NYU imperatives workshop

March 21, 2016

Do scientists from differing disciplines have the same goals in addressing the same facts? Linguists attempt to accommodate all the natural language intuitions in their theoretical frameworks. That may lead them to extralogical means. Logicians have often taken on one or another natural language intuition and attempt to augment the logic to accommodate that intuition. In both cases there’s a question of purview: why not accommodate all the intuitions through the logical system, or how much of logic should accommodate the intuitions?

This became the battle at a workshop on imperatives at NYU today. Craige Roberts incorporated pragmatics into her analysis of imperatives to include a wide variety of natural language intuitions, while Kit Fine and Peter Vranas developed new logics to deal with some, but not all, intuitions. They both seemed to ignore that traditional logics are not just inadequate for linguistic intuitions, but also inadequate to basic facts about reality. If we assume that development of logics is still in its infancy, the attempt to accommodate each outstanding challenge is a step towards a more inclusive, flexible and useful logic.

Think of Kratzer’s lumps of thought. She observed that a single event can be represented in multiple descriptions that in sentential logic would imply multiple events, or if not implied, then at least failed to imply that that the descriptions were of the same event: if Sally made a painting that was a portrait depicting her sister, sentential logic would imply three events (or at least not imply one event) “Sally made a painting and painted a portrait and painted a picture of her sister.” That these three descriptions are of one event is not a linguistic intuition, it’s a fact of what Sally did. To formulate a logic that can identify these conjuncts as three descriptions of one event would be progress for logic, not for linguistics.

So it seems to me, logic is justified in picking its challenges independent of the needs of linguistics. The real test would be between AI and neurolinguistics — how are imperatives represented in the brain, how can they best be represented in a robotic program? I didn’t see anything from the linguists giving a brain representation argument the way, say, Chomsky did with syntax. There doesn’t seem to be an experimental program to follow, as there was with generative syntax. The logicians, on the other hand, were always mindful of the algorithmic value of their logic, but that’s why they are logicians.

There was also an interesting exchange on whether the background conditions of an imperative are factual or relative to the speaker or addressee. So “if it’s raining, take an umbrella” can be evaluated on whether it’s actually raining or whether the speaker thinks it’s raining. Does it matter whether it’s actually raining for the force of the imperative to hold? Roberts, the linguist, wants it to be contextual information of the speaker; Vranas wants to take this as factual so that the entailments can be validated within his three-valued logic. At first they seem to be different views — why should it matter whether it’s actually raining, since the imperative is the speaker’s insistence. But if there are only beliefs, and no facts, both views are the same. The force of the imperative, shared by the speaker’s intention and the addressee’s understanding of it, will shift if she comes to believe that it’s not actually raining.

The two talked past each other for about an hour. The problem is a really tough one. The entailments of speakers’ assertions are trivial. Sally said “I’m lying” just in case she said it. So as an assertion, it’s true. But the content, indexed to a speaker, is a paradox. It’s worth remembering that three-valued logic began with an attempt to incorporate the epistemic into the logic. The result is a loss of a distinction between the factual and the epistemic. But there’s an underlying problem: no one knows what is factual; all we know are our beliefs. Deductions from our beliefs will always be trivial; deductions from facts will require extralogical overlays for the epistemic. I worked out the problem a few years back here. I’ve complained that trivalence flattens modality here.

Bossy jerk

February 9, 2016

Sheryl Sandberg, Corporate Operations Officer of Facebook, has created a Ban Bossy campaign to encourage girls to be leaders. Many celebrities have expressed support for the campaign and even advertisers have taken up the cause as a means to market to women.


Sandberg makes several distinct claims about the use and meaning of “bossy.” Some have merit, others are misleading. All of them are fruitful for understanding cultural roles, inequalities, and how they play into perception, attitude and emotional response. I want to take them separately and look at some data.


  • “bossy” is used more to describe females than for males
  • this disparity shows an inequality in our cultural stereotypes
  • cultural stereotypes influence our perception of behavior and our emotional response to behavior
  • the cultural role of boss is masculine so males can’t effectively be disparaged by “bossy”
  • the cultural feminine roles include nurturing roles, not boss roles, so females playing the boss role are perceived as inappropriate
  • the cultural masculine roles include boss, so when men abuse their authority or are pushy or bossy, their behavior is accepted as a norm

Evidence supports some of these claims but not others. A linguistic analysis leads to a more complex relationship between cultural roles/stereotypes/expectations and human attitudes/perceptions/emotional responses that may be independent of the culture. I’m using a beautiful data mine developed by Ben Schmidt. It mines Rate My Professor, an online website that allows students to review their professors. since the professor’s name is identified, the reviews can be sorted by professor’s sex, give or take a few ambiguous names. Professors are quintessential authorities, the reviews are perfectly suited to an understanding of the use and frequency of words like “bossy.”


