May 8, 2008

Wustl Commencement

If you've been paying attention to the news recently you might have noticed that the university where I work - Washington University in St Louis - has decided to give an honourary doctorate to Phyllis Schalfly. I, like many people here, hadn't heard of Ms Schlafly, but having read some of her columns and having learned of her work against the Equal Rights Amendment, I've signed the letter from the Association of Women Faculty protesting the decision. It's hard to see how our university can support someone whose life work has been to undermine the legal and social status of so many of its students and colleagues.

But enough about Schlafly. Those more familiar with her will provide a better rapsheet. D's description of the up-coming ceremony as the worst graduation ever made me try to remember who had been honoured at my own undergraduate graduation ceremony. And the person who sticks out most in my mind is the actress Helen Mirren, who was then famous for playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the TV-series Prime Suspect. And I remember, not just because my dad was rather awed to see Mirren in real life, but because of the speech one of the St Andrews officials gave to introduce her. He talked about how, when he had been growing up, and a girl his own age had been asked what she wanted to be when she grew up she had usually replied with one of the few professions that were thought of as suitable to women at the time: nurse, air-hostess, etc. But last week when he asked his own young daughter what she wanted to be, she'd replied, to his surprise: "Detective Chief Inspector".

I wonder what my students will remember about their graduation ceremonies this year.

Posted by logican at 8:05 PM | TrackBack

March 5, 2008


Butterflies remember what they learned as caterpillars. But how do we know that they aren't just Q-memories?

Posted by logican at 11:56 PM | TrackBack

November 6, 2007

Naming my Pets

The BBC notes that it is illegal to name a pig "Napoleon" in France. Good job we saved it for the aarkvark then.

(p. 96 of Naming and Necessity)

Posted by logican at 6:47 PM | TrackBack

April 23, 2007

Missing BBC Journalist

Alan Johnston banner

Posted by logican at 12:43 AM | TrackBack

October 4, 2006


Some of you might have come across Josh Parsons' surreal "FOTWGLG" (Flags of the World Given Letter Grades), in which the flags of the world letter grades, along with helpful comments about how to improve. Well from this article on the BBC News website today, it looks as if Lesotho has been paying attention. Josh's main complaint was that the flag featured weapons. Here are Josh's thoughts on weapon-bearing flags in general:

If you are going to put a picture on your flag (in violation of rule 2a) why would you put pictures of the weapons that you are using to conduct a bloody repression of your citizens on it? This just doesn't make sense to me. Obviously countries like Afghanistan and Mozambique just aren't interested in the tourist dollars that you can get from not advertising the fact that you like to hack off the limbs of foreigners before shooting them and turning them into soap. Still, it's their loss.

The BBC reports:

The small mountain kingdom of Lesotho is marking its 40th anniversary of independence from the United Kingdom by flying a new more peaceful flag. The military emblem of a shield, spear and knobkerrie is replaced by a traditional cone-shaped hat on the blue, white and green flag.

The hat worn by indigenous Basotho people was on the first independence flag but was replaced after a coup.

Lesotho says its new flag shows it "at peace with itself and its neighbours".


Posted by logican at 2:13 PM | TrackBack

May 30, 2006

Ofsted: Can't get no...(no no no)

John Clare reports in the Telegraph on a bizarre report from Ofsted (a body that regulates standards in UK schools.)

What exactly does Ofsted mean by "satisfactory": good enough or not good enough?

Bizarrely, it could be either - or even both. Take, for example, this Alice in Wonderland sentence from Ofsted's recent report on Toynbee School in Eastleigh, Hants: "There is too much satisfactory teaching, which has resulted in students making satisfactory progress overall." The curriculum, the report adds, is "satisfactory" as are achievement and standards and leadership and management; the school also offers "satisfactory" value for money. In which sense (if any), though, it is impossible to tell.

Even though this reads like hilarious nonsense, it's easy to see what's going on. Ofsted will have some kind of scale that goes something like "fantastic, good, satisfactory, unacceptable". The school gets lots of "satisfactory"s and the writer thinks that it should be doing better.

