pozorvlak: (Default)
Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 06:10 pm
I got into an interesting conversation on Twitter last night about "singular 'they'" (the use of the pronoun "they" to refer to only one person), in which a number of people expressed strongly-held opinions at me. However, I think "singular they" covers several closely-related but different constructions, some more common than others, and it's worth teasing them out.
  1. An abstract person whose gender is unknown, or a person chosen from a set containing people of both genders. "If the reader does not like my use of singular 'they', they are invited to stick it up their jumper".
  2. A concrete person whose gender is unknown. "We wish to thank Reviewer 2 for their critical feedback & sincerely apologize for not having written the manuscript they would have written".
  3. An abstract person whose gender is known: "Just because somebody's feminine, it doesn't mean they have a vagina".
  4. A concrete person whose gender is known, but which you do not want to reveal. "I met someone, and they make me feel so happy... that someone is a guy".
  5. A concrete person whose gender is known, but does not fit within the male/female binary: "Jamie is agender; they'd prefer that you use the pronouns 'they', 'their' and 'them' when talking about them".
  6. A concrete person whose gender is known, binary, and obvious from context, but which you do not want to encode in the pronoun. "Tom gave me their shirt". This was the sense @cassolotl was originally asking about.
As far as I can remember, I've been using senses 1 and 2 all my life. Usage 3 hadn't occurred to me before I started reading Language Log entries on singular 'they', and I doubt I'd even have picked up on it as notable if I'd encountered it in the wild. Usage 4 feels like a mild stretch. I only became aware of nonbinary people in the last few years; usage 5 still feels weird to me, but since it only causes me mild (and decreasing) annoyance and apparently can save the person concerned considerable distress, I'm happy to use it when that's what they prefer (there are also a number of invented pronouns like "zie", which some nonbinary people prefer over "they" - again, I'm happy to use those pronouns if the person concerned prefers it). Usage 6 trips my internal "this utterance is wrong" alarm. Even one of my interlocutors from last night, who was extremely bullish on singular 'they', told me they would not use it in sense 6.

I think it's interesting that in my idiolect, singular 'they' carries an implication of abstraction or uncertainty: compare my reactions to senses 3 and 6. I'm not claiming that my personal feelings of grammatical acceptability are high-quality linguistic data, but they should probably carry more weight than a set of formal rules that were inferred originally from Latin.

A popular argument for singular 'they' is the argument from history: as one Twitter interlocutor told me, "Singular 'they' goes back to the 14th Century. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen and Shaw can't be wrong". But arguments from history have limited validity when applied to modern English. In the opposite direction, consider the following passage from the novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, published in 1974:
They had been following the coast path, each lost in his thoughts: she to Haydon, he supposed, he to Control...
That's a clear usage of "he/his" as a gender-neutral pronoun in sense 1 above. Does that seem right to you? It feels weird bordering on outright wrong to me, and yet it was apparently considered correct usage only forty years ago. And if Le Carré's constructions can pass from correct to incorrect in so short a time, so can Austen et al's. Chaucer, in particular, should not be considered a reliable guide to modern English usage. But also, while I'm sure you can find examples of Shakespeare and Austen using singular 'they' in senses 1 and 2, can you find examples of them using it in senses 4-6, or even 3? I suspect not, but would welcome correction.

So, before telling me that singular 'they' is completely correct in all situations and only idiots object to it, please stop and ask yourself if you'd use it without qualm in all the senses I list above. A straw poll among a left-leaning group of friends gave me only one outright "yes", with the rest offering variations on "sense 6 is weird, but acceptable". Interestingly, there was a disagreement about whether invented gender-neutral pronouns such as "zie" were acceptable in sense 4, a situation for which I'd have thought they were custom-designed. My own view is that singular 'they', while out of fashion for a long time, is enjoying a renaissance and that all the uses I list above will be considered completely normal within a couple of decades: even though I find some of them odd, I might as well get used to them now.
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Thursday, October 30th, 2014 01:17 am

I have been learning Russian for the last twelve days. Here's a video of me trying to speak it - feedback very welcome!

