HETEROPHASIA—IT’S THE PANTHEON THAT HAS A CONCRETE DOME (COMMENT). I posted here a couple months ago about how the Pantheon has lasted for centuries because concrete can’t be reused. However, I said “Parthenon” for “Pantheon”. Dick Weisfelder promptly pointed out the mistake. I would be concerned that I am doing that kind of verbal substitution all the time now in my seventies except for the fact that I know that I have always done it.
I know that I was prone to make that kind of substitution 40 years ago because I was in my thirties when a court reporter in Oklahoma City taught me the word for it—-“heterophasia”. I was taking a deposition, and she observed that—apparently like other people— I tended to do it when I was a little tired. The example that she gave was saying “bus” rather than “lunch”. I don’t remember whether that was a substitution I actually made.
STATES WHICH REQUIRE THE OXFORD COMMA IN STATUTES. Grammarians argue about the Oxford comma with only clarity and style at stake. For judges and legislative draftsmen, the “serial comma”, as the Oxford comma is referred to in the opinion I linked to yesterday, can have substantial legal consequences. For that reason, most legislative drafting manuals (which lay down rules for how statues are to be drafted) take a position on the serial comma.
Footnote 5 on page 17 of the opinion I linked to yesterday summarizes the positions that different state government legislative manuals take. It appears that only seven states either do not require the Oxford comma or even forbid the use of the Oxford comma. The others and the drafting manuals of both houses of Congress require the Oxford comma.
Maine is one of the seven states which disapprove of the Oxford comma. The opinion quotes the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual, which expressly instructs that: “when drafting Maine law or rules, don’t use a comma between the penultimate and the last item of a series.” The opinion takes notice that the Manual rejects the Oxford comma even though it recognizes that not using the Oxford comma can sometimes cause trouble. It says: “The manual also contains a proviso — ‘Be careful if an item in the series is modified’ — and then sets out several examples of how lists with modified or otherwise complex terms should be written to avoid the ambiguity that a missing serial comma would otherwise create.”
A COURT CASE TURNING ON THE USE—OR NONUSE—OF THE OXFORD COMMA. I posted here about RAB’s discussion of the Oxford comma on her You Know What I Meant blog. She gives a striking example of the ambiguity which can result from omitting the “Oxford comma”. (The Oxford comma is the comma preceding “and” in a series.) I posted here about the issues that commas can present in legal documents.
This article on the Fortune web site and this article on the CNN web site discuss a court case in Maine in which the result turned on the failure to use the Oxford comma in a statute dealing with the right to overtime pay.
Here is the decision of the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals dated March 13, 2017. Note that the district court had reached the opposite interpretation of the statute, thus showing that reasonable people and reasonable judges can differ in construing an ambiguous statute and demonstrating the value of an Oxford comma in avoiding ambiguity.
A BIZARRE BASEBALL RULE CHANGE IS IMPLEMENTED (COMMENT). I posted here five weeks ago about a proposed baseball rule change which would automatically place a runner on second base at the start of each extra inning. I said that my first reaction had been that this was an April Fool joke. Well it’s already happened, on an experimental basis, and in an important game.
Nick commented on my post that tie break rules in other sports use an important feature of the game—shootouts in hockey for example, (or penalty shots in soccer). The proposed rule for baseball, Nick predicted, “would likely result in a bunting competition”.
Nick then sent me this post by Lindsey Adler on the Deadspin web site about the semi-final World Baseball Classic game between the Netherlands and Puerto Rico. The rule change used in the game was even more extreme than the proposal I had discussed. Beginning with the eleventh inning, each team started with runners on both first and second. As Nick predicted, each team bunted successfully to begin their inning. The Netherlands didn’t score. Puerto Rico, which had the advantage of batting second, scored a run and moved on to the finals.
THERE’S A LOT OF SPACE DUST ON EARTH. The scope of the problem that Larson took on is shown by numbers. About 4000 tons of of dust land on earth each year—more than 10 tons a day. What Larsen was looking for was one extraterrestrial particle among billions of others. Most of the particles from space are no bigger than the width of a human hair. Knowing what to disregard and how to train other nonscientists to know what to disregard provides a way to identify some of the particles making up the 4000 tons a year that come from space. Broad quotes a scientist who works in this field who points out how much dust there is which can be studied once it has been identified:“Your car is covered with cosmic dust. We inhale this stuff. We eat it every time we eat lettuce.”