This is one place where some kind of local holism story about the meaning of Ofsted's use of "satisfactory" seems to make a lot of sense. "Satisfactory" here gets its meaning in part from its place in the scale. If the scale was two valued, "satisfactory, unsatisfactory" then calling teaching "satisfactory" would say something different. Similarly if the scale was "super fantasic, fantastic, very good, good, fairly good, satisfactory, poor."

I'm inclined to think the "real" (everyday, non-Ofsted) meaning of "satisfactory" does play some role in constraining where the word can appear in the scale though. A scale that reads "good, satisfactory" is not a scale in which "satisfactory" is a terrible grade, it's just a dodgy grading scale.

Posted by logican at 9:23 AM | TrackBack

November 2, 2005

Via Arts and Letters Daily

"A job hunter, a philosophy major, went here, there and everywhere in his search for employment, but in vain. Having run out of options, he swallowed his pride and took up the offer of playing a bear in a costume at a zoo..."

China Daily on the practicality of philosophy.

Posted by logican at 5:18 PM | TrackBack

October 7, 2005

Josh Knobe in the Chronicle

I've just noticed this article about Josh Knobe in the Chronicle. (Thanks to Daily Phil, the UCSD philosophy blog.) The article talks about Joshua's empirical research in ethics and the philosophy of mind, which has included asking passersby in Central Park to make judgements about whether a particular act of harming the environment was intentional or not. While Joshua was at Princeton he sometimes shortened his name to "Shua", instead of the more conventional "Josh", and it was this fact that led to one of Mark Schroeder's contributions to the Princeton Grad students' own version of the Philosophical Lexicon:

shua, adv. An affirmative answer to a question one might be asked in a philosophical survey at Newark International Airport. "Did the manager spoil the environment intentionally?" "Shua." [MAS]

Posted by logican at 10:49 PM | TrackBack

September 13, 2005

Restaurant Culture

Five serious problems:

One seriously promising solution

Posted by logican at 2:45 AM | TrackBack

September 9, 2005


The BBC, in an article entitled "Philosophy Students 'a happy lot'", reports on a survey which suggests that philosophers (and theologians, bless 'em) "are the most satisfied in higher education." Excitingly, the survey results were leaked to the Times Higher Ed Supplement, and their article is online too. They write:

Philosophy and theology students are the most satisfied, rating their courses 4.3 for overall satisfaction, and the most happy with the quality of their teachers, awarding them a score of 4.2.
Robin Cameron, chair in philosophy at Aberdeen University and former secretary of the British Philosophical Society, said he was delighted.
"Students do not undertake degree courses in philosophy lightly, so they are committed to their subject," he said. "We have small departments with an open-door approach."

Posted by logican at 12:59 AM | TrackBack

July 18, 2005

Top Ten

The BBC's Greatest Philosopher vote has finished, with Marx romping home in first place, and Scotland's own Hume a clear second. The full top ten is:

1. Marx
2. Hume
3. Wittgenstein
4. Nietzsche
5. Plato
6. Kant
7. Aquinas
8. Socrates
9. Aristotle
10. Popper

Nothing too surprising in there, I think. Popper remains immensely popular with scientists, of course, though it would be interesting to see whether he and the other two recent writers - Nietzsche and Wittgenstein - are still on the list in a hundred years time.

Are there any surprising omissions?

Posted by logican at 4:28 AM | TrackBack

June 13, 2005

On the BBC

A link sent by (of all people) my dad. (This is noteworthy because my dad is, in general, rather suspicious of philosophy. I think it stems from when I was an undergraduate and tried to explain the problem of induction to him. Since then he's suspected that philosophy secretly wants to subvert science (he trained in chemistry - surely the most real of the traditional sciences. I bet if we took a survey of working scientists and asked them whether they thought their best theories were true or merely empirically adequate, the chemists would have the highest proportion of people answering "true." Maybe I'm biased when it comes to chemists though. I lived with a bunch of graduate chemists for years. You can see why I need a blog - I could go on like this forever...)

