Saturday, June 25, 2016

Richard Fortey monostichs

[Continuing our series on scientists who write like angels]

Earthquakes are the shudders
of the reluctant crust
as plates plunge
              one another


the sun cracked the mud   into  crispy polygons


where frost prised slabs of rock away,  and rain carried off  its stony booty

[Source: Life, 1998]

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Phrase of the day: “Euro-Tartuffe” (Brexit edition)

[In honor of today's Brexit-vote festivities, herewith a re-post of an earlier essay, originally posted 4 May 2014.]

~   ~   ~

Time was, in this country, and around the world, when idealists used to dream of an End to All Wars -- to be enforced (a necessary codicil, though not spoken so loud) by a One World Government.   Americans were among those in the forefront of this, signally Woodrow Wilson, who garnered a Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of the League of Nations (la SDN), the first step towards such a new order, established as the dust was settling from the Great War.   But when push came to shove, Senate Republicans and prairie populists  would have none of it, and Wilson’s brainchild was a prophecy unhonored in its own country.

The ethos of that time  is now impossible to re-experience, though students of history may imagine it.   The Release 2.0 of the League, the United Nations, is mostly a debating shop, for harangues that few heed.   Not a bad thing;  good that it’s there;  but no shadow or echo of the original vision of One World Government (whose aftershadow lives on only in the nightmare imagination  of the prairie populists).


Europe, however, shaken to its foundations by the deeper trauma of the Second World War, which no-one ever imagined to dub “the Great”, and which turned out even worse than our fears, adopted a more regional version of the original vision, one which actually has some teeth to it:  what is now known as the European Union.   The average American has probably not even heard of the thing (indeed, I almost wrote “EEC” by anachronism), but it is very real.   And its existence has no doubt contributed to the one big spectacular fact of the past nigh-on seventy years, what must astonish any student of European history (which has been bloodier at every level, than the non-devotee has any idea):  unbroken peace among nations belonging to that Union.  An astonishment that grows with each passing year of No World War Three.  And if there have, in the course of those decades, been occasional instances of fussy Brusselian bureaucratic overreach -- in one actual, notorious case, regulation of the length and curvature of bananas -- this pales beside the Holocaust (to take one example, hm, at random).  

In time though, the freely adopted multiheaded yoke  has come increasingly to chafe certain individual withers;  and resistance to further EU encroachment has become a key issue in the upcoming pan-European elections:

In part, this swell of opposition comes as a result of actual EU overreach, such as the dismanteling of borders at a time of a great “inwash of the unwashed” (see essays here and here), in part because, from a more zeitgeistlich perspective, the diktats of Brussels have encouraged fresh overreach by, for example, the misandrists of Paris and Stockholm, who mean (and here I write hyperbolically, though only barely) to police and limit (with a ruler, of the sort once used by nuns to smack the palms of naughty boys) the length and curvature of erections.

[Update Memorial Day 2014;  from the NZZ:
Europa und die EU, das sind Klischees über Normen aller Art, etwa diejenige über die Krümmung der Gurke, die zwar längst nicht mehr gilt, aber an Stammtischen unvermindert als Beispiel einer fehlgeleiteten monströsen Bürokratie angeführt wird.

OK, so maybe it was cucumbers, not bananas.  Same idea.

Gurke mit Attitude

Anyhow, the people have spoken, in the Européennes, “un séisme europhobe”, avec percée du FN.]


~ Recommendation posthume ~
“Si j’étais encore en vie, et que je désirais un bon whodunnit,
que lirais-je?"
(Je suis le Président Wildon, et j’ai approuvé ce message)


Anyhow, all that is but by way of dilettante kibitzing;  I am not among those solons such as Thomas Friedman or George Will  who are licensed to pontificate  each Sunday, across from the editorial page.   I do, however, carry an official Linguist’s License, and am a paid-up member of the Global Sociophilological Association (QG:  Genève -- it is actually a subunit of the WDJ).   And hence am permitted to observe this new coinage, reported in this morning’s press:

L'écolo Durand s’en prend aux "Euro-tartuffes"
"Plus forts que les euro-sceptiques ou les euro-béats, voici venu le temps des euro-tartuffes", écrit-il. Soit, à en croire Durand, ceux qui tiennent un discours à Paris et un autre à Bruxelles.

