Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Chatbots and responsibility

May 28, 2023

(Updated re copyright)

This is getting interesting.

Large language models (such as GPT3 and 4) generate text based on probability of what text should follow. They have no internal conception of truth. The probabilities which determine text generation are reflections of conformity and are based on weights of existing usage patterns contained within its database.

The key questions which arise are:

  1. Who “owns” copyright to the generated text?
  2. Is the language model merely a tool?
  3. Is the “user” of the tool responsible for the product or does the owner of the model share responsibility for the product (the generated text)?

The product of the use of a hammer or a screwdriver requires skill (or lack of skill) from the user. The user’s “skill” in the case of a large language model is confined to that used in posing the questions to the chatbot. The user’s skill in posing questions has little impact on the text generated.


ChatGPT: US lawyer admits using AI for case research

A New York lawyer is facing a court hearing of his own after his firm used AI tool ChatGPT for legal research. A judge said the court was faced with an “unprecedented circumstance” after a filing was found to reference example legal cases that did not exist. The lawyer who used the tool told the court he was “unaware that its content could be false”. ChatGPT creates original text on request, but comes with warnings it can “produce inaccurate information”.

The original case involved a man suing an airline over an alleged personal injury. His legal team submitted a brief that cited several previous court cases in an attempt to prove, using precedent, why the case should move forward. But the airline’s lawyers later wrote to the judge to say they could not find several of the cases that were referenced in the brief. “Six of the submitted cases appear to be bogus judicial decisions with bogus quotes and bogus internal citations,” Judge Castel wrote in an order demanding the man’s legal team explain itself. Over the course of several filings, it emerged that the research had not been prepared by Peter LoDuca, the lawyer for the plaintiff, but by a colleague of his at the same law firm. Steven A Schwartz, who has been an attorney for more than 30 years, used ChatGPT to look for similar previous cases. In his written statement, Mr Schwartz clarified that Mr LoDuca had not been part of the research and had no knowledge of how it had been carried out. Mr Schwartz added that he “greatly regrets” relying on the chatbot, which he said he had never used for legal research before and was “unaware that its content could be false”. He has vowed to never use AI to “supplement” his legal research in future “without absolute verification of its authenticity”. Screenshots attached to the filing appear to show a conversation between Mr Schwarz and ChatGPT. “Is varghese a real case,” reads one message, referencing Varghese v. China Southern Airlines Co Ltd, one of the cases that no other lawyer could find. ChatGPT responds that yes, it is – prompting “S” to ask: “What is your source”. After “double checking”, ChatGPT responds again that the case is real and can be found on legal reference databases such as LexisNexis and Westlaw. It says that the other cases it has provided to Mr Schwartz are also real.

Both lawyers, who work for the firm Levidow, Levidow & Oberman, have been ordered to explain why they should not be disciplined at an 8 June hearing. Millions of people have used ChatGPT since it launched in November 2022. It can answer questions in natural, human-like language and it can also mimic other writing styles. It uses the internet as it was in 2021 as its database. There have been concerns over the potential risks of artificial intelligence (AI), including the potential spread of misinformation and bias.

The ChatGPT response regarding copyright is a little too weaselly for my liking:

ktwop: Who owns the copyright to text generated by ChatGPT?

ChatGPT: As an AI language model, I don’t have legal ownership or rights. The text generated by ChatGPT is based on a combination of licensed data, data created by human trainers, and publicly available data. The ownership of the copyright for the individual responses or outputs generated by ChatGPT would typically depend on the specific context and how the model is being used.

In most cases, the copyright for the content generated by an AI language model would likely belong to the person or organization that owns the AI system or has the legal rights to its output. For example, if a company develops and operates ChatGPT, they would generally hold the copyright to the content generated by the model.

It’s important to note that while AI models like ChatGPT can assist in generating text, the responsibility for adhering to copyright laws and ensuring proper usage of generated content lies with the user or organization utilizing the model.

My gut feeling is that the creator/owner of the large language model must carry some responsibility (legal liability) similar to a product liability.

Cornell University. Product liability is a doctrine that gives plaintiffs a cause of action if they encounter a defective consumer item. This doctrine can fall under negligence, but it is generally associated with strict liability, meaning that defendants can be held liable regardless of their intent or knowledge.

Nothingness is not possible in a human universe

May 27, 2023

I could add quite a lot of words to this and I am not entirely happy with the “consensus” logic applied, but I would not strongly repudiate anything that was generated.

