Saturday, May 29, 2004

What Don't You Know?

Another item from last week's visit to Austin:

During my sister's graduation ceremony, at one point in the program a woman sang "Colors of the Wind" from the movie Pocahontas. The first verse ends with these lines:

But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger,
you'll learn things you never knew you never knew.
I've written before about song lyrics that are just ambiguous enough to distract me from appreciating the song itself while I mentally diagram the possibilities, and this is another prime example. In this line, is the speaker merely repeating you never knew for emphasis, or does she actually intend the meaning captured in the paraphrase "things such that you never even knew you didn't know about them"? After ten years, I've finally decided that this is indeed the intended meaning, and what's more, I now see that it's another case of the Unknown Unknowns!

The Unknown Unknowns, of course, are what Donald Rumsfeld referred to in a concise and insightful, but nonetheless widely ridiculed, quotation a few months back:
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.
Geoff Pullum at Language Log wrote in Rumsfeld's defense (at least as far as the logic and clarity of this particular quotation go), and even compared it to the first line of an old Persian saying:
He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool; shun him.
So now in this Disney movie is another instance of someone talking about what we don't know that we don't know, and understanding it doesn't seem to have caused people any trouble--indeed, when I searched for the line on the Internet to make sure I got it right, I found it on a site devoted to "Cool Quotes". I also found the phrase "you never knew you never knew" in the title for a session in a seminar, in a list of facts about dogs, a page of tips for digital imaging , and several other places that I won't bother to list.



Merriam-Webster has released the results of its “top 10 favorite words” poll. A few old favorites of mine made the list:

But I think the voters focused excessively on multisyllabic words of Latin or Greek origin – you know, the kind of vocabulary words people feel proud of themselves for knowing. Some of my favorite English words that didn't make the list are much more pedestrian:
Go ahead, say each one of those a few times, and savor their simplicity and rich Anglo-Saxon flavor.


Fine Dining

My 4-year-old son Adam has an autism spectrum disorder, and is undergoing some early intervention therapy to learn explicitly what most kids learn by osmosis. Many of his learning programs are intended to give him social skills, and one of these skills is to be able to say the formulaic responses for common situations. One of these targets is for him to say, "I'm doing fine," when asked, "How are you?" Realizing that this question is not a request for information is one of the things that autistic-spectrum kids often have trouble with.

Adam has done well with this target. Of course, "I'm doing fine" is just a start, enough to get him through the most common social-greeting situations. But to truly master this social skill, he'll need to generalize it, so that eventually he can recognize and use other possible responses, be able to ask someone else how they're doing, and know when he can get away with replying, "Not so good, actually." And maybe one day his generalization will be so advanced that he will confidently answer, "Not much!" when asked, "How ya doin'?" and "Pretty good!" when asked, "What's up?"

Today, though, Adam did some generalizing with the pronoun and the tense in the target response. He was finishing his lunch when his therapist returned from her own lunch break. She asked, "How was your lunch?"

Adam said, "It was doing fine."


Friday, May 28, 2004

Block the Box

This op-ed by Chris Edwards contains a long list of proposals for new spending, all gleaned from the Kerry website. It really is appalling. Democrats who criticize the Bush Administration for its profligate spending have no business proposing laundry lists of new programs. Edwards’s bottom line: “In November, Americans will have to decide whether Kerry's big-spending promises are worse than Bush's big-spending record.”

But how to decide? We need to break out of the narrow mindset that trains all attention on the presidential candidates and their specific platforms and personal qualities. What matters far more is the balance of power. When one party is in charge of both Congress and the Presidency, the outcome is a spending binge, regardless of the party. Repeat after me: The pro-Kerry argument is not Kerry’s platform. The pro-Kerry argument is gridlock.


Wednesday, May 26, 2004

The Cosby Show

Whoa. Click this link, and scroll down past the titillating story of the Capitol Hill sex diarist. You’ll find a column reporting recent comments by Bill Cosby (yes, that Bill Cosby) about the failure of black people to raise their children properly. Among other things, he says:

I am talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit. Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18 and how come you didn't know that he had a pistol? And where is the father? …

The church is only open on Sunday and you can't keep asking Jesus to do things for you. You can't keep saying that God will find a way. God is tired of you.