First, the data clearly show that “bossy” is used more often for female profs than for male ones, although it is used substantially for male professors too. Does this imply that female professors are perceived as bossier than males? That is the Ban Bossy claim — women are rejected in positions of authority. A quick look at “jerk” seems to refute that claim.

“Jerk” is used exclusively for males and it appears in the corpus far more frequently than “bossy” — something like 35 times more frequently. That’s not a little. It’s a huge difference. Are there other negative epithets that might be used for women that are more frequent than “bossy”?

“Mean” is also used more frequently for females than for males. Does this support the Ban Bossy view?

The distribution of “jerk” implies that our language has gendered epithets. “Jerk” is for males, “bossy” for females. If that’s so, then the reason “bossy” is used more for females than for males implies nothing about the emotional response to female roles. It’s used more often because “jerk” is the preferred epithet for males.

The data actually show the opposite of the Ban Bossy view of emotional response to female/male role or expectation. Students object to male authority frequently, possibly more frequently than female authorities. The greater frequency of “mean” for females shows the same: why describe a male as “mean” when there are so many more, and more expressive, epithets for men, including not just “jerk” but “dick,” “douche,” “dickhead,” “prick,” “douchebag,” “son-of-a-bitch,” “bastard” and the declining “schmuck.” Rate My Professor no longer allows the most common epithet for males, “asshole,” but the data mine provides partial data — I assume that Rate My Professor closed below-the-belt epithets shortly after they appeared.

Couple of points here. The wealth of epithets for men imply that in our culture we freely object to male abuse of authority. It’s enshrined in the language. The frequency of their use demonstrates that we object to male abuse of authority. So the differential use of “bossy” is purely linguistic fact, not a fact about our perceptions influencing emotional response. We dislike abuse of authority whether the authority is male or female.

The data also show that our language is gendered. There seem to be many more epithets for male abuse of authority than for females, which does very much correlate with the social fact that men are mostly bosses, or that through the development of our language, bosses were mostly men.

Notice that both “bossy” and “mean” are not particularly gendered in themselves and are literally descriptive and not either metaphorical or metonymic. All the vulgar male epithets are metaphorical or metonymic or both: they refer to taboo body parts some of which metaphorically relate to acts of sexual violence, or they relate metaphorically to the social stigma of illegitimacy. In the context of Rate My Professor, “bossy” and “mean” may indicate a second choice after “bitch” which RMP will not accept as a review. Not exactly a euphemism, but a kind of nonce euphemism.

More important, there are many negative words for females, but they do not cover the abuse of authority. Several include “dits,” “airhead,” “twit” (used for both females and males), “bimbo.” I compare these with cultural female/male attire: pockets are the characteristic of male attire; not only are pants and jackets full of pockets and dresses, skirts and blouses largely devoid of them, but taking a minimal pair — men’s jeans and women’s jeans — you’ll find that women’s jeans’ pockets are often shallow and useless, whereas mens’ are deep and many. Pockets are utilitarian in the sense of of managing the outside world through tools. Pockets hold those tools. Womens’ wear is designed for attractiveness (whether for the male gaze or otherwise), not any other utility besides covering and warmth, and often inadequate for both of those.

Putting the attire next to the epithets a pattern emerges. The cultural roles for men are ones of control and manipulation of the world including other people. The response to their aggressive control is a wealth of epithets that object to male power. The cultural roles for women include aesthetic appeal. The negative epithets might be described as “pretty but useless.”

It seems to me important that the responses to authority in RMP shows that our attitudes towards these cultural roles do not numb our emotions. Any expectation that the boss will be male does not incline us to accept the abuse of authority or prevent us from objecting to it in the strongest terms. So we can distinguish between the cultural roles and the perceptions of them. The data implies to me that culture does not determine thought, it just gives us different ways to express our thoughts depending on cultural categories.

The Ban Bossy campaign has given us an important avenue of research to discover

a. the cultural roles embedded in our language

b. the independence of our responses to those roles

The feminist agenda is a fruitful lens with which to investigate not just the facts of our society — inequities of pay and power — but also of culture and attitude in our language and our perceptions.

Part II — Questions for further research

A more disturbing fact in the data is the disparity in use of “brilliant” and “genius.” These are not gendered words, yet they are used to describe males more frequently than for females, and “genius,” the more hyperbolic word is even more biased towards men than “brilliant.” Assuming that females are at least as bright as men if not brighter, how do we account for this disparity in perception?

