Monday, February 09, 2004

Punctuation

How many incidents took place on September 11th, 2001? The answer to this philosophical question, currently going through the US courts, is worth billions of dollars in insurance claims.

How many threats are there? Some Americans apparently see the troubles in the Middle East as one undifferentiated threat. For example, Joan Didion quotes Paul Wolfowitz as saying
Iraq's weapons of mass terror and the terror networks to which the Iraqi regime are [sic] linked are not two separate themes—not two separate threats. They are part of the same threat.
Joan Didion, Politics in the New Normal America (New York Review, October 21, 2004)

We make sense of the world - as we make sense of a string of words - by punctuating it. Is there a full stop between one hijack and the next, or merely a comma? Does Saddam Hussein represent a new chapter, or a continuation of the same sentence?

American policy is full of implicit (or sometimes explicit) punctuation. The concept of self-defence depends on punctuation – delimiting the self (person versus nation), delimiting the delay between action and reaction. The legal status of Guantanamo depends whether it is situated within the USA or not. (The US administration seems to want to have it both ways.)

Anthony Lewis, Making Torture Legal
(New York Review July 15th 2004)

Economic transactions also depend on punctuation. If I am travelling to and fro between two cities, I can save money by booking a series of roundtrip tickets each spanning at least one weekend.

Communication and control, contract and change - these are all critically dependent on having accurate and robust punctuation. This is one of the most important reasons why systems engineers and process engineers need to model information properly.

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