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Somebody but not anybody

Tuesday 20 September 2022, 15:29

We have a patient suffering kidney failure; he's in a lot of pain and the disease will soon kill him. He could be saved - if someone would donate a kidney to be transplanted into this patient's body. So, as a matter of ethics, somebody ought to do that, right?

But who, exactly?

What nobody else will do

Sunday 7 August 2022, 00:00

Somebody asked whether there's a purpose to my life (or that of whoever cared to answer) - on Twitter, where my profile description currently consists the the three words "Anchorite, apostate, asteroid."

I don't think there is. I used to think there was, but it's been some years since that fell apart for me. However, it's interesting what's left.

Scarcity, abundance, and lost careers

Monday 29 November 2021, 09:42

How should institutions make hiring and promotion decisions, in theory? How do institutions make such decisions, in actual practice? What happens, and what should happen, when someone's career is interrupted? Is it possible to restore an interrupted career, and should that be done? What happens to institutions when society overproduces, or underproduces, elite individuals? This article looks at ways to understand these questions, starting from an historical episode.

The Genie speaks

Sunday 6 October 2019, 08:34

Once there was a Sultan who fucking loved science. That was the slogan embroidered upon his robe.

The imagination gap, part 3

Monday 17 December 2018, 03:00

This is the final part of a three-part series on the cognitive deficit in hypothetical thinking: some people seem unable to handle thinking about a difference between what is real and what is imagined.

The imagination gap, part 2

Wednesday 12 December 2018, 21:01

This is the second part of a three-part series on the cognitive deficit in hypothetical thinking: some people seem unable to handle thinking about a difference between what is real and what is imagined. In the first part, I discussed this deficit as an abstraction. In this second part, I'll look at some legal and political examples.

The imagination gap, part 1

Monday 10 December 2018, 03:00

A deficit in hypothetical cognition

In The World As If, Sarah Perry gives "an account of how magical thinking made us modern." She discusses how to define "magical thinking" and suggests that the diverse things to which people apply that label form "a collection of stigmatized examples of a more general, and generally useful, cognitive capacity." Namely, the capacity to entertain false, "not expected to be proven," or otherwise not exactly true propositions as if they were true.

Although magical thinking may often be called a behaviour of children or of those in primitive cultures, what Perry calls the "as if" mode of thought (I want to also include "what if") is in no way primitive. The view that magical thinking is for children and the uneducated can and should be inverted: mastery of hypothetical "as if" cognition is necessary for functioning as an adult in a literate technological society, and characteristic of the most sophisticated thinking human beings ever do.

Syntax differences hide splits in meaning

Friday 7 September 2018, 17:33

One way people divide themselves into tribes is over word usage. If one tribe claims a certain sequence of letters has a certain meaning, and another claims it has a different meaning, then there are plenty of opportunities for them to misunderstand each other or each declare the other Wrong. There may not be a lot we can do about it when there's a direct disagreement on the one true meaning of exactly one word.

However, human language is more complicated than that. One sequence of letters may not have just one meaning and in particular, it may be used in more than one syntactic role such that the different ways of using it have different meanings. At that point it may not even be right to call it one "word"; it is two words, with different meanings and also different grammar, that only happen to share a spelling. And if two tribes use words that differ in this way, maybe there is some hope of building a bridge between them by making clear that their uses of the same sequence of letters really refer to different things and do not need to have identical meaning. That is what I'd like to talk about here: how different syntax can be a clue to different meaning.


Wednesday 29 August 2018, 10:01

Today I changed the motto on this Web site, and in my email signature, to read "People before tribes"; it formerly referred to "principles." Where it appears in Japanese translation, I've similarly changed 理 to 族. The intended meaning has not changed, but in the years since I started using it, the former wording has become too easily misunderstood, often as the direct opposite of what I intended for it to mean.

As human beings we naturally divide ourselves up into groups that purport to be about beliefs and ideologies, and we tend to hate those of other groups irrationally and on the basis of entire groups; we are inclined to lose sight of the fact that everybody is human and everybody's a unique individual not well described by their group membership. It's important to pay attention to individuals (people) and to actively ignore membership in identity groups (tribes). That is what my motto is about. But it's possible to misread the words if you think that "people" actually means tribes and that "principles" refers to important ideas - like the important idea of being blind to identity group membership, itself.

