6 Apr

On the road to obscurity.

Off to a Conclusion: How you get there. (Part Three)

I ended the last blog with a famous quote from Wittgenstein. Basically what you can speak about clearly can be spoken about. What cannot be spoken about clearly one should remain silent about.

S1000001Lets take a penny. Look at the penny. You can say a lot of things about that penny. You can taste it, touch it, throw it, smell it, hide it, spend it, give it away. You can run tests on it to determine its exact properties.

You know what you are talking about when you talk about that penny.

You can also talk about pennies.

Piles of pennies. Jars of pennies. Truck loads of pennies. All the pennies in the world. All the pennies that have ever been minted in history.

Or you can talk about only the double die pennies that were minted in 1955.

The thing that must be remembered is the more pennies you talk about the less you know what you are talking about.

You can say pennies.

You can say a lot about pennies.

But you have to remember that what you say, no matter how accurate in the aggregate may not be true of any particular penny or any particular group of pennies.

Conversely whatever you say about any one penny may or may not be true when talking about a lot of pennies.

The more pennies you have experience with the more you can say about pennies in general and the greater the chance what you say about them will apply to other groups of pennies.

Pennies have not always been made of copper. Some have even accidentally been made of silver. U. S. Dimes have always been the same size but some pennies have been coined that are the size of dimes, not pennies. Nor have they always had the same designs on them.

You can discuss pennies, and it may be useful to do so, but you have to remember the more pennies you speak about the less you know what you are talking about when it comes to any particular penny.

You can talk about money.

How much money you have and how you can or cannot access it.

But you are talking in the abstract and while you can say many useful things about money you must realize that the more abstract your discussion the less you know what you are talking about.


See the cat over there? You can name it. Touch it. Feed it. Lick its fur if you want. You can say a lot of meaningful things about that cat.

This cat is only a tiny kitten. This cat was abandoned by its mother. This cat  was bitten by a dog. This cat was found hiding in a pallet by two loving people who took it home and nursed it. (They are cousins.)

You can say a lot about cats in general too.

Cats hate water.

What does that mean? It means that every cat I’ve ever met hates water (Not true by the way. I just lied to you. I am a liar. But that is another story. ) It means that statistically 99.99 per cent of the worlds cat population has been shown to disdain water. (Wonder if that percentage is accurate?)

But it should not surprise you there is a breed of cat out there called a fishing cat because it normally hunts in the water for fish, frogs, etc.

Look on YouTube for anomalous cat behavior.

Does this mean you can no longer say that cats dislike water?


If you were to qualify everything you said with everything you knew to be true and everything you knew to be not true everything you said would sound like a boilerplate legal document and would have even less meaning.

Instead of saying, “Cats don’t like water,” you would be saying:

“Most cats and most breeds of cats, but I am not certain what percentage, or if it has ever been scientifically determined, usually tend to dislike water but as I do not wish to sound as though I am stereotyping any particular cat or breed of cat I must acknowledge that there may be cats and or breeds of cats unbeknownst to me who do in fact enjoy water.”

Yep we are going to keep a rousing conversation going that way.

Better to use a simple rule even adults can find easy to learn.

Popo™ is the Law.

It can be taught to children while they learn simple arithmetic.

First of all children should be taught (I’ve harped on this before and I WILL harp on it again) that the first number is not one. It is zero. There are good reasons for teaching this. The is no good reason for not teaching it. The importance of zero and its place in the progress of humanity cannot be over estimated. You might look here for the history as we know it. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=history-of-zero

So let us go back to grade school addition. Only we will pretend the teachers had the good sense to teach us to count correctly, from zero on instead of incorrectly from one on.

Zero. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven.

When we are talking about zero we are talking about nothing. We are talking about a potential something that could be anything. We are talking about an empty spot that has yet to be filled. Or we are talking about a spot that was once filled but is now empty. So when we are talking about zero we probably do not know what we are talking about.

But it is possible we do.

