Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Entomological Autobiography

i’m a bug!
i'm a bug!
(walk walk walk)
i'm a big bug !
(walk walk walk)
k bai
(... ......  ...   bug !)  
hi mom !!!
   [For historical background, click here: ]  

Monday, August 29, 2011

Chess Challenge

We earlier marveled at the proliferation, in our generation, of musical prodigies (performers, not composers, though).  In athletics as well, performance is just plain better than it ever was.

Ever since computers started whupping grandmasters, it has pretty much ruined the romance of the game -- much as similar technical developments scotched the potential vaudeville careers of mnemonic or calculating savants.  It’s a mug’s game, two alpha males knocking themselves out each to beat the other, when neither is as good as a machine.

Granted, the computers’ prowess is itself a human achievement.  These things didn't just drift in from Andromeda.  We built them, we programmed them, we told them what to do.  We invented the heuristics that allowed performance to evolve to the next step.  Only, at some point, emergent factors take over, and our invention kind of gets away from us.  “The equations were wiser than I was,” as Maxwell said of his own.  And these Big Blues and what have you  start to stick in everybody’s craw.

So, a proposal:   Duffers, of course, will keep just duffing along, for fun.  But at the highest levels of play, we need a new mission.  And this, not to beat each other up, but specifically to target the machines.   This will be to a large extent a collaborative, rather than a purely competitive enterprise.  The game will be purified of the boardside antics, knuckle-cracking and cigar-smoke-blowing and a radio receiver in the ear.  More like the Apollo program, of putting a man on the moon.  Which man, did not matter.  Instead, collectively, passionately-yet-dispassionately, study the cybernetic style of play, probe it, discover its shallow spots.   Then strike a blow for us bipeds, for the honor of -- well, the warrior, really.   Colossus delendus est !

~ ~ ~

And just how (you scoff) is such a development to come about?
Not in any way that we can imagine -- but then special relativity, quantum mechanics, and general relativity were unimaginable until they were born as fact.

Now -- it might be that chess is only somewhat less shallow than checkers (which fell to machines long ago), and that there is little room for improvement.  In which case, the contest isn’t interesting.   A hydraulic lift can heft more than any human weightlifter;  a computer beats humans within the current understanding of the game.
But it might be, that chess, as many say of Go, is deep indeed.   The way forward then would be to develop some entirely new strategy of play and lines of attack -- not necessarily stronger, in any meta-metric, than what we have now, but outside the ken of the computer.    The computers could start to lose.  Now, to keep the contest interesting, programmers would have to be forbidden from importing “the answers” into their programs:  it would be us against the cybernetic heuristics.   That is the only arena in which our Colossus may seem some sort of independent intelligence.  And if it eventually beats us then, um, somebody be ready to pull the plug.

[Update 22 Nov 2013]  Chess is now a compulsory subject in Indian schools, reports the NZZ:

In Indien, seit Viswanathan Anand im Jahr 2000 erstmals Weltmeister geworden ist, hat die Zahl der professionellen Schachspieler im Land rasant zugenommen. Das Spiel ist zu einem Pflichtfach in Schulen geworden.
«Viele Kinder können heute nicht mehr stillsitzen. Beim Schachspielen lernen sie, sich zu konzentrieren und strategisch zu denken»

Any Ideas? (VIII)

[We continue our inventory of Leading Ideas.]

(11)   ♪ ☺ ♫   ζ

This Idea concerns music, and may not be adequately expressible in words.  Nor in music either; rather, in a kind of meta-music, for which we lack a notation.

Initially, children like music – rhythms and tunes – the way they like milk.  There is no idea about it; and if there were, it wouldn’t count for our purposes, being innate.  And there, for many – probably most – the matter rests.  True, one’s taste in music matures, as does one’s taste in food or drink.  But it’s still just one tune, or taste, after another.

Only some few attain to the Idea of music as an autonomous realm, which can be appreciated even by the deaf Beethoven, or as read off a Bach score.

Graham Greene, Stamboul Train (1932):  “From the third-class carriage at the rear of the train  came the sound of a fiddle.  The tune was bare, witty, mathematical.”  Compare experts’ impressionistic descriptions of particular chess-games.  Indeed, the Idea  in its full generality  would probably apply to all sorts of apparently abstract structures:  the Idea being that there is a kind of isomorphism with more intuitive human realms.

I’ll say no more on the subject, since it is not an Idea of which I have a firm grasp.  (No chess move ever struck me as "witty".)

The semantics of l’affaire DSK

Logically, the term statutory rape is like common-law marriage, legally blind, or corporate person.  (For the latter, cf. Wikipedia: “Legal personality (also artificial personality, juridical personality, and juristic personality) is the characteristic of a non-human entity regarded by law to have the status of a person.”)  Someone using such terms is well aware that we are not dealing with rape, marriage, blindness, or persons in the usual sense;  but for certain well-defined legal purposes, the broader entities referred to are analogous.

