The epistemics of London Underground announcements

What the announcer at the London underground station said this morning:

  • We have no reports of unplanned station closures.

What he did not say:

  • There are no reports of unplanned station closures.   Perhaps he did not say this because there could be such reports, which he or his station have yet to receive.  In either case – whether he had received such reports or not – he would not be able to state truthfully that there were no such reports.
  • There are no unplanned station closures.  Perhaps he did not say this because stations could be closed without this fact having yet been reported, and so without his knowing this about them.
  • No stations are closed.  Perhaps he did not say this because stations could be closed intentionally and with forethought, for instance, for scheduled maintenance.   Indeed, such a statement would in fact be false as there several London underground stations which are permanently closed, eg Aldwych Station.
  • All stations are open.   Perhaps he did not say this because stations could be neither open nor closed, for example when they are in transition from one state to the other, or else due to quantum uncertainty.

One has to be so careful in what one says, as I have remarked before.

Tibetan and Franco-Tibetan words in English

From a current advertisement for a senior position in the public service of the Australian Commonwealth Government, preparing for Australia’s hosting of a meeting of the G20 in 2014:

Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
Head of Policy
G20 Taskforce
The Head of Policy will lead and manage complex and cross-cutting policy development across government, including international engagement and providing support to the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s sherpa for G20 meetings in 2012 and 2013 and Australia’s hosting in 2014.  . . . “

Note the absence of quotation marks or italics.    A list of G20 sherpas and sous-sherpas can be found here.

English as she is spoke

From an article in The Guardian on the British monarchy.
“While I wait for that denial, I phone Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine, for the royal skinny.
“The advisers used to be these ghastly rah-rahs who were all frightfully frightfully,” she says.”

Flugtag for Denglisch

Our English language correspondent writes:
Apparently, the continuing growth of Denglisch has caused concern in Germany. Angst over Denglisch? Surely the zeitgeist favours schadenfreude, even in festschrifts. A common personal Gotterdammerung happens when, succumbing to wanderlust, a guy finds himself in a bauhaus bierkeller, nursing a weissbier – and also a friendly fraulein, who first says “Halt!“, but then whispers, “Vorsprung durch Technik, honeybunch“. Result: no more sturm und drang, but lots of eine kleine nachtmusik!

Underground Languages

Conversations overheard on the London Underground in:

Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, Cantonese, Catalan, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English*, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Gujarati, Hausa, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lingala, Malayalam, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, isiZulu.

* Overheard regional variants of English from:  Australia, Britain (Brummie, Estuary, Geordie, Glasgow-Scottish, Mancunian, Edinburgh-Scottish, RP, Sarf Lonon, Scouse, Ulster, West Country), Canada, Eire, New Zealand, South Africa, USA (Barst’n, Bronx, Brooklyn, ‘Gisland, Midwest, Northeastern, Southern).

A Rainbow Nathan

From the Sydney Morning Herald (2011-03-26):

”Your colourful surnames reminded me of a situation we had at Maclean High School in the ’90s,” writes Steve McKenzie, a teacher, of Yamba, ”where we had Nathan Black, Nathan Grey, Nathan Green, Nathan White and Nathan Brown all in the same year. My colleague even had all the coloured Nathans in the one class.”

Pommes frites with everything

A Guardian editorial from 1989, published followed news that the French Government Official Dictionary of Neologisms had decided whether to adopt or discard over 2400 foreign words from the French language:

This concern with linguistic purity is clearly inspired by France’s envy of Anglo-Saxon practice, which, as is well known, sets its face like flint against all overseas importations.  Regular visitors to London report with awe on the capacity of the English of all social classes for keeping the language clean.  From the blase habitues of the London clubs – raconteurs, bon viveurs, hommes d’affaires – with their penchant for bonhomie and camaraderie, through the soi-disant bien pensants of the passe liberal press to the demi-monde of the jeunesse doree, where ingenues in risque decolletages dine a deux, tete a tete and a la carte with their louche nouveau riche fiances in brassieries and estaminets, pure English is de rigueur, and the mildest infusion of French considered de trop, deja vu, cliche, devoid of all cachet, a linguistic melange or bouillabaisse, a cultural cul-de-sac.
The English want no part of this outre galere, no role in this farouche charade, no rapprochement with this compote.   They get no frisson from detente with diablerie.  And long may it remain so.  “A bas les neologismes!” as you often hear people cry late at night on the Earl’s Court Road.”

Source:  The Guardian Weekly, 1989-01-08 (London, UK).
And here is a story about the French Member of the English Language Committee of the International Mathematics Olympiad.
And here it’s Flugtag for Denglisch.