Blogging could be becoming obsolete or, I would argue, writing – including blogging – has gained a new tool.

ktwop: Discuss – Nothingness can never be real in a universe with humans.

ChatGPT: The concept of nothingness is often abstract and philosophical, and its interpretation can vary depending on the context in which it is discussed. In the context of a universe with humans, it can be argued that true “nothingness” may not exist or be experienced by humans due to our innate perception and understanding of reality.

From a philosophical standpoint, nothingness is often understood as the absence of something or the lack of existence. However, it is challenging to truly grasp or conceptualize nothingness since our perception is fundamentally rooted in the existence of things. Our sensory experiences and cognitive processes are constantly engaged with the world around us, making it difficult to imagine a state of absolute non-existence or nothingness.

In a universe with humans, even when we perceive emptiness or voids, they are still defined in relation to the existence of objects or entities. For example, an empty room is still considered empty because we can contrast it with rooms that are occupied or filled with objects. Our understanding of nothingness is thus dependent on the presence of something and our ability to differentiate between existence and non-existence.

Moreover, from a scientific perspective, the laws of physics dictate that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, but they can be transformed or rearranged. This principle, known as the conservation of energy, suggests that there is always something rather than absolute nothingness. Even in seemingly empty spaces, there are still particles and energy fluctuations at the quantum level.

From a psychological standpoint, humans also tend to assign meaning and significance to the concept of nothingness. We often associate it with emptiness, absence, or non-existence, which can be unsettling or challenging for our minds to comprehend. The existential nature of human consciousness leads us to ponder the nature of reality and our place within it, but it is difficult for us to conceive a reality devoid of existence or experience.

In conclusion, while the concept of nothingness can be contemplated and discussed philosophically, it is challenging to argue that true nothingness can exist in a universe with humans. Our perception, understanding, and experience of reality are inherently rooted in the existence of things, and even seemingly empty spaces are not devoid of particles and energy. The human mind and our cognitive processes make it difficult to truly fathom or experience nothingness in its absolute sense.

The key to the proper use of chatbots as writing tools would be if a human

  1. could legitimately claim ownership of what was generated, and
  2. took ownership of what was generated.

I can claim ownership of the question I posed to ChatGPT but I am not sure I can claim ownership of what is generated – even if under my Username.

Testing ChatGPT /2: Large language models conflate conformity with truth

May 3, 2023
  1. Large language models (such as GPT3) generate text based on probability.
  2. They can have no internal concept of truth.
  3. Probabilities are reflections of conformity and are based on weights of existing usage patterns contained within its database.
  4. Training is about giving additional weight as human feedback on the positivity or negativity of what has been generated.
  5. Generated text gives high values to conformity with its own database and with the training (feedback) received. 
  6. High conformance is conflated with truth.

Of course, this is a common feature in human interactions as well. Many people having a particular opinion gives that opinion a higher perceived truth value even if that opinion is utterly wrong or false. The deification of “the many” has warped our notions of what is truth.

But the fuzziness around truth could be a particular issue with large language models and for AI. Truth is not an inherent, internal concept of such models. Truth becomes relative (to the views of the trainers) and conformity is conflated with truth.

ktwop: Do large language models generate probabilistic text?
ChatGPT: That’s correct! Large language models generate text using probability distributions. These models are trained on massive amounts of text data and learn to predict the likelihood of certain words or phrases based on the context of the surrounding text.
When generating text, the model samples from these probability distributions to determine which word or phrase to use next. Because the model is probabilistic, it can generate different outputs for the same input, making the generated text more diverse and interesting.
However, it’s important to note that while large language models like GPT-3 are very good at generating coherent text, they are not perfect and can still produce errors or nonsensical output. It’s also important to be aware of ethical concerns surrounding the use of such models for potentially harmful purposes such as generating fake news or propaganda.
ktwop: How can the output from a language model be given a truth value?
ChatGPT:The output from a language model can be given a truth value by comparing it to a reference or ground truth text. The reference text can be a sentence or a paragraph that is known to be true or false, depending on the task at hand. For example, if the task is to generate a factually correct sentence, the truth value of the output can be determined by comparing it to a reliable source of information, such as a verified news article or a trustworthy database. If the output matches the reference text, it can be considered true, and if it does not, it can be considered false.
Similarly, for tasks such as sentiment analysis or topic classification, the truth value can be determined by comparing the output to a set of labels that are already defined as true or false. For example, if the task is to classify a text as positive or negative, the truth value of the output can be determined by comparing it to a labeled dataset where each text is already classified as positive or negative.
In summary, the truth value of the output from a language model can be determined by comparing it to a reference text or a set of labeled data that is already known to be true or false.