Thus, in order to maintain that President Clinton had committed perjury when he said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” (a statement strictly true, in the dictionary sense of sexual relations, legally binding at the time), his detractors used the term sexual relations (dictionary definition: a synomym of sexual intercourse) loosely to refer to any sort of hanky-panky, such as attempting to smoke a cigar in what one imagines is a highly inefficient way.   And now, frustrated at the comparative mildness of the penalties against acts of lewd aggression that are not actually rape, the activists have taken to simply calling such things, well, rape.  This simplifies the media’s prosecutors’ task considerably:  If you are rich and French and you put your hands where they don’t belong -- bingo, you’re a ‘rapist’.

So greatly are brains befuddled, when confronting the politics of sex, that I almost despair of getting the point across.  So let us remove to an analogy.   Tom shoots at John, missing him.  Or, Tom beats John to a pulp.  Or, Tom announces on national television that he intends to kill John.   Then Tom is charged with murder, because, though his intended victim is still among the living, what Tom did  was “just as bad”.  And if you imply otherwise, you are insulting the murder-victims community.

Thus, to answer in the modern spirit, the Mad Hatter’s classic unanswered question, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”:   in the view of the raven community, it’s near enough as makes no difference.

Anyhow, now that the skirt-chaser has gone “scot-free” (as one feminist put it -- minus, of course, his privacy, his dignity, his previously secure shot at the French Presidency, several weeks of his life, and many thousands of dollars), under the American system, his legal troubles are far from over.   Under the American system, it’s every shark for his or her self, in the blood-roiled tank.  Lack of criminal liability will not help him here.  For, standards of evidence are different in criminal and in civil trials.  In a criminal trial, guilt must be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”.  In a civil trial, in the Bronx (where the events did not happen but where, naturally, the lawsuitress would like the the game to be played, on home turf), you need only prove that the defendant is rich, white, male, and unpopular.

~     ~     ~

[Update 2 Oct 2011]  And now, a move to legally change the definition:
The proposed changes there sound quite reasonable, actually.

[Update 23 Aug 2012] More wrangling over "rape":

[Update March 2013] In a broader context, in view of more recent cases:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Soap-Opera over? O NO-o-oez !!!!

You know how you feel when your favorite TV or fiction series  draws to a close -- you’re reduced to reading re-hashed interviews with the director and the make-up man, or buying Jack Bauer bobble-head dolls.    In the case of Harry Potter, fans took matters into their own hands, and began writing and posting sequels and prequels and paralequels.   In the case of l’affaire DSK  -- pour faire durer le feuilleton de l'été, as one French reader put it -- new nymphettes crawl out of the woodwork with sordid or titillating tales dredged up from years past, and the media goes for it.   If the narrative runs out, go for the meta-narrative.

The first to surface was Ms. Tristane Banon -- a fetching lass for whom one might well lose a world, and be content to lose it.   She has come forward with a tale some eight years old, of unwanted attentions from the old goat.  What somewhat tarnishes this stirring tale is that she has -- literally -- already dined out on it:  there is a video on the Net of the tragic victim at a dinner party, laughing and snarkily retailing the spicy details of their rendezvous, to general merriment.
You even get meta-meta-narratives:   In this case, possibly distraught at having so little to work with, her lawyer, mindful that the postmistress of Celebrity never rings twice,  is attempting to drag a second woman into it, one with no relation to the case, and a self-describedly consensual past with the gallant economist, to make her spill the spicy stuff:

Or again, yet another aethiope temptress, who came forward to demand her own fifteen minutes in the public press.   Interesting -- Diallo’s lawyer would love to talk to her, maybe pick up some more dirt.   But then things get really meta:  the mayor of Sarcelles supposedly asks the temptress’s father to tell his daughter to STFU;  at which point the ineffable defense of Ms. Diallo (Who is bankrolling all this, btw?  She’s always referred to as impoverished, but she certainly has quite a legal platoon at her disposal, including an attorney in France) jumps into the act, attempting to place said mayor in legal hazard, for… subornation of let-it-rest-already, or obstruction of lawsuit or something.  (Note to American readers:  Absurd;  Diallo’s lawyers don’t control French law. 
Note to French readers:  Absurd;  said father had not been subpoenaed, no-one is obliged to cooperate with some grandstanding defense attorney trying to snatch some more headlines for himself.)
Anyhow, the teetering caravan totters on, and some tart commentary, high in Gallic tannin, is still to be had.

[A selection of readers’ comments, chosen as much for savorsome colloquial expression as anything else.  Bottom line:  the French aren’t buying it.]

* Voilà quelqu'un qui a dû se voir proposer de la monnaie sonnante et trébuchante pour faire durer le feuilleton de l'été. Il devrait nous dire ce que l'aventure a rapporté. Quant à la rupture, cela arrive dans tous les couples aussi et cela se passe plus ou moins mal, il est sûr que cela ne rapporte pas de pension alimentaire, quand l'aventure est finie, elle est bien finier. Au lieu de faire parler des citoyens lambdas, pourquoi ceux de certains cercles ne racontent pas ce qu'ils savent et dont il ont dû se régaler au lieu de demander à des sous-fifres

* il est facile 22 ans après de sortir une nouvelle affaire. Il y aurait une femme du même age que DSK qui aurait eu une aventure lors d'un slow lorsque le duo était en 6ème.Journaliste jetez-vous sur cette nouvelle affaire.