I wasn't there when God was saying it, I am making this up, but it sounds like what God would say. In all of this work we can not [sic] blame white people. White people don't live over there; they close up the shop early. The Korean ones don't know us well enough, so they stay open 24 hours.

People putting their clothes on backwards: Isn't that a sign of something gone wrong? …People with their hats on backwards, pants down around the crack, isn't that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up? Isn't it a sign of something when she has her dress all the way up to the crack and got all type of needles [piercings] going through her body? What part of Africa did this come from? Those people are not Africans; they don't know a damn thing about Africa.

With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all of that crap, and all of them are in jail. Brown versus the Board of Education is no longer the white person's problem. We have got to take the neighborhood back. We have to go in there -- forget about telling your child to go into the Peace Corps -- it is right around the corner. They are standing on the corner and they can't speak English.

Basketball players -- multimillionaires -- can't write a paragraph. Football players -- multimillionaires -- can't read. Yes, multimillionaires. Well, Brown versus Board of Education: Where are we today? They paved the way, but what did we do with it? That white man, he's laughing. He's got to be laughing: 50 percent drop out, the rest of them are in prison.

Five, six children -- same woman -- eight, 10 different husbands or whatever. Pretty soon you are going to have DNA cards to tell who you are making love to. You don't know who this is. It might be your grandmother. I am telling you, they're young enough! Hey, you have a baby when you are 12; your baby turns 13 and has a baby. How old are you? Huh? Grandmother! By the time you are 12 you can have sex with your grandmother, you keep those numbers coming. I'm just predicting…

What is it -- young girls getting after a girl who wants to remain a virgin? Who are these sick black people and where do they come from and why haven't they been parented to shut up? This is a sickness, ladies and gentlemen.
Wow. Cosby makes challenging points here, but if he were white and made the same comments, I suspect he’d be called a racist. Yet the NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume stated that Cosby had “said what needed to be said.” A similar thing happened a few years ago when Jesse Jackson admitted to being a little scared when two young black men were walking behind him in a deserted neighborhood. Apparently it’s easier to take criticism from a member of one’s own group.

There’s much truth in what Cosby said, but he’s also missing something. The importance of taking responsibility for oneself and one’s children can hardly be overemphasized, but here’s the puzzler: why has responsibility taken such a beating in the black community? It wasn’t always that way, so something must have changed. I would argue that the twin tornadoes of the welfare state and the war on drugs have created an environment in which honest work is discouraged and dependency and criminality rewarded, and the outcome has been the erosion of long-held values of personal responsibility and parental guidance. And that problem is hardly unique to the black community, although it’s especially visible there.


Right to Die Lives On

Good news: a federal court just upheld Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law against John Ashcroft’s challenge. This is not just a victory for the right to die; it is a smack in the face to the Bush administration’s fair-weather federalism. No word on whether the case will go to the Supreme Court.


Punitive Damages

My grad-school buddy Susanne emailed me this L. A. Times article about Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal to divert 75% of punitive damage awards to the state. I first encountered this idea as a debate case on the APDA circuit, but I didn’t know any actual policymakers had proposed such a thing. But it turns out that several states (Alaska, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Oregon, and Utah) already collect some percentage of punitive damage awards.

In favor of the proposal, there's the fact that punitive damages will deter tortious behavior regardless of who receives the award, and giving the damages to the plaintiff (on top of compensatory damages that he will receive regardless) just encourages more lawsuits.

Against the proposal, we should recognize that plaintiffs do need a sufficient incentive to file suit. Especially when a large chunk of all damages, including compensatory damages, goes to the plaintiffs’ attorneys instead of the actual victims, punitive damages might be needed to fill in the gap to make the bottom-line payment to the victim large enough. (Punitive damages serve some other purposes besides giving plaintiffs incentive to bring suit, but all of those other purposes would be served just as well if the damages went to the state.)

But what is a “large enough” payment for the victim to receive? It depends on the goal. Damage awards serve two purposes – compensation of victims and deterrence of future tortfeasors – and the correct amount for the former might not be the optimal amount for the latter. The right dollar amount for deterrence purposes could be greater or less than the right amount of compensation. Think about it this way: if someone did $1 million of damage to you, but you could only get $800,000 of it back, would that stop you from filing suit? I think not. Thus, there’s no particular reason to think that a damage award (net of attorney’s fees) equal to the monetary damage suffered by the victim necessarily induces the right amount of lawsuits.