In this case, I speculate that this is not a linguistic fact but a behavioral and perceptual reflex — exactly the opposite of the “bossy” analysis which is merely about the lack of available gendered words for female abuse of authority. If males are brought up in our culture to be special, competitive and superior, while females are brought up to be servants — the nurturer, the mother who serves her children,m the caretaker — it would be no surprise if the male instructor in class would present himself as special, competitive with his ideas and superior, while the female instructor would be focused on the students.


Piketty and immigration

July 15, 2014

Just finished Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. His central claim is that the ratio of capital/labor increases as economic growth decreases because the rate of return for capital remains constant, and, he claims further, the growth rate will decline through the rest of the century as the population rate (the rate, not the absolute population) declines.

He recommends a tax on wealth/capital. But if he’s right that the rate of growth will decline ceteris paribus, seems to me his wealth tax is not the only option: opening the borders should slow wealth inequality. Open borders w/naturalization would also counterbalance the political influence of wealth, Piketty’s underlying complaint against wealth accumulation.

His tax could happen in Europe, but not likely here in the US. How would a push for immigration fare as a means to grow the economy? With an alliance of business with immigrants? After all, Piketty’s prediction is a ratio, not an absolute quantity of wealth or its buying power. r>g holds when g increases, even though the ratio of wealth-income decreases. It would be a win-win for business and immigrants. It should not hurt unions in the long run either, although in the short run it might hurt a lot. 

China’s economy

December 28, 2013

I’m reading Beardson’s new book on China’s economy. He observes that when the RMB rose against the dollar (2005-8), exports increased faster than imports, counterintuitively (and contrary to US wishes). Beardson attributes it to squeezing more productivity out of labor. He also reports that the Chinese banks, government controlled, lend mostly to government enterprises, devoting itself to infrastructure in the recession, far more than to the private sector, yet the private sector throve. It’s a picture of a resilient private sector independent of the political superstructure.

A young economy grows despite parental constraints. Reminds me of a passage in Smith comparing England’s aging economy with the American colonies’ youthful growth, except that colonial growth included high wages and full employment. That would change dramatically in industrialization and the immigration it depended on. China has the rough equivalent in the migration from the land to the manufacturing centers.

Trust a business man, who depends for his success on reality, to get the facts comprehensively and in depth. I find it difficult to trust critics, promoting their reputations on personal theories and selecting facts to dress them up; or utopian reformers and revolutionaries, viewing only blood and hope through their rose lens; and economists, most of whom undermine their credibility by their entrenched partisan polarization (I exempt Eichengreen and Cooper); and the journalists who, as outsiders, look at the economy almost as anthropologists studying exotic behavior. Reading Beardson is like getting advice on pianos from a tuner. Not the whole story, but a lot better than anyone esle that’s mongering them or themselves.

Fear of the Fed

July 7, 2013
At a recent Occupy Alt Bank (Occupy’s Alternative Banking think tank) there was this exchange.
‘Banks find ways to skirt any regulation whatsoever,” said one member.
“Jailing the CEOs will curtail their risk behavior,” replied another.
I wondered: “They can’t be jailed for skirting the law unless they break it. But there is a way to curtail risk outside regulation and law entirely — the Fed.”
Both Barry Eichengreen and George Cooper, independently and from different political perspectives, came to the same conclusion, and even Greenspan in effect admited this: the Fed encourages risk through stabilizing the economy, broadcasting its intentions to keep the money flowing. If the Fed (I know, I know, it’s counterintuitive and sounds just awful) were less transparent, played its cards closer to its chest, and threatened to tighten money suddenly and by surprise, letting a few excessively risky institutions fall off the cliff, the banks would learn a piece of Old Testament Fear of the Fed. Read the rest of this entry »

Liar paradoxes, a problem with reductio proof and speech acts

June 20, 2013

It’s easy to mistake paradoxical sentences for liar paradoxes. “If this sentence is true, then it is false,” is a liar paradox. If the sentence is true, then the antecedent is true. If the antecedent is true, then the consequent must be false, the implication as a whole is false, so the sentence must be false. So if the sentence is true, then it is a contradiction and a falsehood. So the antecedent must not be true. If the sentence is false, antecedent is false, and the implication as a whole is true.

“If this sentence is false, then it is true,” however, is not a liar paradox. If it is false, then the antecedent is true and the implication fails, and the whole is false. If the sentence is true, then the antecedent is false, the implication holds, and the sentence is true. That’s not a paradox, it’s just a sentence the truth of which cannot be determined. It’s like the sentence, “This sentence is true.” Is it true or false? How could you tell?