* Mais c'est quoi ce montage ? Ce qu'a dit la jeune Femme de DSK ne peut expliquer le déballage du père dont il est permis de se poser des questions sur la crédibilité. Laissons la justice faire son travail, elle qui a tant à faire sur de véritables drames qu'elle n'a même pas le temps de traiter comme il conviendrait. Et attention aux effets Boomerangs, les frustrés en tous genres

* Un peu marre des histoire de petites vertuesToutes ces personnes intéressées par l'argent, que ce soit Melle Banon ou maintenant cette M Victorine... Elles sont grandes et vaccinées, savent ce qu'elle font et si aucun faits incriminés n'a été dénoncé en l'époque c'était sûrement parce que chacun y trouvait son compte ou ne jugeait pas utile de pousser plus loin... Chacun a son anecdote privée et l'on ne l'étale pas sur la voie publique. En tout état de cause sans preuves matérielles toutes ces jeunes intéressées resterons sans leur rançon... l’argent. Voilà le vrai leitmotiv de ces voraces... Après la vidéo de melle banon très parlante puisqu'elle éclate de rire en racontant sa tentative de viol par DSK aurons nous une nouvelle "lovestory" avec la M. Victorine ??? Vraiment loi de l'Histoire à l'eau de rose ces femmes.

*  Il veulent sa peau, je pense qu'il y a machination, tout les jours il y aura une victime!!!

* Encore une personne qui cherche de l 'argent . 13 années plus tard elle se réveille, et le père aussi. mais cela devient vraiment grotesque, vraiment à se bidonner.

* Alors là c'est vraiment exceptionnel. C'est hallucinant de voir à quel point on s'acharne sur DSK pour a tout prix le faire tomber. Une histoire qui remonte à 13 ans (record battu Tristane), aucun scandale sexuel à la clé, un vieux contentieux avec ce Monsieur pour une histoire de maison (quel rapport ??), qui comme par hasard est passé dans l'opposition (comme Banon qui est de droite). Franchement, c'est le cas de le dire, c'est gros comme une maison !! A la limite, c'est risible.

*  si tous les amants et maîtresses éconduits depuis 13 ans faisaient le même bordel, bonjour le boulot ! n'importe quoi .. pas crédible, on rêve... bon la prochaine fois ça va remonter à ses 8 ans ou à sa voisine de classe à la maternelle !!! wouah ! wouah !

*  C'est vraiment pas clair cette histoire. La fille juriste internationale et qui n'a même pas pu faire quelque chose pour loger son père convenablement ????? ça sent encore un coup monté pour du fric. A la place des journalistes je n'userai même pas une page pour raconter une histoire aussi débile. Que l'on foute la paix à DSK !!!

We leave this commentary till last:

            On se repent souvent de parler, jamais de se taire.

In other words,

            Wovon man nur schwatzen kann, darüber soll man halt ja schweigen.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Having just managed to survive the Great Eastern Seaboard Earthquake of Anno Domini MMXI, during which lawn-chairs toppled cruelly to the turf, and zoo animals expressed their discontent;

We *can* rebuild !

and being right now, even as I write (last words?), smack dab in the sights of fearsome Hurricane Irene, which politicians and the media (doubtless wishing not to be caught with their pants down Katrina-fashion) have been treating like the Storm of the Century, or of the Millennium, or of the Phanerozoic Era (the citizens have just been urged to write their name and next of kin on a piece of paper and place it in their left shoe, so that when they find the bodies... Not making this up) ;  my wife and I borrowed some movies from the library, focusing on disaster flicks, like “The Day the Earth Stood Still”.  The package featured the Keanu Reeves remake; but to our delight, we found, as a Lucky Strike extra, the original 1951 B&W bundled therewith, and so we watched that first.

I sort of dreaded it, since from the title you’d think it would be a long panorama of things that fall down and go boom:  the planet ceasing to revolve or rotate  being the heliocentric terrestrial perspective on that ancient day when the sun stood stock-still in the sky.  But it turns out they didn’t mean that;  the movie might more candidly have been titled “The Day People Quit Driving So Darned Much (if only for half an hour)”.  Anyhow, pleasant surprise:  It isn’t really a disaster flick, and only superficially science-fictional, but rather depicts, with some skill, the aims and anxiety of our postwar/cold-war nation, at a time when I was in diapers, and my bride-to-be lay sleeping in the womb.   Such documents always fascinate me:  “See what we missed!”

A nice touch for linguists:   That theme of a linguist saving the day  appears to some extent here, when the alien tells a laywoman what phrase to say to prevent the irate robot from reducing Earth to a cinder.  “Klaatu barada nikto”, he says;  and he only says it once.
Now, the linguistic chops of most Americans lie between those of the earthworm and the paramecium on their less-talkative days.  The best we might hope for from your ordinary Joe would be, “Uh, Mr Robot?  Mm…  Kaku booboo noonoo…. Uh… Coocoo wawa boofoo… Hmm…. Parlay-voo espanyol?  Oo sont les toilettes ?”  But our heroine recites the passphrase letter-perfect, and the planet is spared.