I'm doing this mainly because I'm planning a mountaineering trip to Kyrgyzstan next summer. I've travelled in countries where I don't speak the language before, and it's horrible and difficult and isolating. In particular not being able to read the local script (as was the case for me in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) makes so many practical things harder. Why Russian and not Kyrgyz? Well, friends who've been to Kyrgyzstan tell me that while almost nobody in Kyrgyzstan speaks English, many people there speak at least a little Russian, and I rate my chances of learning Russian to a useful level as much higher than my chances of learning Kyrgyz - Russian is an Indo-European language, it's related to Czech, which I've studied a little, and finding language-learning resources from where I am is going to be much easier. Benny the Irish Polyglot can learn Hungarian in Colombia, but I think I'll make life a bit easier on myself, at least this time :-)

Two resources have been both helpful and inspiring to me: the Coursera course Learning How to Learn, and the aforementioned Benny's website, Fluent In Three Months. I discovered Benny through an interview the LHTL instructors did with him. The other thing that's been helping with motivation is having a Big Hairy Audacious Goal: next to "do a first ascent in the Greater Ranges", "learn enough Russian to get by" seems like (and is!) a mere stepping-stone. The BHAG is helping with the physical training too, but there my thoughts are more like "Does it hurt now? Good. It's going to hurt a lot more at 5000m, so you'd better get on with it".

Historically, I have sucked at learning languages: given how many years I spent studying French at school, it's embarrassing how much I was having to struggle with basic everyday interactions in French on my recent trips to France, and the less said about my Czech or Japanese the better. In Kyrgyzstan I won't have the option of falling back to English, so it's time to HTFU and overcome my inadequacies. My meta-strategy can be summed up as "do all the stuff that you were too lazy, proud, or suspicious to try in previous language-learning efforts": a lot of the techniques covered in LHTL were things I'd heard about but never tried for language-learning.

In more detail, these are the techniques I plan to use:

  • Actually talking to native speakers. Benny's big on this one, arguing that if you want to speak a language then that's what you have to practice. I plan to use italki.com, a website that lets you find native speakers for Skype chats, but if any Russian-speaking readers of this blog would be willing to put up with my attempts, I'd love to speak to you!
  • Recall: the act of recalling information strengthens the neural connections that encode it. LTHL recommends immediately turning your head away from the book and trying to recall it when you first encounter a new fact; in general, you should try and test yourself constantly on any information you're trying to remember. I didn't do this much at school, reasoning that if you don't know something, what do you gain by trying to remember it - surely it's better to expose yourself to the information over and over. A plausible hypothesis, but apparently Science contradicts it.
  • Spaced repetition. The brain needs time to lay down long-term memories, so it's better to spread X hours of practice over a few weeks than to cram it all into X/24 days. This combines nicely with recall - create flashcards, and test yourself on them over days, increasing the period on things you know better. I've been using the smartphone app Anki to learn the 1000 most common Russian words, though unfortunately the deck I found is Russian-to-English, and point 1 suggests I should be concentrating on English-to-Russian, or (better), unnamed-concepts-to-Russian so I don't have to go via English to find the Russian word. I've also made physical flashcards with some basic Russian phrases - hello, goodbye, I am from Scotland, has that mountain been climbed before, that kind of thing. I've never made flashcards before, and I'm not entirely sure why not - laziness?
  • Eating my frogs first, or in other words, doing hard things first thing. My morning routine is now wake up, open the curtains (which I can do without getting out of bed), sit up (this helps the grogginess to drain from my head), pick up my phone and start doing Anki cards. I then usually follow this up with another short Anki session at lunchtime and more when I have a few minutes spare.
  • Mnemonics: instead of simply repeating vocabulary words over and over, I'm trying to invent mnemonics, and preferably vivid images that stick in the mind better. For instance, the Russian for "start" is "начало", pronounced "nachalo"; "на" means "on", so I imagine a line of sprinters poised at the start line, with a cellist on a platform about to sound the note that will start the race. My favourite mnemonic so far is one that [profile] wormwood_pearl invented: the Russian word "понимать", pronounced "ponimat'", means "understand", so I imagine a picky customer going into the automated pony-wash and asking for a particularly complex horse-laundering procedure, which the assistant understands perfectly. I've generally been having trouble coming up with good mnemonics, though. Partly this is lack of practice, and partly it's because many of the words I've tried to learn so far have been function words like and, because, what, then, which, and so on: it's hard to construct vivid images about such things. My mnemonic for "because" is particularly stretched: the word I'm trying to remember is "потому", "patamu", which has a Tam and a Moo in it, and Moo is the sound cows make, and there's a line from a Half-Man Half-Biscuit song "did you ever wonder how they get triangles from a cow? You need buttermilk and cheese and an equilateral chainsaw", and the mathematical symbol for "because" is three dots arranged in a triangle, so I imagine a bonnetted Scotsman called Tam carving a "because" sign out of a cow with a triangular chainsaw. Which is completely stupid, but actually appears to be working. In writing this, it occurs to me that I could help myself to invent mnemonics by taking advantage of the focused and diffuse modes of thinking. When I'm doing flashcards, I'm focused, but creativity requires the diffuse mode to make connections between apparently disparate concepts (preferably after a period of focus). Next time I encounter a word for which I can't think of a mnemonic, I'll write it down so my brain can continue to work on it subconsiously.
  • Chunks and chunk transfer. An essential part of the learning process is the construction of mental chunks - ideas which "hang together", and which can then be recalled as a single unit (like, say, "compiler", or "grammatical gender", or "integration by parts"). Once you have acquired a chunk in one context, you can more easily transfer this knowledge to acquire chunks in new contexts. Here's a description of how I learned to contact juggle by applying a chunk from skiing - I was later able to apply that chunk to rock climbing, where it's called "deadpointing". I had a great Twitter conversation about how deadpointing applies to all sorts of other physical disciplines - fascinating stuff. Anyway, chunk transfer Is My Friend when it comes to language-learning too. I've been able to apply some chunks from Czech (my favourite so far was when I realised that the черно in чернослив (damson, from Google Translate) meant "black" and was cognate with Czech černá, so the слив must mean something like "plum" and was therefore cognate with "slivovice", the name of a potent moonshine distilled throughout Central Europe. I've also, to my delight, been able to transfer a lot of chunks from Nadsat, the teenage slang used in the novel A Clockwork Orange.
  • Not caring about making mistakes. My difficulties with languages are symptomatic of a deeper problem - I've always found enough subjects easy that I could do well in school simply by relying on the things that I could do without difficulty. This, I think, created a fixed mindset - my identity became bound up with "being clever", so I subconsiously avoided situations that would make me look or feel stupid. Tackling hard problems was allowed, but only within the range of subjects that I was good at. My difficulties with the programming language Haskell probably come under this heading too (thing I ought to be good at, but which made me feel stupid), and juggling got a lot less fun (and I started improving a lot less) once I started thinking "I've been juggling X years, I should be better at this by now" rather than "I'm no good at physical hand/eye coordination, I'm allowed to be bad at this". But languages don't come easy to me, so I have to cultivate a growth mindset - more straightforwardly, I need to internalise the idea that sucking at something is an essential step on the way to being good at that thing.
  • Sleep. Sleep physically shrinks neurons, allowing waste products to be removed. It also plays a key role in the consolidation of long-term memories. So getting a full night's sleep as often as possible is very important to successful learning. [Checks time. Oops.]
  • Exercise: as well as being great for general mental health, exercise is apparently nigh-essential for effective learning. Fortunately, I need to get a lot fitter anyway :-)
pozorvlak: (Default)
Saturday, October 25th, 2014 08:44 pm
Я начал изучать русский язык, потому что я хочу пойти альпинизм в Кыргызстане летом следующего года. Я знаю только несколько слов до сих пор, поэтому я использую Google Translate, чтобы написать это. Я уверен, что это полна ошибок. Я надеюсь, что в ближайшее время я буду говорить достаточно русский, чтобы сделать свои собственные ошибки!
pozorvlak: (Default)
Monday, August 15th, 2011 05:35 pm
In a world where Smile, Chinese Democracy, Duke Nukem Forever and Perl 6 have all actually been released, what archetype are we meant to use for an over-ambitious, never-to-be-completed project? And what did people use before those projects started? What do people who don't know about computers or rock music use?

The obvious answer, at least in the West, is "the Tower of Babel", but that doesn't quite work: firstly, because an essential aspect of the ToB story (and a more common use of the simile) is that the project failed because of communication breakdown; and secondly, because the ToB project failed not through its inherent overambition, but because said ambition led to one of the stakeholders¹ actively working to sabotage the project. DNF had many, many things working against it, but AFAIK intentional sabotage wasn't one of them.

Which leads me to two related questions:

1) What did people call a Yoko Ono figure before the Beatles? The idea of two close collaborators being driven apart by a woman who captivates Collaborator A and distracts him from his work with Collaborator B seems like it should be as old as Humanity; but the closest I can think of is the Biblical story of David, Uriah and Bathsheba. And again, the parallel doesn't quite work: it's important to that story that the woman was also desired by (indeed, married to) Collaborator B.