The French Member of the English Language Committee of the IMO

The International Mathematics Olympiad is a famous international competition for mathematics students. This is an excerpt from the diary of the Chairman of the English Language Committee (ELC) of the 2005 IMO , Geoff Smith:

In the evening I prepare for the English language committee which I will chair next day. This means I slope off to my room early and try to cast the questions in perfect English myself, in order to have something to start with.  The committee meets first thing in the morning. These days everyone is welcome in the ELC, including its most important member, the leader of France. We like to have simple sentences in IMO questions; ones which ideally can be translated almost word for word into as many languages as possible. French is rather special, and does not allow the rather free word order and grammatical latitude of English. Therefore the English language version has to be designed so that it can be easily translated into French. As each English sentence is suggested, we turn to FRA7, Claude Deschamps, to receive either a blessing (a shrug which indicates that all is well) or a sad shaking of the head which indicates that a particular piece of Anglo-Saxon thuggery simply cannot be expressed in French.”

Hearing is (not necessarily) believing

Someone (let’s call her Alice) tells you that something is true, say the proposition P.  What can you validly infer from that utterance of Alice?  Not that P is necessarily true, since Alice may be mistaken.  You can’t even infer that Alice believes that P is true, since she may be aiming to mislead you.
Can you then infer that Alice wants you to believe that P is true?  Well, not always, since the two of you may have the sort of history of interactions which leads you to mostly distrust what she says, and she may know this about you, so she may be counting on you believing that P is not true precisely because she told you that it is true.  But, you, in turn, may know this about Alice (that she is counting on you not to believe her regarding the truth of P), and she knows that you know, so she is actually expecting you not to not-believe her on P, but to in fact infer either no opinion on P or to believe that P is true.
So, let us try summarizing what you could infer from Alice telling that P is true:

  • That P is true.
  • That Alice believes that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • And so on, ad infinitum.

Apart from life, the universe and everything, you may be wondering where such ideas would find application.   Well, one place is in Intelligence.   Tennent H. Bagley, in his very thorough book on the Nosenko affair, for example, discusses the ructions in CIA caused by doubts about the veracity of the supposed KGB defector, Yuri Nosenko.    Was he a real defector?  Or was he sent by KGB as a fake defector, in order to lead CIA astray with false or misleading information?  If he was a fake defector, should CIA admit this publicly or should they try to convince KGB that they believe Nosenko and his stories?  Does KGB actually want CIA to conclude that Nosenko is a fake defector, for instance, in order to believe something by an earlier defector which CIA may otherwise doubt?  In which case, should CIA pretend to taken in by Nosenko (to make KGB think their plot was successful) or let KGB know that they were not taken in (in order to make KGB believe that CIA does not believe that other earlier information)?  And so on, ad infinitum.
I have seen similar (although far less dramatic) ructions in companies when they learn of some exciting or important piece of competitor intelligence.   Quite often, the recipient company just assumes the information is true and launches itself into vast efforts executing new plans.  Before doing this, companies should explicitly ask, Is this information true?,  and also pay great attention to the separate question, Who would benefit if we (the recipients) were to believe it?
Another application of these ideas is in the design of computer communications systems.   Machines send messages to each other all the time (for example, via the various Internet protocols, whenever a web-page is browsed or email is sent), and most of these are completely believed by the recipient machine.   To the extent that this is so, the recipient machines can hardly be called intelligent.   Designing intelligent communications between machines requires machines able and willing to query and challenge information they receive when appropriate, and then able to reach an informed conclusion about what received information to believe.
Many computer scientists believe that a key component for such intelligent communications is an agreed semantics for communication interactions between machines, so that the symbols exchanged between different machines are understood by them all in the same way.   The most thoroughly-developed machine semantics to date is the Semantic Language SL of the Agent Communications Language ACL of the IEEE Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (IEEE FIPA), which has been formalized in a mix of epistemic and doxastic logics (ie, logics of knowledge and belief).   Unfortunately, the semantics of FIPA ACL requires the sender of information (ie, Alice) to believe that information herself.  This feature precludes the language being used for any interactions involving negotiations or scenario exploration.  The semantics of FIPA ACL also require Alice not to believe that the recipient believes one way or another about the information being communicated (eg, the proposition P).  Presumably this is to prevent Alice wasting the time of the recipient.  But this feature precludes the language being used for one of the most common interactions in computer communications – the citing of a password by someone (human or machine) seeking to access some resource, since the citer of the password assumes that the resource-controller already knows the password.
More work clearly needs doing on the semantics of machine communications.  As the example above demonstrates, communication has many subtleties and complexities.
Tennent H. Bagley [2007]: Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.