We, they and the roots of violence

December 4, 2022

The application of physical force is the motive force for all material events in our universe. The use of physical force as a tool – whether for survival or anything else – is enabled by the genes of every living thing. The ability of any living thing to exert physical force is enabled and constrained by its physiology.

violence: (n) the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy; extreme physical force; vehemence, intense, turbulent, destructive

Any use of physical force by any living creature is not always considered a violent act. If the physical force applied is insufficient to cause damage it does not qualify as violence. Usually the intention to injure, damage or destroy is needed to convert the mere act of using damaging, physical force to being a violent act. In language the word is often used even if no such intention exists. For example hammering a nail can be described as violent. An incoherent idiot may be excused his behaviour because of his violent thoughts. When a volcano erupts or when the growing roots of a tree destroy a house – say – they are often referred to as violent though it would be difficult to ascribe any destructive intentions.

Violence (like any force) is a vector. It has an object acted upon, a magnitude and a direction. Without the concepts of we and they there would be no human violence.

We and They (Rudyard Kipling)

Father and Mother, and Me,
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But-would you believe it? –They look upon We
As only a sort of They!

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
While they who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous? ) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!

It seems to me that the use of physical force between humans is converted to violence only when

  1. we and they exist,
  2. the magnitude of the force applied is sufficient to injure, damage or destroy, and
  3. the intention to do harm exists.

Human violence thus needs an object, magnitude and intention. A pat on the back is not violence. The same magnitude of force used to murderously swat a fly is violence. Intention requires a mind. For things with minds a we and a they exist. In fact, it is the concept of a we and a they which is necessary for intention to emerge. Predators are we and prey are them. Weeds are them. I am, of course, a part of we. When a lion kills the offspring of its predecessor, the we obliterate the them. We are invariably good. They are not always bad but we are never bad.

War, genocide, torture, the Holocaust, the atrocities in Rwanda or Myanmar, violent conflict in Ukraine, are not examples of abnormal human behaviour. They are an integral part of human behaviour and though we often call such behaviour “inhuman”, it is just a label. Caligula and Genghis Khan and Hitler and Pol Pot were all human. Potential Hitlers are being born every day. All past atrocities are just examples of how humans could – under appropriate circumstances – behave even today.

“There, but for the grace of God go I” – John Bradford

Atrocity is a part of that primal human behaviour which is rooted in We and They. Whatever it is that makes humans a social animal (presumably our genes) creates our concept and our need for We and They. From families and tribes to gangs and nations, it is being able to conceptualise a we which has enabled survival and led to development. It is the concept of we which underlies cooperation and which has given us language and development. And it is being this social animal with a sense of we which has distinguished humans from all other species in the level of cooperation that has been achieved. Much of our cooperation is manifested as the joint and coordinated application of physical force. That is true whether in building the Taj Mahal, going to the moon or implementing Hitler’s final solution. When survival – or perceived survival – is at stake We may always resort to atrocity against Them. Our evolutionary success is rooted in We and They and in our ability to apply physical force.

Along with We comes They and then violence becomes a word.

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:

The ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is, of course, …

October 11, 2022

I remember listening to the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy back in 1978 and buying the book a year later. “Forty two” (42, binary 101010) was the label invented by Douglas Adams as the answer to life, the universe and everything. The Hitchhiker’s Guide achieved cult status and since 1978 a large body of writing has tried to interpret the “42” joke in a multitude of ways. Mathematicians linked it to the 3 cubes problem and  wondered if 42 satisfied the Diophantine Equation x3+y3+z3=k. There was at that time no known solution for k = 42. After much effort a team led by Andrew Sutherland of MIT and Andrew Booker of Bristol University found a solution:

42 = (-80538738812075974)^3 + 80435758145817515^3 + 12602123297335631^3

Others searched and found occurrences of 42 in religious authorities (the Bible, the Koran, the Rig Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita among many others). Numerologists and astrologers found mysterious references to 42 everywhere, some quite sinister. I like best the many connections to 42 which have been found in the works of Lewis Carroll. In Alice in Wonderland for example, the King of Hearts’ Rule Forty-two is that “All persons more than a mile high to leave the court”. In his Hunting of the Snark, Carroll writes “he had 42 boxes, already packed,”

The Question which leads to the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything has been simmering in my subconscious ever since I first read The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Over the last few years I find that many of my posts keep returning to these questions. Probably a consequence of an idle mind in an ageing person. Not a futile exercise in my judgement, but not always consistently reasoned and often with my thoughts wandering down cul-de-sacs, making many U-turns and moving in many unexpected directions. But that is not too surprising since these are the great, unanswered, philosophical questions known since antiquity and which still remain:

  • why time must be?
  • why existence must be?
  • why causality must be?
  • why life must be?
  • why thought and consciousness are?