2) The Bible, as indicated above, provides a rich store of widely-applicable shared metaphors and allusions. As Western society becomes less Judaeo-Christian (and in particular, more secular), increasingly many people will not understand Biblical allusions. How shall we replace them?

¹ God.
pozorvlak: (Default)
Thursday, March 24th, 2011 10:01 am
In Clackmannanshire, where [livejournal.com profile] wormwood_pearl grew up, the word "minky" means filthy, messy, disgusting; there's a heavy connotation of shame. "Ugh, this kitchen's minky!" An approximate synonym is "clatty".

My friend [livejournal.com profile] buffalo_gill, who is from... somewhere in England, uses "minky" to mean great, excellent, cool: "that party was minky".

In the teenage fiction of Joanna Nadin, "minky" is a noun meaning "vagina": "According to Sad Ed, it is the law to have been sick on Strongbow and have seen several willies (or minkies in his case) by the end of Year Ten."

So I was delighted to see this at the shops yesterday:

Half-price Minky ironing board
pozorvlak: (Default)
Wednesday, June 17th, 2009 09:27 pm
Thanks to everyone who responded to my recent post about internationalising this blog. The respondents were unanimous in saying that they were perfectly capable of working out, Googling for or asking about any points of difficulty, and inline explanations would probably just break the flow. So I'll stop worrying about it: but if anything's unclear, please ask.

[livejournal.com profile] neoanjou also made the very good point that literal translations (especially of units) often aren't very helpful if you don't have the context needed to interpret them. Is £10 a lot for a meal in a restaurant? Depends where you are.

Serendipitiously, I just came across a nice example of the dangers of literal translation. The label that came with the North Face duffel bag I won in a raffle last year proudly declares "Bomber Construction". Which doesn't mean it's shaped like a Flying Fortress: in climbers' argot, "bomber" is short for "bombproof", hence really solid, totally reliable, etc. Unfortunately, nobody told the French translator, who rendered it as "Structure de type « aviateur »" :-)
pozorvlak: (polar bear)
Tuesday, February 12th, 2008 10:26 am
I'm going to make what should be an uncontroversial statement: if you don't understand and use monads, you are at best a quarter of a Haskell programmer. A corollary of this is that, since using monad transformers is the only (or at least the approved) way to use two or more monads together, if you don't understand and use monad transformers you are at best half a Haskell programmer.

[Another corollary is that I am, at best, about an eighth of a Haskell programmer: though I understand monads well on a theoretical level, I invariably emerge defeated from any attempt to bend them to my will.]

But we'll come back to that later.

Something I've been thinking about for a while is this whole business of designing languages to make programs shorter. )

1 There really ought to be a word that means "would never use a twopenny word when a half-crown word would do", but I can't think of one. English grads? Edit: sesquipedalian! Of course! Thanks, [livejournal.com profile] fanf! (Originally, I used "prolix")
2 I actually came up with this list by thinking about languages whose users were the most passionate. But they're also extremely concise, which I think is a large part of the reason for the passion. If I were focusing purely on concision, I should probably consider Forth, but I don't know enough about it.
3 J has "boxed arrays" too, which are something like two-dimensional s-expressions, but let's leave those aside for now.
4 You might want to raise this objection against Smalltalk, too: objects are members of classes, which are something like types. Now, I've hardly used Smalltalk, so I'm probably talking out of my elbow, but: since everything is an object, and the language has powerful reflection features and duck typing, we can in fact write generic operators that work for objects of many or all classes. But maybe I'm entirely wrong about Smalltalk programming: in which case, please delete all references to the language from my argument.
5 Do you find yourself wanting to go out and strangle small fluffy animals every time you have to type out an instance declaration that would be entirely unnecessary in a duck-typed language? I do. Particularly when it doesn't work and spits out some ludicrous error message at me, telling me that I've encountered another stupid corner case of the typeclass system.
6 I learned to my surprise the other day that I'm a member of the Geometry and Topology research group, and not the algebra research group as I'd always assumed - apparently universal algebra is now considered a branch of geometry!
pozorvlak: (kittin)
Thursday, February 7th, 2008 09:20 am
A member of a community I belong to is asking about doing a degree in the UK in the general area of English/Old English/historical linguistics. Any of you have any advice to offer?

http://community.livejournal.com/linguaphiles/3694484.html?view=72163988#t72163988
pozorvlak: (gasmask)
Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008 04:11 pm
Bloody Haskell: it's like a scab I can't stop picking at.

