Posts Tagged ‘everyday frustrations’

Humpty Dumpty, Prescriptivism, and Linguistic Evolution

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

In Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (writing as Lewis Carroll), a famous and rather popular position on language is taken:

When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

If Mr Dumpty's words simply mean whatever he intends them to mean, then the rest of us are not in a position to understand them. If he provides us with verbal definitions, we must know what the defining words mean. He could not even declare in a manner intelligible to us that he meant most words in the same sense as do you or I. We might attempt to tease-out meanings by looking for correlations, but then we would be finding meanings as correlations, which assumes properties (such as stability) that represent more than pure choice on the part of Mr Dumpty. Having been made perfectly private, his vocabulary as such would have no practical value except for internal dialogue. There is a paradox here, which Dodgson surely saw, yet which so very many people don't: If Mr Dumpty's apparent declaration were true, then it could not be understood by us. He might actually just be making some claim about breakfast. We might take (or mistake) his claim for a true proposition (that his vocabulary were purely idiosyncratic), but any co-incidence between his intention and our interpretation would be a result of chance. We could not actually recognize it for whatever proposition it actually expressed.

In order to communicate thoughts with language to other persons, we must have shared presumptions not only about definitions of individual words, but also about grammar. The more that such presumptions are shared, the more that we may communicate; the more fine-grained the presumptions, the more precise the communication possible. In the context of such presumptions, there are right ways of using language in attempt to communicate — though any one of these ways may not be uniquely right or even uniquely best — and there are ways that are wrong.

Those who believe that there are right ways and wrong ways to use language are often called prescriptivist, and generally by those who wish to treat prescriptism as wrong-headed or as simply a position in no way superior to the alternatives. Yet, while one could find or imagine specific cases where the beliefs concerning what is right or wrong in language-use were indeed wrong-headed, forms of prescriptivism follows logically from a belief that it is desirable for people to communicate, and especially from a belief that communication is, typically speaking, something rather a lot of which is desirable. As a practical matter, altogether rejecting prescriptivism is thoughtless.

To the extent that the same presumptions of meaning are shared across persons, the meanings of words are independent of the intentions of any one person. Meanings may be treated as adhering to the words themselves. Should Mr Dumpty take a great fall, from which recovery were not possible, still his words would mean exactly what they meant when he uttered them. A very weak prescriptivism would settle there, with the meaning of expressions simply being whatever were common intention in the relevant population. This prescriptivism is so weak as not often to be recognized as prescriptivism at all; but even it says that there is a right and wrong within the use of language.

Those more widely recognized as prescriptivists want something rather different from rude democracy. In the eyes of their detractors, these prescriptivists are dogmatic traditionalists or seeking to creäte or to maintain artificial elites; such prescriptivists have existed and do exist. But, more typically, prescriptivism is founded on the belief that language should be a powerful tool for communication as such. When a typical prescriptivist encounters and considers a linguistic pattern, his or her response is conditioned by concern for how it may be expected to affect the ability to communicate, and not merely in the moment, but how its acceptance or rejection will affect our ability to understand what has been said in the past and what will be said in the future. (Such effects are not confined to the repetition of specific pattern; other specific patterns may arise from analogy; which is to say that general patterns may be repeated.) Being understood is not considered as licensing patterns that will cause future misunderstandings.

In opposing the replacement of can with the negative can't in can hardly, the typical prescriptivist isn't fighting dogmatically nor to oppress the downtrodden, nor merely concerned to protect our ability to refer to the odd-ball cases to which can't hardly with its original sense applies; rather, the prescriptivist is trying to ward-off a more general chaos in which we can hardly distinguish negation from affirmation. (Likewise for the positive could care less standing where the negative couldn't care less would be proper.) When the prescriptivist objects to using podium to refer to a lectern, it's so that we continue to understand prior use and so that we don't lose a word for the exact meaning that podium has had. We already have a word for lecterns, and we can coin new words if there is a felt need for more.

The usual attempt to rebut prescriptivism of all sorts notes that language evolves. Indeed it does, but prescriptivisms themselves — of all sorts — play rôles in that evolution. When a prescriptivist objects to can't hardly being used where can hardly would be proper, he or she isn't fighting evolution itself but participating in an evolutionary struggle. Sometimes traditional forms are successfully defended; sometimes old forms are resurrected; sometimes deliberate innovations (as opposed to spontaneous innovations) are widely adopted. Sometimes the results have benefitted our ability to communicate; sometimes they have not; but all these cases are part of the dynamic of real-world linguistic evolution.

