypnotized is a different state of consciousness, to say the least, but it is a conscious state). To be able to meddle with such pathway connectivity is… it’s Bene Gesserit shenaniganry, that’s what it is. All we need to do now is convince highly suggestible individuals with HIV to quit having AIDs.

So, when I snap my fingers, you’re going to stop thinking about debauchery and rape when you hear Beethoven’s 9th. You’re also going to leave a nice an insightful comment to this post. And give me my stapler back. Aaaaand buy this shirt. Ooooooh *snap*

Phylomemy of the Synoptic Gospels

Warning: prepare for a hyperlink BONANZA.




1. the development or evolution of a particular group of memes.
2. the evolutionary history of a group of memes, especially as depicted in a family tree.

Say what you want about Richard Dawkins, but the meme idea he presented in The Selfish Gene is pure genius. Especially astute was his observation that memes mutate and compete in the same ways as genes, even if their modes of propagation differ.

Religion, the greatest meme in recorded history, is prone to the same indels and evolutionary branchings as genes. For example, consider the image below, which exudes a distinct sense of monophyly; relative to the book of Mark, Luke and Matthew exhibit orthology as well as adaptive radiation.

found on:

As shown above, while large portions of Mark exist in both Luke and Matthew, the same proportionality does not apply in reverse; Luke and Matthew contain considerable amounts of unique information not present in Mark. Mark, for instance, begins with Jesus’s baptism and makes no mention of his early life. Luke is the only gospel to contain adoration by shepherds at the Nativity of Jesus, and only Matthew mentions Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents“.

Given these features of the synoptic gospels, most biblical scholars agree that Mark was probably the earliest (some also hypothesize that it is the most accurate) biblical rendition of Jesus’s life (a hypothesis known as Markan priority). Three hypothetical “lost” texts/oral traditions have also been proposed to explain unique material in Luke and Matthew; these are called Q, M, and L.

The Two-Source Hypothesis

found on: Two-Source Hypothesis posits that a lost document (called Q) contained the extra material found in Luke and Matthew. If this was indeed the case, Luke and Matthew are fraternally related as progeny unto two parents: Mark and Q. Using literalistic genetic analogies, alleles of Q got passed to Luke that were not passed to Matthew and vice versa. The same is true of Mark, though in lesser extent.

So here’s where things get complicated with regard to the gene-meme analogy. Depending on the source complexity of memes, they can be modeled via genetic or speciation frameworks. Operating within a purely Markan priority model, Luke and Matthew can be seen as offshoot derived species of a common ancestor: Mark. However, by incorporating Q, a species-level representation ceases to be perfectly analogous to traditional, branching cladogenesis. Instead, a form of reticular hybridization presents itself; members of different “species” hybridize to form conglomerate meme offspring–in this case, Luke and Matthew.

The Four Document Hypothesis

found on:

A second, more convoluted take on the phylomemy of Luke and Matthew is the Four Document Hypothesis, diagrammed above. Under this model, hypothetical L and M documents or oral traditions contribute unique elements to Luke and Matthew, respectively, in addition to the more common traits derived from Mark and Q. This hypothesis also permits wiggle room for an Antiochian Document and Document of Infancy, which would contribute respectively to Matthew and Luke via reticular hybridization (like everything else here, it seems). When it comes to memes, those that persevere appear to be the amalgamative ones.

Certainly, memes may often survive by hybridizing; however, no single gospel includes all the information contained within Mark, Matthew, and Luke (partly because incredible storytelling discontinuities and other inconsistencies would result). This is where adaptive radiation comes into play; speciation of the parent memes occurs as a result of adaptive necessity.

Back in the day, there wasn’t a single audience for Christian memes, but many, including Romans, Christians, Jews, and other groups. The Gospel of Mark and Gospel of Luke are thought to appeal to the Christian audiences, with Mark serving as a baseline of educational tidbits and Luke as a sort of “expansion pack” that also frames Romans in a positive light. Matthew, by contrast, hearkens strongly to the Jewish cause, poising Jesus as the prophesied Jewish Messiah and portraying his roots in a similar fashion to Moses’s (i.e. the “Massacre of the Innocents” mentioned earlier). The distillation of these three gospels from multiple and reticularly hybridizing parts, it would seem, is a function of broadened environmental adaptability, just as we see in evolutionary biology. The more audiences are appealed to, the more likely meme survival becomes.

