Equivocation and conflation

Those who have worked with me have said that they can tell when I’m getting warmed up on a subject when I use the words “conflate” or “equivocate”. (Another colleague’s magic phrase was “tease apart”: when he started teasing apart your ideas, it was time to duck!) Although these two words are closely related, they have quite distinct meanings, and it’s unfortunate when people misuse them. ((Not, of course, as unfortunate as the misuse of “uninterested” and “disinterested”.))
To “conflate” is to mix up several distinct issues, often (but not always) with the aim of changing the topic. To “equivocate” is to use a word that has more than one meaning in a way that obscures the distinction between those meanings. Although this can occasionally be inadvertent, it is usually intended to confuse or deceive. Obviously equivocation can be used to achieve conflation, by using a term that is meaningful in each of the issues that you wish to conflate. However the words are quite distinct: one can conflate without using equivocation, and equivocate without seeking to conflate.
All of this was prompted by reading an excellent piece in Balkinization by Deborah Hellman of the University of Maryland School of Law, in which she analyzes an important point in a recent Supreme Court decision concerning race and school admissions policy.

In his plurality opinion in Parents Involved, Justice Roberts closes his opinion with the seeming truism that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” The problem with this claim is that it profits from an important conflation between two different senses of the term “discrimination.” Sometimes to discriminate is simply to draw distinctions among people or things. For example, insurers routinely discriminate between potential insurance customers on the basis of the risk each poses of making a claim against the insurer during the policy period. Other times, we use the term “discrimination” in a critical rather than a descriptive way. For example, laws forbidding blacks from sitting in the front of public buses discriminate (read wrongly discriminate) against African-Americans. When we pay attention to the two senses of the word “discrimination,” we see that Justice Roberts’ claim is far from obvious. The way to stop discrimination (i.e. wrongful discrimination) on the basis of race is to stop discriminating (i.e. drawing distinctions) on the basis of race. Is he right?

It’s a good piece, which I recommend that you read. It would have been even better if she had written “equivocation” instead of “conflation”…

The essence of scriptural exegesis

The Barefoot Bum captures the essential moves in the game. A correspondent had spent considerable effort in describing a so-called “Message-Incident Principle”, which was supposed to guide the process of understanding the true meaning (or, perhaps, meanings) of scripture, and Larry summarized it thus:

  1. If the text fits your preconceived notions and doesn’t get you laughed at, it’s literally true
  2. If you can’t swallow the text, arbitrarily choose a metaphor to read into it
  3. If you have to swallow the text anyway, invoke a miracle to choke it down

In (or near) Edinburgh

I flew up from Dublin to Edinburgh ((Uneventful flight, Aer Lingus A320, 30 minutes late because of ATC delays at LHR.)) and after misunderstanding my directions and driving all around the airport (literally) I’ve arrived at my hotel: the Dakota Forthbridge, in South Queensferry.
It’s very trendy, and very comfortable. It’s extremely convenient: the Amazon.com office is two minutes walk from here. It’s also more than a little weird. From the outside, it’s a black Borg-like cube. The elevators (sorry, lifts) have chrome-framed “portholes” through which one can watch images of clouds boiling up against a blue sky. ((We’re not talking about fluffy white clouds drifting by; we’re talking about the kind of stuff that would cause a pilot to call ATC and request “immediate deviation 30 degrees left for weather”. If they’re intended to be restful, they fail.)) My room has a three foot high polished metal ampersand on the wall, and the chrome desk lamp is like a regular banker’s lamp but twice the usual size. There are no closets, cupboards or drawers; instead there are dark red alcoves hidden behind the headboard of the bed.
Annoyingly, Internet access is a £5/day extra, for which you must obtain a password from the front desk. Why do cheap hotels give you broadband for free while fancy places nickel-and-dime you? It makes no sense, and it just pisses off the customers.
More anon. Probably with pics.
UPDATE: (WARNING: Food porn alert!!)
OK, I forgive them everything – even the leather panelling with red stitching in the elevators. The restaurant is superb.
I ordered “roast lamb”, which turned out to be three loin chops, so pink that at first I thought “Oh, no! These are too rare even for me!”, but then they turned out to be quite perfect. They were garnished with wedges of grilled lamb’s liver, which worked very nicely indeed, and an intricate arrangement of thinly-sliced new potatoes, broad beans, and cranberries. Add a chicory and mustard salad and a glass of a Côtes du Rhône which quietly put California in its place, and finish with a cheese plate including three interesting Scottish cheeses and a stack of little oat cakes. (And of course the cheese demanded a nice glass of port.) The service was excellent, and almost every table was occupied, mostly by locals.
UPDATE: The pics are here. If you squint at the screen of my MacBook, you’ll see that it’s displaying the picture that Crispin took of the Dakota, and that Clive mentioned in the comments.


