Indefinite descriptions

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Today's Non Sequitur:

There are many fields of study where Danae's approach ought to work.  But unfortunately for students everywhere, teachers believe that the theory of cooperative communication applies in a special way to pedagogical evaluations.


  1. Ben said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 7:55 am

    This reminds me of Cliff Claven's response to Final Jeopardy. Answer: "Archibald Leach, Bernard Schwartz and Lucille LeSueur." Question: "Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?"

  2. Nick Lamb said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    Jeopardy always struck me as dangerous because of the risk that there's a subtly better answer. In a conventional quiz it seems easier to control for this by structuring the question. A University Challenge question card can avoid chemists saying "Hydrated Alumina" is used in the Hall-Héroult process by specifying "What common ore" rather than just "What" to ensure "Bauxite" is the only acceptable answer. But how do you do this in Jeopardy's format?

  3. Army1987 said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    In an exam, I was (jokingly) asked whether I knew Noether was a woman. If I had applied Danae's reasoning to mathematicians…

  4. Mark F said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 12:03 pm

    Nick — you just say "This common ore…" instead of "What common ore…"

  5. Robert said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    There's not only one Noether. Emmy Noether's father, Max, was also a mathematician (in particular an algebraic geometer).

  6. Robert said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    @Mark F

    It seems Jeopardy doesn't actually do what it says it does is taking things of the form:

    Q: What X?

    A: Y

    Where X stands for the entire rest of the sentence, and Y the entire answer, and converts them to this:

    A: This X.

    Q: What is Y.

  7. lucia said,

    March 15, 2010 @ 11:45 pm

    But how do you do this in Jeopardy's format?
    I think the judges in Jeopordy anticipate several possible answers. Also, sometimes, the experts behind the stage come forward and decree and answer they previously deemed incorrect was correct.

  8. Kylopod said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 4:06 am

    I wonder how Jeopardy deals with situations where they themselves get something wrong that the contestant gets right. You can't assume that a fact is a fact if you heard it on Jeopardy. I learned this one time when they had a category having to do with the Hebrew language, and the contestants actually got to see the Hebrew word written out. I noticed two spelling errors, one of them minor, another pretty big. They confused one Hebrew letter with another Hebrew letter that looks similar–namely they put the mem sofit in place of the samech. So instead of "seder," the correct answer (סדר), the word looked like "meder" (םדר). And of course, for anyone familiar with Hebrew, the mem sofit–or final mem–can never appear at the beginning of a word anyway.

    Writing the Hebrew word out wasn't strictly necessary, because Jeopardy provided a clue to what the word was. And the contestant did get it correct. He didn't say "meder." Nobody did. If anyone noticed the error, nobody said anything.

    It's as if a quiz show in a non-English-speaking country had the English word "game" as an answer, except that the word written out used a q in place of the g.

    Don't they have some kind of consultants to weed out errors like this? This incident made me wonder what other sorts of errors show up in the countless subjects that I'm not well-versed in.

  9. Bob Lieblich said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    I've spotted an error or two in Jeopardy!'s "answers," but can't remember any one specifically. I do remember one contestant losing because of such an error. What they do in such cases is bring the contestant back afresh, and occasionally they will introduce someone as such a returnee.

    Overally, I'd say Jeopardy!'s fact-checkers do a terrific job. But they're still human.

  10. Army1987 said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    We were talking about Noether's theorem (the one by which you derive conservation laws by symmetries), so it was clear we were talking about Emmy.

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 16, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    @Robert: As I recall, Jeopardy works like this:

    Alex: Clue (often a sentence or a noun phrase)

    X is what's indicated by the clue, usually a noun phrase.

    Contestant: "What is X?" or "Who is X?"

    Especially prescriptivist contestants may use "are", "was", or even "were" instead of "is".

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