At the time I first started using this motto, it was obscure and uncontroversial. Nobody else was writing much about these things. Unfortunately, there's been a great rise in the popularity of the opposite of my position in the last few years, and it has become a topic of general discussion, to the extent that relentless one-sided chanting can be called any kind of "discussion." I've also become more acutely aware of the practical irrelevance of the literal content of belief in principles to groups that claim to define themselves by principles, and I want to talk about group membership directly when literal belief is not the real issue. As a result, it has become more important to make sure that I'm not misunderstood, and although it's a shame to lose the snappy alliteration of the old wording, this change seems important.

The garden of cosmic horror and delight

Monday 6 August 2018, 12:59

I'm very interested in cognitive deficits: tasks it may seem human brains ought to be able to perform, but that at least some brains cannot. This time around I'd like to say a few words about mathematical foundations and the ability to understand them. The fact is that there are some questions - and they're very simple ones - that neither a human brain nor anything that functions like a human brain can answer. And understanding that fact is itself a problem that may be challenging for at least some brains.

Ad stramineum hominem

Sunday 25 March 2018, 16:11

Sometimes I find myself on the receiving end of false accusations of "straw man" argumentation, and it feels like this happens abnormally often to me in particular. It's baffling because when it happens, it doesn't make any sense.

Some thoughts on the Cost Disease

Saturday 18 February 2017, 06:40

The lovely and talented Scott Alexander has a posting on Cost Disease: the costs of some things, notably education and medical care especially in the USA, have increased in the last few generations to a really unfathomable extent. He gives detailed statistics, but it's typically about a factor of 10 after accounting for general inflation. Why has this happened? He gives some hypotheses, and in a followup posting shares some ideas contributed by readers, but it's not at all clear what's going on. And it seems like knowing might be valuable, because the fact of this phenomenon's occurrence (whatever the cause) is causing a great deal of misery for a whole lot of people, bearing on many other important issues.

I don't know either, but it made me think of some things.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 19

Thursday 19 May 2016, 12:25

In which a Parable is Related and Betting Strategies are Considered

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Aardvark: Friend Bandicoot, I heard an interesting story recently. Perhaps you might find it edifying.

Bandicoot: Oh, goody! I do like stories, Friend Aardvark.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 18

Wednesday 18 May 2016, 12:25

In which there is an Inquiry into What Counts, and into the Aardvark's Commitment to the Cause

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Bandicoot: Friend Aardvark, I've got the module passing the test suite now!

Aardvark: Really?

B: Yes.

A: And it's really the module passing the test suite, not one of your school chums hiding inside the computer?

B: Uh-huh. Well, almost.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 17

Tuesday 17 May 2016, 12:25

Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Bandicoot: Friend Aardvark, I've given a lot of thought to our conversation the other day about the ontology of software engineering.

Aardvark: I had hoped you would.

B: It took me a while to see it, but I think your point about no one single test case being necessary is in fact correct.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 16

Monday 16 May 2016, 12:25

Studies in Ontology, with a Hint of Romance

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Aardvark: Friend Bandicoot, do you know what a formal ontology is?

Bandicoot: Yes, Friend Aardvark. I learned about them in library school.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 15

Sunday 15 May 2016, 12:25

Introducing the Mechanical Australian

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Bandicoot: Friend Aardvark, I've implemented the double-double feature you wanted in the parser.

Aardvark: Again, Friend Bandicoot?

B: Well, you keep telling me to re-do it.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 14

Saturday 14 May 2016, 12:25

In which a Feature is Implemented, but At What Cost?

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Bandicoot: Friend Aardvark, Friend Aardvark! I've added that extra double-double feature you wanted in the parser!

Aardvark: Really?

B: Yes!

A: Really really?

B: Of course!

A: Not just "almost," Friend Bandicoot?

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 13

Friday 13 May 2016, 12:25

In which we Accept our Limitations with Humility

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Bandicoot: Friend Aardvark, Friend Aardvark! I've added that extra double-double feature you wanted in the parser!

