Monday, January 16, 2017

Zen Physics

A wristwatch worn
by a particle of light
would  not  tick     a-tall.

(-- after Brian Greene; slightly modified, to please the Muse)

Dr. Greene delivers himself of this epigram, in the course of explaining that we
 each of us, all of us,
 even Achilles and the tortoise,
move equally at the speed of light.
To be sure, in a Pickwickian sense (dividing our motion between space and time).

Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Great Question"

Two flatulent practices relating to the posing of questions  have characterized political discourse in recent years, to the disbenefit of the polity.

(1)  Particularly associated with Donald Rumsfeld, though the maneuver antedates him, is posing ‘questions’ to oneself and immediately answering them.  Thus, let P and Q be propositions:  instead of saying simply

P.  Not-Q

the rhetorician draws it out into a monologue masquerading as a dialogue:

Is P true?  Sure it is!  Is Q true?   Absolutely not!

The advantages to the speaker are:

(a)  He gets to choose the ‘questions’, irrespective of whether anyone is interested in them or whether anyone would phrase the question in that manner.   As a result, they are invariably softball ‘questions’.
(b)  He gets to dwell in a bubble of his own voice.  Reporters, voters, maiden aunts, all fade into a kind of Meinongian subsistence;  and the Dialectic collapses to a trivial instantiation in the palaver of a single man.

Disadvantages to the audience include:

(c)  There is usually a substantive concern whether some proposition P be true, or what to do about it, or the like.   Yet by this slight-of-tongue, the bloviator poses instead some verbally related but substantively etiolated variant P-prime, and addresses that instead, thereby providing no real information or analysis, but leaving the impression that he has addressed P.
(d)  You have to listen to twice as much verbiage as for a straightforward “P” -- ten pounds of rhetoric in a five-pound bag.  And in time it gets freaking annoying.

(2)   In politically pre-sanitized settings like “town-halls” and related social Spectacles, an array of voters, carefully selected to represent each of the pressure groups to be pandered to, is permitted to pose a simple-minded, vaguely worded question, thus pushing a given button on the candidate’s library of prerecorded on-message speechlets.   But in a new development, the politician moves to snuggle-up to said Potemkin voter, with an enthusastic

   “Great question !!”

before launching in to her canned response.

The practice, repeated ad nauseam  (cf. SNL’s parody of Hillary Clinton’s use of this and similar maneuvers, in their satire of the Presidential ‘debates’), is distressing  even apart from its smarminess.    For the sort of low-info voter who most needs to be buttered-up and flattered, is least in position to actually pose a “great question”, or even a probing or pointed one.    Nor will, say, a scientist giving carefully-prepared, expert testimony on a complex subject  be patronized from the Congressional panel with a “Great question!”   The domains of “Great question!” and great questions, are virtually mutually exclusive.


And now, by an unhallowed congressus of these two tricks -- by Beelzebub out of Medusa -- comes the Great Rhetorical Question.  One came up this morning on NPR.

A Republican senator was touting Trump’s intention to
(i)  Increase spending (e.g. on infrastructure and defense)
(ii) Decrease taxes,
(iii) Holding down the deficit.

Now, this nation has been down that road many times before, both in speechifying and in practice;  so apart from the apparent logical incompatibility among those three desiderata, there is a track-record here, for anyone who cares to examine it.   That, however, is beyond the capacity of most pop journalists practicing today, as well as the attention-span of the average voter.    The substitute for critical inquiry, is a mere statement of undifferentiated unwillingness to be convinced -- the lazy-man’s lo-cal substitute for genuine skepticism (anatomized here).   In this case, the reporter’s Clarence-Darrow move was simply to ask, again, how (i)-(iii) might cohere.   But the politician was ready for it:

“Yes -- How can we address the problem of doing the things that need to be done, while holding the line on the deficit, without addressing the question of Entitlements? -- Great question!”

That may or may not be a Great Question, but the reporter had not posed it;  the rhetorician was congratulating himself.   And in so doing, bait-and-switched the subject from the incompatibility of (i)-(iii) to the problem of those pesky Entitlements.  A perfectly legitimate subject of debate, but here snuck-in via a side door.


The considerations above  recall to mind  what, for Europeans, must be the original Potemkin-“question” scam:  to wit, the Socratic dialogue.

The scenario has been solemnly sanctified,  countless times  over many years decades centuries.  The method has been dignified with the title  maieutic (etymologically relating to widwifery), whereby the savant or solon, by adroit interrogation, draws forth from the naïve listener (like a tapeworm from the bowel) innate knowledge  such that all might marvel that he hath.

As a build-up, this is terrific, only… You actually read the texts, and what you see is Socrates holding forth, more or less commendably, and harvesting the plaudits of uncomprehending minions or yes-men.

Thus, a demonstration of the Urysohn Metrization Theorem, via the Socratic method.

Socrates:  Let us, therefore, consider any topological space whatsoever, so that it have a countable basis.  You agree?

Minion: Sho’ nuff, boss!

Socrates: And may we not further stipulate, that said space be regular?  -- Surely that is not too much to ask!

Minion: True dat, Socrates!!

Socrates:  Whence it follows that, our space being regular, for any point thereof, we may define a continuous function  positive at that point, but vanishing outside of a neighborhood of that point. -- You agree?

Minion: Word up dawg, Socrates !!!!

Socrates: Whereupon we may plainly see, that by defining an infinite series of functions from said space, to …

(Socrates drones on;  the minion dozes, but his snores are taken as assent.)