~        ~        ~

UPDATE…  [imagine these words appearing on your screen  one stuttering character at a time, spit out by a clattering teletype]

Suzanne wanted to watch the sequel “before the power goes out”, so we booted up the 2008 version.

Hurricane update:  It’s barely even raining, with not so much as a breeze!  Sheesh!  I want my money back!

~ ~ ~

Right away you know that this version is “more ambitious”, since it starts out, not with the basic story -- which the 1951 forerunner wasted no time at all getting to, and stuck with it throughout -- but with some sneak-preview prequel whatever set in the Himalayas in 1928, in which blah-de-blah happens; the which will either be simply forgotten, or, worse, the movie will strain to somehow work in its relevance.   I’m thinking of “24”, which bit off more than it should even bother to chew, in the way of distracting loose-ended subplots.

Hurricane update:  Okay okay.  Here in Homestead County, so far it’s pretty much of a bust.  But you guys north of here?   Yooo -- ahhh --- dooooooooooooomed !!!

~ ~ ~


Okay so, this time around, it’s not our nukes that are freaking the aliens, it’s our SUVs, carbon emissions, all that…   Ironic note:  The movie studio here is 20th-C.-Fox, owned by international dirtbag Rupert Murdoch, chief patron of the climate-change deniers. 
Well, go figure.  Fox was also behind “24”, which presented a very sympathetic, very plausible, very presidential picture of a first black Chief Executive of the US.   Which may very well (so works the human mind) have helped Obama into the office he now holds.
(The Weltgeist smiles …)

Hurricane update:  All quiet on the Snowden Parkway front.
The thought occurs to me… Perhaps this “Hurricane Irene” is actually just … a hoax, like the Apollo landings!  Just something got up by the media to boost their ratings!  Everything is explained !!

~ ~ ~

[dateline:  Langley, Virginia… 9:21 p.m. …]


Stand-in for the President (for some reason, the President himself is missing in action during this entire film, apparently gotten out of the way  just so they could have a female in charge):  Which of our agencies gathered this intel?
Military guy:  None.  We got it off the Internet.


~ ~ ~

OK, bottom line.
The Rotten-Tomatoes consensus of contemporary critics  exalts the 1951 movie to the skies, and roundly pans the remake.   In this, there would appear to be some critics’ bias.  I very much doubt if contemporary audiences would render the same verdict, especially if they did not watch the two movies side-by-side.
True, the original movie was a (minor) milestone for its time; whereas the remake is just one in a barely-distinguishable plethora of thrillers.   Moreover, the original was seamless, comprehensible to Ma & Pa Kettle, entertaining and more-or-less understandable to any 8-year-old child;  whereas the latter was probably hard to follow for anyone who hadn’t seen the original and hence known what the plot was supposed to be.  It’s not worth pointing out the dozen or so junctures at which the remake made no narrative sense:  the original lasted an hour or so, and was probably shot in a couple of hours; the remake may have had 3,000 hours of footage in the can, and in the course of (locally-careful) editing, crucial logical transitions were lost.  (Suzanne thought it one of the most disjointed movies she’d seen;  but I suspect that her expectations had been raised by knowing, from the original, what it all was supposed to mean.  The remake is truly no worse than dozens of other summer movies.)
But the later movie had beauties of its own -- principally cinematographic:  shots of aching beauty (in a forest; along a highway; beside a bridge) which occupy no more than a couple of seconds of screentime, and hence would have been lost on an earlier generation, but which we can now freeze, or rewind, and savor.
Granted, there are cases where (say) the French make a decent movie; which American cinebusiness refuses to distribute, but instead remakes it in English, possibly better possibly worse.  Go ahead, denounce that.  But here there has been a lapse of over fifty years;  a remake is no more reprehensible than a new production of Hamlet.

Just one tiny observation that tells it all:
I have elsewhere lauded the pains taken by contemporary movies to get even recondite details right.  As:  Old Norse (in Buffy, of all things), and Arabic -- right down to the appropriate dialect.
Likewise here.  The original made excellent use of the professor’s blackboard:  the alien, trying  against odds  to gain in interview with the professor, corrects his physics.   The remake attempted to go them one better:  read Wikipedia on how they recruited experts to write down genuine equations of General Relativity.  From what I saw, this really is true.
Only… in the actual movie… once the PC-police had had a go at it, the professor was no longer a physicist, but had won a Nobel Prize for… “biological altruism” (a category unknown to the committee in Stockholm).  So the equations were ludicrously far off.
Likewise… in the original movie, the professor played more than a dramatic -- a moral role.  How the world’s squabbling political leaders could not come together for an audience, was carefully outlined, in a way true to the geopolitics of the time; in the remake, all this was skated over.  In the original, the international scientific community was explicitly counterposed to that of the politicians who had just brought us the sequel to the Great War:  hail this or denounce it, the position was coherent and clear.  (Democracy/demagogy vs. technocracy/aristocracy.)  In the remake, it is not at all clear why the alien goes to this particular professor (painstakingly clear in the original), nor how they even find his house.  No allusion at all is made to the possible positive role of international science  -- lame indeed, given that the central problem is put forth as ecological -- and the episode just vanishes into irrelevancy.  (Oh, yes, and by the end -- that Himalayan business is never properly explained.)  More than a narrative failing, this is a moral failing.

