• Amuses

    Conceptual Lego

    This was the week I had to do a presentation for the Philosophy of Mind seminar. I had assumed that it would be ok, because the paper was by an author we had read before. Things were also going well in the other seminars. I had written the survey article for the Skills & Methods class. This time I had asked my” professor for recommended reading (remember my fiasco with the fundamentalist book review), and I even plucked up the courage to ask him to review my effort. It turned out I had drawn an overhasty conclusion. Sloppiness, really. I still have to get used to checking wording en phrasing really carefully. Anyway, my professor also gave me feedback on the structure of my article, so by the time I handed it in, I was happy with it.

    A little too relaxed

    So maybe I was relaxing a little too much. I wasn’t even bothered when the article I had to present was changed just a week beforehand. Only 13 pages, that would be a doddle, I thought. Hubris! Then everything happened at once. At work, a situation which had been smouldering for a while, suddenly exploded, causing all kinds of havoc. Also, I had taken a fall at the sauna a week before, causing a bad knee scrape. Suddenly this wound got inflamed so badly I had to go to the first aid post on a sunday morning. They gave me a shitload of penicillin, which made me feel so sleepy I had to take time of work, plus I had to miss one of my classes. And then there was the normal study workload plus this presentation to do. I already felt sorry for myself before I even started to do the actual prepartion.

    Deconstructing jargon

    So, the article. It was by a guy called Di Paolo, who specialises in the “enacted mind”. The great mystery to be explained is how cognition develops. I made a wordle out of the text for your amusement.

    Now this is not a simple subject, and the way this Di Paolo guy writes about it is a nightmare. He doesn’t really explain much, he refers to other papers, by himself, and by other philosophers. Plus it is all jargon, meant for an in-crowd which I certainly don’t belong to. I had to go through his source material, and read up on lots of reviews to help me understand what his theory was all about. Because the article did not have a helpful structure, I constructed “conceptual Lego” as the basis for my presentation. See below. Colourful, eh?

    conceptual Lego

    Thanks to my husband who is still (!) driving me to university, I was well in time to set up my presentation. I really was nervous. Fortunately, the professor-duo teaching this class apologised for the horrendous text as soon as they saw me. That took the edge of my nerves! The conceptual Lego worked even better than I had hoped. I felt I really liked this theory I was presenting. Maybe a good topic for the end-of-term paper I am to write soon.

    Busy bees

    It is all so very interesting, and I am learning so much! None of these theories were around when I first went to university. Back then, there was no joint research between disciplines. Now it is like a beehive, philosophical bees, psychological bees, sociological bees, neurological bees, all working on cognition. And on language, as a special form of cognition. I just wish there were more hours in a day :)

  • Amuses

    Begin at the beginning

    If you are an Alice-in-Wonderland fan, you will have recognised the quote immediately. It is from a conversation between the Cheshire cat and the King. It goes like this.

    The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “ Where shall I begin, please your Majesty ? ” he asked.
    “ Begin at the beginning, ” the King said, very gravely, “ and go on till you come to the end : then stop.

    Sound advice, eh? Well, I think so. I live by it. Except that the end may take a very long time. Treebeard-style for fellow Lord-of-the-Ring fans.

    In my earlier post on “the right words” I told you about how difficult I found it to get into my subject. I even had to take days off work for extra reading. I had put this down to general stupidity on my part (that is, faulty memory and old age). But tonight, as I prepared for yet another article I have to write for the Skills & Methods seminar, I opened the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind, which is a collection of essays. The introduction opens with the following observation:

    Philosophy of language is usually presented as a deep‐end subject. One is expected to jump in and eventually get the hang of it. And yet it can be a very technically demanding area of philosophy for the beginner. It is surely not special in this regard. However, it seems to us that it has lagged behind other sub‐areas of philosophy in presenting its key concerns in accessible form, with the result that there is a considerable gap between the professional literature and understanding of the novice. Professional philosophers often advise students to read classic papers in the area such as ‘On Sense and Reference’, ‘On Denoting’, ‘Meaning’, ‘Truth and Meaning’, the second chapter of Word and Object, ‘General Semantics’, ‘The Logic of Demonstratives’, ‘The Meaning of “Meaning”’, any chapter of Naming and Necessity. However, in each of these readings students will encounter aspects of the discussion that are opaque and that presuppose detailed knowledge of other parts of philosophy of language. This is by no means a criticism. These articles were not written for novices. But this is a problem if it deters the interested student from pursuing these topics further. It is all the more unfortunate for there is much about the philosophy of language that is deeply engaging and can be made accessible to every philosophy student. One gains the best understanding by first getting to grips with some of the fundamental debates in philosophy of language. By focusing on a particular debate and acquiring a thorough and detailed mastery of it one is able to extend that understanding to other areas, gradually working one’s way into the field as a whole.

