7 Quick Takes (10/19/12)

7 Quick Takes (10/19/12) October 19, 2012

— 1 —

In the midst of the discussion on how to translate “I AM THAT I AM” into languages that don’t have a “to be” verb (like ASL), I found out the following things:

  1. The technical term for this kind of linking verb is copula
  2. One of my readers knows that Klingon also lacks “to be” and provided a possible translation
  3. E-Prime (short for English Prime) is a reimagining of English that cuts “to be” and all conjugations of the verb out of the language
The reasoning behind this project eluded me, but, according to Wikipedia, some scholars saw an urgent need:

“To be” prevents us from experiencing a shared reality; something we need in order to communicate in a sane way. If someone sees something completely different than another, our language prevents us from acknowledging the other’s point of view by limiting our perception to fixed states. For example, if I say “Star Wars is a shitty movie,” and my friend says, “Star Wars is not a shitty movie!” We have no shared reality, for in our language, truth lies in only one of our statements and we can forever argue these truths until one of us writes a book and has more authority than the other. If on the other hand I say, “I hated Star Wars,” I state my opinion as observed through my own senses. I state a more accurate reality by not claiming that Star Wars “is” anything, as it could “be” anything to anyone.

— 2 —

An interesting argument, but I’ve got a counterexample.  The delightfulness of this portrait of the Bowdoin Tug of War team (circa 1891) doesn’t vary, no matter who views it.

Found at My Daguerrotype Boyfriend

— 3 —

Back to the annals of logic and precision: a college friend shared this excerpt from his logic textbook on Facebook this week:

The method of conditional proof is used extensively in everyday reasoning.

Some years ago Bill was trying to decide whether to take English 301, Postmodernism. His friend Sarah claimed that if Bill takes Postmodernism, he will not get into medical school. Sarah’s argument, when challenged by Bill, took the form of a conditional proof, combined with a proof by cases.

Suppose you take Postmodernism. Then either you will adopt the postmodern disdain for rationality or you won’t. If you don’t, you will fail the class, which will lower your GPA so much that you will not get into medical school. But if you do adopt the postmodern contempt toward rationality, you won’t be able to pass organic chemistry, and so will not get into medical school. So in either case, you will not get into medical school. Hence, if you take Postmodernism, you won’t get into medical school.

Unfortunately for Bill, he had already succumbed to postmodernism, and so rejected Sarah’s argument. He went ahead and took the course, failed chemistry, and did not get into medical school. He’s now a wealthy lobbyist in Washington. Sarah is an executive in the computer industry in California.


— 4 —

Returning to visual splendor: When a motorcycle show hires bodypaint specialists and yoga practitioners, the below results.

It took me a while to notice and process the construction of the human bike.  Fashionably Geek has a behind the scenes video.

— 5 —

I’ve got enough links to alternate graphics and logic the rest of the way through the takes.  Yvain has a great post up talking about how “uncharitable arguing” looks a lot like modeling other people’s thought processes badly.  He makes his explanation easier for me  to follow by adding examples in pseudo code, but your mileage may vary.  I think you ought to take a crack at it though.  A preview:

The classic [theory of mind] example involves two young children, Jane and John. An experimenter enters the room and hides a toy under the bed. Then she takes John out of the room and, with only Jane watching, takes the toy out from under the bed and hides it in a box. Then the experimenter brings John back into the room and asks Jane where John will look for the toy.

If Jane is very young or developmentally disabled, she predicts John will look for the toy in the box, since that is where she would look for the toy. If Jane is older, she will predict John will look for the toy under the bed. Her theory of mind has successfully predicted that John, who only saw the toy hidden under the bed, will still expect it to be there, even though she herself feels differently…

Jane’s mental algorithm looks like this:


Jane correctly assumes she can model John with her own mental algorithm; that is, he will think the same way she does. However, before she has theory of mind, she assumes she and John share all variables. Once she develops theory of mind, she realizes that although John will use the same mental algorithm, his variables may have different values.


— 6 —

Care to guess the title of this sculpture from Iceland before you scroll down?

Memorial to the Unknown Bureaucrat” (made by Magnús Tómasson in 1994).

— 7 —

To close out the logic Takes, Jacob Harris wrote an interesting essay for the Nieman Journalism Lab some time ago “In Praise of Impractical Programming

If students only take one programming course, professors want them to be able to build something when they’re done. Even MIT itself replaced the Lambda Mystery Cult in 2009 with a simplified course based on Python and robotics meant for students who might not be majoring in computer science. The reasoning was that programming itself had changed since the ’80s; developers no longer built whole systems from nothing; now they merely plugged together existing libraries to get something that worked. This is true for much of the programming work out there — but I am gloomily reminded of Prospero renouncing his magic.

And yet, I feel like 6.001 (and the rest of the gloriously impractical CS program at MIT) made me a better programmer. Its very impracticality forced me to understand the broader world of computer science instead of just focusing on a very narrow end-of-term goal, like building a website or learning SQL. This might be a mawkishly unconvincing argument, but at least I’m in good company; as usual, Paul Graham expresses this better than I ever could. I may not have used Scheme in years — in fact, I use the same practical tools as you. But I don’t just use a hammer: I know how its form was derived and how it could be adapted to new problems. I think this is what impractical computer science instruction gave me.