~    ~    ~


There are clouds -- clouds everywhere, utterly obscuring the sun.  Citizens are urged to shelter indoors.
A neighbor surveys the wreckage.  “That-- that flowerpot,” he stammers.  “It used to be upright; and now it’s… it’s…”  He cannot finish the sentence; but silence is more eloquent than words.
The governor has announced that special medals will be issued to all citizens who braved, and survived, this storm.

[Update, mid-morning]   My G*d, wh*t's th*t ???  That yellow thing, up in the sky???  The sun, mother, give me the sun !!!  The sun has survived the storm !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In sum:
This may not have been the Storm of the Century,  but it was certainly the Storm of the News Cycle.

~    ~    ~

Though this wasn’t quite clear in the narrative murk of the remake, Wikipedia (the All-Wise) confidently states:
The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still features a grey goo nanoattack on human civilization.
In a quite recent development, an anarchist group with the ineffable title of “Individuales Tendiendo a lo Salvaje “ has taken to sending package-bombs to Mexican scientists engaged in robotics or nanotechnology.   An impassioned plea from a researcher appears in the current issue of Nature:

Home-made bombs are being sent to physicists in Mexico.
An extremist anarchist group known as Individuals Tending to Savagery (ITS) has claimed responsibility for the attack.  The ITS expresses particular hostility towards nano­technology and computer scientists. The group praises Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber.

This sounds like a High Concept proposal for a new disaster-movie;  but it’s the world in which we live.

~    ~    ~

It turns out that the original movie may have played a role in the history of world summitry. As Lou Cannon tells it, in President Reagan (1991, p. 61), Reagan's aides were worried about "Reagan's preoccupation with ... 'the little green men', and ... struggled diligently to keep interplanetary references out of Reagan's speeches."  But in his first meeting with Gorbachev, in 1985, popped out with an extemporized proposal, to the effect that, in the event of a alien attack, the U.S. would cooperate with the Soviet Union in repelling it.  (Actually, there is no downside to promising such a thing; not making fun here.)  Reagan's aide "was convinced that Reagan's unique proposal ... had been inspired by a 1951 science-fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. ... It was a film with a peace message, one that, in a Hollywood still quivering from Red-hunting congressional committees, would probably have been permitted only in science fiction."  -- This is quite true.  That film depicts people with varying skin-tints  actually sitting down right next to one another.

[Update]  An audio taste, of what it was like:   "Telstar".
Alternate video:


Monostich (XXVIII -- resartus)


~         ~

“Let’s go swimming!”    said the fish.

~         ~


Remarkable, how the addition of that little syllable changes things, sur le plan poétique !  A waltz-time dimeter becomes a thumping oompah-band of a trochaic tetrameter;  and what began as a mystical vision, becomes a punchline or witticism.


Confessions of a Detective

Lurid details here.

Any Ideas? (VII)

 [We continue our inventory of Leading Ideas.]

(9) The Precellence of Penguins

             Well, okay, here I’m kidding a bit.  But the idea is:  One can elaborate a fantasy life, parallel to one’s daily routine, and quite as rich and satisfying; and not even particularly autistic, as it can sometimes enjoyably be shared. (Cf. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.) Perhaps this is no more than a Lesson Learned (being not applicable to everybody); or (if indeed universal) perhaps it is only a variant of Idea 4 (“Free invention of structures”), the created structures here  being literary rather than mathematical.  I am wont to spend dreamy afternoons on Planet Penguin, a land of fantastical lore, turning over and over the immemorial Legends of the Penguins:  much as one may lead an alternate existence in the World of Dickens – much as Mr. McCawber does.
            Perhaps it is just a fancy; or perhaps there is something more to it. Whose are those eyes, behind the skies, glinting in amusement at our earthly shadow-play?!
Positively to enrol this bit of whimsy among the stern centurions of Leading Ideas, would be taken amiss, as it is not something generally accepted.  To argue for its validity would require an essay in itself, and that is not the purpose of the present sketch, which does not mean to prove things, but simply to notice them.  Still, a couple of brief ink-tracings from the thumbnail, to demonstrate that the thing might be made to work.
George Orwell, no sentimentalist, in his penetrating – even steely-eyed – essay on Dickens, says of that novelist’s characters:
They are monsters, but at any rate they exist.
(Emphasis in original.)  One could say much the same thing about:  Fermat primes; Julius Caesar; our fellow-men, as (mis)perceived and (mis)conceived by ourselves.  The World of Dickens, aptly so called, is as rich a shared environment  as is this living-room.  True, you and I know different parts of that world, and react to them differently; but so do any husband and wife react differently to their living-room, some aspects being prominent for one that are effectively invisible to the other.  (Our own, I suppose, has drapes, though I couldn’t say for sure, and have no idea what they look like.)
The Idea acquires bite when one realizes that not only a master like Dickens can create an encompassing work of fiction.  One can oneself; and the work in question is one’s literal life, considered subjectively as lived, rather than as in your obituary.  Here I don’t mean to allude to the lives of imposters or anything of the sort.  The idea is that one’s own life is structured – eventually, consciously structured – as a narrative.  (Sometimes I fantasize I work at a super-secret all-knowing mathematico-linguistical Organization;  sometimes it seems so real.)  At the extreme, this can lead to Walter Mitty, who is not widely admired, though he is better to be envied than, say, Bartleby the Scrivener, with no shaping self-narrative at all.
            Familiar examples of this sort of thing include lives that are shaped and directed by one transcendent and magnetic lodestar – say, to become King of the Blues.  Many Christians have led lives structured at every step by their own perceived progress towards Salvation;  they still show up at their day job, and remember to buy bread on the way home, but all this is but bunting around the central stage of their lived drama.   We may even allude to a sort of reverse of Walter Mitty (an ordinary man with fantasies of heroism and adventure):  Superman.  In (his) reality, he was Superman; yet felt it necessary to structure his existence by the adoption of an entire, quite hazardous and very time-consuming, alternate identity as that Everyschlump,  Clark Kent.

