As In A Story By Borges…

Patterico posted an extension of the comment he made here about intent, interpretation, and meaning.

As I take his post, it suggests that he broadly wants to push back against intentionalism, and to suggest that the plain meaning of language – as interpreted by a reasonable listener – should rule our understanding what a speaker or writer means. Narrowly, he wants to push back against the use of legislative intent to frame the meaning of law, and return priority to the text itself.

This is murky damn water to be diving into; philosophy of language and understanding is one of the muddiest, hardest to navigate forms of philosophy that I’ve encountered. It’s very much a product of a Godellian problem – the structure of discussion of the problem contains the problem itself (Godel specifically said that “any axiomatic system of arithmetic would have true but unprovable statements — and that any formal system would therefore always be incomplete.”

I disagree (with Patterico, not Godel).

As my opening argument, please accept the following:

Here we have people who – through no fault of their own and with the best intentions – respond to being arrested by shouting “My nipples are bursting with desire!!” -because that’s what the phrasebook which they puchased told them was the translation from the Hungarian.

In court, the author of the phrasebook asks to plead “Incompetent.”

And in fact, at some level, all of us are incompetent in using our native languages. We do well enough to get our dinner orders right, but on many things we are unable to accurately express complex concepts (yeah, yeah, spare me the comments about my blogging…).

I live in the world of technology, specifically often software. Software is made of words – words with highly, incredibly, specific syntax and meanings that in turn create certain explicit behaviors on the systems decoding those words.

People spend years and years structuring statements in those complex, highly specific languages in order to make machines do specific things.

And interestingly, on adequately complex software projects, we find a class of problems called ‘emergent’ in which they (ideally) arise from unforeseeable interactions (but often from ones that had simply not been planned for).

The brutal part of what I do, however, comes in the boundary between the mechanistic language of machines and the desires of the humans who want the machine to do something from them.

Requirements analysis is an immensely complex part of software development, and one that is – historically – very badly done. Badly enough that the best models for developing software today often skip formal written requirements in favor of rapidly evolving prototypes which users and developers sit together and build.

Translating the ambiguity of business processes and human behavior into highly structured steps that a machine can interact with is hard at the best of times.

And we haven’t even got to meaning or intention yet. My point? That text is something we create sometimes sloppily, sometimes well, and that on one hand I believe in making the plain meaning of phrase the way I take it – I also am sympathetic to context and, indirectly to intention.

I’ve worked doing legislation. A bunch of really smart people argue over every word, and work hard to make sure that laws are clear and unambiguous…unless the same smart people are working to insert a loophole, or to build in careful ambiguity to win support from opposing interest groups.

There’s no way that our body of laws as it stands today doesn’t have ‘emergent bugs’ in it, and as strongly as Patrick will defend the absolute and literal meaning of the words in the law, there is no way that he or anyone else would be willing to live under a regime that didn’t mediate the law with the wisdom and consideration for these ambiguities that people like Patrick (who run our legal system) bring to bear.

But beyond the systems issues, I think that you have to embrace some level of intentional ism in the course of everyday language.

Let’s take a firebreathing case.

If I’m talking to a friend and I say “My nigger?” your interpretation is going to be different if we’re both white, both black, of different races, or are walking out of a screening of ‘Training Day’ (a great film where that line figures prominently).

Here there’s room for ambiguities of interpretation which range from – I’m a racist tool deliberately insulting a black man – to we’re buddies and speak in ghetto slang – to we’re re-enacting scenes from a film we’ve just seen. Leaping to judgment here is fraught with danger – but the worst case interpretation is so bad that we tend to avoid the words entirely, lest we say ‘niggardly’ when we mean cheap and lose our jobs.

And that case is one where I pivot, and say that the range for ambiguities of interpretation is very limited in scope and that it’s easily possible to go far too far.

In a paper I did a billion years ago on the subject, I discussed language as a map (I was reading Alford Korzybski at the time).

The point I made in riffing on his metaphor is that we all draw imperfect maps for each other, and yet most us manage to use them to get from here to there. Children draw maps that leave out whole continents, and yet their maps have a kind of coherence and integrity that usually makes them understandable.

We accept the imperfection of our maps, and use our awareness of what we actually see in the world to correct for the errors in the map – sometimes automatically, as we drive. And sometimes we get completely lost – even with good maps.

I just knocked this out between dinner and a drive to the symphony…what I wrote imperfectly represents the arguments in my head – because of the intentional and conscious nature of language.

But it’s good enough to get a language game going…

Bosnia On The Rio Grande

As cited by zenpundit, population cleansing along the US border…

…Last week, at least 30 Mexicans from the town of El Porvenir walked to the border crossing post at Fort Hancock, Texas, and asked for political asylum. Ordinarily, their claim would be denied as groundless, and they would be turned back. Instead, they were taken to El Paso, where they expect to have their cases heard.

No one doubts that they have a strong claim. Their town on the Mexican side of the border is under siege by one or more drug cartels battling for control of the key border crossing. According to Mike Doyle, the chief deputy sheriff of Hudspeth County, Texas, one of the cartels has ordered all residents of the town of 10,000 to abandon the city within the next month.

“They came in and put up a sign in the plaza telling everyone to leave or pay with their own blood,” Doyle said. Since then there has been a steady stream of El Porvenir residents seeking safety on the American side of the border, both legally and illegally. Among them are the 30 who are seeking political asylum.