    Wow! There must be lots and lots of frustrated Philosophy of Language students out there. If things are this bad, that even the top professors and researchers worry about it, the problem must be huge. Academic professors and researchers are not commonly known for their empathy with lesser mortals. Let alone writing a whole book to make things better for their unhappy students. Plus, I very much doubt my own Professor has read this introduction. I see him watching me struggling at the deep end. Will she, will she not… drown. Yes, I love you too :)

    Which makes me wonder, perhaps it is worthwhile or even profitable to set up a “Confused Philosophy of Language Support Centre”? Well, food for thought. It would be amusing. But at least I now can be sure I am not alone. My struggle has been acknowledged. Before I even started on this adventure, they had already written the Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Language, back in 2009. The answer to all my problems. I will read it and let you know …

  • Amuses

    The best words

    Four weeks into my new academic life and the moment of truth arrived. Well, a moment of truth. The issue being, can I do this? Do the reading, understand the concepts – will my brain to expand to fit it all in? One thing is clear. I thought my mental faculties were fine, well, rusty perhaps, but not in significantly worse shape than, say 30 years ago. Ha! Dreaming!

    Learning to read again

    It turns out, I have to learn to read again. You see, I stopped reading for pleasure around 40. I had always been a big reader, up to five books a week, every week, from when I was a little girl. Suddenly, from one day to the next, I could read only one or two pages. As if they suddenly switched a part of my brain off. I missed reading terribly, but life was disrupted anyway. These were the years of being a single working mother, with a scared little boy to take care of, in a strange place and no one to help me. Perhaps the universe wanted me to concentrate on getting through that in one piece. Unfortunately, the ability to read for pleasure has never returned. A few years later my later-to-be husband hit on a solution: audio books! I must confess: I am addicted. My little black Mp3 player is clipped on my shirt all day long, and I listen as I cook, bath, walk, cycle, wait, iron, you name it.

    Non-fiction I read all the time, but for never for pleasure. I am efficient. I speed-read, and I can scan a document, read “diagonally” as we say at the office, in just the time one takes to turn the pages. Useful skills – for a civil servant. In my new academic life, this ability is worse than useless. The papers I have to read are so dense with information, I can only read 3 or 4 pages an hour. So I have to force myself to read word for word, line by line. On tired days, the only way I can manage this, is by reading the document on screen, and then have the computer read out the text simultaneously.

    Reading, reading, reading

    Apart from the skills class, I take a seminar on Philosophy of Mind and another seminar on Philosophy of Language, which is my main subject. Both seminars set around 50 pages reading every week; the Skills class around 20 pages. Around 120 pages per week, i.e. 30 hours. I don’t know how I do this reading given the demands of a working week, but I do it. More, because sometimes I don’t understand what the article says, and go in search of another text. Or have to look up references.

    Anyway, I quite enjoy the process. I have my electronic commenting system with highlights and meaningful stamps. I had developed this when I was studying for the ISACA CISM exam in my other life. Sample below.

    Creative, don’t you think? Well, it helps. I started out making mind maps, thinking that would be a memory aid. It is not. I found myself looking back at intricate mind maps I created weeks ago, and thinking “who did this?”.

    The challenge

    Last week I was the first of my class to do a presentation on Gricean pragmatics, for the Philosophy of Language seminar. Gricean pragmatics is about how meaning is not confined to the words themselves, i.e. the direct opposite of referential theory.  I volunteered, because I could see the workload piling up at the end of the semester. The paper was to be followed by a short paper in the week after the seminar.

    I did my best, but I could not see what central issue was being addressed in the articles. Actually, that had also been the case in the first and second week: I did not understand where the seminar was going. So I was getting worried. Every time I asked a question (which virtually no one else does), the professor (whom I regard as “mine” because he is my mentor), looked at me as if I had been flown in from Mars. Once or twice I even seemed to confuse him. Not good.