The Evolution Card is not a good one to play in any event. Linguistic evolution may be inevitable, but it doesn't always represent progress. It will not even tend to progress without an appropriate context. Indeed, sometimes linguistic evolution reverses course. For example: English arose from Germanic languages, in which some words were formed by compounding. But English largely abandoned this characteristic for a time, only to have it reïntroduced by scholarly contact with Classical Greek and Latin. (That's largely why our compounds are so often built of Greek or Latin roots, whereäs those of Modern German are more likely to be constructed with Germanic roots.) It was evolution when compounding was abandoned, and evolution when it was reädopted. If compounding were good, then evolution were wrong to abandon it; if compounding were bad, then evolution were wrong to reëstablish it. And one cannot logically leap from the insight that evolution is both inevitable and neither necessarily good nor necessarily bad to the conclusion that any aspect of linguistic practice is a matter of indifference, that nothing of linguistic practice is good or bad. One should especially not attempt to apply such an inference peculiarly to views on practice that one dislikes.

Hard Case

Saturday, 28 May 2016

I have lots of keys. Most of those that are not on the key-ring that I routinely carry with me are tagged, so that I know to what they go. But, as I was going through the drawer in which those keys are kept, I found one that was labelled HARD KEY. I confess that this label was not and is not now very helpful.

There is such a thing as is called a soft key; it's a passcode of some sort. What would one call a hard key? A key that is not a soft key? That would make every key in that drawer a hard key; there'd be no use in labelling a key of that sort simply as a key of that sort.

My best guess is that this key were a key that were badly cut or worn, so that it were hard to use. But to use where?

Well, I couldn't and cannot remember; but that's okay, because I found that it matches another key that I have on a ring labelled Orphans, and nothing goes on that ring unless I know that it's no longer possible or no longer permissible for me to use the key in its lock. (There is separate ring for keys that are merely probable orphans.) Some of the orphans also have further tags; some, as in the case of the brother of the HARD KEY do not; but when that brother was put on the ring, I knew to what it went, and knew that I couldn't or shouldn't access that lock.

I didn't save the orphans thinking that I might someday match one with an unidentified key. A few of them I saved for their sentimental values. Most I saved simply to have keys with which to do other things; for example, they could be filed into bump keys or given to children or used as props; the intention in identifying them as orphans was that most of these keys be distinguished as expendible. Of course now, in the case of a key with no twin on that ring, I will be a bit more reluctant to alter or part with it, as it might someday be matched with another mysterious key. I am enslaved by my keys.

Musings on Mystery Mail

Sunday, 19 July 2015

On 15 July, there was a slip in my mailbox from the letter carrier, declaring that 71¢ postage were due on an item, which could be redeemed and retrieved at the post office after 09:00 on the next day. I was explicitly named on the slip.

Had this been an item that I'd allegedly sent without sufficient postage then, instead of my just receiving a slip, the item would have been physically returned, with a demand for more postage; so it was something sent to me.

USPS rates for First-Class mail are 49¢ for the first ounce, and 22¢ for each ounce thereafter. So, if someone were to misjudge the weight of an item, then it would be expected to have some integer-multiple of 22¢ too little (or too much) postage. To be 71¢ short, it would most likely have been dropped in the mails unstamped, or had all of its stamps stripped by postal machinery; in the latter case, one expects the stripping to occur sooner rather than later.

The most likely thing would be that this item were without stamps very early in process. And, in that case, it would have been delivered to the return address, with a demand for more postage, if there were a return address; so I guessed that there weren't. That had me curious.

Very shortly after 09:00 on 16 July, I was at the post office, with the slip. But the postal clerk was unable to find the item, and the carrier was not available. (He or she was probably already out, making deliveries.) The clerk insisted that she would take care of the postage due — I suspect that there were no provision for me to pay postage due on a lost item! — and have the carrier deliver the item.

However, it was not in my box on 17 July, nor on 18 July; it would seem still to be mislaid. So I'm left to conjecture.

Up-Date (2015:09/12):

On 10 September, there was another slip in my box, declaring 71¢ postage due. While it might have been for yet another item, my guess was that it were for the same piece, having resurfaced. I had reason to go to the post office anyway, as some registered mail was there waiting for my signature.