Which, being Englished for the convenience of our obligate-anglophone friends, is no more than to say:  A prominent Green politician has coined a category to join the extant extremes of the Euro-sceptics (those who oppose further EU encroachment), and the euro-béats (difficult to translate exactly:  it refers to those bobo-bisounours, who embrace the Union and all its present and potential works, with a great big smoochy kiss):  the opportunist Euro-hypocrites (after Molière’s character Tartuffe), who, speaking alternately out of either side of the mouth spout one thing in Brussels  and another thing at home:  here to butter-up the goose, there to flatter the gander.

[ Updated here/ Mise à jour ici / Hier auf den neuesten Stand gebracht:]

[Update 25 June 2016] 
So, Brexit it is.    In the feelgood media, there is plenty of scolding against those yokels who voted for national sovereignty, and a paucity of self-examination on the part of those who, like Merkel and the MSM, helped bring this fracture about.
Thus, pursuing its human-interest brand of journalism, NPR goes around interviewing this person and that person in England, whose school or whatnot had been receiving part of its budget “from” the UE.  Unmentioned is the sheer arithmetical fact that Britain has long been a net contributor to the  rest of Europe -- they send out more than they get back;  and what they get back comes with all sorts of Brussels-set restrictions and conditions.
Or again the French.    It is by now admitted that concern over uncontrolled immigration was a principle motivator (probably the main one) of the Brexiteers;  Exhibit A being the euphorically irresponsible cave-in of Germany, Exhibit B (for England) being France, which supinely admitted thousands of illegal intruders from Africa, and -- doing nothing for their integration, which they don’t especially desire anyway -- allowed them to accumulate up around Calais, where for years they have been trying to barge their way into England; uncharacteristically, (with scattered exceptions) Britain stood firm.   French editorialists now put a bizarre spin on this, typical of the mentality that repelled the Brexiteers:  Brexit (largely a vote against uncontrolled immigration) should mean that now Britain changes course and takes all those unwanted Africans off French hands:  their Wonderland watchword for this is, that “the English border should now move from Calais to Dover”.   If by that they mean that England can now be relieved of bearing the bulk of the costs of insuring security in Pas de Calais, well and good;  but the bisounours will be disappointed if they await the dissolution of the white cliffs at Dover.  -- Similarly, French politicians (such as Macron) have followed Erdogan in using unwanted migrants as threat-material:  do as we say or we open the floodgates.   But, all England really has to do in this case is to dry-dock the ferries and shut the tunnel.

Bienvenue en Françafrique ! 

Interestingly, readers are generally not fooled.  From a comment in today’s Le Figaro:

Regardez combien présomptueux sont ces eurocrates vexés, furieux des peuples qui ne votent pas comme ils veulent. L'Angleterre est un grand pays, très grand, et ne se laissera pas imposer une vitesse par des politicards. Pression? Tigres de papier.

Interestingly, readers are generally not fooled.  From  comments in today’s Le Figaro:

Regardez combien présomptueux sont ces eurocrates vexés, furieux des peuples qui ne votent pas comme ils veulent. L'Angleterre est un grand pays, très grand, et ne se laissera pas imposer une vitesse par des politicards. Pression? Tigres de papier.


je suis mort de rire devant les menaces . en fait les dirigeants de l'Europe c'est à dire Merkel et ses valets n'ont pas apprécié qu'un pays les envoie balader de façon démocratique . N'oublions jamais les paroles de Junker : "il ne peut y avoir de choix démocratiques contre les décrets européens ". Au moins c'est clair de ce côté du Chanel on n'aime pas les choix démocratiques et il fallait s'attendre à une volée de bois vert .