THE KEY TO FINDING SPACE DUST IS TO FIND OUT WHICH PARTICLES NOT TO PAY ATTENTION TO. I posted here at the beginning of this year about how a nonscientist, John Larsen, had collected about 500 micrometeorites from gutter sediment from the roofs of buildings in Oslo and other cities. This article in the New York Times (March 10) by William J Broad tells more about Larsen, who has a book, IN SEARCH OF STARDUST: AMAZING MICRO-METEORITES AND THEIR TERRESTRIAL IMPOSTERS, coming out in August. The article has photographs of nine of Larsen’s finds.
The key to Larsen’s discoveries was his analysis of what particles to disregard. It had been thought urban areas were not good places to look for micrometeorites because of all the human contaminants. Searches were conducted in Arctic areas instead.
Larsen conducted his searches by the general appearance of the micrometeorites and postponed paying attention to chemical composition of the particles until he had narrowed the number of possible space particles. A scientist who has worked with Larsen says that: “Larsen has done a valuable thing in classifying the contaminants.”
THE PROBLEM WAS THAT THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE AVOIDED USING PROBABILITIES IN THEIR FORECASTS. Of course government agencies, including the National Weather Service, should keep the public up to date on what their models are predicting. But the cause of the weather service’s problem is that they did not use probabilities from the beginning in giving the public their forecasts. For example, suppose that the probability of 24 inches of snow was announced as 60%. If that probability became 30%, the public would already have known that the 24 inch prediction had been subject to change and would be more likely to accept the change. If some members of the public are not now aware that weather probabilities are subject to change, they should soon learn a better understanding than a simple “the weatherman is sometimes wrong”.
This is a hobby horse that I have been arguing for fifty years. (Here is a post from 2007 arguing that forecasts should be expressed in probabilities.) Telling the public what the probabilities are would have the obvious advantage that it would accurately inform the public of what is known at each point of time.
The major objection that weather agencies have used to avoid using probabilities is the one that the weather service advanced a few days ago—-the public won’t understand. This battle should be already won. The weather service gives forecasts of rain in %’s and time of day as a matter of routine. One of the ways that people have learned about probability is through weather forecasts. The weather services have become more specific about using numbers over the last 50 years and consumer understanding of what forecasts mean has accordingly increased.
The after effect of this week’s forecasting events will be that people will include in their mental appraisal of forecasts that they have been made in part with a view to changing the public’s behavior rather than presenting the best available predictions.
SHOULD THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE PERSIST IN A WEATHER FORECAST THAT IT KNOWS IS WRONG? The National Weather Service issued forecasts that New York City and other coastal cities would get 24 inches of snow on Tuesday March 14. On Monday March 13, the predictions of the computer models changed. The National Weather Service decided not to make the change in forecast public. The snowfall in New York City turned out to be 7 to 8 inches.
This article by Dave Burke in the Daily Mail for Wednesday March 15 had the headline “National Weather Service KNEW it was exaggerating the effects of Storm Stella but decided not to change its forecast because the public might get confused.” The article says that on Monday March 13, the day before the storm was expected to begin, “experts from the National Weather Service in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington discussed computer models that predicted less snow than initially expected. But they decided to keep the extreme weather warnings in place….”
This New York Post article gives an additional reason offered by the weather service. They claimed “they didn’t change their forecast for fear people would mistakenly think the storm was no longer dangerous.”
BOATY MCBOATFACE’S FIRST ANTARCTIC MISSION. Annalisa sent me this article from the Guardian by Nicola Slawson about the further career of Boaty McBoatface. Boaty McBoatface got its name as the result of a competition sponsored by the British Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to suggest and vote on names for its new polar research ship. The name “Boaty McBoatface” won a huge majority, but the NERC rejected the election results and named the polar research ship after Sir David Attenborough.
As a consolation prize, the name “Boaty McBoatface” was given to a small yellow robot submarine. Boaty is a new type of autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), which will be able to collect data under ice at depths of up to 6,000 meters. Boaty’s first assignment will be to make measurements in the abyssal zone, which this wikipedia entry says “remains in perpetual darkness and never receives daylight. These regions are also characterised by continuous cold and lack of nutrients.”
COMPARING THE ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION TO A BUSINESS STARTUP. As a modern lawyer, who has done some drafting, I am impressed by the difficulties that the drafters of the Articles of Confederation faced. There can’t have been many previous examples of institutions formed by written agreement so there couldn’t have been much of a readily available “form file”.
Cowen makes an analogy to modern drafting methods in creating an institution. He says we should “think of the Articles as an early business plan or charter for a startup. The point isn’t to get everyone’s roles and responsibilities right on first crack, but rather to make sure that the institution survives and that continued growth is possible.”
Cowen concludes: “By this metric, the Articles were an unprecedented success.”