Prompted by something on Reddit, I started thinking about libraries to pluralize (English) words, like the table-name generator in Ruby on Rails or Damian Conway's (rather more complete-looking) Lingua::EN::Inflect for Perl. Such things seem to be called "inflectors". My question is, what would be the idiomatic interface for a Haskell inflector? The obvious thing would be something like
    pluralize :: Inflector -> String -> String
where Inflector is some sort of data structure holding configuration data: classical versus modern plurals, any custom cases, etc. But following on from our earlier discussion of high- and low-level type-checking, it occurred to me that there's a constraint here: only singular nouns should be pluralized. So should we then have
    newtype Singular = String
    newtype Plural = String

    pluralize :: Inflector -> Singular -> Plural
? Or even
module Inflect (makeSingular, pluralize)
    data Singular = Singular String
    data Plural = Plural String

    makeSingular :: String -> Singular
    -- error-checking code goes here, to check that the string passed
    -- is a single word, or something

    pluralize :: Inflector -> Singular -> Plural
so we don't export the constructors for Singular or Plural, ensuring that one can only construct them using our interface? But wouldn't this make client code far uglier than necessary? Should one then provide both options, tagging one as unsafe?
    module Inflect (makeSingular, pluralize, unsafePluralize)
    data Singular = Singular String
    data Plural = Plural String

    makeSingular :: String -> Singular
    -- error-checking code goes here

    unsafePluralize ::Inflector -> String -> String

    pluralize :: Inflector -> Singular -> Plural
    pluralize i (Singular s) = Plural (unsafePluralize i s)
Thoughts?
pozorvlak: (babylon)
Wednesday, November 21st, 2007 06:33 pm
Here's the current state of play with the Assyriology:

Doom, gloom, failure, sheep and kurtosis )
pozorvlak: (babylon)
Thursday, November 15th, 2007 08:41 am
  • Do not try to wget -m the whole of the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature. There's rather a lot more there than you'd expect. Why they couldn't just provide a zipfile and/or tarball of the XML they store in the backend database is anyone's guess. I can't be the only geek who's read Snow Crash and wants to contribute.
  • Other than that, I'm really rather impressed with the ETCSL. Check out the mouseover text. Of course, all that stuff needs stripping away for my purposes :-( The background articles on Sumerian language, literature and cuneiform (literally, "wedge-shaped") writing look pretty useful too. Annoyingly, their funding ran out in late 2006, so the site hasn't been updated for a while, and they seem to have made it unnecessarily hard for anyone to take over.
  • The correlation coefficient of a constant signal with anything else, even itself, is always zero, so if I take [livejournal.com profile] elvum's suggestion to use autocorrelation then the "short short short short" problem becomes a non-issue. However, I then end up with another signal, whereas what I really need is a single number with higher values representing higher levels of poeticity. Possibly I can limit the number of possibilities I need to check by counting syllables-per-line; or maybe I could just take the maximum value of the autocorrelation? It's been nearly ten years since I did any statistics, so this is all a bit painful. I've tried asking friends in the stats department, and been met with the slightly worried look of an expert challenged on something that's just outside their narrow specialism. I know it well, because it's a look I often use myself.
  • I'm not the first person to apply statistical ideas to analyse the corpus. There's even a book out: Analysing literary Sumerian: corpus-based approaches (or you can buy it from Amazon!) Nothing especially relevant-looking in the chapter headings, but I wonder if I could persuade the library to buy a copy... they don't have it in stock right now, but they do have the intriguing-looking Sumerian or Cryptology? Further investigation reveals that it used to be thought that Sumerian wasn't an actual language, but rather a priestly cryptosystem used for enciphering Semitic texts. More details here.
pozorvlak: (babylon)
Sunday, November 11th, 2007 10:49 pm
So I was down in Cambridge last week, as part of an exercise in convincing mathematics Part 3 students that there are other universities in the UK, and that some of them are even worth doing PhDs at. I didn't manage to see everyone I'd have liked to, but I did get to see Antarctic Mike for the first time in nearly two years (as the name suggests, he spent most of that time Down South), and to spend a night on his new houseboat. I also went out to the pub with Mike and Ros (our musical director from The Matrix) and had a very nice lunch with [livejournal.com profile] scribeofnisaba, whence the rest of this entry.