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The “Dissent Channel” memo

When news of the recent State Department “dissent channel” memo  hit the headlines a few days ago, in which 51 diplomats called for U.S. airstrikes against the opponent of ISIL and defender of the Syrian Christian minority umm, the evil tyrant Bashar al-Assad,  I first assumed that this was something dug up from several years go.  Given all that has happened since -- given what has happened whenever a Muslim dictator was removed by force by the West or with heavy Western assistance (Mullah Omar, Saddam, Gaddhafi; and cf. the mess in Egypt and Yemen) -- surely no-one in their right mind would be calling for that now.   Accordingly we looked forward with Schadenfreude   to see  with what contortions  the signers would now backtrack from their foolish proposal.

But no -- the memo is new.  One gasps;  one stares;  on croit rêver.

Fortunately, the New York Times today published an analysis -- cum explication de texte -- of the memo, saying the things that seem so obvious  but which today’s unenterprising journalists seldom rise to.

BLUF:  Those diplomats must each have been dropped on their fontanelles shortly after birth, by some careless nurse.


Research by Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations found that airstrikes account for only a fraction of deaths in Syria. Mr. Zenko also found that no-fly zones tend to escalate wars rather than calm them.
Syria would be particularly tricky, given that many airstrikes are carried out by Russian rather than Syrian warplanes. The memo does not address whether a no-fly zone would apply to Russia or how Washington could enforce it without risking a major conflict.
Airstrikes, the memo argues, could be the leverage the United States needs to commandeer the negotiations and force Syria to compromise. This intervention would need to be forceful enough to overpower not only Mr. Assad, but also his Russian and Iranian backers, who have so far shown a willingness to escalate their involvement to keep their ally in power. The only way for the Obama administration to out-leverage Syria’s allies is to surpass their commitments, which at this point could require something as extreme as a ground invasion.
The most revealing aspect of this memo is what it excludes. It does not address how to resolve the deep disagreements even among allies about what a peace deal should look like. It does not offer a legal basis for war against Syria, which Russia would surely block at the United Nations. It does not say how to remove Mr. Assad without letting the Syrian government collapse.

A Dissent Channel is a good institution, offering an alternative to groupthink  and addressing the reluctance of subordinates to question their boss.  But it is not a guaranteed conduit for pearls of wisdom.

FWIW:  The stated foreign policy of Riemannistan  is to sit on the sidelines in lawn-chairs, and cheer Putin on, as he wades into yet another Islamic quagmire.


Observers have for some time  had qualms  about the martial adventurist tendencies of the former First Lady.   (Ditto John McCain, but he’s not running this year.)  Some observations from back in 2011:

Since then, especially since President Obama inked a pact with Iran (which already has brought great benefits to Boeing), such scenarious seemed less likely.    But apparently there is indeed a bloc out there that would back her, were she to decide to dive, once again, head-first into an alien morass.

Bashar al-Assad: Orthography and Orthoëpy

As regards the current controversy over the actions of the Syrian President:  In the absence of capacity  materially to affect the direction of political debate, we can at least advise the instruction-hungry public  how to spell and say his name.   In this, we echo the immortal observation of Professor Henry Higgins, who in his learnèd treatise  Bella Damma Mea  observed:   “The French don’t care what they do actually, so long as they pronounce it properly.”

In a nutshell:  In Arabic, the sibilant in Assad is actually pronounced as single, and thus in principle should be so written.  The ‘shibilant’ in Bashar is, by contrast, a phonetically long (morphophonemically doubled) consonant, and ideally would be so transcribed.  In short, the usual spelling in English transcription has it exactly bassackwards.

If you really wanted to be exact about it, you would transcribe Baššâr al-Asad.  

