QOTD: Heinlein’s truth-telling language, Speedtalk

July 14th, 2013
by jodi

Inventing languages is a past-time both of philosophers and science fiction storytellers. It spotlights the relationships between language and thought and language and culture.1

Yesterday I ran across Heinlein’s truth-telling language, Speedtalk. A few lines were really striking:
“In the syntax of Speedtalk the paradox of the Spanish Barber could not even be expressed, save as a self-evident error.”
“The advantage for achieving truth, or something more nearly like truth, was similar to the advantage of keeping account books in Arabic numerals rather than Roman.”

Here’s a longer quote:

But Speedtalk was not “shorthand” Basic English. “Normal” languages, having their roots in days of superstition and ignorance, have in them inherently and unescapably wrong structures of mistaken ideas about the universe. One can think logically in English only by extreme effort, so bad it is as a mental tool. For example, the verb “to be” in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every single one of which is false-to-fact.

A symbolic structure, invented instead of accepted without question, can be made similar in structure to the real-world to which it refers. The structure of Speedtalk did not contain the hidden errors of English; it was structured as much like the real world as the New Men could make it. For example, it did not contain the unreal distinction between nouns and verbs found in most other languages. The world—the continuum known to science and including all human activity—does not contain “noun things” and “verb things”; it contains space-time events and relationships between them. The advantage for achieving truth, or something more nearly like truth, was similar to the advantage of keeping account books in Arabic numerals rather than Roman.
All other languages made scientific, multi-valued logic almost impossible to achieve; in Speedtalk it was as difficult not to be logical. Compare the pellucid Boolean logic with the obscurities of the Aristotelean logic it supplanted.

Paradoxes are verbal, do not exist in the real world—and Speedtalk did not have such built into it. Who shaves the Spanish Barber? Answer: follow him around and see. In the syntax of Speedtalk the paradox of the Spanish Barber could not even be expressed, save as a self-evident error.

Gulf, as printed in Assignment in Eternity – Robert A. Heinlein - Baen edition

This seemed to me to echo Leibniz’ symbolic language, in the “truthtelling” aspects — perhaps since I wrote a few months ago about Leibniz!2
Leibniz was perhaps the first philosopher to write about a special language for expressing truth or making arguments evident.34

  1. Apparently Wikipedia keeps a list of constructed languages and has nearby discussion on the purpose of some of these. []
  2. For thesis Chapter 1, forthcoming; thanks to some comments from Adam Wyner. Ironically, my BA thesis was on Leibniz monads, but if I’d ever read the “Let us calculate” lines, I certainly didn’t have them in mind when thinking of argumentation! []
  3. For more, see Roger Bishop Jones on Leibniz and the Automation of Reason. []
  4. For references to the original, trace a discussion on the listserv historia-matematica, started by Robert Tragesser 1999-05-23, [HM] Leibniz’s “let us calculate”?, with responses over several months. Michael Detlefsen gives references to several of Leibniz’s writings, and a followup question about which quote is most widely known (1999-07-17, started by “L. M. Picard” with the subject [HM] Leibniz’s “let us calculate”) yields a very useful response from Siegmund Probst, quoting several variants with detailed references. []

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QOTD: communicative competence, ethnography of speaking

June 5th, 2013
by jodi

An ethnography of speaking is centrally concerned with `communicative competence’ (Hymes 1972c), what speakers need to know to communicate appropriately in a particular speech community, and how this competence is acquired. Competence includes rules pertaining to language structure and language use as well as cultural knowledge — for example which participants may or may not speak in certain settings, which contexts are appropriate for speech and which for silence, what types of talk are appropriate to persons of different status and roles, norms for requesting and giving information (of particular concern to ethnographers), for making other requests, offers, declinations, commands, the use of non-verbal behaviours in various contexts, practices for alternating between speakers, for constructing authority, etc. This focus on the skills members of a community display when communicating with each other entails a broader notion of competence than linguists advocated. Hymes included communicative as well as grammatical competence in conditions of appropriate speech use, embracing aspects of communication such as gestures and eye-gaze, whereas Chromsky caustioned that to incorporate aspects such as beliefs and attitudes into a study of language would mean that `language is chaos that is not worth studying’ (Chomsky, 1977:153).