I was walking back to my hotel after dinner ((Superb smoked haddock chowder at Quay’s Restaurant in Temple Bar.)) and decided to follow the route of the LUAS tramway. Near Four Courts, I encountered a woman with three small children, all chattering excitedly. One of them, a girl about eight years old, ran up to me and said, “Excuse me: are Jaffa Cakes biscuits or cakes?” Without a moment’s hesitation, I replied, “It all depends what you want the answer to be… Either can be correct.” The little girl looked pleased, but confused, while her mother smiled.

"The most absurd sentence I read today"

Tyler Cowen reads Frank Tipler’s ridiculous The Physics of Christianity so you and I don’t have to waste our time. ((Hat tip to Chas.)) Choice quote:

I am proposing that the Son and the Father Singularities guided the worlds of the multiverse to concentrate the energy of the particles constituting Jesus in our universe into the Jesus of our universe.

My deepest thanks to Tyler: Vogon poetry is mild stuff by comparison…


Never forget:

The worst person to write documentation is the implementer, and the worst time to write documentation is after implementation. Doing so greatly increases the chance that interface, implementation, and documentation will all have problems.

Michi Henning: API Design Matters in ACM Queue


A few minutes ago, I checked in with the BBC Sports website to see how the match between Moya and Henman was going. Quoth the commentator:

Moya 11-11 Henman
And so the epic goes on, now to Mahabharata lengths. This set alone has been going on for over an hour and a half. Moya holds to 15 with two sensational cross-court forehands.

“Mahabharata”? Qu’est-ce que c’est? And I checked the source:

The Mahābhārata… is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India… With more than 74,000 verses… and some 1.8 million words in total, it is one of the longest epic poems in the world.

And how comprehensive is it?

With its depth and magnitude, the Mahabharata’s scope is best summarized by one quotation from the beginning of its first parva (section): “What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, will not be found elsewhere.”

Hmmm. That sounds like the Wikipedia mission statement – or perhaps Jeff‘s ambition for the Amazon.com catalog! In any case, it’s an impressive citation from a sportscaster…

A depressing sort of milestone…

Like many bloggers, I log in to the admin pages of geoffarnold.com every day to see what housekeeping tasks need to be done. The section that generally needs my attention is Comments: moderating comments from new visitors, and checking the spam catcher to make sure that there aren’t any false-positives. In common with most WordPress users, I rely on a distributed spam detection system called Akismet, which does a really good job: I’ve only had a couple of legitimate comments flagged as spam.
Today I skimmed the latest batch of spam, confirmed that they were all correctly classified, and hit the delete button. Akismet responded:
Akismet has caught 20,000 spam for you since you first installed it.
Just to put that in perspective, my blog has received 2,394 legitimate comments, a third of which pre-date my use of WordPress and Akismet. ((I started this blog in December 2003, and switched to WordPress in December 2005.)) And to put that in perspective, here’s Akismet’s big picture
Early blogging software didn’t include any kind of defence mechanisms, of course, and we’re still living with the consequences. Quite often I find that a web search will take me to an entry in an abandoned blog. ((And sometimes not even abandoned blogs! A few minutes ago I found myself re-reading Steve Yegge’s rant about the Next Big Language, which is still attracting comments four months after he wrote it, and I noticed a number of blogspam comments. I guess Blogspot doesn’t use Akismet.)) The entry may have attracted a couple of comments when it was posted, but since then there have been dozens (even hundreds) of spam comments attached. The search engine spiders are presumably smart enough to avoid the spam, but it keeps on coming. So if you used to run a blog that you’ve since abandoned, do us all a favour by shutting off comments. Think of it as turning off the gas and water in a derelict house: do it for the neighbours!

Still life

I just finished visiting the Jameson distillery. Before we started the tour, they asked for four volunteers, and I was picked. (Competition was fierce!) At the end, the four of us were asked to take part in a five-way taste test between three different Irish whiskeys (all made by Jameson, of course), one Scotch (Johny Walker Red Label) and one American (Jack Daniels). Among that lot, the Jameson was the clear winner. Of course we all required numerous samples to get the right answer!
Whiskey stills
Sorry about the pun…