Anyway, Radio 4 is having a vote to see who the public considers to be the greatest philosopher of all time. You can also take their philosophy quiz, and, best of all, see what various celebrities said when asked who the greatest philosopher of all time is. In an ideal world, this question would have been put to the likes of Britney Spears, Posh and Becks, and the cast of Big Brother and you'd have to drink every time someone replied "my mum." (If I'd had to pick people to ask I think Moby, Julian Cope and Bob Geldof might have been high on the list. Andrew Marr and Stephen Fry could definitely stay on too.) But in this world they've asked the likes of Anne Widecombe and Mariella Frostrup. As far as I can tell, each respondent has only had to pick a name and perhaps a quote, and then someone from Radio 4 wrote up a few paragraphs about each philosopher, complete with links to your friend and mine, the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

Who is my favourite philosopher of all time? I don't really know. I might have said Tarski until recently. It's a hard call because you want it to be someone who's main message you agree with, but it also seems to matter than they worked on something important, and then it should be someone with whom you feel something of a connection. So here's a short list. It's very mixed, and people are on it for very mixed reasons: Berkeley, Tarski, Epicurus, Mill, Kripke, Wittgenstein, Marx, Russell. The thing is, half the people on this list I kind of hate too. I don't know how we ever manage to like whole people; they're so complicated.

Posted by logican at 3:07 PM | TrackBack

June 8, 2005

Men of substance, men of style

Hey there, Philosophy Man. Tired of plain, classic shirts? According to this article

Plain, classic shirts just wouldn’t do for the adventurous Philosophy male.

Never fear, Philosophy Men to the rescue.

Posted by logican at 2:32 AM | TrackBack

May 21, 2005

Horsebreeders are nuts (slight return)

Thanks to a link from Brian, the most popular post on this blog in recent times has been Acer and Bandit, a heart-rending tale of horse-breeding, time travel and non-semantic paradox. Though no-one has come out and said it, it is possible that some readers thought my story (however philosophically illuminating) a little far-fetched.

But perhaps I didn't fetch all that far after all. Check this article out.

Posted by logican at 12:43 AM | TrackBack

May 16, 2005

The Real Thing

More than one person thought of him as "kingly"; others used the cliché "Napoleonic" to describe his attitude as well as his size. At lectures he always made an entrance and when walking through a crowded room he never hesitated or shifted from side to side to weave his way around people. Chest out, with quick little steps he walked straight through the middle, expecting the waters to part.[...] He had a protruding forehead with pulsing veins, giving the impression of having so much brain there wasn't enough room in his head for the whole of it; bright blue eyes, a bulbous nose, a full mouth, seldom quiet; always talking, always smoking, often drinking; he would screw up his face and virtually shudder with disapproval when he shook his head to say he disagreed or that something was not to his taste. He liked to laugh, especially at his own jokes and the gossipy stories he told and retold.[...] Using the power of his words, he was a forceful and tireless campaigner for everything he thought was due him, both professionally and personally. He did not like to hear the word "no" in any situation. (1-2) Alfred Tarksi: Life and Logic Anita Burdman Feferman and Solomon Feferman

I don't think I can explain this very well, and no doubt it is unreasonable for me to feel this way, but I can't help being a little bit disappointed that Tarski was so extrovert. (I suppose this is just more evidence that we have ridiculous expectations of our heros.) Confident and charismatic I can cope with, - I think one might have wondered about this after reading sections of "The Semantic Conception of Truth" - smoking, drinking, ugly, even opinionated - no problem, but what's with all the laughing at his own jokes and the talking?

My image of Tarski is taking quite a beating at the moment. Bernard Linsky told me just the other day that Tarski came to agree with Quine on the subject of the analytic/synthetic distinction. I wish I knew which argument convinced him.

Posted by logican at 12:39 PM | TrackBack

April 23, 2005

Modern Logic

Is it a pop star? A model? No, it's senior blogger and web-neighbour Richard Zach.

(Thanks to Marianne and Andrew for putting me on to this.)

In searching for that interview, I also turned up this one, in his own h2So4. The second interview covers a wider range of topics, allowing Professor Zach to respond to the question:

Why do you (on occasion) work for no money?


What do you mean? I've never worked for money in my life.