 And indeed, at appears that the State Department does indeed use the Asad style (while suppressing the al-).  From the "Dissent Channel" memo  published today in the New York Times:

(SBU) Secondly, a more assertive U.S. role to protect and preserve opposition-held communities, by defending them from Asad’s air force and artillery, presents the best chance for defeating Da’esh in Syria. The prospects for rolling back Da’esh’s hold on territory are bleak without the Sunni Arabs, who the regime continues to bomb and starve. A de facto alliance with the regime against Da’esh would not guarantee success: Asad’s military is undermanned and exhausted.

  [Acronym note:  SBU means:  You won't be prosecuted for sharing this (a good thing, too, since I just did), but do not disseminate beyond the circle of your very closest BFFs on Facebook.]

The given-nameبشار  is not itself a dictionary word, but is an emphatic/frequentive form based on a root meaning “rejoice, good news”.  The surname means ‘lion’, and, in the Arabic context, connotes nobility and bravery.

As for the pronunciation:  bash-SHAR al-AH-sad (capitals representing stressed syllables).   Now, what do you immediately notice?
Unlike French or Turkish or Persian or many other languages -- and pace some American radio announcers -- Arabic wordstress is not fixed upon a given-positioned syllable (counting either from the front or from the rear).  Superficially, Arabic is like English or Russian, allowing free contrastive stress.  But in fact (speaking only of Classical Arabic here), it is instead like Latin:  the wordstress is predictable given knowledge of the sequence of long versus short syllables. Baššâr has a long vowel in the final syllable, and hence is oxytone; Asad, a short, and hence is a troche.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

James Jeans monostich

 … an objective world,  external to man,
            independent of man,
                          indifferent to man ……………….

[Source:  The Growth of Physical Science (1951)]

Historical note:
That quote recalls that of Pascal -- “Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m'effraie” -- except that the English astronomer, unlike the Frenchman -- the Jeansonist vice the Jansenist -- took it in stride, with a stiff upper lip.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Non-Acronym of the day: “Jason”

The saga of Jason and the Argonauts  has spun off some delightful dubbings.  One, the “Argo” escapade, we discussed here.   Another was the secret elite group of physicists called Jason.  

An intrepid historian of science  ran down the true etymology, after an initial (indeed, “initials”) red-herring:

I asked my husband’s physicist-colleagues  “What’s Jason?” and collected the following:  Jason is an acronym fof July-August-September-October-November, the months this group of academic physiciss met secretly to solve the problems the Defense Department couldn’t.
-- Ann Finkbeiner, The Jasons (2006), p.  xii

That suggestion quickly dissolves  in the universal solvent of Common Sense:

These stories I didn’t elieve.  An acronym for months sounded silly.  [But more tellingly:] Academics couldn’t meet that long during the school year because they had instituional responsibilities.
-- id.

Another false-lead was the assertion that Jason was named after one of the members’ family dog.   Not.  The true story she tells on pages 39-40:  the wife of one of the members chose it, after the Greek myth -- most appropriate for a group that was going after the scientific equivalent of Golden Fleece.

The author adds some linguistic details:

“Jason is both a collective and a proper noun:  if you belong to Jason, you are a Jason.” (p. xiv)

Jason is usually capitalized [completely],  JASON, as though it were an acronym.  I have no idea why -- maybe because, written like a name [with only the first letter a capital], it might be taken to be a personal name.  I shall not capitalize it.
(p. xxviii)

Another reason it was initially written all-caps is that DoD and the IC often so style cover-terms.


The choice of Jason as a group name  is typical of the playfulness of physicists.  When DoD does the dubbing, the result is likely to be humdrum. As,

The task force was called the Defense Communications Planning Group, or DCPG, a name chosen for its meaninglessness.  (p. 77)

When a secret project does get a lexical designation, this may be chosen precisely to throw off anyone to whom the term might get leaked.  Thus, the Manhattan Project:  so named because it had nothing to do with Manhatten, and indeed was centered at locations far from any city.  One of the things they worked on (my Dad did, for one) was called “Tube-alloy”, a nicely misleading alias for uranium (which is an element, not an alloy).

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Metempsychotic Monostich

 we might wake up as woodchucks   -- yea,  before the night is through

(aging david, to his lady-love)