If we had two cookies and we ate them we now have zero cookies. We know we are talking about cookies. (Of some kind any way. We don’t know if they were oatmeal or raisin or something else.)

If we have a deck of cards and we are going to count them out then once again we know what we are talking about. Cards.

So sometimes we are adding two bananas to two bananas and we have four bananas and we know what we are talking about. We might even have two bunches of bananas that we are adding to two bunches of bananas and we still have a fair idea of what we are talking about. However because the four bunches of  bananas we now have might have different amounts of bananas in each bunch we lack a degree of clarity.

But what if you add a peach, a pear, a banana, a quarter of a pineapple, seven strawberries, eighteen grapes, and a cherry, what does all that add up too?

A fruit salad.

That was in an old cowboy movie I saw. Not verbatim. I can’t remember verbatim what I heard yesterday let alone what I heard sixty years ago. But the essential idea is the same. So I tried to discuss it with my teacher. Her reaction was stereotypical. She told me to concentrate on the studies I was given and to ignore Hollywood nonsense.

The lesson I learned that day was that teachers have a hard time dealing with even the most basic concepts.

You point your finger to an empty space. Nothing is in that space. Anything could be there but nothing is. That space has the potential to be anything we care to put there.

That empty space is one empty space. (We pointed to nothing)

Now we point to another empty space (Another nothing). Now we have two empty spaces (Two nothings). One empty space plus one empty space equals two empty spaces. We could also express this as one potential (anything) plus another potential (anything) equals two potential (any things).

When you add two plus two equals four what are you doing?

My grade school teacher diligently explained to me that  you are adding ones. Two ones make two therefore you have two sets of two ones each to make a total of four ones.

That sounds like it makes sense but it doesn’t.

You see the one does not stand for anything. Not yet. Until it does it has no meaning except as an abstract concept that can be manipulated. Therefore one stands for zero. You add one zero to another zero and you have two zeros.

Until you plug something of value into those zeros we are talking about nothing and we do not have the slightest idea what we are talking about.

So if you add zero to zero you arrive at zero.

If you multiply zero times zero you arrive at zero.

But. Here is the key.

If one stands for one zero, i.e., one potential something, and the other one stands for another potential something, you then add the two potential somethings, the two zeros, and you now have two potential somethings.

Thus you are adding two zeros to two zeros to produce four.

The trick is that in order to do this you have to use ones to represent the zeros. Or the potentials if that makes it easier for you.

So if you are talking about nothing, often in large numbers, when you are doing arithmetic, what on earth are you talking about when you are doing algebra? And what makes it useful?

You are discussing relationships.

Certain relationships hold true regardless of what you are talking about. Bricks or dogs, spaceships or bobby pins.

I call this the PoPo™ or the PoPo Law™ and even the Law of PoPo™.

It stands for the Principle of Progressive obscurity.

What it means is very simple. The greater the set of things we are talking about the less we know what we are talking about.

We can talk about a cat.

When we talk about cats we know less what we are talking about and the subject becomes progressively more obscure.

When we are talking about animals we can’t even be sure we are talking about land animals let alone cats. Our conversation may be useful but it has reached the limits of obscurity.

I love Dilbert. Every once in a while he brings “business speak” into the reality of every day conversation.

Business people will state such outlandish gibberish as this, told to me one time, “We are surmounting the obstacles to implementing the new corporate protocols in an expeditious and creative manner.”

Unfortunately the speaker had been thinking in this jargon for so long they actually thought they were saying something meaningful.

In one company that might mean they were putting the best people they had available to dealing with the situation. In another company it might mean they had hired outside experts to face the challenge. In practical terms it probably meant lower management were trying desperately to figure out how to successfully blame the workers and each other for the failed program.

When faced with things that have no meaning, Wittgenstein said, “Remain silent.”

I don’t tend to remain silent. Like Socrates I prefer to ask questions.

When speaking about anything we must ALWAYS be aware of the PoPo Law™ and when the conversation becomes meaningless we MUST stop and ask,  “What the Bleep does that mean?”


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