Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I thought the French décupler meant "decouple". But no, mes enfants, that's découpler we were thinking of. Here, at the latest, the gentle but ambitious American must face up to the difference between the French u and ou. Décupler means to multiply by ten, and derives from the Latin decuplus and decem. The OED even gives "decuplation" for use on home territory. But I don't think it will catch on, since it sounds like "decopulation" and the related "depopulation". Perhaps it's just as well if it doesn't catch on, since the meaning would soon start to sag, as happened with "decimate".

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Loads, shoots, and spoils Thanksgiving

It's peculiar that so many writers in the 18th and 19th centuries (but before that and later on too, of course) spent their time discoursing about "logic" in book after book - Hegel, Mill et alii. Each of them was pushing his own "logic", as if there were more than one to choose from. They kicked around notions such as induction, deduction, abduction (Pierce) - and, of all things, causation - and arrived at various conclusions and claims. But I find it all completely useless. Of course I am aware that my position is post-Hegel, post-Mill et alii, that is, parasitic on what has gone before. No one can accuse me of being ungrateful, although an action for frivolousness might lie.

I feel that there is only one kind of logic for everyday and scientific purposes, and not much worth saying about that. What used to be known as books on logic might be more accurately described as pedantic exercises in how to be convincing. Pedantry aside, that is what used to be called the arts of rhetoric. But these writers seem to be intent on persuasion by new-fangled means, without the traditional training and practice. To me, their writings carry the conviction of Butt-head playing air guitar.

I find that a little Barbara pour ouvrir l'estomac, an amuse-gueule of first-order logic to be followed by Cantor, Gödel, Cohen or Robinson à la meunière, is more easily appropriated by the vegetative system. Mathematical ideas can be conveyed without fancy sauces, and with a minimum of verbiage and ballast. Having acquired familiarity over time with certain mathematical styles, you can peruse recipes in those traditions with profit, even though not yourself a chef.

As an adolescent I had the idea that mathematical logic must have put paid to judicious waffling, but I now know better. I just happened across something that gave me serious indigestion: a description of the so-called Yale shooting problem. Here is how the WiPe article begins:
The Yale shooting problem is a conundrum or scenario in formal situational logic on which early logical solutions to the frame problem fail. The name of this problem derives from its inventors, Steve Hanks and Drew McDermott, working at Yale University when they proposed it. In this scenario, Fred (later identified as a turkey) is initially alive and a gun is initially unloaded. Loading the gun, waiting for a moment, and then shooting the gun at Fred is expected to kill Fred. However, if inertia is formalized in logic by minimizing the changes in this situation, then it cannot be uniquely proved that Fred is dead after loading, waiting, and shooting. In one solution, Fred indeed dies; in another (also logically correct) solution, the gun becomes mysteriously unloaded and Fred survives.

Technically, this scenario is described by two fluents (a fluent is a condition that can change truth value over time): alive and loaded. ...
For Pete's sake ! Where is the conundrum ? It is sufficient to note that the word "shoot" is being used ambiguously here. Apart from that, "a condition that can change truth value over time" used to be called a variable (or predicate, here), and I see no reason to call it anything else. "A fluent" is a preciosity worthy of Molière's médecins.

Daß Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam

Liz Hartnett, in her blog on the BBC's site, reports on a recent edition of The Bottom Line devoted to aspiration, optimism and enthusiasm:
... that the IT customer needs to know what they want - and that their wants are, in many cases, “woolly and aspirational”.

Woolly and aspirational wants lead to over-ambitious and poorly defined systems that take longer to design and implement, and they go over budget.

But it’s not just the customer who’s aspirational. In one public sector IT project, optimistic and enthusiastic IT staff thought, “Yes, an online payment - that’s what they really need, surely.”

But when they engaged in discussion, they discovered that the client was less enthusiastic about the IT department’s suggestion, and didn’t expect much take up or benefit. But what the client thought would really be of benefit was a telephone payment service.

The system, consequentially implemented, brought in a significantly larger sum of money to the public organisation.
One of my recent IT projects overran its budget after only four months. Not only were the specifications overambitious, but there was also an assumption that the programming work did not need to be organized, nor the programmers to be directed. In theory all processes were documented and in line with company standards, and hardly any work got done.

There are at least three topics linked together here: capitalism, competition and waste. I don't see how effective competition is possible without a free-market base. But competition can be considered to be inherently wasteful, since it would be more effective to join forces.

These notions are so jumbled together in texts on political economy I have read, that I have concluded they are all useless. I suspect that wastefulness may not only be Not A Bad Thing, but also an essential ingredient in change, along with stabs at efficiency. Attempts to obtain complete control over a process are doomed to failure, just as are attempts to do without any kind of control or planning.

These are mushy conclusions to arrive at, but they seem to apply to the IT projects I have worked in. And yet I firmly believe the best way to measure progress is to measure it often, and shift elsewhere those who don't measure up. Theory cannot replace practice, especially not in a competitive and wasteful economy.

People are essential, but they must be directed. Heads must occasionally be shifted or chopped, especially those of management. At the company whose IT project I mentioned above, everyone had some kind of job title like "responsible for ...", but no brief to actually do anything they would have to answer for. I suspect this was a marine safety measure to prevent rocking the boat, so that no one could fall overboard.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The dividends of ignorance

I have often meditated on the sociological advantages of ignorance. How easy it is to live a good life without knowledge of large swatches of knowable stuff ! Moreover, I am continually discovering new ways to harmlessly squeeze cash value out of ignorance, or rather my knowledge that it exists. Ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing.

Here's a recent example. Commuting between Cologne and Frankfurt, I have found the trains often overcrowded, so I ended up sitting on the floor. I was annoyed at passengers who would occupy a seat and put a bag, rucksack, coat, laptop carrier etc. on the adjacent seat, thus taking both seats out of service. But I didn't realize at first that they were doing this - all I saw was apparently occupied seats. Then, from my vantage point on the floor, I observed other passengers looking for a place to sit as I had done - passing by encumbered seats as if they were occupied. The assumption was that someone was sitting there, and had left their things to signal "occupied" until they returned from, say, the restroom or restaurant car.

I noticed that the people who encumbered seats in that way were mostly women. My first reaction was "bloody impertinence". Then I remembered positive thinking, and turning sow's ears into silk purses, and being fair even to women. So I thought: how can I turn their behavior to my advantage ? I tried stopping in the aisle by such seats and asking, in an ever so slightly stern voice: "Is that seat taken ?" The women would look annoyed, but remove their things without comment, and so I acquired a place to sit.

I have gotten bolder as time goes on, and now say Wollen Sie den Sitz bitte freiräumen ? in a neutral tone. The nice thing about that construction - not würden Sie, but wollen Sie ... bitte - is that it is a combination of request and imperative. It conveys a hint of annoyance, as the Lady Bracknell intonation does in "would you be so good as to clear the seat ?". In other words, now I am bloody impertinent, and grateful that these women reserve seats for me. They don't know they are doing it, nor do other people apart from me who are looking for a seat.

That is what I meant by harmlessly profiting from ignorance. I wouldn't have it any other way.