[For more...]

Friday, August 26, 2011

Monostich (XXVIII)

~ ~

“Let’s swim!”    said the fish.

~ ~

For a minimalist re-working of this minimal monostich, cf. the following meta-monostich:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Any Ideas? (VI)

[We continue our inventory of Leading Ideas.]

(8) The Importance of Epistemology

During apprenticeship, most scientists somehow absorb the necessary pragmatic attitude, and then go about their business quite successfully, content to leave it to a small handful  to become interested in epistemology.
-- Gerald Holton, The scientific imagination (1978), p. 84
            At first glance, “the Importance of Epistemology” would seem scarcely to qualify as an Idea.  It would seem rather to be simply Sage Advice, like “the importance of Education” or even “the importance of flossing”.  So let us motivate this.
            In fact, it is not so easy to complete “the importance of…” with anything incontrovertible.  I have (with reluctance, having long been its beneficiary, but in company with many another seasoned observer, such as Bertrand Russell) actually come to minimise the importance of education in the usual sense of formal instruction; and as for flossing, it was never an idea in the first place, but merely something we were told, and which could in principle turn out (Woody-Allen “Sleeper”-fashion) to be (What was our surprise!) a Very Bad Thing, carcinogenic to the gums.  My conviction as to the importance of epistemology is, by contrast, hard-won, and  at this point  it is difficult to conceive what further evidence could come in  to suggest that epistemology is not so important after all.  (Yes, I have read the philosophical tracts that proclaim epistemology to be dead;  these are useful principally as toilet-paper.)
            In detail:  At some point in one’s life, one discovers something which “everybody” believed – and hence, which everybody “just knew” -- , only “everybody” was mistaken. (Mark Twain gives a homely example in his Autobiography.  In his day, apparently, it was common wisdom that water would rot the scalp.  He was a contrarian in washing his hair. More dignified illustrations, though of no greater philosophical weight, could be drawn from the history of physics.)  From this rude shock, there are various possible paths.  The one settles into a self-short-circuiting complacency, whereby the “conventional wisdom” is ipso nomine scoffed at.  Another becomes very concerned about the status of our beliefs, as one might be concerned for a patient in critical condition.
            After extended probing, one learns (what is not surprising, after the initial shock) that a great many of our beliefs rest upon the slenderest of evidence; and that others – here things begin to get interesting – are supported by an intricate web of reasons/assertions/assumptions/precedents/axioms and so forth, composed of strands of varying diameter and tensile strength, which it is well-nigh impossible to untangle.  If one is fortunate enough to read Quine, or (yet more blessed) to think independently along Quine’s lines, one is obliged to entertain the notion that  even what had passed as “analytic” is not sheltered from ultimate revision.  So that, what previously would have seemed a point (as in “data-point” or “my point exactly”) in a just-the-facts-ma’am (so to speak) epistemologically-Euclidean space, now comes embedded in a curve, or an intersecting collection of curves, each with their tangents, and tangent spaces, and tangent bundles and  cotangent bundles and what-all else…  It is hard enough to rebuild one’s ship in mid-voyage; we have actually to learn shipbuilding as we go along.

[More here.]

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Any Ideas? (V)

[We continue our inventory of Leading Ideas.]