We have … to account for the fact that a normal child acquires knowledge of sentences, not only as grammatical, but also as appropriate. He or she acquires competence as to when to speak, when not, and as to what to talk about with whom, when, where, in what manner. In short, a child becomes able to accomplish a repetoire of speech acts, to take part in speech events, and to evaluate their accomplishment by others. This competence, moreover, is integral with attitudes, values, and motivations concerning language, its features and uses, and integral with competence for, and attitudes toward, the interrelation of language, with the other codes of communicative conduct. (Hymes, 1972c:277-8).

-page 287 from “The Ethnography of Communication”, Elizabeth Keating (pages 285-301) in SAGE Handbook of Ethnography

Resolving above References
Chomsky, Noam (1977) Language and Responsibility, Based on Conversation with Mitsou Ronat (tras. J. Viertel). New York: Pantheon.

Hymes, Dell (1972 c) “On communicative competence”, in J.B. Pride and J. Holmes (eds), Sociolinguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 269-85.

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QOTD: System

June 3rd, 2013
by jodi

On what a system is, to Christopher Alexander:

When the elements of a set belong together because they co-operate or work together somehow, we call the set of elements a system.

For example, in Berkeley at the corner of Hearst and Euclid, there is a drugstore, and outside the drugstore a traffic light. In the entrance to the drugstore there is a newsrack where the day’s papers are displayed. When the light is red, people who are waiting to cross the street stand idly by the light; and since they have nothing to do, they look at the papers displayed on the newsrack which they can see from where they stand. Some of them just read the headlines, others actually buy a paper while they wait.

This effect makes the newsrack and the traffic light interactive; the newsrack, the newspapers on it, the money going from people’s pockets to the dime slot, the people who stop at the light and read papers, the traffic light, the electric impulses which make the lights change, and the sidewalk which the people stand on form a system – they all work together.
- Christopher Alexander, A city is not a tree, 1965.

(See also the article’s conclusion and publishing history)

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QOTD: Hybrid forums

May 26th, 2013
by jodi

Interesting term I came across today: hybrid forum, via a tweet by Fabien Gandon.

“Hybrid forums”, according to Michel Callon and colleagues are:

forums because they are open spaces where groups can come together to discuss technical options involving the collective, hybrid because the groups involved and the spokespersons claiming to represent them are heterogeneous, including experts, politicians, technicians, and laypersons who consider themselves involved. They are also hybrid because the questions and problems taken up are addressed at different levels in a variety of domains, from ethics to economic and including physiology, nuclear physics, and electromagnetism.

- Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe, from a chapter called “Hybrid Forums”, Chapter 1 in Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy by Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe. translated by Graham Burchell, MIT Press 2009, First published by Editions du Seuil in France as Agir dans un monde incertain: Essai sur la democratie technique.

In their heterogeneity, there is a relation to the “wicked problem”1- where “Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.”2.

In their openness and heterogeneity, there is also a relation to the open (peer) production community (around which I am currently framing my dissertation work).

  1. a starting motivation for much work in human argumentation []
  2. Wikipedia, Wicked Problem, Background and context section []

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Four types of evidence

May 17th, 2013
by jodi

A great image “Four types of evidence” appears in a recent paper on probabalistic argumentation schemes1. The delineation of 4 types of evidence2 serves the larger goal of the paper — which is to describe how to combine evidence of different types.

Four Types of Evidence, from Tang et al. ArgMAS2013
Four Types of Evidence, from Tang et al. ArgMAS2013

The four types of evidence depicted are:

  1. Consonant Evidence – each set is wholly contained in another (all sets can be arranged in a nested series of subsets)
  2. Consistent Evidence – have a common element (nonempty intersection of all sets)
  3. Disjoint Evidence – in which there is no overlap (pairwise disjoint intersection of sets)
  4. Arbitrary Evidence – where none of the three preceding situations holds (i.e. there is no consensus but some agreement)

Evidence classification could possibly be thought of in conjunction with argument classification; for the latter, see my earlier musings Towards a Catalog of Argumentation Patterns.