    Having to do this presentation without feeling comfortable with the topic, felt weird. I never ever do any public speaking when I am not the expert, and I get to decide the timing, the format, etc. So this was a novel situation. It went well enough because the students were very nice and smiled at all of my little jokes. I suspected them of having even less of a clue where the seminar was going, which was a comfort. The professor was grumpy, because I had not quite stuck to the format, so he was pointing out all the little problems this caused. Yes, yes. It is difficult to lose a lifetime of professional habits I was not aware I possessed. Such as trying to get response during the presentation. Apparently that does not work with students. Well, live and learn.

    Content-wise I was still in trouble: I did not understand where the seminar was going. I blamed this partly on the professor, for experimenting too much with the course. He has said to me since, that perhaps the topic was more difficult than he thought. Right. But the course is geared at MA students, and I am a ReMa student supposed to be specializing in this stuff. I really, really had to find a way in. Fast.

    It so happened that the guy I work most with at the office, was on holiday, plus I had been working overtime in the weeks before. So I took two days off work and hunted day and night for books and articles that would give me a general overview. Finally, a frame appeared in my head and understanding dawned. I wrote a paper. My husband helped me to find the fault lines where my writing became unclear or incomprehensible (he has done that for me ever since he corrected my policy statements when we first worked together, an age ago). I felt I was getting to grips with the issue. Yes. Maybe. Hopefully.

    I handed the paper in last Saturday night, and I have been checking my mail from then until the next seminar. No reaction. All of this time, there was me thinking: if it is not at least ok, I am in trouble. I really cannot do much better at this moment. A mail appeared on Tuesday stating that he (the professor) would be sure to have read it by Thursday. Relief. At least the paper was not already a write off.

    The best words – or not

    The first thing the professor said during the seminar break, was: “it is a good paper”. And then he continued to point out every sentence where I had used unnecessary vague langue. 5 instances in 3 pages, or had taken too long to come to the point. I have been wondering why he did that. I think he wants me to write like an expert, not to care too much about the audience. His own texts are like that, clear and concise yet readable. Something else to learn, so different from what I am used to in my business life where communication is all about persuasion.  We ended up arguing pleasantly about the correct translation of “true”. I came away overjoyed. I will do this, I thought. Yes, I can. I can only improve.

    Perhaps not the very best words then, but the paper was good. I will sleep well tonight. Time for some light relief. The professor has been quipping regularly about Trump and whether what he does, might be deemed “communication”. Today it was about how good Trump is with words. Have a look below. Hilarious, particularly if you have just turned in your first paper on the theory of speaker meaning.

  • Amuses

    The art of misunderstanding

    I have been talking in this blog about my journey back into academia. But I have said little about why. There is a reason for this reticence. Well, several. First, I am not at all sure I will complete this quest, so the less said, the better. Second, I might change my mind. Seriously, after just 3 weeks I am already so filled up with new thoughts that anything might happen. And finally, well, you might laugh. But never mind all that. I will explain.

    In my day job I am a security architect. That is someone who thinks out a web of strategic and actual safety measures which will protect a company from bad people or natural disaster. There is a lot of IT involved.

    One might ask how a philosophy & psychology graduate ever ended up as a security architect. Well, I am not sure. It happened. And it involves being in a world of very serious, conscientious people who argue about …. words. It is almost impossible to get any work done because of these arguments.

    It is not about ordinary words.  It is about words in regulations and contracts, even laws. Anyway, you can read it all in the paper below. It is the one I wrote for “my” professor during the university acceptance process. I have also included the mind map I created before writing the actual paper. I was nervous, I had written nothing academic in 30+ years. Mind mapping is always a good idea. This one is colourful.

    Meeting expectations: the language of governance and compliance

    Meeting expectations: the language of governance and compliance


    Organisations are expected to take care of their assets.  This is especially true when damage or misuse has negative consequences for the public or the state. In this digital age, information is widely regarded as a major asset. It needs protection against many threats. Threats may range from common theft to a disgruntled employee bent on revenge; from industrial espionage to natural disaster; from human error to terrorist attack. In general terms, protecting information means ensuring its availability, integrity and confidentiality up to a pre-agreed level.

    On the subject of information security, in the past 20 years a multitude of (inter)national regulations and standards have emerged, and more appear every day. These regulations and standards guide, direct or impel companies to institute good information security governance and to report on the level of compliance achieved.  Failing to comply may be punished in various ways: a formal warning, a fine, a revoked licence, or public shaming; and may result in the loss of a job, bankruptcy or even a prison sentence.

    Because of the value of information assets, its many threats, and consequences of failing to institute proper protection, governmental and business organisations actually want to comply with regulations and standards.  