(8) […Your contribution here…]
            The list is getting abstract  more quickly than I had planned, so let us pause and consider rather the great mystery, Sex.  Since all of us  have, at one time or another, spent a great deal of time and energy related to this topic, and since its centrality and phenomenology may be met with in all eras and cultures, one would hope that we could come up with at least one related Idea.  This alas turns out to be difficult.  Of purported Lessons Learned  there may be several (beyond the agnostic “Women – I’ll never understand them” or the universal-negative-existential, “There is nothing like a dame”), but these, I fear, are more than usually subject to individual relativism, and even (worse) to self-deception or bad faith. 
            The best I can come up with at the moment (though if  you counter with a better, I shall quickly say I knew that), is that -- lust aside -- there really and truly and lastingly is, a sort of…  cleavage…well, no, let us choose a different word…a -- a cleft, -- no -- a slit – a, a clit -- no, that won’t do…an interstice, a fissure, a scissura  at the center of the species, which is never ultimately bridged.  In this  it differs from disparities of race or religion or nationality, which initially may present more of a hurdle between would-be communicants  than difference of gender (indeed there is a period, in early childhood, where the latter hurdle is notably low) but which tend to dissipate with increased familiarity, and which (importantly) admit of intergradations (an ancestry half-French, half-Spanish is normal; half-man, half-woman, a monster).  In the former cases, the closer you both come to perfect understanding, the closer you *can* come; whereas in the latter, when it seems that the nuclei are truly about to fuse, you fall in love, and everything blows up in the air.

[Fortsetzung hier.]

Monday, August 22, 2011

Support, of a sort, from an Unexpected Quarter

Michael Dummett, who has penned several essays of an anti-Realist cast, yet confides in the Preface to a major collection of his works (Truth and other enigmas (1978), p. xxxix):

I once read a paper, which I have not included in this collection, arguing for the existence of God, on the ground, among others, that anti-realism is ultimately incoherent, but that realism is tenable  only on a theistic basis.

This is a brave statement.  We do not disagree.  We might indeed go further, and suggest that the Pathos of Penguins, and the Wonder of Ducks, is comprehensible on that basis only; but that would be wide of our brief.   The stated aim of the essays on this site, is to support Cantorian Realism; the yoking of this to theism  could quite justifiably strike many readers as gratuitous, a long shot.   So it is nice to have such distinguished company as that of Professor Dummett.


William James is an ally of a different sort.  The unexpectedness stems simply from his role as a laboratory psychologist;  these tend to be more agnostic than mathematicians (though not perhaps more agnostic than Unitarians, or contemporary Anglican divines).
He argues, not for Realism per se, but for theism:  yet not in the positive way of the Ontological Argument, the Cosmological Argument, or any preacher on TV ;  his approach is not Realist, but pragmatist.  His celebrated predecessor in this approach, is Pascal’s Wager; and James -- ever a man of honor -- has the honesty to cite this explicitly, and to decry it. 

When religious faith  expresses itself thus, in the language of the gaming-table, it is put to its last trump. … If we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this pattern  from their infinite reward.

(Sidenote:  Are readers generally aware how witty is William James?   Particularly in comparison with his overrated dull brother -- what's his name -- HenryHank.  Something like that.)

Basically:  If it works at all, it works too well, applying  as it does, without alteration, to belief in the Great Pumpkin.  Whose claims, on that tack, are if anything even stronger:  for the Great Pumpkin offers whatever Yahweh offers plus French fries and unlimited cable;  whereas his wrath towards unbelievers is terrifying to imagine -- you do not want to be in his bad books.

Anyhow.   In The Will to Believe, James offers, not proofs or even probabilities for the existence of God,  but a (well-reasoned) defence of whoso should believe

in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect  may not have been coerced.

His strategy is, not to prove His existence, but to undermine fallacious arguments against it.   (This is the strategy I took in the chapter “Tumbnail Sketches of Arabic”, in Semantics of Form.)

In the much shorter lecture, Human Immortality:  two supposed objections to the doctrine, he likewise attempts to deflect scientific scorn:  yet, I regret to report, with little success.  His exposition rings, not of the self-delusion or excess of a religious true-believer, but of the plain wackiness characteristic of many a worldview put forth by English-speaking scientists in that period:  e.g. the statistician Karl Pearson, with his “ether squirts”  (see Theodore Porter’s fine biography).

Sunday, August 21, 2011


On this day,  my bride and I
celebrate thirty-five years of marriage.

Thanks be to God.

Minimalism in Physics

Truth is ever to be found in simplicity,
and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.
-- Isaac Newton

In using the term “minimalism” in evaluating styles of physics, I am importing  into the philosophy of science  a term mostly associated with the arts.  The move may or may not be fruitful.  But here is a well-known parallel move, from Gerald “Mr. Themata” Holton, in The scientific imagination (1978), p. 7:
I have proposed … thematic analysis (a term familiar from somewhat related uses in anthropology, art criticism, musicology, and other fields).  ]

The whole enterprise of physics, from ancient times to today, is itself  in one sense  Minimalist, in that it seeks to sweep aside the riot of epiphenomena, and to discover underlying laws, from which that riot derives.  It does not so much banish the fullness of reality, as bracket it:  we hope later to derive much of it back, in an explanatory manner.  (Note:  Not quite the same thing as Reductionism.)

