Nouns are not necessarily agents

It’s not uncommon to see statements like “Wall Street needs to give this company a break” or “Silicon Valley should fund more cleantech firms”

These statements, in some sense, make perfect sense. They are shorthand for, respectively, “investors in this company need to be more patient with it”, and “partners in venture capital funds based in Silicon Valley should fund more cleantech firms”.

But they are nonsensical in another interpretation. Because both are nouns, they can be the subjects of a sentence, so they are the “something” undergoing or causing an action – a verb. But grammar makes no distinction between those verbs that require agenthood or not, so they can be used in a seemingly meaningful way in sentences that could never be realized and have questionable meaning, like “the painting should [decide to] walk across the floor.”

So these sentences can look, and be interpreted as, phrases that are not shorthand. The twisted interpretation is that an abstract concept or representation can “decide to” do something.

Both the named cases, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, are representations of collections of things, but the relationship between the representation and its constituents is not symmetric. The constituents of each (the VC, or the Mutual Fund, for example) are agents of the representation, but not vice versa.

The long story short is that this confusion causes a lot of sloppy thinking, and leads people to go down “garden alleys” of logic that assume that a group can coordinate its actions or otherwise be treated as a decision-making unit. Much (if not most) of the time, they can’t, and statements or arguments that contain that implicit assumption are flawed from the outset.

Language and Discrimination

I just finished reading The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. Amazing book. Among a lot of reactions to the book, I had a thought about language and discrimination. It proceeds along the following lines.

First, humans evolved in small communities. So it’s natural to assume that at first glance we perceive a lack of intelligible language as an indicator of poor intelligence or something “wrong”, since the small groups we evolved in would not be multilingual, so they would have no a priori reason to expect anything else.

But all normal humans have language that is equally expressive and sophisticated, since language is literally “invented” de novo by each generation with the existing language around them as mere ingredients into their invention. Ostracized or marginal groups won’t share the same inputs, and so will invent a different language. For instance, African American Vernacular English is just as “sophisticated” as Standard American English, it’s just different. But for whatever reason it has been natural to perceive it as a failure to be able to speak “correct” English and so to assign those speakers a lower intelligence / ability.

Languages change so rapidly that it only takes one generation to start speaking differently. So if a group gets marginalized, they will speak a new language almost instantly by historical standards, and then the fact that the speak differently will be a wedge between them and other groups.

The book also got me thinking about how we teach language and our respect for different dialects. It seems that curricula should explicitly say, for example, that AAVE and Standard English are different languages, rather than put down AAVE as corrupted Standard English. I remember that in my junior high and high school, which were both over 50% Black, that AAVE was not appropriately respected in this manner. This changes the dynamic from “’He be walkin’ is wrong” to “‘He be walkin’ is right but in a different language, and not correct in Standard English”. It’s a more complicated conversation but more correct.

Vladeck is a nom de guerre

I posted this on facebook, but I wanted to make sure it existed somewhere else too.

I included a few facts about my great-grandfather in a business-school admissions essay, and got something wrong. My father, reviewing it, supplies some facts:

A few facts about grandpa that are hard to find on the internet. One is that he used the name “Vladeck” in Russia as his revolutionary name to protect his family during the 1905 Revolution, which was unsuccessful. Vladeck was his nom de guerre. When he came to the US and wanted a public life, Russian and Jewish immigrants knew him as Vladeck, and so he took that name formally when he arrived in the US. I think you can say that we believe that the name is unique and that anyone with the same last name is a direct descendant of grandpa. Two, as I understand it, more than 1/2 million people lined the streets to watch, not “follow,” his funeral process. I am not sure that the turnout has ever been equaled in NY. Third, during the La Guardia administration, grandpa was actually the majority leader of the city council because the Socialists (the American Labor Party) caucused with the Democrats to give them a majority, and one concession the ALP got from the Dems was that grandpa would be the majority leader. At grandpa’s funeral, Gov. Herbert Lehman, Sen. Robert Wagner, Socialist leader Norman Thomas and of course Mayor La Guardia spoke, as did many, many others. My grandmother, who was a sourpuss, complained bitterly that the funeral service went on way too long. Fourth, the Vladeck houses were named after grandpa because he fought to create the NY Public Housing Authority; his brother Bill was actually the architect for the project. Grandpa believed that the city had to get people out of the overcroweded, disease-ridden teniments they crowded into and that public housing would be a vital public service. He died before they were built and they were named after him for his leadership on the issue. This was the first housing project built by the New York City Housing Authority. Finally, grandpa is probably better known for his role in the Jewish Daily Forward, which at the time the largest non-English language publication in the US, with a huge circulation. During his tenure the average daily circulation was over a 1/4 of a million. He was active too in Jewish affairs, forming the American Jewish Congress in the early 1930s and trying to persuade companies early on to boycott German goods.

why i believe in god

i wanted to write this while listening to the blind watchmaker by richard dawkins. it might seem strange that i will use richard dawkins in the following argument, given that he is a prominent atheist. but i don’t think that there would be much disagreement between us, since the god i believe in is very much a different thing than the god he denounces. my god is this: something beyond our universe that gave rise to it.

dawkins, in the blind watchmaker, gives a great theory of complexity: those things that have a configuration that is staggeringly unlikely to have arisen by chance, things like people and cars relative to mountains and moons. he also gives a great inductive proof of darwinian evolution, showing the mechanism and how easily it could have arisen. i believe these two arguments are fantastic analogs for why i believe in god.

first, the complexity concept. dawkins eloquently divides the universe into things that could have come about by chance, and things that could not have come about by chance. humans, cars, etc. fall into the latter category, because their working configurations are so improbable. therefore, some non-random force must have given rise to it. in the case of all life, this force is darwinism. i am convinced by this.

but i would also argue that the universe itself is one of these complex things. the physical forces that govern the universe are utterly improbable in both their quantitative and qualitative configurations. the only conclusions are that it was designed to be so, or that there are many universes — perhaps infinitely many — and since we exist in this one, of course we observe forces that are consistent with our own existence. but either way, i believe we have arrived at god: either the force that designed our universe, our the medium in which many universes exist.

second, we foray into induction. dawkins’ proof of evolution is at heart an inductive proof: he convincingly shows why we would expect the mechanism to work, that it does work, and that it has worked. natural selection is essentially the inductive step — how we travel between generations. but for this to work you also have to be able to prove an initial condition. in darwinism’s case, this is easy enough. the conditions for the first replicating chemicals — life — were simple enough (in dawkins’ sense — sufficiently probable to have occurred on its own).

but this is not true for the universe as a whole. yes, we have the tools for the inductive steps: we can explain through physical laws — both known and as-yet undiscovered — why we observe what we observe, and how the universe has evolved since the big bang. but we cannot simply “grant” the initial condition. we know that the big bang happened, but we cannot explain how or why, and we have no context to say whether or not it was probable or improbable. in fact, words fail to describe it not happening, or “before” it happening (before is a word relating to the temporal dimension, which only came into existence at the big bang), or what was “outside” (outside refers to being in or out of a 3-or-less-dimensional subspace, something that also only came into existence at the big bang) the universe when it came into existence.

the big bang happened, and we’ll never know why. and the laws imbued in our universe have made it beautiful, and made the mathematical laws that gave rise to darwinism, which gave rise to us; all beautiful. that’s evidence enough for me.