Dec 23, 2007

I'm glad we cleared that up

First we have to overcome the ambiguities in language.
I was recently contemplating how ambiguous English is — though I imagine this is true in large measure of all commonly spoken human languages — and I was reminded of this cool example. Take the word "and"; surely that must be about as clear as it gets. It isn't used figuratively; it doesn't have slang meanings; it's eminently concrete and functional.

Then think about the phrases "I like coffee and tea" and "I like whiskey and soda." How can English speakers even function? And yet we generally manage just fine.
Context is supposed to provide the decision rule, but what about an ambiguous context? Consider:
I like iced tea and lemonade.
Does this person like iced tea and lemonade separately, or are they a fan of an Arnold Palmer? (Perhaps we risk a "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman" moment if we screw it up.)

And then we have to pray we didn't make any mistakes.
IN FEBRUARY 2007, 12 F-22 Raptors, the US air force's new stealth fighters, left Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, bound for Okinawa, Japan, on the high-tech planes' first overseas outing. Things went smoothly until they reached the 180th meridian - otherwise known as the International Date Line.

Some of the pilots suddenly found themselves without any navigation aids. With nothing to tell them their compass heading or even whether they were level or not, it was as if the pilots had been instantaneously transported from the cockpit of the world's most advanced aircraft into one dating from the first world war.

Fortunately the skies were clear, so the squadron did an about-face and was able to follow its in-flight refuelling tankers back to Hickam.

The error was diagnosed as a problem with a "partial line of code" that had pitched the planes' computers into an infinite loop of trying and failing to calculate their position while dealing with an unexpected date. A fix was issued, and three weeks later the planes made their trip to Japan without a hitch.

"Reliance on electronics has changed the flight-test process," says Donald Shepperd, once head of the US Air National Guard. "It used to be tails falling off, now it's typos that ground a fighter."
Or, to paraphrase Clemenceau, war is too important to be left to the programmers.

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