    However, there is a problem. These texts are hard to understand, and their meaning is often open to different interpretations. This negatively influences the quality of information security that can be achieved.

    Regulations and standards on information security

    Let us first identify common characteristics of relevant regulations and standards. As we will see later, some of these characteristics may be tied to interpretation problems within the texts themselves.  

    Regulations and standards on information security always are:

    • in written form only, typically containing a mix of persuasive, informative, descriptive and instructive texts.
    • intended for a specific purpose (a topic within the field of information security)
    • intended to regulate behaviour (should, could, must)
    • issued by a high-level body, such as a government, a board of directors of an (inter) national organisation
    • produced as a group effort, usually involving stakeholders, experts and policy makers. Typically, there is no mention of the author(s) in the regulation or standard.
    • created and maintained through a formal process
    • available to a large audience, usually the public, but may require payment
    • authoritative, either as an official directive or regarded as a de facto standard

    Examples of such regulations and standards, are:

    Organisations tend to treat regulations and standards as a single point of truth, taking texts as literally as possible. This is because of the need to demonstrate compliance. For the same reason, implementation is usually achieved through a top-down chain of command.

    Texts and meanings

    The text of these regulations and standards are riddled with meaning problems. Why should that fact be a problem? General wisdom dictates that if you don’t understand something, you should go and ask. Why does that not work here?

    • One reason is that there is no one to ask. There is no author to ask for clarification, nor is there an easily accessible expert group.  An additional problem is that reaching out to the publisher of the regulation or standard in question, must be done through proper channels, i.e. not something just any employee can do. Usually, the best that may be achieved is to send in a formal request for clarification – which may or may not be processed during a future maintenance window.
    • Another reason is that readers tend not te be aware of the different meanings of a particular bit of text, because they assume that there is only one meaning, namely the meaning they have assigned themselves. Only when one happens to be confronted with a different interpretation by someone else, will there be cause to wonder.
    • Yet another reason is in the field of regulations and standards: no one likes to admit to a lack of understanding or knowledge.  It is associated with losing face, particularly when the particular regulation or standard is implemented from the top-down. Power and knowledge of  important matters is supposed to live at the top, rather than in the workplace.

    The nett result is that texts get interpreted in different ways by different people who all believe they are right even when they are working at cross purposes. This generally results in a confused implementation of the regulation or standard, and ultimately, in compliance failure.

    The art of misunderstanding

    There are many causes which contribute to interpretation problems in these texts. However, let us begin with what, contrary to popular opinion, is not a cause.  It is not the case that the authors of these texts are unable or unwilling to use plain language. Rather, they arrive at the final wording through a group effort[1]. To achieve consensus, the outcome of a negotiation process, is much more important than clarity. Meaning problems which arise from this cause take the form of obfuscation and generally over-complicated text containing (too) many qualifiers.

    The same effect may be produced deliberately. Organisations that issue regulations and standards are usually funded by public money and derive their status at least in part from their authority of being accepted by all parties involved.  To keep that status and funding, they try to avoid any big confrontation with the intended audience. For that reason, expectations on compliance tend to be worded softly, so they won’t chafe too much, allowing for an escape. One way to do this is by introducing intentional vagueness into the text, for instance, by not being specific on whether something must, should or could be done.

    Context is another issue. The same words will mean different things in different contexts, or to different people, and these meanings may even be contradictory. Some examples:

    • the term special data (“bijzondere gegevens”) might be taken to mean data that need special care, or to  data that are for some reason special. Yet the term also refers to data which it is the special duty of the government to secure[2]. Within the context of the GDPR[3] it means something completely different again, namely data describing very particular human characteristics such as DNA, creed, race or political inclination.
    • the use of the word value (“belang”). In Dutch governmental regulations the term refers to anything which, when compromised, will negatively affect the Dutch state or its partners[4].  To security professionals, the term signifies the value of a company asset[5], expressed in either quantitative (money) or qualitative terms. In a business context the term usually refers to the interest of an important stakeholder[6]. In everyday speech, the term just means that the issue is deemed to be of some importance.

    Last but not least, there are knowledge problems. These take various forms.  