On balance, the proposal sounds good to me, because I'm not terribly concerned about having too few lawsuits. I think it's pretty clear that we currently have too many. Given that punitive damages are often determined as a multiple – sometimes a very large multiple – of compensatory damages, I suspect allowing plaintiffs to keep 25% of punitive damages is sufficient to make sure they actually receive full compensation even after paying off their attorneys. Still, if I were voting on the proposal, I’d want to see some figures on typical punitive damage awards to be sure.

I’m squeamish about giving the government a new source of revenues, though. If we could trust that the new revenue stream would be offset by decreases in other sources, like income taxes, that would be one thing. But that never happens. The state will spend whatever money you give it and ask for more. Indeed, the Governor’s proposal is part of his plan to balance California’s budget. Worse, the state might have an incentive to encourage larger punitive damage awards or more tortious behavior. Those baleful possibilities would have to be weighed against the reduced incentive for plaintiffs to file lawsuits.

Here’s an alternative proposal: collect the punitive damages from the defendants, give the plaintiffs a 25% cut, and burn the rest. Destroying dollar bills does not reduce wealth or resources; it just increases the value of the remaining money supply. The punitive damages would still deter people from committing torts, without creating perverse incentives for potential plaintiffs or the agents of the state. (I’m joking, but only by half. Can anyone tell me what’s wrong with this proposal?)


Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Rampant Speculation

Last weekend I went to Austin to see my sister graduate from the University of Texas (congratulations, Ellen!). During the visit with Mom, Dad, Glen, and Ellen, we had several conversations about English grammar, and just before they took me to the airport for my return flight, Dad was complaining about the strange vocabulary used by airline employees. Now for years, he's expressed his dislike of the word deplane, meaning "to disembark." ("To deplane should mean to remove planes from someone!") This time, though, he had an item that was new to me: the use of ramp to refer to what the rest of us call the runway or the tarmac. He said people in the industry could be quite adamant about using this term, and that he had even had a heated discussion on the subject with my uncle, who is a commercial pilot. My uncle's position: It's not made of tarmac! Dad's position: Even so, it's not a ramp!

I think calling a runway a ramp is just plain wrong, too, but my family expects me to put on my descriptive hat in situations like these, so I did.

"Well, Dad, I'm sure you wouldn't object if I told you that ramp can also mean a kind of wild leek found in Appalachia, would you?"

He said no. So he wasn't in principle against ramp being an ambiguous word. He (and I) could accept both the "inclined plane" and "wild leek" meaning for ramp, but not the "runway" meaning. Why not?

"So," I said, "when someone uses ramp to mean 'wild leek,' you accept that they have two meanings for the word. When they use it to mean 'runway,' which is hard and flat like a ramp, but doesn't have the one essential property of being an inclined plane, is the problem that it looks like they think they're dealing with a single concept, and they're not?"

"Yeah!" said Dad. "Exactly!" added Glen.

It made sense to me, too, but I wonder: How much in common with an inclined-plane-type ramp does any given object have to have before calling it a ramp triggers alarm bells for people like Dad and Glen and me? Is being human-made enough? What if a certain kitchen utensil were called a ramp? I think I'd be OK with it. Maybe human-made plus flatness is enough. Could a kind of bed be called a ramp? No, if I heard of a bed called a ramp, I'd wonder how you'd keep from sliding out of it. What about flatness all by itself? Could a plateau be called a ramp? No, I'd object to that in the same way as I do to calling a runway a ramp. Is having an incline sufficient? Could a soft, squishy slope of mud after a mudslide be called a ramp? I'd say no, since you can't move stuff up it; evidently, the function of helping move things is an essential part of the definition of ramp. I know plenty has been written on the question of "how alike do X and Y have to be before they can be denoted by the same word?" (for example, see this page about Eleanor Rosch, as well as all the current IT work on ontologies), but this question of "how alike do X and Y have to be before the differences between them preclude giving them the same name?" is one I haven't run into before.