Of course, nowadays, memes take on slightly different forms. Evolution is cool like that.

found on:

The Epic Implausibility of Sandworms

found on:

Some commendable attempts have been made to describe cryptozoological creatures in a highly technical manner. D&D’s Draconomicon, for instance, details things specific even as dragons’ eyelids, explaining that a variant nictitating membrane masks the innate glow of their eyes. Frank Herbert, esteemed author of first five Dune novels, had an eye for such detail when he brought Arrakis to life and populated it with fantastic creatures like the great sandworm. However, Herbert’s details are sometimes… well, some of them don’t make tons of sense.

A little background on sandworm biology will help to put things in context. Giant sandworms represent one part of a three-phrase life cycle including the minuscule sand plankton and water-whoring sandtrout. These creatures were introduced to the once watery planet Arrakis, and the extremely water-happy sandtrout exhausted Arrakis’s water supply until it transformed into a desert planet: hence the name “Dune”. Once a sufficiently dry climate is achieved, relatively small (by D&D standards) sandtrout are able to metamorphose into sandworms, which can reach upwards of 400 meters in length and up to 100 meters in diameter. Curiously, water is poisonous to the sandworms despite development from the watermongering sandtrout.

found on:

Nice units, guys.

Sandworms subsist chiefly on members of their own life cycle: sand plankton. Their excretions ultimately give rise to spice, or melange. Despite their size, sandworms are able to tunnel with great speed above and below the sand. Humans known as Fremen are able to ride the sandworms by drawing them to the surface of sand and then using hooks to expose delicate tissues underneath the sandworms’ ring segments. To avoid getting sand under their ring segments, the sandworms subsequently rotate so that a rider hooked on thus will be on top of its steed.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense for water to be poisonous to sandworms since they develop from water-filled, water-based organisms (sandtrout). Wouldn’t they continue to be water-based and end up poisonous to themselves?

Water’s a pretty essential component of life as we know it as well as most life in the Dune universe. However, it’s not the only possible liquid upon which life could be based; ammonia is another possibility given that it is polar, amphoteric, and reacts with itself to form its acid and base conjugates NH4+ and NH2-. These properties, especially acid base chemistry, enable ammonia to act as a solvent to various compounds; in fact, it dissolves organic compounds more effectively than water. Nevertheless, in terms of probability, water is a more likely to serve as life-giving fluid, so to speak; in mass fraction in parts per million, oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and helium. Nitrogen is fifth. Also, in order to justify water being poisonous to sandworms on the basis of ammonia or some other liquid serving as the universal-solvent-life-giving-whatever, the transition from sandtrout to sandworm would have to involve drastic biochemical changes that, honestly, would be hard to facilitate without a universal constructor.

Since the combustion of ammonia exothermically results in water and nitrogen oxide, the reverse process might… sort of… very faintly… possible… but… oh it’s just such a stretch, seriously folks. Replacement of all aqueous organic compounds with ammono-analogues would have to take place, something which could be done with enzymes (replacing OH groups with NH2, in large part), but replacing all water in the body with ammonia? Or maybe we’re to take things literally and assume that sand is the replacement universal solvent, introducing a new macrocosm of biological mechanisms. Ehh… fine. Let’s just go with it for now, while acknowledging water being poisonous to an organism that developed from what is literally referred to as a “living cistern” is pretty implausible.

found on:

Another eyebrow-raising detail of sandworm biology concerns their sand-swimming abilities. Recall that sandworms can grow in size to 400 meters in length and 100 meters in diameter. Now, think about sand. Anakin would eloquently say, “it’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere”. But more to the point, you don’t sink into sand when idly sitting on it. Stick a finger into the sand, however, and it can be fully submerged. On the other hand, a pole far longer than your finger but equivalent in width requires greater force to submerge fully. Likewise, a stack of average-diameter plates as tall as your finger proves difficult to push into the sand. Now imagine a 100 meter wide sandworm face-planting into a desert. Does this seem a likely burrowing situation?