Thought and thinking are ubiquitous concepts among humans but not easily defined. They are labels referring to cognitive activity and are the prerogative of brains. Where we cannot recognise a brain, we do not allow thought or thinking. The “laws of physics”, as we have discerned them to be, do not explain life or thought. I suspect that all the physical and material “laws of nature” that we discover will never be able to. Clearly there is a distinction between living and thinking. Whether the two are inseparable is an open question. We can imagine a brain that is not living and even construct artificial brains. All our computers can surely compute, but mere computation does not rise to the level of what we label as thinking. While we cannot yet imagine how an artificial brain could become sapient, it well may be that such a thing is not impossible.

Thinking alone, with just emotions but without any language, is mind-bogglingly stupendous enough. Many animals do think, even if the boundary of where thinking starts is not clear. Cats and dogs and elephants certainly do. I am pretty sure that pesky flies do. I am inclined to think that, in their own fashion, bees and spiders and ants also do. I am less inclined to grant grass and trees that ability, and we would need to have a very broad definition of thinking indeed to say that a single cell thinks. Language is not as prevalent among living things as thinking is. The language club is quite exclusive. Only humans have well developed language and the range of species which could be said to have some rudimentary language is very limited. Language cannot then be a necessary requirement for thinking or thought. It seems obvious to me that thought must precede language.

But bring thinking and language together and an explosive feedback loop is established which allows us to spiral upwards to ever higher planes. It is not that language makes thinking possible but it must certainly be that thought is required to create language, which then, in turn, enhances thought, which in turn, again, enriches language. Whether language began with the imitation of sounds, or as emotional exclamations expressed as grunts and interjections, all languages quickly came to be centred around the naming of things. The naming of physical things to begin with, led to the naming of abstract things, and that, in due course, reached the dizzy heights of inventing names for unreal and imaginary things.  There is an enormous advantage in naming visible, nearby, physical things (me, you, a rock or a tree), to allow referring to them later even when they are distant, unseen things. There must, however be a step change in cognition to be able to name an abstract, but real, thing (hunger or anger or fear). To go on to invent names to communicate non-existent things (yesterday, tomorrow, fairies, heaven or multiverses) takes an even greater cognitive leap.

Language cannot be blamed for politics. Many social animals having little language (lion prides, baboon troops, … ) indulge in politics. With language though, humans have achieved unprecedented levels of cooperation within their societies. Language brought us questioning and learning. On the one hand, that gave us religion and lies and bigotry. Fortunately, that was more than offset by the development of learning, and art, and the process of science, and eventually, even philosophy. Philosophy is about asking unanswerable questions. No thinking, no language. No language, no questions. No questions, no philosophy. Once a question has been answered though, the subject exits the field of philosophy. Thinking about thinking is a popular philosophical pastime – even if it seems somewhat incestuous. Incestuous philosophy consists of circular arguments with the most infamous one being René Descartes’s “Cogito, ergo sum”. His “I think, therefore I am” is actually meaningless since the thinking “I” must first “be”, for the being “I” to think that it “is”. Other infamous cases of incestuous philosophy are that “truth consists of facts where facts are known truths” or that “knowledge is justified true belief where a belief is a proposition which may be true or may be false”. These still count as philosophy, of course, since the originating questions remain unanswered.

I am utterly convinced that the driving force for anything, and for everything, is always an imbalance in something else.

The imbalance at the core of time, the universe and everything

Without imbalance there is no change.

When all forces and energies are in equilibrium, nothing happens. Nothing can happen. At equilibrium there can be no motion, no waves no vibrations, no change. If the origin of our universe (or The Universe) was in the Big Bang, then that must have been in response to some great, prevailing non-equilibrium, the Great Imbalance which caused the Big Bang. (It always seems to me a little unsatisfactory that a Big Bang can be postulated without also having to postulate why a Big Bang would need to occur). All change is always in the direction of eliminating the imbalance which caused the change. If the universe is expanding then it must be in response to an imbalance and the expansion must work towards eliminating that imbalance. The physical world is driven by imbalances. Fluid flows and heat flows and electricity flows are achieved by creating imbalances which force the flow. Human and animal behaviour is driven by imbalances. In fact all life is driven by imbalance.