When I attempted to pay for and collect the mail with postage due, it was again declared to be lost. The fellow behind the counter angrily resented my angry resentment, and I demanded to speak to his manager. The manager found the mail, which was lost as one more aspect of not following normal procedures.

The item was, as it happened, indeed the same item, and something that I had mailed. My scale had said that it were one ounce; apparently theirs said that it were two.[1] So it should either have been sent on to the addressee, with a demand for 22¢ more postage, or returned to my box with that demand, instead of my having been summoned to the post office with a demand for 71¢.

Instead of arguing about 41¢; I just decided to take the thing home, and not to resend it. There is no love lost between the intended recipient and me; and I consider him to be the primary victim of the USPS in this case.

[1] Some day, I plan to invest in a one-pound weight of the quality used by Bureaus of Weights and Measures, and visit various post offices, testing the scales of their automated dispensers. My guess is that almost every one will overstated the weight. I don't expect that I'll have an opportunity to test the other scales, but I'd bet the innacuracies to be coördinated.

There Are Worse Things, but…

Friday, 10 August 2012

[This entry may be superfluous, in that people who fall for any of the fallacies discussed are unlikely to read the entry, people who employ one of the fallacies are unlikely to reform if they do read the entry, and people who recognize that fallacies are involved may not see much use to analyzing them.]

I often encounter an argument, whose form is

P does A1;
A2 is better than A1;
therefore it would be acceptable/desirable for P to do A2.

It's easy to find P, A1, and A2 such that the intuïtion recoils from the conclusion that

it would be acceptable/desirable for P to do A2.
and, in the face of such intuïtions, most people will acknowledge the non sequitur (acknowledged or otherwise) in the argument. We could even add a further premise, that
P ought to be persistently active (if not necessarily in their present manner).
and still find P, A1, and A2 such that the intuïtion recoils from that conclusion. (Consider that non-profit institutions do facilitate child abuse, and that child abuse is worse than many other things that are still themselves unacceptable.)

Yet one encounters this argument frequently with P as the state, A2 is something that somebody wants done (such as space exploration) and A1 is something disturbing that the state is doing or has done recently.

A variation on this can be found with form

P1 approves when P2 does A1;
A2 is better than A1;
therefore P3 should not object to P2 doing A2.

A non sequitur is evident in cases where P3 is plainly no subset of P1; but this argument is often presented in a manner so as to obscure a distinction, as when an everyone or a no one is used as-if loosely (which is to say inaccurately) in the first premise, but P3 is some person or group of persons who aren't actually in the set labelled everyone or actually are in a non-empty set labelled no one.

However, this argument is fallacious even when P3 simply is P1. There may in fact be an incoherency in approving of A1 while objecting to A2, but that inconsistency could be resolved by changing one's position on A1. For example, if forcing people to pay for birth control is better than forcing them to pay for war with Iraq, then perhaps someone who objects to the former should cease approving of the latter, rather than embracing the former.

(And resistance from P1 to coherence wouldn't itself license A2 when A2 victimizes yet some additional party P4. One doesn't force atheists to distribute copies of Al Qu'ran on the grounds that neoconservatives would object to such distribution even while supporting worse things.)

Sometimes one even sees an argument of the form

P1 does not object when P2 does A1;
A2 is better than A1;
therefore P3 should not object to P2 doing A2.
Variations of this even go so far as to replace objection with more active opposition.
P1 does not actively oppose P2 doing A1;
A2 is better than A1;
therefore P3 should not actively oppose P2 doing A2.
The appeal for those who present these arguments is that, if they were accepted, then almost no A2 could be practicably challenged, as the objector could be dismissed for not having tackled each and every greater evil.

Of course, if this argument held, then it could virtually always be turned around against the claimant. For every P2 and A2, there is a P'2, A'1, and A'2 such that A'2 is the supposed ill addressed by A2, P'2 effects A'2, and A'1 is some greater ill effected by P'2. In other words, even if A2 were good, it would itself almost never address the greatest evil, so that there would always be something else that one would be required to do before ever getting to A2.

It's just a shot away

Monday, 2 January 2012

For dinner last night, I went to a local restaurant that is part of a larger chain. I was given a number to place on my table, and a cup to fill with tea or with soda at a dispenser.

I placed the number on a table, filled the cup, and returned to the table to look through an art-supply catalogue that I had brought with me.

The catalogue is about 8 in × 10 in × ½ in (20.3 cm × 24.5 cm × 1.3 cm) — roughly the size of a residential telephone directory for a medium-sized American city — and illustrated with pictures of, well, art supplies.

