Topic neutrality is geek carte blanche 
When writing problem sets for Intro Logic, I try to use interesting topics. Since the logical form of 'All capybaras are flammable' is the same as the logical form of 'All men are mortal', the structure of the problem is the same in either case.* Students have to get the structure right, so it doesn't matter if they know anything about the topic or not.

If students have to define their own key, then abstruse predicates can lead them to make overly complex translations. Where I provide a symbolization key, however, students have to do as well as they can with the predicates defined in the key. For example: We might argue about whether 'x is a liar' can be adequately represented as 'there exists some y, such that x lies to y'. Nevertheless, it is clearly the best representation possible if we have to express it using just the relation 'x lies to y'.

Today's exam illustrates how this can come together in odd ways. Students were given a series of sentences. The universe of discourse was specified to be commanding officers from Star Trek. The predicates included 'x was played by Avery Brooks' and 'x was commander of Deep Space 9'; there was a defined constant referring to Sisko.

On reflection, I may have cheated on the metaphysics by setting up the problem this way. It is true in the story that Sisko was commander of Deep Space 9, but it is true in the actual world that Avery Brooks played the role of Sisko. So perhaps 'Sisko' is equivocally used for both the character and the role. Are those different things? I'm honestly not sure.

On a tangentially related note: Although she recognized that it didn't matter for the exam itself, one student wondered about how some problem sentences were effected by the fact that the original series pilot (in which Pike rather than Kirk was captain) was aired after the series (in which Kirk was captain).**


* I used 'All capybaras are flammable' on a final several years ago. A few students raised their hand to ask what a capybara was. I answered that (a) it shouldn't matter, since there was a predicate defined to mean 'x is a capybara' but (b) it's a giant South American rodent.
** The exam did not mention Captain Pike by name! It's nice when somebody gets the references.

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Seadevil you say 
I just put up a draft of Drakes, seadevils, and similarity fetishism. It's on R&R from a journal, and I just found out that it has been accepted for the conference Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Science. Yay!

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How to say 'ahoy' in a correspondence 
In elementary school, there was a unit on letter writing. Personal letters, we were taught, should begin "Dear So and so," while business letters should begin "Dear So and so:" When there was no specific so and so, business letters were supposed to begin "Dear Sir:"

A BBC item highlights the obvious fact that this has all broken down. Some people in the article complain that 'dear' sounds too familiar, others that it is too formal. The fact that twenty-somethings don't just think of it as just right for starting a letter suggests that they didn't get the unit on correspondence that I got in third grade.

There are bigger problems, though. I very rarely write physical letters anymore, but the unit in third grade failed to cover e-mail. (How shortsighted!)

Since most e-mail is shorter than physical mail would be anyway, one get often get away with a casual "So and so," But how to close the missive?

Just "-P.D." is enough, but isn't obviously right when mailing undergrads. I am fine with them calling me P.D., but they may be uncomfortable with it. I have concluded that the better thing, for a short e-mail, is just not to begin with any address or end with any explicit sign off. Better just to write my sentence or two of content and let the program fill in my generic sig.

For letters of recommendation, the only physical correspondence that I really write anymore, it won't do to drop the niceties. But the "Dear sir" thing? It is sexist and so sounds entirely wrong on formal correspondence. Alas, I can't think of anything better. "To whom it may concern" sounds like a sales circular addressed to Resident.

And what are kids in third grade now being taught?

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Offered without comment 
There was a glitch in the configuration of my blog which made it impossible to post comments. Said glitch should be fixed now.

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New journals in which not to publish 
A number of people have sent me the link to the Journal of Universal Rejection, which has such high standards that it rejects all submissions regardless of quality. As a progressive response to complaints about other journals, it responds to submissions very quickly and even allows simultaneous submissions.

Yet, as documented by Snider (1994), there is always a more extreme version of every extreme thing.

An inevitable next step after JUR is the Journal of Preemptive Rejection, which does not accept submissions nor solicit contributions. Its rejection letter is written as an open letter to the world. "You and your present work do not fit our present editorial needs, and it would not be pessimism to conclude that you will never write anything that could."

Beyond JPR, we have the Journal of Solipsist Studies. Rather than reject anything, it has an editorial policy which denies the metaphysical possibility of submissions; a fortiori, rejection is impossible. Here there are echoes of the Solipsist Web Ring, although they are echoes that no one hears.

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