Similarly, “The sentence I am now writing is true,” is indeterminate. “The sentence I am now writing is false” is provably a liar paradox, athough one could ask of these two sentences “true or false of what?” The deductive proof that yields a liar paradox of the latter, is a reductio: assume the sentence is true, you deduce that it is false; assume it’s false, you deduce it’s true. So if it’s true, it’s false and vice versa. But if you ask “true of what?” then you’re asking for an empirical answer — does the sentence corresponds to something, in this case to its own truth. Is truth a thing that can be pointed to? If it’s a correspondence with something, we’re stuck in an infinite recursion. So these sentences, on the one hand, lead to a questioning of the correspondence theory. But they also lead to questioning of the validity of deductive reductio argumentation, not unlike that questioning of the reductios that led Cantor to multiple levels of infinities, and the intuitionist rejection of the reductio in favor of proof by demonstration. Several directions from here: you can say these sentences don’t correspond to anything; or correspondence is not complete; or correspondence, even with its incompleteness is a better option than reductios that lead to liar paradoxes.  Read the rest of this entry »

Intended paradox

June 16, 2013

“I’m very witty!” someone wrote in a comment box in response to the criticism “You have no wit.”

“I’m very witty” might seem at first a witless and therefore unpersuasive response, unless it is sarcastic, in which case it is actually witty. If it’s sarcastic, the meaning intended to convey is that author isn’t witty, and therefore it implies that the comment itself also is not witty. The joke is, the author knows it’s not witty; yet that’s what makes it witty. So if it’s witty, it’s a lie; if it’s a lie, it’s not witty: a liar paradox.
But if the comment is merely false, then there’s no paradox — just a reply by someone who thinks he’s witty but is too dull to know he’s not witty, and hasn’t enough wit to say so wittily.
So if it’s a lie, then it is a meta-witty paradox; if an honest falsehood, it’s just stupid.

What’s interesting is that the intention or speaker’s attitude or character of mind induces the paradox, not the words alone. The paradox depends on who’s speaking, liar or dolt, wit or fool.

At what price?

June 7, 2013

It’s supposed to be well-established that commodity prices are the inverse of interest rates. Interest rates are as low as they can be and luxury housing prices in NYC are high, for example, and the stock market is flying too. But the rest of the economy is not wildly inflated. Why?

Easy money (low interest rates) flows into commodity inventories (we saw that leading up to the Arab Spring), on the one hand, and on the other, it curbs extraction of new resources and commodities because the low interest rates reduce their monetization, or so the theory goes. Yves Smith posted on it back in 2008:

Here are the originals:

Click to access CampbellM&CPnberNov.pdf

Click to access ifdp1065r.pdf

That easy money/low interest rates leads to inflation has been orthodoxy since Friedman at least. It was Volcker’s successful program to curb inflation by increasing interest rates, causing a recession, and Bernanke’s opposite strategy to take us out of recession, allowing inflation. But it also has a specific reflex in commodity prices. QE2 caused a global price hike in food prices as investors left the dollar for commodities, that caused the Arab Spring. Not exactly what Bernanke anticipated. His response was washing his hands: other nations have to deal with their own inflation, he quipped, cynically, I thought.

Free will and responsibility don’t distinguish between non-deterministic religions and secularism

April 18, 2013

Believers in deities often claim that because secularism is deterministic, it has no room for free will and therefore has no concept of personal responsibility or morality. But I don’t see how free will entails moral responsibility, and I don’t see that responsibiltiy entails free will.

To take the first implication direction: free will is an incoherent notion. If there is no motive or source of a decision, then the decisions are not tied to an integral self — they’re just random decisions, that don’t belong to anyone. If a decision is motivated by some determinant, then the decision isn’t free. To put it in a theological context: either god made you who you are, and she is responsible for every decision thereafter, or your decisions are random and not anchored is a self. So free will doesn’t entail responsibility. It entails no responsibility, because it entails no self. End of story.

From the other direction of entailment: the individual can hold herself responsible just to flatter herself for believing she’s an integral self. And what do you know, that’s exactly how we all feel. Responsibility is an illusion that works. You don’t need free will, only the illusion of self.

non epistemic possibility and the lay of the land

May 31, 2012

The peculiarity of classical notion of possibility is that it has a relation to the actual world as well as a relation to the irreal world of conditions counter to the actual and the epistemic world of certainty and uncertainty. Lukasiewicz’ notion of possibility seems to apply only to uncertainty — it seems essentially epistemic.

So here’s the lay of the land, as I see these two modal programs: Read the rest of this entry »