At about the time that I'd got to the mannikins, I had emptied my cup, so I went back to get more tea. As I was taking care of that, I noticed that my food was delivered to my table.

When I returned, I discovered that some fellow had happily sat himself down before the plate, his smart phone to one side, and was looking at the pictures of mannikins in the catalogue.

So, suddenly, he hears a deep, very angry voice, asking You're going to take my food? and he looks up to see me. I'm not sure just how I looked to him, but probably like someone on the edge of violence. After a momentary pause, his mind apparently now wonderfully concentrated, he got-up quickly, explaining that he was at the next table, and thought that they'd brought his food while he was away.

Let's back-up a sec: This fellow hadn't merely mistaken one table for another — something that I suspect most of us, and certainly I, would be capable of doing — he was looking at the pictures in the rather large art-supply catalogue. One doubts that he actively imagined that a restaurant were in the habit of presenting such a catalogue along with one's meal. Rather, his mind was simply disengaged. Here's the food! And, what's this? Oo! Shiny!

I have such low expectations of the mindfulness of other people that I believed his claim immediately, and indeed his order was brought to that next table not long afterwards. But I didn't much enjoy my meal nor the rest of the catalogue; my body was still geared-up for a fight.

Sprint, Stumbling Backward

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Until recently, when the subject of cellular phone service arose, my report was always that, while I'd read and heard complaints about Sprint, I'd always been satisfied with their performance. That's no longer the case.

Last year, I added a number with a wireless modem and data plan to my account. That seemed to work pretty well until a couple of billing cycles ago, when I got hit with a huge bill. Since I'd not been monitoring my use, I assumed that I'd somehow gone way over my allotment, and paid the bill. Thereäfter, I started watching my use carefully. During the present cycle, Sprint claimed that, less than half-way through the cycle, I'd already used about 9/10 of my 5 GB allotment. I dropped-back to doing nothing with that connection but text email, and an aggregate of less than a few minutes on the WWWeb. But, a couple of days later in the early morning of 23 April, when I checked my ostensible use, by way of a café WiFi LAN, I found that Sprint was claiming that I'd gone well past the remainder of the allotment. I snapped-off an angry message to them.

Then, as I continued to watch, from the café WiFi LAN, with my modem powered-off and back at home, I watched the reported use climb by about an additional 100 MB! I snapped-off another angry message, and added that it was now plain that the whalloping overage charges of a few cycles ago should be refunded.

I also posted to a Sprint forum, and within a few days learned that essentially the same problem is being reported by other users. Sprint is claiming that powered-off and detached devices are gobbling-down capacity!

On the morning of 23 April, Sprint sent me e.mail

To ensure your needs are addressed, I have forwarded your request to our Account Services department. One of our specialists will contact you within 24-48 hours.
but the promised contact has not been attempted. My own plan had been to wait until to-day or to-morrow before using other channels or beginning the process of using other institutions.

Logged-out, Locked-Out

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

FWVLIW, for the last few days, I've not been able to log-in to LiveJournal using my OpenID. I submitted a support request when it seemed that the problem would persist.

Investigation suggests that the very same problem has affected other OpenIDs at LJ, beginning at least as far back as earlier September, with access never restored once it is lost.

I am not sure, however, that this is actually a bug in the LJ code; I think that the problem might be in the interaction between my OpenID server code and the version of PHP installed by the hosting service that I use.

Until-and-unless the problem is fixed, I cannot read Friends-only entries there, nor comment where anonymous comments are disallowed.


Wednesday, 13 April 2011

14 A corroboration of this point of view seems to come from some of the so-called tests for logical thinking, which include questions such as What is the next number in the (!) sequence 1, 3, 6, 10 … ? and (in slightly simplified form) Which of the following four figures differs from the other three: a square; a cross; a circle; a triangle? Questions of this kind do indeed test a valuable ability, viz. the ability to guess what the man who formulated them had in mind, e.g. the circle, because it is the only figure that is round (although, of course, the square is the only one with four corners; the cross the only one with a ramification point; the triangle the only one with exactly three corners). What in this way certainly is not tested is logical thinking. Yet the marks youngsters make in such tests highly correlate with their achievements in elementary mathematics! Far from demonstrating that those test questions have more to do with logic than with guessing and empathy this correlation rather seems to indicate that the presentation of elementary mathematics has more to do with guessing and empathy than with logical thinking.