  1. Dempster-Shafer Argument Schemes‘ by Yuqing TangNir OrenSimon Parsons, and Katia Sycara (2013) in Proceedings of ArgMAS 2013. []
  2. These, the authors mention, were drawn from an earlier technical report: K. Stentz and S. Ferson. Combination of evidence in Dempster-Shafer theory. Technical Report SAND 2002-0835, Sandia National Laboratories, 2002. See especially pages 10-13. The context in that technical report, is sensor fusion using Dempster-Shafer Theory, which as I have since learned, is a common approach to combination of evidence. []

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Towards a Catalog of Argumentation Patterns

November 16th, 2012
by jodi

Argumentation analysis can be simplified by thinking about the patterns used.
But what are the key patterns? Here are two diagrams showing different views.

Rahwan suggests 5 common basic argument structures: single, linked, convergent, serial, and divergent.1

Iyad Rahwan. Mass argumentation and the Semantic Web. 2008.

Meanwhile, Wei and Praken give 5 possible argumentative structures that have one or two inferences.2

From Bin Wei and Henry Prakken. Defining the structure of arguments with AI models of argumentation.

Why 5 structures? Five connected structures emerge from having two types of inference — as unit I (single) and unit II (linked) inference. With two inferences of either type, we can make five patterns:3

(1) unit I argument (single)
(2) unit II argument (linked)
(3) multiple unit I argument (serial)
(4) multiple unit II argument
(5) mixed argument

What is interesting is to look at the differences: Rahwen doesn’t cover (4) multiple unit II and (5) mixed arguments. Meanwhile, Wei and Prakken’s list doesn’t include Rahwen’s convergent & divergent argumentation.

So which are the key patterns?

Single and linked arguments are fundamental, and serial arguments are mathematically simple and Rahwen suggests that they are common in use.4But the rest?

Convergent & divergent argumentation structures are both candidates: Wei and Prakken don’t cover these, I suspect, since each could be separated into two separate single arguments, which have the same premise (divergent) or conclusion (convergent). These structures can be important in practice: Convergent arguments give multiple reasons for coming to a conclusion — essential when no single reason suffices. The structure of divergent arguments seems to me to be most useful for showing contradictions in diverse conclusions, e.g. for reductio ad absurdum arguments; I’d love a real-world example of a divergent argument where keeping this structure is important.

  1. Iyad Rahwan. Mass argumentation and the Semantic Web. Web Semantics: Science, Services and Agents on the World Wide Web, 6(1):29–37, February 2008. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.websem.2007.11.007 []
  2. Bin Wei and Henry Prakken. Defining the structure of arguments with AI models of argumentation. Computational Models of Natural Argument XII at ECAI 2012. Pages 60-64 in Proceedings. []
  3. Definition 9. The types of arguments can be defined as follows:
    (1) An argument A is a unit I argument iff A has the form B ⇒ ψ and subargument B is an atomic argument B : φ. We call the inference rule φ ⇒ ψ a unit I inference.
    (2) An argument A is a unit II argument iff A has the form B1,…,Bn ⇒ ψ and subarguments A : B1,…,Bn are atomic arguments B1 : φ1 ,. . . ,Bn : φn . We call the inference rule φ1,…,φn ⇒ ψ a unit II inference.
    (3) An argument A is a multiple unit I argument iff all inferences r1, . . . , rn in the argument A are unit I inferences.
    (4) An argument A is a multiple unit II argument iff all inferences r1, . . . , rn in the argument A are unit II inferences.
    (5) An argument A is a mixed argument iff A has at least one unit I subargument and unit II subargument.
    We display the diagrams of argument types in Figure 3. For simplicity, we assume n = 2 in these diagrams and show only one case of a mixed argument. []
  4. Statistics on argument use would be valuable, but we have limited information about this. Aracuaria DB? Output from argumentation mining? []

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Altmetrics can help surface quality content: Jason Priem on the Decoupled Journal as the achievable future of scholarly communication

November 4th, 2012
by jodi

Jason Priem has a wonderful slidedeck on how to smoothly transition from today’s practices in scientific communication to the future. Here is my reading of the argument given in Jason’s slides:

Communicating science is a central and essential part of doing science, and we have always used the best technology available.
Yet currently, there are several problems with journals, the primary form of scholarly communication.