Posted by logican at 10:23 PM | TrackBack

April 20, 2005

Swims like a dolphin in the deep grammar of Ku

Nicole Kidman has apparently learned a fake language for her new film, The Interpreter. Lots of entertainment sites are reporting on this and some of them have been saying some pretty strange things:

Scriptwriters invented the obscure African language of Ku as part of the plot for Nicole Kidman's interpreter who claims to overhear an assassination plot. (Entertainment Northeast)

I suppose one way to understand this is as saying even in the fiction the language is obscure, unlike, say, Tolkien's Quenya, which, according to the fiction, is a major language of Middle Earth. (Hope I'm right about that.)

But it could also be read as saying that a couple of scriptwriters came up with a language for the film and - big surprise this - no major peoples have adopted it, so that (tragically) their language remains obscure.

But that's not the end of the slightly odd things said about this new film. Here's the Guardian's film critic:

Nicole speaks Ku like a native.

(What natives?) And hilariously, he goes on:

Nicole swims like a dolphin in the deep grammar of Ku. And her pronunciation is frankly top drawer.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to track down any text in Ku. I wanted to feed it to the language identifier and then run away.

Posted by logican at 12:42 AM | TrackBack

April 17, 2005

First Time Reading

The reading exams for ancient philosophers just got a whole lot harder. Scientists at Oxford have used infrared to make the documents known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri - 400 000 fragments of Greek and Roman writings - legible.

When it has all been read - mainly in Greek, but sometimes in Latin, Hebrew, Coptic, Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic, Nubian and early Persian - the new material will probably add up to around five million words. Texts deciphered over the past few days will be published next month by the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, which financed the discovery and owns the collection.

Via languagehat, who links to Martin Robertson's translation of a fragment of a poem by Arkhilokhos (I particularly recommend that link.) That fragment was discovered just 30 years ago and the new haul promises more from the same writer.

Just one more reason why it would have been worse to be born 100 years earlier...

Posted by logican at 12:23 PM | TrackBack

April 16, 2005

"It's not even a warning system,"

says Biznel. "It's better thought of as an information system."

Rewording reduces media frenzies?

Posted by logican at 12:57 PM | TrackBack

April 14, 2005

Open-Access Journals

Wired reports on the growing number of open-access (free) journals in academia. The article represents this as happening "despite concerns about the ethics of pay-for-play publishing" but the first two open-access journals that come to mind are the Australasian Journal of Logic and Philosophers' Imprint. I know one cannot pay to publish in the AJL, and I will eat my copy of Naming and Necessity if you have to pay to publish in Philosophers' Imprint.

Posted by logican at 1:23 AM | TrackBack

April 13, 2005

Melbourne on the Air

Joanne Faulkner writes:

This week the La Trobe Philosophy Radio Program looks at Public Philosophy. Discussants include Stan van Hooft (Deakin), Michelle Irving (Heart of Philosophy), and David Miller (The Existentialist Society).

The program can be streamed live at:
Friday 15 April, 2 pm.

Find a flyer for the program here:

Most previous programs are archived at:


For those of you who don't run off to Australia whenever you get an opportunity, LaTrobe and Deakin are universities in Melbourne and Heart of Philosophy is an organisation that has been running philosophy cafes in the city. My good friend Matt Carter presented one on artificial intelligence on Wednesday.

Posted by logican at 10:41 AM | TrackBack

April 8, 2005

Unkindness of Mavens

I was surprised to see that Fay Weldon has taken up language mavenry. Weldon is the author of a good and disturbing novel called Down Among the Women, which holds the curious distinction of being one of three texts ever to have made me feel physically sick. I recommend it. (Yeah, really. The other two are Kafka's "Der Heizer" and Brett Easton Ellis' "The Rules of Attraction" - I seem to be able to stomach graphic physical violence, but not social confusion. Yes, I know that's stupid.) But Weldon has also just written a totally lame-arse opinion piece for the most recent Sunday Times, called "Language - Not Another Euphemism" and it combines all the usual elements:

1. unsupported and wild claims about the influence of language on thought:

Our ideas of what we are and what we want to be are limited by the language we use. The hanging, dangling participle has no conclusion [...] We ourselves, not just our participles, are hanging, dangling, and strangling in verbiage and euphemism.

2. tiresome (and in this case, tasteless) exaggeration:

It’s all velvet-glove stuff, I fear, disguising the fingers at the throat. It has been going on a long time. Today’s version of Work Makes You Free over the camp gates turns smoothly into Making Work Choices Easier.