“Forty two” is just a label for the Great Imbalance which started it all and came long before the Big Bang and the bangism that followed. But we have not invented the term infinite regression for nothing. The Great Imbalance that led to the Big Bang must have started with something else.

When the tree falls in the forest, the sound is only due to language

But what of all that we cannot observe, directly or indirectly, by our limited senses and our finite brains? Is it so that if something cannot be observed, cannot be perceived, cannot be inferred to exist by any interaction it has with anything else in this universe, then it does not exist? Or is it merely that we are ignorant of its existence? Philosophy is, of course, about asking unanswerable questions. Once a question can be answered it leaves the field of philosophy.

Take bongism for example. We cannot observe it, perceive it, infer it or deduce it. It has no known interactions with anything else in this universe. But it is the imbalance in bongism which caused all existence in the first place. It is the answer to the question “Why do things exist at all?”.

Does bongism exist?

It must do, since I have a word for it.

Not the Big Bang and bangism, not even the preceding Great Imbalance, but the Great Bong and bongism provide the answer to life, the universe and everything. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but the Great Bong (of course) created itself. Viewed from an oblique angle, through the correctly coloured spectacles, certain types of minds could well see the Great Bong as a 42.

The “brotherhood of man” myth

September 20, 2022

(This post was triggered by my ire over some sanctimonious media blather about the brotherhood of man).

All the words we use for describing relationships (father, mother, brother, sister uncle, aunt, ….) are as much about including specific people within the relationship as about excluding others. The unavoidable reality of a “brother” or a “sister” is that the terms distinguish between, a brother and a non-brother, and a sister and a non-sister. Brotherhood and sisterhood are as much about creating and describing bonds between those included as about excluding all others. The word brother has no meaning if there is no distinction from a non-brother. If everybody is a brother, the “brotherhood” of man” is trivial at best, and at worst, meaningless.

The need to distinguish between, and have terms for, we and them is deep rooted in human behaviour. The need goes back to the beginnings of social interactions, and the words were invented from the need to protect, and extend protections to, family and tribe. The need for we/them or us/them is primal. These words are intertwined with our own fundamental, individual assessments of good and bad. We are always good and they are usually bad. We shall prevail over them. It is just as much about aligning with someone as with creating distance from others. We cannot exist without excluding them. Relationship descriptors are nearly always we and them words. It is a primal thing for humans and probably for most living things. We look different to them. We wear red, they wear blue. We are predators, they are prey. We go to heaven, they go to hell. Of course, these words describe a relationship but the critical point is to distinguish by the description. A “brother” or a “father” or a “mother” is no doubt descriptive, but by description distinguishes them from all others.

The entire concept of brotherhood builds on the primal drive to protect family. It is built upon the not always true assumption that brothers (siblings) behave more favourably to each other than to non-siblings. Unfortunately it has become an empty, sanctimonious term and is used very loosely and is, nearly always, meaningless. All 7.3 billion humans may be related but that argument extends to all life. “Universal brotherhood” among humans does not – and cannot – exist. The “Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of all humans” is very popular in religious and half-religious circles, but is merely pious and sickly. The “Muslim brotherhood” excludes all non-Muslims and even many Muslims. “Christian brotherhood” is primarily about exclusion not inclusion. The “brotherhood of nations” is a nonsense term much admired in the General Assembly. It should be noted that all fraternal organisations claim brotherhood among their members which of course only works if one excludes all non-members. “In a spirit of brotherhood” is another often used but entirely empty phrase.

Let us not forget that when the spirit moved him, it was Cain who killed his brother Abel.

Words, words, words – How many do we need?

September 2, 2022

There are only four possibilities for the direct, primary use of words. You can think them, say them, write them or read them. (Note that in sign language, signing is a proxy for saying). The purpose, implicit or explicit, is communication. Indirectly, of course, you can learn them, or forget them or use them for some other esoteric purposes, but their manifestation is limited to thinking, saying (signing), writing or reading. There is even a case for writing to be considered secondary to thinking and reading secondary to writing. Words are invented but no word can exist as an arbitrary decision of an individual. Just making a particular sound, or scribbling some particular juxtaposition of letters or symbols, does not make a word. Every word must have an associated meaning but nothing is a word until the meaning and that association is shared with, at least, one other. Repetition of the word must invoke the same meaning. A word without an associated meaning – such as a word in another language – is just a sound or a squiggle but not a word.