Here’s zenpundit:

There’s nothing magical about geographic proximity to the United States that would prevent this tactic, if applied widely and backed by lethal examples, from working. What has been done in the villages of Bosnia or Dar Fur can be done in towns of northern Mexico.

Chris Van Avery, one of his commenters writes:

In watching the world, it looks more and more like the lawless among mankind are beginning to figure out that order hangs on the most tenuous of strings. With enough violence and coordinated effort, criminal organizations are discovering they can become a law unto themselves and governments just don’t have the resources to deal with the problem.

It’s going to be an interesting decade…

Doing Well By Doing Good

Progressive journalist Rogers Cadenhead looks into Jane Hamsher’s PAC filings and notes that it’s been very, very good to her (and Glenn Greenwald)…

Accountability Now collected $113,695 in donations during 2009, as it reported to the FEC, and spent $169,992 that year on nine consultants. Six of those people managed the committee: The PAC paid Hamsher $24,000, another $24,000 to PAC cofounder Glenn Greenwald of Salon.Com, $65,710 to two executive directors and $38,047 to two management consultants.

The PAC also paid $4,000 to Firedoglake for “rent,” according to its FEC filings. This expenditure is difficult to understand. Hamsher has operated her web site out of post office boxes at UPS Stores in Los Angeles and Falls Church, Va., and the Accountability Now web site states that “we have purposely avoided hiring a large staff or incurring the type of unnecessary expenses typically incurred by PACs (including even office rentals) in order to make our donors’ contributions last as long as possible.”

Out of the $234,920 raised by FDL Action PAC in 2009, $44,192 was paid to Firedoglake and other business entities affiliated with Hamsher, according to FEC filings. The PAC paid $16,411 to Firedoglake for “shared general administrative expenses,” $14,111 to the site for “list purchase,” $9,920 to CommonSense Media for “online advertising” and $3,750 to KMP Research for “strategic consulting.”

So out of $113K one PAC raised, a total of $151K was spent on salaries and consulting…133% of collections as overhead.

The other PAC paid 19% to Hamsher and related entities.

Damn, when I was trying to launch VictoryPAC, if I’d realized I could have paid myself like that, instead of spending money, I would have kept it going!

Look I don’t often agree with Hamsher politically (but sometimes do). But what I’m unhappy about more than anything is the political class and the platinum hog trough it’s made of politics.

Does Hamsher want to change that, or just get a seat at the banquet?

Gaga Over Qut’b (With Bonus Video)

Abu Mookie weighs in on the “why do they hate us” controversy, triggered by a WSJ oped that points back to Qut’b and suggests that Islamists are unhappy with the West’s libertine ways…from Brett Stephens in the WSJ:

Pop quiz – What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?

If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom, now jointly defined by Pat Buchanan and his strange bedfellows within the Obama administration.

Exum is unimpressed on a number of counts…

You see where Stephens is going with this one, right? I mean, you don’t really need to even read the rest of the column, the point of which is that Islamist outrage over decadent western culture is a more significant driver of conflict and anti-American sentiment in the region than Israeli settlements.

I have no idea if this is actually true. It seems to me that I have seen both empirical evidence and anecdotal evidence lending credence to the idea that outrage over the plight of the Palestinians is, in fact, a driver of conflict and/or anti-American sentiment in the Arabic-speaking world, but there may be more sophisticated research and analysis out there that proves otherwise. And Stephens leans heavily on the writings of Sayyid Qut’b to support his arguments, which makes me nervous, because for all his talents, Stephens is no scholar of Islam, and a few things that should not be studied as a hobby include:

Brain surgery
Multilinear algebra
The strands and evolution of Islamist thought

Exum uses his crafty local knowledge to show us some hot n’spicy Arab music videos (like this one by Haiffa Wahby, which I’ll just gratuitously include):

To make the point (I assume) that Lady Gaga is blameless, there’s a lot of Arabic-language steamy stuff out there – so why should the mad mullahs by offended at us?

The problem with that, of course, is that the video is clearly modelled on Western videos, and that I’d suggest it’s likely that a) it wouldn’t exist had there been no MTV; and b) part of the ‘spice’ of the video is the explicit (hee hee) Westernization of the singer.

The problem Qut’b wrote about was his fear that the purity of Islam had been and was being polluted by the culture of the West…and so it is, and so this video demonstrates. It’s the Burger Kings in Jeddah, the Western pop being played on iPods throughout Medina…it’s the impact Western culture inextricably brings with it when you participate in trade with the West. Japan learned that lesson, and so is the Arab world.

While I’m not going to assert that’s the sole point of friction, I’m hard pressed to believe that it’s not a significant point of friction.

And it’s certainly a key part of the history behind the movement – I don’t see how Exum can deny that.

As a sidebar, I have a healthy respect for expertise. But I’m also deeply suspicious of expertise that wraps itself in a cloak and claims to be impenetrable. A bunch of climate scientists just showed us what was under the cloak, and it wasn’t pretty. So when Exum claims that we need to leave the interpretation of Islamist motives entirely to experts in Islamism…I’ll yield, but only slightly.

And as a final sidebar, Exum slips one in here when he explains that culture isn’t “a more significant driver of conflict and anti-American sentiment in the region than Israeli settlements.”

I’m opposed to expanding the settlements (and have written about it for years).but the hard nut isn’t Arab anger over the expansion of the settlements, it’s Arab anger over the existence of Israel. That does make the problem a little harder to solve, doesn’t it…

And finally – who is this “Lady Gaga” person, anyway?