Aardvark: Really?

B: Yes!

A: Really really, Friend Bandicoot?

B: Of course! Well. Almost.

A: I see.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 12

Thursday 12 May 2016, 12:25

In which a Blow is Struck for Feminist Scholarship

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Bandicoot: Friend Aardvark, I implemented the double-double feature you wanted.

Aardvark: That's excellent, Friend Bandicoot.

B: Yes.

A: So, the test suite passes now, right?

B: Well... actually, I did something even better.

A: Oh.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 11

Wednesday 11 May 2016, 12:25

In which Priorities have been Implemented

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Bandicoot: Friend Aardvark, Friend Aardvark!

Aardvark: Good morning, Friend Bandicoot.

B: I implemented the optional extra double-double feature!

A: You mean, the module can finally add two plus two?

B: That's what I said.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 10

Tuesday 10 May 2016, 12:25

In which Priorities are Set

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Bandicoot: Good morning, Friend Aardvark!

Aardvark: Good morning, Friend Bandicoot.

B: I'm wearing my programming trousers again today.

A: I can see that you are.

B: Well?

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 9

Monday 9 May 2016, 12:25

In which a Debt is Paid

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Post-It note on the Aardvark's office door: Home sick today. Migrane.

Continue to Chapter 10.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 8

Sunday 8 May 2016, 12:25

In which a Post-Mortem Offers Valuable Insight

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Aardvark: Good afternoon, Friend Bandicoot. I'm sorry to be late for this meeting.

Bandicoot: That's quite all right, Friend Aardvark. Is your head feeling better?

A: No. But we need to get this module out the door anyway, so I'll go be sick some other day. I spent most of this morning going through the test suite trying to figure out what's wrong with your code, and I think I've at least got some idea -

B: But there's nothing wrong with the code. You saw me demo it yesterday.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 7

Saturday 7 May 2016, 12:25

In which a Demonstration Begins Well, and Concludes

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Aardvark: Good morning, Friend Bandicoot. I trust you slept well?

Bandicoot: Very well, thank you, Friend Aardvark. It was most restful knowing I'd completed the project and wouldn't have to do any more work on it. Do you have new glasses today?

A: Yes, these are my demonstration spectacles.

B: Very appropriate to the occasion!

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 6

Friday 6 May 2016, 12:25

In which Concern is Expressed for One's Health

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Aardvark: Good morning, Friend Bandicoot.

Bandicoot: Good morning, Friend Aardvark!

A: I'm surprised to see you here so early. Usually, you don't come in until just before lunch.

B: I was here all night!

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 5

Thursday 5 May 2016, 12:25

In which there is No More Progress, and a Management Decision is Made

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Aardvark: Are you almost finished with that module for evaluating expressions?

Bandicoot: Yes! I have your module for parsing strings 80% complete!

A: Friend Bandicoot...

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 4

Wednesday 4 May 2016, 12:25

In which there Has been a Little More Progress, but Just a Little

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Aardvark: Friend Bandicoot, where do you stand with the expression evaluation module?

Bandicoot: I'm about 80% finished with the expression parser, Friend Aardvark. It's fun! I do like parsing.

Continue to Chapter 5.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 3

Tuesday 3 May 2016, 12:25

In which Progress is Reported

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Aardvark: Friend Bandicoot, how is that expression evaluator coming along?

Bandicoot: Oh, you mean the parser? It's about 75% complete, Friend Aardvark.

Continue to Chapter 4.

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 2

Monday 2 May 2016, 12:25

In which Some Points are Clarified, but One is Left Unanswered

[first chapter] | [all in this series]

Bandicoot: Friend Aardvark, Friend Aardvark!

Aardvark: Oh, good morning, Friend Bandicoot. I see you're wearing your programming pants again today.

B: Trousers.

A: What?

Aardvark and Bandicoot, Chapter 1

Sunday 1 May 2016, 12:25

"Ah, why, ye Gods! should two and two make four?"
- Alexander Pope, "The Dunciad"

In which a Project is Initiated

Bandicoot: Good afternoon, Friend Aardvark. I trust you're well?