But how is a word created in the first place?

The need to communicate in a social setting came first. The sharing of the association of a particular sound with a specific meaning must have come next. Note that in the absence of language, the invention of words must precede the invention of a particular language. Given a language, new words can be invented within it. To be a word in a written language today requires three components. A sound, a meaning and a particular combination of letters or symbols to represent the sound or the meaning. It would seem that symbols to represent meanings came long before phonetic alphabets came to represent sounds. Whereas symbols to represent meanings are restricted to shared meanings, an alphabet can represent – in writing – any sound. It provides the ability to write and then speak sounds which have no associated meanings and are not words at all. Hieroglyphs represented meanings and Chinese and kanji symbols still do. However, letters in most languages nowadays are phonetic. Combinations of letters represent sounds, some of which are representations of word-sounds. (Surprisingly Ethnologue informs me that of the currently listed 7,139 living languages, as many as 3,074 have no developed writing system. It is also estimated that there are around 150 distinct sign languages being used today).

No word originated as a jumble of letters or symbols. Sounds come first, associated meanings come next and letters or symbols then follow. In non-alphabetic writing systems, meanings are conveyed but there is no information about the sound. Phonetic alphabets convey sounds but meanings have to be inferred or provided by memory and teaching and learning. The letters put together to represent a word-sound follow the rules of spelling extant at the time.  During the lifetime of a word, its sound, its meaning or symbolic representation (spelling), all can and do evolve. Sometimes a word describes the meaning of a sound where the word-sound approximates or suggests the sound-meaning itself (bang, boom, sizzle, … ). Sometimes the word-sound has the meaning of that which creates the sound suggested by the word-sound (choo-choo train, tick-tock clock). Just as language enables conveying the abstract (including lying), the alphabet enables nonsense words and sounds. Dylan Thomas or Edward Lear would have had different lives without their command of the alphabet.

Wikipedia: Onomatopoeia is the process of creating a word that phonetically imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes. Such a word itself is also called an onomatopoeia. Common onomatopoeias include animal noises such as oink, meow, roar, and chirp. Onomatopoeia can differ between languages: it conforms to some extent to the broader linguistic system; hence the sound of a clock may be expressed as tick tock in English, tic tac in Spanish and Italian, dī dā in Mandarin, kachi kachi in Japanese, or tik-tik in Hindi.

Human brains have cognitive limits and exhibit individual vocabularies ranging from beginners having about 2,000 words and Wordsmiths with over 50,000.

Most people know around 20,000 – 35,000 words (in any language). Extremely gifted people – very rarely – may approach a vocabulary of 60,000 words. Even multi-lingual people seem to have a total vocabulary not exceeding the limits of mono-lingual people. …….. But why does each of us know so few words of all the words that are available?

My hypothesis is that there is a stable level – the Wordsmith Number – which the brain establishes. It is a cognitive limit to the size of the active vocabulary that a person can maintain. It is established by the manner in which the brain learns, stores and retrieves active and passive words. It is a dynamic level and varies as our activities change (reading, writing, speaking, diversity of social relationships ..). Words that are not active are shunted out of active memory. In very rare circumstances is a Wordsmith Number of greater than about 30,000 established.

There is probably no healthy grown adult who has a vocabulary of less than about 2,000 words in some language. In a language typically having about 200,000 active words, there would be about 200 (0.1%) which were absolutely necessary and without which no concept could be conveyed. A fluent speaker would need to know only about 15% of the total and even the most proficient wordsmith would only know about 25-30%. With just about 1% of all the available words (2,000 words) more than 95% of communications in that language could be understood. Knowing just 1% of the available words in a language is sufficient for an individual to be fully functional in a society.

Children learn to recognise sounds and associate meanings well before they can reproduce them. By the age of 12 months they can probably recognise 50 -100 word-sounds. By the age of 2 years they can produce over 100 word-sounds and start combining words to convey meanings. By 4 or 5 their vocabulary is numbered in thousands.

When a 15% vocabulary gives fluency and 25% gives the highest proficiency, I cannot avoid the conclusion that language is vastly under-utilised. But what would our societies be like if being a wordsmith was the norm and not an outlier? I suspect that language is a tool that is, as yet, too advanced for the species and is waiting for evolution to catch up.

A square is rounder than a rectangle

July 2, 2022

Sometimes (for example after imbibing my third whiskey) I am both intrigued and frustrated by the nature of shapes. Do shapes exist at all? Except, perhaps, as a property of a thing?