[livejournal.com profile] scribeofnisaba is an Assyriologist (coolest job title ever, no?), which means that she studies the literature and languages of the ancient Near East - the languages spoken by the Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians and so on. Roughly speaking, the languages spoken in modern-day Iran and Iraq, in the period 4000-1000BC(ish). In other words, the study of the oldest literature in the world. She tells me that it's a very exciting field, and that now is a very exciting time to be working in it, as so little is known, and much of what we thought we knew has recently been shown to be wrong - for instance, it was always thought that Sumerian scribes were all male, but this is now thought increasingly suspect. One surprisingly basic thing we don't know (if I'm understanding her correctly) is whether or not Sumerian poetry was metric.

A brief word of explanation. Poetry in many languages is characterised by the use of a repetitive pattern of long and short syllables, called the "metre". Shakespeare, for instance, used the pattern
SLSLSLSLSL
SLSLSLSLSL
...
whereas Virgil used
LSSLSSLSSLSSLSSLL
LSSLSSLSSLSSLSSLL
...

Now, it seems to me that it might well be the kind of problem that reacts well to having a few billion processor cycles thrown at it, but there are a couple of things I'm not too clear on, and maybe you lot can help me out.

As I understand it, we don't know
0. whether the Sumerians wrote metric poetry at all,
1. if they did, what metre they used,
2. how individual Sumerian words were stressed.

Assuming 0, then if we know 1, we can work out 2, and vice-versa. But if we don't know either, we might be able to bootstrap a knowledge of both by considering their interaction. This could well turn into a lifetime's work if done by hand, but fortunately we now have wonderful machines for doing repetitive calculations very fast, and the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature seems like it was designed for precisely this kind of automated search.

[[livejournal.com profile] scribeofnisaba: You mentioned that cuneiform was syllabic: is the same symbol typically used in many different words? Because if so, we might be able to assume that it's stressed the same way whenever it occurs. But then again, probably not. Also, do we know that the lines are metrical units?]

Anyway, here's my idea. We search the space of possible ways of stressing words, and looking at the metres they produce on the corpus of poetry, and search for the stress patterns that produce the most regular metres. The searching's not that difficult, or rather there are well-known ways of doing it (more on that in a minute). The tricky bit, actually, is finding an automated way of looking for "poetic" stress patterns - the problem is that the pattern "short short short short short..." is as regular as you like. We could (for instance) calculate the stress pattern of every poem in the corpus, given our current guess at word stresses, then compress the resulting bitstream and observe the compression ratio - but that would tend to produce "short short short short...". We could, er, apply a discrete Fourier transform to split it into a sum of periodic functions, and then, er, um. Just eyeballing it won't work - we'd probably have to go through several thousand (mutate, calculate metre, compare) cycles. Is there some kind of constraint on word stress patterns for Sumerian that we know about? Each word must have at least one long syllable, or something? Anyway, there's presumably some way of doing this that I'm either too stupid or ignorant to find right now :-)

As for the algorithm for the search: the most obvious thing to do would be to simply try every pattern, but with nearly a thousand nouns in the glossary (and many other words of other sorts), each containing several syllables which can be either short or long, we'd have a search space with around 2^2000 elements. This is, to say the least, computationally infeasible. Another approach might be via "hill-climbing": start somewhere random, change it a bit, see if the change improves matters, keep it if so, repeat until you can no longer improve your results by making small changes. The problem with this is that you can get stuck at a "local maximum", or a point better than everything nearby but still not the best overall. Every mountain-top is a local maximum for the height of the Earth above sea level, but not every mountain is Everest. One way of dealing with this problem is to introduce a bit more randomness: the following elegant algorithm (which is the one I was thinking of using) is due to Metropolis:
  1. Start at a random point in the search space.
  2. Make a small change to your position.
  3. See if this has improved things. If it has, keep your change. If not, toss a (weighted) coin, and keep the change if it comes up heads. The coin should be weighted proportionally to how much worse the change has made your results: a very deleterious change has a very low chance of being kept.
  4. Repeat several hundred or thousand times until your position stabilises.
I attended a series of lectures by the mathematician and magician (mathemagician?) Persi Diaconis on (among other things) this algorithm about a year ago, and it's really surprisingly effective.