Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Of course

The image of Eight Belles slumped over her grotesquely bent ankles makes me shiver. I can't imagine what pain means to an animal. But I imagine pain is a sensation that levels any hierarchy putting humans above beasts. I suspect a human soul isn't what caused a grimace when I heard a soft snap on twisting my ankle. As I curled over and grasped my foot I was only knowing that I felt pain.

If anything I think Eight Belles had to have been more focused on the pain than I was.

This distinction was leading me to write a post about the claims of semantic weakening when words like tragedy and catastrophe are used to describe the events following Saturday's race. But that's a slick path to tread. One ADS-L comment picks on the word choice as a 'degradation of meaning' -- which is probably less judgmental than it sounds. Calling a process semantic weakening or degradation can be a description and not an accusation. Well it can be both.

But while browsing through the online stories (looking for other words to discuss) I came across this:

Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said there will be an autopsy to find the cause of Eight Belles’ death. (here)

They really don't know what was in the syringe?

Thematic roles help sort out this semantic clump. And they allow us to move away from subject as a semantic category.

My teacher always told me that the subject of the sentence is the person or thing doing the action. They'd give me an easy sentence like 'Michael broke the window' then ask who did the action. But a smartass could argue that a rock probably broke the window. 'But that's not in the sentence' Mrs Cook counters. Well what if it was? In the sentence: Michael broke the window with a rock the old trick doesn't work.

Effectors can be divided into four types:
An agent exists outside the event and acts willfully.
A force doesn't act willfully but can act independently of the event and can use an instrument (e.g. gravity, wind, a locomotive...)
An instrument is neither independent nor willful and must be put to the work in question.
The means is not a person object or physical force (e.g. a plan, policy, public opinion...)

In the death of Eight Belles the agent is clear. The agent of Eight Belles' death was Dr Larry Bramlage the on-call veterinarian. (This is not an incrimination. It's a semantic distinction.) The instrument was the drug in the syringe.

The autopsy will not reveal any more information about the instrument or the agent. There are some forces and means that might be illuminated but a final judgement regarding the means is bound to be more philosophical than scientific. The indifference of the training to physical harm; or the wanton breeding in the pursuit of speed without strength; or the disregard for the danger to an physically immature horse -- these will not be revealed by an autopsy. But they are factors to consider.

Some people have blamed jockey Gabriel Saez' technique. It may seem like splitting hairs to separate him from his technique but in this case it's appropriate. An agent has to be a willing instigator of the event but a force can be accidental. It's not reasonable to accuse Gaez of trying to kill Eight Belles. Even if you want to argue that he didn't care (and that's a ridiculous accusation) he was not hoping for the horses demise. That intention is necessary. Saez no more directed his technique to his horse's death than any other jockey on the course. And beyond intention his technique wasn't unique in any other way. His technique could be a means impelling a sequence of events that ended in the horse's death but that becomes a campaign of blaming every action and every decision that didn't reverse the course of events away from death. We approach blaming every cheer. Every bet. Everyone who knew a race was taking place and didn't stop it. Some people are making that argument. Whether it's silly or not the autopsy won't reveal.

The autopsy might reveal evidence of certain forces contributing to a means. Evidence of already-weak ankles more likely to give under the intense force of gravity on a heavy body. Evidence of a genetic defect. Evidence of prior injury. Evidence of malnutrition. Evidence of physical immaturity. This could reveal how some decision-making was a means (a not the) by which a system of discovered forces was responsible for the event that put Dr Bramlage in the unfortunate position of making the appropriate choice using the instrument he did to be the agent he was.

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