Journal publication is

  • Slow
  • Closed
  • Hard to innovate
  • and has

  • Restrictive format: function follows form
  • Inconsistent quality control

These problems are fixable, if we realize that journals serve four traditional functions:

  1. Registration
  2. Archiving
  3. Dissemination
  4. Certification

By decoupling these functions, into an a la carte publishing menu, we can fix the scholarly communication system. Decoupled scholarly outlets already exist. Jason mentions some outlets (I would say these mainly serve registration functions, maybe also dissemination ones):

  • ArXiv
  • Math Overflow
  • SSRN
  • Faculty of 1000 Research
  • the blag-o-sphere

Jason doesn’t mention here — but we could add to this list — systems for data publishing, e-science workflow, and open notebook science; these may fulfil registration and archiving functions. Also, among existing archiving systems, we could add the journal archiving functions of LOCKSS is the main player I’m familiar with.

To help with the certification functions, we have altmetrics tools like Impact Story (Jason’s Sloan Founded project with Heather Piwowar).

Jason’s argument well worth reading in full; it’s a well-articulated argument for decoupling journal functions, with some detailed descriptions of altmetrics. The core argument is very solid, and of wide interest: Unlike previous articulations for “pre-publication peer review”, this argument will make sense to everyone who believes in big data, I think. There are other formats: video of the talk1 and a draft article called “Decoupling the scholarly journal”2.


Briefly noted in some of my earlier tweets.

  1. Thanks to Siegfriend Handschuh, who suggested the video of Jason giving this talk at Purdue. []
  2. by Jason Priem and Bradley M. Hemminger, under review for the Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience special issue “Beyond open access: visions for open evaluation of scientific papers by post-publication peer review” []

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Turning social disputes into knowledge representations (DERI reading group 2012-03-28)

September 16th, 2012
by jodi

Last March1 I gave a reading group talk about knowledge representations of online disputes:

Titled “Turning social disputes into knowledge representations”, the talk was based primarily on two papers:

Online argumentation, and particularly knowledge representation from argumentation, is the overarching theme of my dissertation at DERI and as I get together the overall argument, I’ve been looking through my old slidedecks. My previous reading group talk, from November 2011, was about Using Controlled Natural Language and First Order Logic to improve e-consultation discussion forums, based on several papers by Adam Wyner and his colleagues; more recently Adam and I have started a fruitful collaboration, funded in part by the COST action on argumentation and a Short-Term Travel Fellowship from Science Foundation Ireland.

  1. March 28, 2012 []

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Temperature conversions for Americans living in mild climates

August 12th, 2012
by jodi

Converting temperatures in your head is a good trick for Americans living abroad.

So here’s the trick. You memorise the following correspondences:

0 °C = 32 °F
10 °C = 50 °F
20 °C = 68 °F
30 °C = 86 °F
Then, to convert any temperature that is near these, approximate 1 °C = 2 °F. This will allow you to convert almost any naturally occurring outdoor temperature in the UK in either direction to within 1° accuracy.

Let’s try it. As I write the current temperature in Edinburgh is 14 °C. This is 10 °C plus 4° extra. From memory convert the 10 °C to 50 °F. Then convert 4 °C extra to 8 °F extra and add it back on. This gives you 14°C = 58°F. This is not exact, but close enough that you know to wear a jumper. The exact formula is

14 * 9 / 5 + 32 = 57 F
Good luck doing that in your head.

from Charles Sutton’s Converting Fahrenheit into Celsius.

A jumper, for Americans, is “A pullover sweater.”

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Real-time LaTeX Collaboration

August 11th, 2012
by jodi

I’m still looking for real-time collaboration tools for LaTeX. I need to try shareLaTeX again. Sadly, LaTeX-lab (which layers ontop of Google Docs) is only designed for a single editor at a time (kind of defeating the purpose). Apparently, ScribTeX (discovered via pinboard search) is popular (and there’s also verbosus) — and sounds useful.

One of the sticking points of using Google Docs (which is useful at some points of the editing) was its use of smartquotes. That, at least is avoidable: Tools -> Preferences gives the option to disable smart quotes and automatic substitution.

Google Docs preferences - disable smart quotes

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