Humpty Dumpty and Commerce

7 January 2021

Fairly inexpensive hair combs made of hard rubber — rubber vulcanized to a state in which it is as about firm as a modern plastic — could be found in most American drugstores at least into the mid-'90s. Now-a-days, they have become something of a premium item. I was looking at listing on Amazon supposedly of hard rubber combs and discovered, to my annoyance, that a careful reading of the descriptions showed that most of the combs explicitly described as hard rubber were made of plastic. To me, the situation seemed to be of pervasive fraud, as it will to many others.

But then I realized that it is more likely to be something else. Fraud, after all, involves deliberate misrepresentation. Whereäs we live in a world in which a great many people believe that no use of a word or phrase is objectively improper — that if they think that hard rubber means a rubbery plastic or a plastic that looks like another substance called hard rubber, then it indeed means just that. (Of course, we cannot trust any verbal explanation from them of these idiosyncratic meanings, as they may be assigning different meanings to any words with which they define other words.)

My defense of linguistic prescriptivism has for the most part been driven by concerns other than those immediate to commercial transactions. And, when I've seen things such on eBay as items described with mint condition for its age or with draped nude, my inclination has been merely to groan or to laugh. But it seems to me that the effects of ignoring or of rejecting linguistic prescription have found their way into commercial transactions beyond the casual.

Well, those who are not prescriptivists are hypocrites if they complain, and they're getting no worse than they deserve.

Judging the Past in the Present

28 December 2020

I often hear or read someone objecting to judging an historical person or act by present moral standards. Although there seems to be some element of reasonableness entangled in this objection, it's very problematic.

It is especially problematic as expressed. Technically, we cannot judge anyone or anything at all, except by whatever may be our present standards. If we judge historical people and acts differently from how we do present-day people and acts, it is exactly because our present standards incorporate a recognition of historical context.

I don't see that the real issue is historical context as such, but context more generally. If we are to make allowances for historical person or acts, it is because of what informed them and what did not inform them; and, similarly, acts by persons in some present-day contexts are very differently informed from acts by other persons in other present-day cultures. As L.P. Hartley usefully noted, The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Cultural relativism, in application to other places or to other times, is sensible when it warns one against presumption that one's own culture is doing things the only right way. (One's culture may be doing things a wrong way, or there may be other ways that are just as good.) But a cultural relativism that instead claims that something is automatically acceptable simply because it prevails in the culture of that place or prevailed in the culture of that time dissolves into nihilism because each person at each time and at each place is him- or herself a subculture.

And I think that some allowances should be made; but I think that too much allowance is often made.

For example, is the case against slavery now available really all that much better than the case that was available in America a few hundred years ago? Inverting that question, was the case against slavery available a few hundred years ago really much worse than the case available now? There is a sound argument, even to-day, for not waging war against slavery in the territories ruled by other states; and there may be a case for making treaties or even forming alliances with such states; but those are different practices from engaging in slavery or actively enabling slavery. Is there really a meaningfully better defense of the slavery of two hundred years ago than there would be of slavery now?

I   don't   think   so.

Nor do I think so for a great deal else that I am told not to judge by modern standards.

Perverted Locusts

9 December 2020

Those who support locking-down in response to SARS-CoV-2 are like weird locusts. Instead of eating the crops; these locusts prevent growth and harvest. That is to say that they prevent economic activity, which is an implicit consumption of an especially perverse sort. In any case, they leave despair and literal starvation in their wake.


6 December 2020

State officials should not use tasers as devices to compel positive acts. I have made and explained this point elsewhere, but I believe that I have failed to do so previously in this 'blog.

When tasers were introduced to policing, they were presented to the public as devices to stop attackers, without potentially lethal force. It would take some contrivance to present a situation in which such use of a taser would not be preferable to lethal force.

But tasers also inflict pain. And police officers quickly began using them to hurt people until those people complied, even when compliance was a positive act, such as moving one's body in some way. The pain inflicted by a taser is sufficiently severe that it will cause people to act in ways that will lead to their convictions, as when a taser was used to induce a suspect to produce a urine sample. Used to motivate behavior, a taser is a device of torture. Judges have acquiesced to this use of torture to compel positive acts. Almost no one speaks out against it. The taser has become a socially accepted device of torture.

Transcription Error

23 November 2020

To my chagrin, I find that I made a transcription error for an axiom in Formal Qualitative Probability. More specifically, I placed a quantification in the wrong place. Axiom (A6) should read [image of formula] I've corrected this error in the working version.