3. and all this based on complaints about utterly trivial things, in this case, a trend in advertising:

It’s the “ing” word I’m talking about; not a participle hanging on its own, or dangling likewise, it’s the “hanging and dangling participle”. I claim it as a new grammatical usage, and it’s everywhere. It’s the Home Office logo: Building a Safe, Just and Tolerant Society: it’s there on the social-services minibus: Driving for the Caring Community. (How about “Caring for the Driving Community” on your parking ticket? Coming soon, no doubt.) Creating Opportunity Worldwide, claims the British Council (Really? Sounds like a business plan). ACAS: Making Work Work (hello, in there? Anyone?).

Weldon reminds us that Orwell was doing this before her, in Politics and the English Language. But Orwell's essay was great. (Yes, even though Geoff Pullum despises it. He's right about everything else, he's just wrong about Orwell.) The basic message of Orwell's essay is STOP BEING SO FUCKING PRETENTIOUS AND THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU'RE SAYING. Lots of brilliantly clever people needed to hear that message at some point. But that is a long way from the message that the "hanging, dangling participle" is going to lead them straight to the concentration camp.

Meanwhile, this weblog's favourite Maven is on topic this week, with a column entitled "Der Pabst ist Tod! Der Pabst ist Tod!" (the pope is death, the pope is death!) This is, naturally, a long awaited opportunity for him to go all editor-y on your German ass, because you should have written "der Pabst ist tot! Der Pabst ist tot!" Yep, the Pope is death, and the German language is vollig durcheinander geraten and Sick's the man to sort us all out. (And in doing so he provides so many euphemisms for "almost dead" that I could probably rewrite the dead parrot sketch in German with an ecclesiastical twist...)

Posted by logican at 1:47 AM | TrackBack

April 1, 2005


Blogging Beyond the Men's Club, via Arts and Letters Daily:

And at the Harvard conference, Suitt challenged people to each find 10 bloggers who weren't male, white or English-speaking—and link to them. "Don't you think," she says, "that out of 8 million blogs, there could be 50 new voices worth hearing?"

Not being one to care that the challenge wasn't issued to me personally, here are the first 5 of my 10:

I've elected to interpret "10 bloggers who weren't male, white or English speaking" as equivalent to "10 bloggers with the following property: either they aren't male, or they aren't white, or they aren't English-speaking" (though it could also be interpreted more strictly as equivalent to "10 bloggers who are neither white, nor male, nor English-speaking.)

A couple of thoughts on this: it has been observed that the web, whilst also allowing for gratuitous self-publication, allows for an unusual degree of privacy. It is possible to publish a weblog without telling anyone your real name, your gender, your ethnicity. That said, I read recently (if I find the link I'll add it) that the majority of bloggers do choose to reveal their real names, where "majority" turns out to be 55%. Often this tells us something about their gender. Sometimes it tells us something about their ethnicity. Others post photographs of themselves. Q. Who would be likely to publish their gender and ethnicity in this way? A. Those who suspect that it is to their advantage. Q. Who would be more circumspect about revealing these things? Someone who had found that they had worked to their disadvantage in the past, and felt they would be taken more seriously if no-one knew these things. It would be interesting to know whether the proportion of non-white, non-male blogs is higher in the percentage of blogs that remain anonymous. And it would be interesting to know whether that varied depending on the topic. Being female might seem to be more of an advantage if one is blogging about women's issues, and less of an advantage if one is blogging about programming languages...

Added later in the day: here are 5 more weblogs, this time they are all weblogs in logic, language or philosophy:

Majikthise- analytic philosophy and liberal politics
Diana's Bloggerific Musings - Philosophy
The X-Bar - Two lingustists walk into an X-bar...
For the Record - Jessica Wilson
Sappho's Breathing

My experience has been that it is much easier to find blogs that seem to be written by women than it is to find blogs that seem to be written by non-whites. Part of the explanation is that it is harder to tell the skin-colour of a blogger than it is to tell their gender. But in the case of philosophy blogs, I think the reason is also that there are very few non-whites in the discipline. (The bar to my promoting blogs in other languages is, of course, my own ignorance.)

