Saturday, March 26, 2016

Intrinsic or Contextual?


Have you saved your spreadsheet with the name "New Version"? When you make a subsequent change is this filename still accurate?

Attribution can be tricky. We take for granted that many descriptions are permanent attributes of some object, but this may be misleading. For example, one may say that a certain person is one's oldest son. "Oldest"-ness was determined by context, but is now always a fact:  a male who lacks an older brother will always have that lack, thus this attribute arose from context but is now eternally true of the person, thus it has become an attribute of the person.

What about youngest? A woman may have no younger sisters, so she is the youngest but this is dependent upon a context that can change. The moment she gets a little sister, her "youngest"-ness evaporates. Thus, this is a temporary, context-dependent attribute. In fact, every person who ever lived was at some point the youngest child (on Earth even, not just in one's family)!

This is a bit of an academic point, but is important to keep in mind when designing formal methods of storing information such as in database logical modeling. It can also be useful when thinking about public policy and taking care to understand whether a status is intrinsic or contextual:  a hopeful thought that people are treated fairly as individuals and not pigeon-holed.

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