Without dimensions there can be no shapes. A point has no shape. In one dimension, shape is almost, but not quite, trivial. A one-dimensional shape is just a line. Both a point and a line are abstract things and do not exist physically. We perceive three physical dimensions but we are also constrained to experience nothing but 3 dimensions. We can imagine them, but there are no 1-D or 2-D things. Even a surface, which is always two-dimensional, is abstract. We talk about circular things but the concept of a circle is also an abstraction in an abstract two dimensions. Look as much as you like in the physical world but you can never find any 2-D circles in this 3-D world. Most shapes are two-dimensional. So how, I wonder, can some 3-D thing be described in terms of a 2-D circularity. If you rotate the abstract two-dimensional object called a circle in 3 dimensions, you can generate an abstract 3-D object called a sphere. It pre-supposes, of course that 3-D space exists within which rotation can occur. But what is a sphere? How do you rotate an abstract object? A square rotated gives a cylinder – not a cuboid. A point stretched into two dimensions, or twirled in three, remains a point and still imaginary. A line rotated gives just a line.

I find the word shape is diffusely defined in dictionaries – possibly because it is itself philosophically diffuse.

shape (n):

  • the external form, contours, or outline of someone or something;
  • a geometric figure such as a square, triangle, or rectangle;
  • the graphical representation of an object or its external boundary, outline, or external surface.

Shape, it seems to me, has a connection with identity. Things without identity have no shape. All countable, physical things have shape as an attribute. But uncountable things – rain, mist, water, … – are devoid of shape. But any shape is also an abstraction which can be taken separate from the physical things. Abstract things and uncountable things can also be invested with shape as a descriptor, but this is both figurative and subjective. We can refer to the shape of an idea, or the shape of a history, or of a culture, but the meaning conveyed depends upon the physical things normally connected with such shapes. Even when we use the word shapeless we usually do not mean that it is devoid of shape but that the shape is not a standard recognised form. Shape emerges from existence though not necessarily from the existence of things. It is here that the distinction between form and substance originates. Shape needs existence but it is not difficult to imagine the concept of shapes existing in even a formless universe without substance.

In philosophy, shape is an ontological issue. There have been many attempts in philosophy to classify shapes. For example:

The shape of shapes

An important distinction to keep in mind is that between ideal, perfect and abstract geometric shapes on the one hand, and imperfect, physical or organic mind-external shapes on the other. Call the former “geometric shapes” and the latter “physical shapes” or “organic shapes”. This distinction can be understood as being parallel to types (classes, universals, general entities) and instances (individuals or particulars in the world). Geometric shapes typically have precise mathematical formalizations. Their exact physical manifestations are not, so far as I am aware, observed in mind-external reality, only approximated by entities exhibiting a similar shape. In this sense geometric shapes are idealizations or abstractions. This makes geometric shapes similar to types or universals. Their instances are inexact replicas of the shape type in question, but have similar attributes or properties in common, properties characterizing the type. By contrast, organic or physical shapes are irregular or uneven shapes of mind-external objects or things in the world. A planet is not perfectly spherical, and the branches of a tree are not perfectly cylindrical, for example. “Perfectly” is used here in the sense of coinciding with or physically manifesting the exact mathematical definitions, or precise symmetrical relations, of geometric shapes. Objects and physical phenomena in the world, rarely if ever, manifest or exhibit any concretization of geometric shapes, but this is not to say that it is not possible or that it does not obtain at times. Objects are not precisely symmetrical about a given axis, cube-shaped things do not have faces of exactly the same area, for example, and there is no concretization of a perfect sphere. ……………

With respect to the mind-external world, notice that if shapes are properties (of things), then we may have a situation in which properties have properties. At first glance this seems true because we predicate shape of objects in the world; we say that objects have a certain shape. We also describe types of shapes as having specific properties. If a shape is defined as having a particular number of sides (as with polygons), a particular curvature (as with curved shapes, such as the circle and the ellipse), specific relations between sides, or otherwise, then it should be apparent that we are describing properties of properties of things. We might be inclined to say that it is the shape that has a certain amount of angles and sides, rather than the object bearing the shape in question, but this is not entirely accurate. Shapes, conceived as objects in their own right (in geometric space), have sides, but in our spatiotemporal world, objects have sides, and surfaces, as well. When we divorce the shape from that which has the shape via abstraction, we use ‗side‘ for the former as much as we do for the latter. The distinction between geometric and physical space, between ideas and ideal or cognitive constructions and material mind-external particulars is significant.