Karl Menger
Austrian Marginalism and Mathematical Economics (1971)
in Carl Menger and the Austrian School of Economics (1973)
edited by John Richard Hicks and Wilhelm Weber

(Karl Menger, an eminent mathematician of the 20th Century, was the son of Carl Menger, one of the preceptors of the Marginal Revolution in economics, and founder of the Austrian School of economics.)

Indicting Co-Conspirator

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

As I was falling asleep yester-day morning, I was thinking with annoyance about the term co-conspirator.

The term conspire comes from the Latin conspirare, which literally means breathe together, and breaks into con- from the Latin preposition com meaning with, and spirare, meaning breathe. So far, so good.

Things run off the rails with that co- in co-conspirator. The prefix co- is really just a reduced form of com-.[1] Part of the reason that the reduced form is used here is that the original morphology of com- was simply forgot, and whoever coined the term reached for analogy with some term formed by a chain of analogies ultimately leading back to a word that used the reduced form as per rules of Latin morphology (such as co-author). Had that person remembered the morphology — had he or she recognized co- as com- — he or she might have seen the deeper problem.

Prefix conspirator with com-, and one gets … uhm, conconspirator; crudely parsed, that's with-with-breather. That result should raise a warning flag. One should ask whether there is any difference between a conspirator and a co-conspirator. It isn't possible to be in a conspiracy of one (though the claim might be made jocularly).

I think that the term co-conspirator first came to general use during the Watergate Era. Certainly, I don't find the terms co-conspire, co-conspiracy, or co-conspirator in the American Heritage Dictionary of 1975. I'd guess that the term co-conspirator was probably coined by a lawyer, and that it lived for some time in the environment of the court-house, before escaping into the wild exactly as a result of President Richard Milhous Nixon's being called an unindicted co-conspirator in court documents.

I'm reluctant to condemn people who, raised in the years since, use co-conspirator without irony. Even if they recognize the absurdity, it is difficult for people to distinguish those absurdities that one must accept from those from which we might more easily be freed. And I suspect that, in many cases, the folk who use this co- are really trying to capture the sense of fellow; though that sense would be better captured with, well, fellow, at least the co- isn't then wholly redundant. But, really, we ought to make an effort to drive this thing from our language.

[1] In Latin, normally, the reduced form co- is used when followed immediately by a vowel, by h, or by gn. The basic form com- is used when immediately followed by b, by m, and by p, but it is assimilated into col- before l and into cor- before r, and it becomes con- in front of the remaining consonants. Things get less consistent when the construction was not actually made in Latin. Meanwhile, in Latin itself the earlier preposition com evolved into cum.

Weighty Matters

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The metric system has some points of genuine superiority to those of the English (aka American) system, but that superiority tends to be exaggerated. For example, the every-day English measures for volume tend to be implicitly binary, allowing easy halving or doubling. (If base 10 were everywhere superior to base 2, then our computers would be designed differently.)

One of the things that I was told as a child was that the metric system were superior because it measured in terms of mass, rather than weight, with the former being invariant while the latter would change in the face of a gravitational field. Well, actually, the English system has a unit of mass; it's the slug, 1 lb·sec2/ft, which is about 14.6 kg.

Meanwhile, I observe that, in countries where the metric system ostensibly prevails, people typically use its names of units of mass (gram and kilogram) for units of weight; they even refer to what is measured as a weight. Now, the real metric system does have a unit for weight, because weight is a force; weight can be measured by the newton (or by the dyne, which is a hundred-thousandth of a newton). But people aren't doing that; they're using kilogram as if it means about 9.807 N.

Much as it may be claimed that America is the only industrialized nation not on the metric system, really nobody's on it.

I notice that the Beeb most often wants to speak and write of weight, rather than of mass, but in the most ghastly unit of all, the stone (pronounced /stɛun/, with at least one pinkie extended). The stone is 14 pounds (divisible by 2 and, uh, 7). When weights don't divide into integer multiples of 14 pounds, tradition is to represent weight in terms of a combination of stone and pounds, as in Me mum weighs 19 stone and 12. Of course, if the Beeb were using pounds at all, there'd be the two obvious questions of

Why aren't you just using pounds for the whole lot?
Wait, now that I think of it, what happened to that metric stuff?
So the Beeb feels compelled to just round everything up or down to an integral number of stone, and somebody's mum either gains two pounds or loses twelve.