Aardvark: Yes, thank you, Friend Bandicoot. Are you ready to do some software engineering?

The Pudding Fallacy

Sunday 27 December 2015, 11:17

My text for today is from Pink Floyd (Another Brick in the Wall, part II): "If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding!" I'd like to talk about the fallacy embedded in that statement. It's related to many well-known fallacies, but I haven't been able to find an existing name that applies specifically to this fallacy in this form without mixing it up with other things. So I'd like to give it a new name: let this be known as the fallacy of the Pudding.

On begging

Wednesday 7 December 2011, 18:06

December 2011 on Earth, but it is eternal midmorning on the third layer of the Astral Plane. THOMAS OF AQUINO, NICHOLAS FLAMEL, and K'UNG FU-TZU sit at a card table, in that order clockwise around the table. At the fourth, otherwise unoccupied, spot sits an ominous blue-painted Chinese porcelain ginger jar.

On being missed

Wednesday 5 October 2011, 12:15

I recently visited Seth Godin's Web log to dig out his item about yak shaving, and while I was there I saw this recent posting about being missed. He asks the question: if you didn't show up, if you suddenly went away, who would miss you? And he proposes that it might be a valuable goal to make it so that a lot of people would miss you. That's certainly an interesting and important question to ask, but I think it's really the wrong question to ask.

The parable of the tricycle

Saturday 26 July 2008, 20:44

Imagine a young man nearing his 16th birthday, the day when he'll be eligible to get a driver's license. And let's imagine this is before graduated licensing was a big thing, or else imagine that he's maybe a little older and getting ready for the final level of the graduated system instead of the first level, or something like that. The point isn't exactly his age, just that he's about to get to the point where having a vehicle of his own would be a pretty good thing.

On language and the use thereof

Saturday 2 October 2010, 12:01

Hatred is not the same thing as fear, not even if they often occur at the same time to the same people. When you pretend that those two things are identical to each other, and attempt to build that pretense into the language instead of admitting that it is an activist position - for instance, when you use words like "homophobia" - you make the world a less good place and you harm those of your goals that are worth promoting.

This is important.


Sunday 11 November 2001, 20:39

Before history when people had to go somewhere they would walk. Nobody went anywhere often enough for anyone to consider the issue of regularly following the same routes or making the path easier; what trails existed were created by other animals who might from time to time often travel the same way. Humans might exploit those, but only in an opportunistic fashion, greedy by the computer scientist's definition of the word.

The law is not magic

Friday 3 August 2007, 21:00

People have the wrong idea about the law. They think it's magic. They think that the law consists entirely of arbitrary rules, technicalities, and loopholes, and that dealing with the law is primarily about getting around the challenges the system creates. The idea that there might be real standards of conduct with a point to them that you're supposed to actually follow instead of getting around, doesn't count for much. I think it's partly the fault of the media, in showing us ten examples of dysfunctional nonsense in the law for every one example of the system actually working as it's meant to, so that we think the dysfunctional nonsense is what it's actually meant to be about. It's also the fault of the legislators, courts, and lawyers, for putting way too much dysfunctional nonsense into the law in the first place. But it's not all dysfunctional nonsense. The law generally does have a point to it, and the system is meant to actually work and to be for real.

Colour, social beings, and undecidability

Monday 9 August 2004, 12:01

Okay, it's been about two months since I posted my piece about colourful bits, and I really should have posted a follow-up before now, but better late than never.  First of all, here are ten other places that carried the story, in no particular order:

What Colour are your bits?

Thursday 10 June 2004, 11:54

There's a classic adventure game called Paranoia which is set in an extremely repressive Utopian futuristic world run by The Computer, who is Your Friend.  Looking at a recent LawMeme posting and related discussion, it occurred to me that the concept of colour-coded security clearances in Paranoia provides a good metaphor for a lot of copyright and intellectual freedom issues, and it may illuminate why we sometimes have difficulty communicating and understanding the ideologies in these areas.

An article based on this one and its follow-ups, by me, Brett Bonfield, and Mary Fran Torpey, appeared in the 15 February 2008 issue of LJ, Library Journal.