Socrates: Whereupon we may plainly see, that our original space may be smoothly embedded into the countably-infinite Cartesian-product of the cube, which we earlier (you do recall this, don’t you, minion?) proved to be metrizable.  This metric is inherited by our embedded space in the subspace topology, thus proving the theorem.

Minion:  U da man, Socrates !!!

Note:   We have it on good authority from the memoirs of Oxford dons, that any tutor who attempts to apply the Socratic “method” to draw wisdom out of the maws of wool-gathering undergraduates, comes up empty.

Ostracean Epigram

“If you’ve never had a religious experience, it’s folly to believe in God.
 You might as well believe in the excellence of oysters,
 when you can’t eat them without being sick.”

(Quotation from Aldous Huxley’s novel of 1928, Point Counter Point, p. 13.)

Friday, January 13, 2017

Michener monostichs

Re the onslaught of the Tatars in the thirteenth century against eastern Europe:

In a clatter of lances   and a swirl of dust,
they were off to the far adventure.

The result was:

Cities, because of their walls, escaped
these horsemen;  no village did.

As for the heroic but outmatched defenders:

They were Christian  in the great good sense of this word.

(Citations from the historical novel by James Michener, Poland (1983).   Connoisseurs of history might detect a parallel in present events.)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Is Trump a Trumpist?

The current issue of The New Yorker  features a superb essay by Kelefa Sanneh, concerning the POTUS-to-be (currently just the PEOTUS, though acting more like an emperor).  There are too many fine passages for us to cite just one or two -- best to go read the whole article on their website.   Nor is there any point in my indulging in political commentary of our own:  I am not a credentialed politico, our Junior Woodchuck Blogger’s License©  being restricted to topics of Theologia mathematica, penguins, and pataphysical incunabula (qq.v.).   Yet I shall venture two remarks, the first in the capacity of someone who has subscribed to that magazine for over half a century by now (and once, as a teen, spent a week at the New York Public Library reading back-issues beginning with 1925);  the other qua philologist.

(1) The New Yorker began as a magazine of gentle humor and amused observation.  Over the decades, it has grown more serious, more spare, and focusing more on nonfiction.   Even The Talk of the Town, the opening section, and long the precinct of the badaud and the flâneur,  now typically opens with a political piece (as it does this week, though Sanneh’s offering  quite puts it in the shade).   Yet in the course of his discussion, Sanneh observes, in passing, one of the oldest characteristic tics of the Talk of the Town style:  the small, telling detail that, without trespassing at all upon snark, nor overtly satirizing the person in question, does present the reader with an opportunity of drawing his own conclusions.  Describing a conclave at the Heritage Foundation:

Every seat in the auditorium was taken, one of them by Edwin Meese, Attorney General under President Reagan, who was in the front row, and whose phone was almost certainly the source of a pleasant symphonic ringtone that briefly intruded upon the proceedings.

(2)  Towards the end of the discussion, the author asks:  “Is Trump a Trumpist?”  The sense of that deliberately paradoxical formulation is that the kaleidoscopic sequence of Mr. Trump’s obiter dicta  may not cohere into any firm worldview (some observers called him “a powerful but inconstant champion of his namesake philosophy).  But the form of the formulation  harks back to a tradition of similar epigrams, whose ancestry we traced in an earlier note,  reprinted for convenience  here.

~     ~     ~

Theodor Reik, a Viennese collegue of Freud for thirty years, recounts:

Freud once smilingly said to me:  Moi, je ne suis pas un Freudiste.”
(Why did he say it in French?  It is perhaps a variation of a French quotation that is unknown to me.)
Theodor Reik, Listening with the Third Ear (1948), final chapter

A clue lies in the morphology.  The usual adjective in French is not Freudiste, but freudien.   Freud was quite clearly alluding to an analogous quote -- again in French, yet again  from a native speaker of German:  Karl Marx, who, towards the end of his life, famously stated “Je ne suis pas un marxiste.”
In both cases, these major thinkers were rejecting the excesses of their acolytes.

Naturally the philologer  cannot stop here.  Why the devil would Marx have said the thing in French?   Clearly he must be echoing yet another quotation, one which eventually must be set in a purely francophone context.

With a bit of research and some help from Google, we were able to determine the source:  Napoleon, in exile on Elba, is reported to have said (shaking his head),
            “Je ne suis pas  bonapartiste.”
Here the semantics is rather different:  He has not retrospectively rejecting those who followed him in his prime, but recognizing how far he himself has fallen.

Surprisingly, the trail does not end there.    Although this is the earliest recording such French quotation, it exactly echoes an earlier quotation from King Alfred (Ælfrēd se Grēata),

            “Ech nam Ælfrēdsmann.”

And there the trail goes faint:  yet it winds down through the dark ages, all the way back to Athens, where Plato was once heard to state:

            “Ego ouk eimi Platonistes.”

(We could go further, but suspect that our readers have been neglecting their Hittite.)

Monobear teddystich

The happy bear   is all secure,   snuggling in the darkness

Friday, January 6, 2017

Eilenberg and Steenrod Walk Into a Bar

[Note:  The following, extremely funny joke, requires   as a prerequesite  a sound knowledge of Category Theory.    For readers who lack this qualification, the punchline will appear blank.]

Set-Up: Eilenberg and Steenrod   walk into a bar;  one of them has had a few already, the other is dressed as a Scotsman. 
The bartender, looking from the one to the other with some concern, says,

“Why the long face?”

Punchline:  Steenrod glances at Eilenberg and wisecracks back,  

                                ?                          !! ”