P.S. Hey, didja notice that, after I mentioned E-Prime, I wrote all the rest of the takes in E-Prime? (Blockquotes don’t count).



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  • Jordan Viray

    If I recall correctly, St. Thomas distinguishes between the esse as used as a copula and esse as the being of a thing. Since God is, in a traditional metaphysical sense, firstly Being, then perhaps some kind of translation for “substance” or “essence” would be appropriate.

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    1. “To be” prevents us from experiencing a shared reality;… our language prevents us from acknowledging the other’s point of view by limiting our perception to fixed states This is disingneous in two ways.

    First, of all, existing language doen’t prevent us from doing anything – it just makes it possible for us to talk about “fixed states”. A philosophy might deny that such thing exist, but merely allowing for other philosophies isn’t “limiting our perception”.

    To give us a “shared reality” they want to retrict language so that we can only our subjective reactions, and not the err, reality, that we all err, share. WTF?

    6. Telling kid to go program robots using python sounds like a good idea. But let’s not kid ourselves about practicality. If you you become a good programmer at school, it will be because school almost accidentally give you some practical experience at programming – experience you could have got somewhere else. Where universities can add value is in exactly the hardnut theory. So yes, bring on the lambda calculus

    • deiseach

      They use a bad example, because if we switch “Star Wars is a shitty movie” versus “Star Wars is not a shitty movie” for “I hated Star Wars”, that still leaves us with (1) well, which of the “Star Wars” movies are you talking about? (2) that won’t stop the argument, because if we are saying “Why did you hate it? I loved it!”, it still leaves us without a shared experience, because the bits that made you hate it may be precisely the parts that made me love it (3) even if we ditch “to be”, there are still ways of saying “Star Wars – crappy movie, man!” (4) we’re really stuck if we need to express a fixed state and not just “I feel that…” (5) everyone agrees that Jar-Jar Binks is intolerable – how’s that for a shared experience?

  • If E Prime drops all varieties of ‘to be’, you missed one in Take #6 “You’re”

    I didn’t go through looking for this! They just were on the screen at the same time and I couldn’t help noticing.

    • leahlibresco

      Zut! Edited.

  • dbp

    I think the E-Prime thing is silly on its face, but more so because it would need to eliminate all forms of unqualified predication. Case in point is your sentence, “To close out the logic Takes, Jacob Harris wrote an interesting essay for the Nieman Journalism Lab…”

    You have modified ‘essay’ with the ‘interesting’, which is as much as saying “this essay is interesting.” This structure is no more or less subjective than the use of the copula would be. So E-Prime does too little. Also, eliminating not only predicative uses of the word but even, for instance, its auxiliary use in progressive and passive forms of words is irrelevant to the stated purpose (other languages can and do have these conjugations without use of the copula). So it does too much.

    Seems, to me, totally misguided on various levels.

    • Irenist

      My 10th grade English teacher had his own version of E-Prime: he banned any form of “to be” from our creative writing assignments in an attempt to force us to use what he considered to be more vivid, vigorous verbs. Don’t think he liked the passive voice, either. I’m sure the folks at “Language Log” would’ve loved him.

      • Ted Seeber

        Mine too. Which is why my wife and I have so many stupid disagreements- her bonehead English class didn’t, and she not only uses the be verbs freely, she also has a tendency to use pronouns without bothering to use an amateur noun to define them first.

        Doesn’t help that my Asperger’s, combined with being male, means that I’m always still three sentences behind in processing my hearing.

  • kenneth

    The tug of war picture reminds me what I love about the Victorian age: their ability to flaunt their unspeakable taboos and kinks in plain view by gentleman’s agreement and submersion in some socially acceptable construct. “Homoerotic rope bondage? I don’t take your meaning sir. This is sport, and good fellowship!” 🙂

    • Irenist

      “Homoerotic rope bondage? I don’t take your meaning sir. This is sport, and good fellowship!”
      Did anyone else find themselves picturing that as a cutaway gag on “Family Guy”?

      • I can see it way too clearly. 😉

  • Ted Seeber

    I think Yavin’s problem (Quick Take #3) is that much as we Americans want it to be, morality is not binary.

    In Catholic theological terms, there’s a spectrum between right and wrong that takes into account the dimensions of intent, virtue, and pragmatism as well as objective morality.

    In other words, I think we need a computer that can handle base 6 boolean logic:

    Because the spectrum between sin and virtue is not black and white, and it is not an infinite number of shades of grey either.

    • Ted Seeber

      sexidecimal? Sounds kinky. For mathematicians anyway. Hmmm….I’ll have to think on my own suggestion, that a moral computer needs to be able to handle sexidecimal logic. Every Select with six case statements.

  • The idea of E’ intrigues me. I happen to have a terrible problem with the use of passive language. I find the verb “to be” so useful! I plan to try writing in E’, beginning with things I have already written.