Missed Article

21 November 2020

I found an article that, had I known of it, I would have noted in my probability paper, A Logic of Comparative Support: Qualitative Conditional Probability Relations Represented by Popper Functions by James Allen Hawthorne
in Oxford Handbook of Probabilities and Philosophy, edited by Alan Hájek and Chris Hitchcock

Professor Hawthorne adopts essentially unchanged most of Koopman's axiomata from The Axioms and Algebra of Intuitive Probability, but sets aside Koopman's axiom of Subdivision, noting that it may not seem as intuitively compelling as the others. In my own paper, I showed that Koopman's axiom of Subdivision was a theorem of a much simpler, more general principle in combination with an axiom that is equivalent to two of the axiomata in Koopman's later revision of his system. (The article containing that revision is not listed in Hawthorne's bibliography.) I provided less radically simpler alternatives to other axiomata, and included axiomata that did not apply to Koopman's purposes in his paper but did to the purposes of a general theory of decision-making.

Final Form

19 November 2020

I wasn't otherwise informed of the change, but when I checked this morning I found that a version of my probability paper had been posted to the First View list (and the listing amongst accepted manuscripts removed). So, except for pagination, the final form has been created. (I hope that the error to which I last directed attention of the productions office was corrected.)

Still in a Bottleneck

9 November 2020

On 3 September, I received a galley proof of my probability paper. Setting aside issues of style,[1] there were various minor problems. Of a bit greater importance was that the paper was reported as received on 20 Februrary 2020, the date that the publisher received it from the editors, which was months after the editors had received it from me. But the most important matter was the replacement in a citation of 1843 with 1943.[2] I responded on the same day, noting most of these issues.[3] On 10 September, I was queried about which version of the MSC I'd used for the code that I'd provided, and as to whether there were truly a space in my surname. Again I responded on the same day.

On 6 October, I received a new galley proof. I found no new problems. All of the minor issues that I'd noted were fixed. However, the paper was still reported as received on 20 Februrary, and the citation still had the wrong year. I decided to ignore the first of these two issues, and simply to note the problem with the citation. Again, I responded on the same day.

I have not since received communication from the production office. My paper remains on the accepted manuscripts list, and has not appeared in the FirstView list.

[1] I think that I just have to accept things such as punctuation being moved within quotation marks even when it's not part of the quotation, spaces being removed from either side of em-dashes, and artefact being respelled artifact, though I use the former for a different notion from the latter.

[2] The first clear frequentist challenge to the classical approach to probability seems to have been made in a paper by Richard Leslie Ellis published in 1843.

[3] One thing that I decided not to note was my discomfort over the space between left-hand quotation marks and quoted formulæ.

Science and the Humanities

7 November 2020

Reading a book first published in 1951, I am reminded that, at one time, the definition of humanities included sciences of human behavior within its scope. Now, one seldom encounters that inclusion in contemporary use, and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary explicitly excludes the study of social relations (though it says nothing explicit about that part of behavior outside of the social).

In the earlier period, there was a question of whether the study of human behavior were fundamentally different from the study of the properties of other things. Those who insisted upon such a difference would speak and write of science and the humanities as if of two separate things.

But the tools by which the physical, biological, and behavioral science were studied were increasingly shared. The physical and biological sciences took-up probability and statistics; the biological sciences have taken-up chemistry, mechanics, and game theory; the behavioral science have taken-up biological explanation and mathematical modelling. All have been affected by the same philosophic theories of method. A dichotomy of science and the humanities cannot prevail so long as the behavioral sciences are included amongst what are called humanities.

Apparently that dichotomy was so dear to some of those who insisted upon it that they attempted its preservation by implicitly changing what they intended with humanities in order to hold fast to it. Of course, the newer definition doesn't maintain the original dichotomy; but replaces it with a new one.

Lack of Infrastructure

26 September 2020
[panel from Kirakira • Sutadī — Zettai Gokaku Sengen by Hanabana Tsubomi in which three students react with dismay at something given to them by a fourth student.  One dismayed student declares 'What is this…?!  This is absolutely filled with symbols I've never seen before…'  Another cries 'I don't even understand what the questions are asking…!!']
(from KiraKira★Study by Hanabana Tsubomi, v 2 ch 18)

My work and the problems that most interest me are difficult to discuss with friends and even with colleagues because so much infrastructure is unfamiliar to them.