Posted by logican at 1:59 AM | TrackBack

March 31, 2005

Deutsche Mavens

I suppose this should not come as a surprise, but it isn't just English that has language mavens. Bastian Sick (sic) writes a column called "Zwiebelfisch" in Der Spiegel, in which he chastises Germans for their non-standard grammar, and gives advice about pronunciation. I didn't know what "Zwiebelfisch" meant, but it has an entry in the German Wikipedia, from which I learned that it is a printing and publishing term for a single letter that is erroneously set in a different font. Like this, I guess.

Here Sick berates native speakers for forming the perfect of "anfangen" (to begin) with the auxiliary verb "sein", e.g.

Sick says that the only correct way is to use the auxiliary "haben":

Duden agrees with him on the formation of the perfect of "anfangen" of course, as did all my old German teachers. Sein + angefangen can actually make sense as a Zustandspassiv (statal passive) construction, but construed that way it does not mean what the speakers intend (namely that, say, she has begun (something), but rather that she is (in the state of having been) begun.) So there is no haven for those Duden-bucking non-conformists there.

In other posts Sick discusses the perfect of "stehen" (to stand), and answers questions about the correct way to pronounce "Mecklenburg," and whether one knocks "an der Tür" (on the-DAT door) or "an die Tür" (on the-ACC door.) He also takes on the idea that Rechtschreibung (correct spelling/grammar) plays no role in email, and opines that "Smileys ersetzen keine Interpunktion." (Smileys don't replace punctuation.)

This reminded me of Lynn Truss in Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:

Anyone interested in punctuation has a dual reason to feel aggrieved about Smileys, because not only are they a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly; they are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for ornamental functions. What's this dot-on-top-of-a-dot thing for? What earthly good is it? Well, if you look at it sideways, it could be a pair of eyes. What's this curvy thing for? It's a mouth, look! Hey, I think we're on to something. (193)

The German case is interesting in that, when they talk about "Rechtschreibung" they are talking about a set of rules that were amended the the 1990s in what is referred to as die Rechtschreibungsreform and there is a recognised document which lays down these new standards for German written text. The reforms were introduced to German schools in 1996 - while I was teaching in a German High School near Kiel, (yes, I too was an English Language Teacher. It's sort of like the foreign legion for British university students.) Overnight the brilliant and lunatic "Schifffahren" (travel by boat) (formed by joining "Schiff" (boat) and "fahren" (travel)) was replaced with the more mundane "Schiffahren." The German media adopted the new rules en masse in 1999, but the leading broadsheet Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung only stuck it for a year before going back to the old ways.

The end of this post seems like a good excuse to sneak in a link to Mark Twain's "The Awful German Language." I actually used this text when teaching English to a group of talented 18 year-olds in a German highschool. Bad experience.

What is this passage about?
The man is being very rude about our language. I think it is stupid.
That's interesting. What do the rest of you think? Is Mark Twain trying to insult German?
I agree with Inga. He is stupid. He writes stupid things.
So, thinks it meant to be humourous then?
No, because it is not funny.

45 minutes to go.

And there is no recovering from accidentally offending your audience...

Posted by logican at 1:51 AM | TrackBack

March 29, 2005

Life and Logic

Martin Davis reviews the Fefermans' biography of Tarski in American Scientist.

Posted by logican at 12:53 PM | TrackBack

March 23, 2005

Gödel in the New Yorker

Jim Holt tells the story of Einstein and Gödel to readers of the New Yorker.

Posted by logican at 2:22 AM | TrackBack

March 20, 2005

America's lexicographical sweetheart

Saturday's New York Times has an article on hip, young dictionary writers.

Quick quiz: which of the following are cool?

Part 2: Which of them make you a good lexicographer?

(Of course, the answers to these questions might vary if some candidates can read mirror writing, or have really flexible necks.)

The New York Times has an obnoxious registration policy, so feel free to sign in as "hateyoumore" ("hateyou" was already taken.) Your password is "hateyoumore" too, and if anyone asks, you're a clergyman who makes over US$150000 per annum.

Posted by logican at 1:04 AM | TrackBack