    • There may be a lack of knowledge at the level of the intended audience. The committee or group composing the regulation or standard may also have knowledge gaps. A knowledge gap may have an underlying cause, such as a belief about the extent to which it is possible or desirable to regulate behaviour, or an opinion about whether information security threats are real or may be countered.
    • Another area is the definition of knowledge itself.  Within the field of information processing various modelling languages have been developed, ranging from formal, mathematical models to more descriptive languages such as UML, BPMN and Archimate which have the added advantage of being designed to produce strong visualisations which can be shared with a less specialised audience. The problem with these ‘descriptive’ languages, though popular, is that the concepts they are built on, have been arrived at through trial-and-error and common sense. Inevitably concepts overlap, leave gaps, are overloaded or simply are not sufficiently clear for the use of capturing knowledge[7].
    • Within the field of computing, much interest has centred on the possibility of capturing information within an ontology in a formal language (such as OWL or WSDL) that can be processed by a standardised computer program or interface (semantic web service)[8]. In principle, this idea works for all kinds of information, including security, and may be used to construct theories, harmonise concepts or create computer-based applications.  Some real progress has been made in highly specialised sub-topics such as automatic threat detection in cyberspace. Yet that progress seems to have been possible only because there exists a straightforward cause-and-effect relation between a cyberthreat and the way to respond to it. Overall, security ontologies for sub-topics are developed independently from each other. In a recent survey[9] eight different families of security ontologies were identified. Despite considerable work, these efforts do not converge. There exists general agreement on the lack of a common body of knowledge, but this conclusion tends to be presented both as a cause and as a solution.

    Next steps

    The above presents a general overview of problems encountered when interpreting regulations and standards on information security and points to some possible causes. These causes may exist simultaneously and may interact. Much more work needs to be done on this to achieve a true identification of relevant causes and underlying factors. It might be possible to construct a diagnostic framework which may be used to identify specific semantic problems in regulations and standards on information security, such that agreement may emerge on how to avoid current interpretation problems. At the very least, a deeper insight into the art of misunderstanding may be achieved.


    Europees Parlement, Algemene Verordening Gegevensbescherming (AVG). (2016, 04 27). https://autoriteitpersoonsgegevens.nl/nl/onderwerpen/avg-nieuwe-europese-privacywetgeving. Retrieved from Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens: https://autoriteitpersoonsgegevens.nl/sites/default/files/atoms/files/verordening_2016_-_679_definitief.pdf

    Figay, N. (2017, 8 8). Linked Enterprises: from ArchiMate language to ArchiMate Web Ontology? Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/from-archimate-language-web-ontology-dr-nicolas-figay/

    Gomes, H., Zúquete, A., & Dias, G. P. (2009). An overview of security ontologies. 9ª Conferência da Associação Portuguesa de Sistemas de Informação . Viseu, Portugal. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228692638_An_Overview_of_Security_Ontologies/references

    Mast, N. v. (2006). De zin van ambtelijk taalgebruik. In Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst, De taal van de overheid (Vol. 5). Den Haag, Netherlands: SDU uitgeverij. Retrieved from https://www.communicatierijk.nl/documenten/publicaties/2006/04/01/platform-5

    Minister van Algemene Zaken, BVR-2013. (2013, 06 01). Beveiligingsvoorschrift Rijksdienst 2013. Rijksoverheid. Retrieved from http://wetten.overheid.nl/BWBR0033512/2013-06-01

    NEN, NEN-EN-ISO/IEC 27001:2017. (2017, 03 1). NEN. Retrieved from https://www.nen.nl/NEN-Shop/Norm/NENENISOIEC-270012017-en.htm

    Soug, A., Salinesi, C., & Comyn-Wattiau, I. (2012). Ontologies for Security Requirements: A Literature Survey and Classification. In E. Bayro-Corrochano, & E. Hancock (Eds.), Progress in Pattern Recognition, Image Analysis, Computer Vision, and Applications (Vol. 8827, pp. 61-69). Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-31069-0_5

    The Open Group. (2012). TOGAF 9.1. Zaltbommel, Netherlands: Van Haren Publishing. doi:isbn: 978-90-8753-679-4

    [1] (Mast, 2006)

    [2] (Minister van Algemene Zaken, BVR-2013, 2013)

    [3] (Europees Parlement, Algemene Verordening Gegevensbescherming (AVG), 2016)

    [4] (Minister van Algemene Zaken, BVR-2013, 2013)

    [5] (NEN, NEN-EN-ISO/IEC 27001:2017, 2017)

    [6] (The Open Group, 2012)

    [7] (Figay, 2017)

    [8] (Gomes, Zúquete, & Dias, 2009)

    [9] (Soug, Salinesi, & Comyn-Wattiau, 2012)