Thing is, sand isn’t water (this is one of many revolutionary insights conceived in the 21st century). Large objects can’t just dive in and out of it and do beach ball tricks. African elephants’ feet, in fact, are evolved specifically in accordance with this fact; their increased diameter (as compared to Asian elephants) reduces the degree to which elephants sink into sand while they’re lumbering about in the desert. So if you’re a fan of Shadow of the Colossus, now you know to do a skeptical Spock eyebrow in response to the 9th and 13th colossi (incidentally, both colossi happen to be totally awesome, just like sandworms; sand just makes things cool, even if plausibility vanishes. PS: was I the only one amused by how much easier it was to beat the 13th colossus in Hard Time Attack Mode versus Normal Time Attack? He had the same health but they increased the time you had to beat him. It was truly hellish beating that bugger on Normal Time Attack…). And don’t forget Skorpanok, though he’s a little more feasible in terms of sand-swimming given his size and relative surface area. He’s also a wiggler, like many desert-burrowing lizards and snakes, which could improve his ability to displace sand and travel within it… erm. Excuse me. Tangents. My sincerest apologies.

found on:


Unlike Skorpanok, sandworms aren’t wigglers. So if we’re to permit the nonsensical notion that they can still “swim” through sand, some other mechanism must be at work. The most obvious choice would be something like setae, bristly projections that could latch onto grains of sand in mass sums and displace it, creating quicksand-like regions that might permit tunneling. Given the ridiculous size of sandworms, however, they still wouldn’t be getting anywhere very fast. Maybe, when submerged, they rapidly ingest sand and shoot it out their backsides to help propel themselves forward, but this doesn’t explain how they’re able to move quickly on top of sand.

Which brings us to another point of sandwormian implausibility: According to the Dune books, they can be goaded by Fremen into traveling up to 80.47 kmph (50 mph). The unitless ratio of a sandworm’s speed to its length is then 201.175. To put these numbers into perspective, let’s consider the sizes, environments, and velocities of real animals. The blue whale, which reaches up to 33 meters in length, can swim through water at 50 kmph (though only in short bursts). These values yield a speed-to-length ratio of 1515.152: greater speed relative to length as compared with the sandworm.

Admittedly, a length-to-speed ratio assumes an over-simplified model of organismal speed. Also, the comparison of a blue whale to a sandworm, while the best Earth has to offer in terms of creatures of enormous size, is inappropriate because whale travel through water, a far more permissive medium than sand. In addition, they use fluked, paddle-like flagellar means of propulsion as opposed to… whatever it is that propels sandworms through sand.

As such, let’s use a more apt model like the earthworm (regular old American earthworms, not the blue monstrosities found in Australia), which can tunnel through soil as well as inch across on dry surfaces–still not a great comparison, given that soil is generally moist, cohesive, and contains many more pockets of air than would the dry sand of Arrakis. Earthworms travel faster for increases in length, however; the relative increase in speed for every increase in length follows what looks like a square root curve (at least from 3 data points). This concerns worms of tiny proportions, just a few centimeters long. Extrapolating the effect a sandworm’s size would have on its speed (based on the graph below), a 400 meter-long sandworm should travel at 21.275617 (centimeters / second) = 0.765922212 kmph. Not exactly demon speeding. But more importantly, definitely not 80.47 kmph, as is declared in the Dune books.

found on:

Using the proportionality constant 0.02727 for mass-to-length yields the values 2.7272*(10^-10)m, 0.0010909m, and 0.00245455m for the worms' lengths in the graph above.

Here's the same data plotted with worm lengths and an exponential regression trendline. Also, Excel is rubbish.

Oh, but we’re not done yet. Recall that Fremen use hooks to pry open the ring segments of sandworms as they hurtle on by at ridiculous, impossible velocities. By exposing delicate tissue underneath the ring segment, the sandworm rotates to avoid getting sand in the area. So, the sandworm, whose surface plates are tough enough to render them impervious to just about anything short of nuclear weaponry, is bested by a couple of ski poles wielded by puny humans. Furthermore, its ring segments are oddly susceptible to being pried open from the front even though sandworms tunnel forward through vast, rough, heavy volumes of sand. Adaptation-wise, wouldn’t the carapace be sheeted in such a way as to prevent objects traveling in opposite directions relative to the sandworms (like huge masses of sand) from invading their delicate underlayers? Of course, if they were sheeted in such a way, Fremen would have no way of harnessing them as vehicles, and the Dune story would take a bit of a hit… Oh well. Better to make dollars than sense.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.