My preferred definition of shape is:

shape is an abstract identity of form devoid of any substance

I take shapes to be forms both in two dimensions and in three. So, by this definition, I include spheres and cylinders and cuboids and pyramids to be shapes. Shape is about form – whether or not there is a thing it is attached to. We can have regular shapes where the regularity is abstract. We can have irregular shapes which cannot be described by any mathematical expression. And we can have shapeless shapes. We can compare shapes and discover the concept of similarity. We can even compare dissimilar shapes. I can conceive of the quality of form and talk about circularity or squareness or sphericality or even shapelessness.

I can have curvy shapes and I can have jagged shapes. My ping-pong ball is more spherical than my dimpled golf ball. They are both rounder than an orange but I have no doubt that an orange is rounder than a cucumber. Just as an apple is squarer than an orange. A fat person is rounder than a thin person. I know one cannot square a circle yet I have no difficulty – in my reason – to attributing and comparing levels of squareness and roundness of things. Some squashes are round and some are cylindrical. A circle squashed gives an ellipse and the shape of the earth is that of a squashed sphere. Circular logic is not a good thing. Logic is expected to be linear. A spherical logic is undefined.

And any square is rounder than a rectangle.

A strategy for Wordle 7

May 12, 2022

I am very new to Wordle and only started playing last week. The greatest challenges I found with Wordle 5 and 6 were the use of American spellings and the seemingly arbitrary conjoining of two words to create “words” which I would not consider to be single words.

Wordle 5 and 6 did not seem too taxing and soon got boring. Wordle 7 is now keeping me engaged for longer than 5 or 6 did. The “strategy” I have evolved is to use the same 3 starting words (entirely by trial and error) to cover as many letters of the alphabet as possible. The last 3 attempts seem to then be sufficient to find the hidden word in most cases. But I am still not happy with two word combinations being elevated to be taken as single words. (website, manhole ….). Smacks of cheating.

I only started with Wordle 7 this week. I am sure there must be better words but the three I have ended up using – again by trial and error – are:




So far so good. The success rate has come up to about 75% 95% (and most failures are on my unfamiliarity with American usage and Americanisms).

My three chosen words cover 17 letters. I now need to find three better starting words perhaps covering 18 or 19 letters of the alphabet. 

When the tree falls in the forest, the sound is only due to language

May 1, 2022

The classic, cliched question goes:

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The non-philosophical part of question is easily answered.

  • If a tree falls within an extant medium, and
  • there is consequent vibration within that medium, and
  • there is an organ which can detect such vibrations, and
  • the organ generates impulses, and
  • it sends these impulses to a brain, and
  • that brain interprets the impulses as something the brain itself labels as sound, then
  • there will be sound.

If the tree fell in a vacuum there would be no vibration of anything. No medium, no sound. No ear, no sound. No brain. no sound. In fact, if we did not have ears connected to our brains our language would be unable to come up with words for ears, hearing or sound. If we had no word for sound then there might well be vibrations when the tree fell, but there would be no sound. The non-philosophical answer then becomes that if we had no word in language for sound then there would be no sound. When a dog or a bat detects vibrations at frequencies that our ears cannot detect then such signals never reach our brains to ever be classified in our language as sound. What an animal might interpret in its brain when its ears detect signals is whatever that animal interprets it or labels it to be.  Only if we define the word sound to loosely mean what any brain may interpret on receiving signals from any ear-like organ, could we say that the animal discerns sound.

The philosophical part of the question, however, which considers perception, observation and existence is much more interesting. There are many things we cannot directly experience with our limited senses. But we can infer and/or deduce that they exist by their interactions with other things giving changes which we can observe directly. We extend our senses by creating wonderful instruments which then produce changes observable directly by our traditional senses. We “see” in the ultraviolet or the infra-red only because our cameras convert these UV or IR signals into images that do fall within our visible range.

But what of all that we cannot observe, directly or indirectly, by our limited senses and our finite brains? Is it so that if something cannot be observed, cannot be perceived, cannot be inferred to exist by any interaction it has with anything else in this universe, then it does not exist? Or is it merely that we are ignorant of its existence? Philosophy is, of course, about asking unanswerable questions. Once a question can be answered it leaves the field of philosophy.

Take bongism for example. We cannot observe it, perceive it, infer it or deduce it. It has no known interactions with anything else in this universe. But it is the imbalance in bongism which caused all existence in the first place. It is the answer to the question “Why do things exist at all?”.

Does bongism exist?

It must do, since I have a word for it.

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