To some extent, all rational inquiry ‘minimizes’ -- idealizes, works with toy models, etc.   Some more than others -- economics notoriously so, tossing out so much bathwater that sometimes the baby goes missing.   Others roll up the sleeves of their labcoats and go in elbow-deep to the mess of reality, little bothering with economy or philosophy.   Chemists, in particular, seem perfectly content to potter about in labs, to discover stuff, invent stuff, patent stuff.  They literally multiply entities, in that they invent chemicals that weren’t there before.   Whether they thereby multiply them beyond necessity (mustard gas, thalidomide,  napalm, LSD) is a matter of individual taste.  But certainly the ethos is anything but austere.
And likewise, for the most part -- biology, geology, astronomy, engineering, what have you. 
But modern physics  raises parsimony to a central tenet, almost the prime purpose of the whole enterprise as currently understood.  This development being by now taken for granted among those of the guild, it may not be apparent how odd this really is.

The goal for some time has been the “Theory of Everything”.  This certainly sounds like a Maximalist program:  but really it is not.   For the knights who pursue this grail do not actually intend to explain any of the things that real people care about   and that motivated the enterprise of physics in the first place:  why the sky is blue, why snowflakes are the way they are, why clouds are shaped that way, what lightning is all about, why airplanes can fly…  (Purported explanations of these things exist, but the ones I’ve heard seem all fallacious.)   Instead, they want to wrap their arms around a passel of abstractions, so complex as to leave the plain man -- nay, any but the professional physicist -- behind many decades ago, and show that, at a still deeper level, they are all but facets of One Big Thing.  (Hedgehog physics, we might dub this.)  This is Minimalist, and ferociously so.

It may be objected:  All that is nothing but plain reductionism, which is simply to say:  Science.  No call to drag in an arts-related term like “Minimalism”.  -- But I believe there is an aesthetic dimension -- seldom mentioned in journal articles, though over-emphasized in popular writing -- which lies outside the bare logical necessities.  As,
“There shouldn’t be laws of physics,” Strominger maintains. “There should be just one law, and it ought to be the nicest law around.”
(Quoted in Shing-Tung Yau, The Shape of Inner Space (2010), p.  14.)

Gerald Holten, characterizing the attitude of Einstein (The scientific imagination, p. 281):

At stake was nothing less than finding the most economical, simple, formal principles, the barest bones of nature’s frame, cleansed of everything that is ad hoc and redundant.
In his own personal life, the legendary simplicity of the man was an integral part of this reaching for the barest minimum on which the world rests.


Central to the program is the “unification” of the various fundamental forces -- meaning, showing them to be symmetry-broken castoffs of an original single Force.    An analogy in evolutionary biology is explaining various related species  as having descended under various environmental pressures  from a common progenitor.   Only -- in physics, the enterprise is far more audacious than this analogy would suggest, if all you are thinking of are the breeds of dog, or the various canine species, or even the various land-mammals.   The forces are so fundamentally different in their phenomenology, that the task is more like tracing the common descent of the penguin, the echinoderm, and the paramecium.   Or even the mastodon, the gnat-swarm (considered as a sort of collective entity), and the sand-dune.   A tall order.

The reason so hubristic a program could come into existence despite the odds, is that it had an early success:  Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism, back in the nineteenth century, truly a monument of the human intellect.  Now, later analysis has suggested that this success was something of a lucky fluke:  in the four macroscopic dimensions in which we reside, electricity and magnetism are both expressed by a vector.  You can not only analogize these, the one to the other, but calculate with them in the ordinary way -- say, forming their cross-product to get the Poynting vector.  In higher dimensions, electricity would be a vector and magnetism would be a tensor, and they would not play so nicely together.

The next success along these lines was far spookier:  the unification of electromagnetism with the “weak force”, into an unassuming-sounding entity called electroweak.   Now, this is far more bizarre than it seems. Electricity and magnetism were always rather like Batman and Robin, typically showing up together in the lab.  Whereas the weak “force” seems, to my untutored mind, like a force in some Pickwickian sense, like the  “force” of a metaphor in a poem.  A thing more different than electrostatic attraction or repulsion  can scarcely be imagined:  it deals neither in repulsion nor attraction, but rather in a handful of obscure and scarcely explicable processes such as beta decay.   Even to have conceived the project of their unification  was an act of extraordinary intellectual audacity;  the eventual success is, well, beyond any but specialist comprehension.

This new composite entity, this hippogriff, the electroweak, was subsequently unified with the “strong force”, yielding the hyperweak of today’s Standard Model.   The next -- and long elusive -- step, is the unification of that with gravity.   Now, to your average toddler, the natural analogy would be rather between electrostatic and gravitation attraction -- both, in their simple nonrelativistic forms, central forces obeying an inverse-square law    But your average toddler, like your average Nobel-Prize-winner-in-anything-but-Physics, would be mistaken.   And so the torch has passed to an ever-more-esoteric brotherhood, in particular  the magi of String Theory:  pale, spectral beings, who neither eat nor defecate, and whose results -- well, they do not as yet have anything so vulgar as actual verifiable physical results, mind you, but they do have theories, and conference papers, incomprehensible to all but the magi.  That does not mean they are on the wrong track;  perhaps they, and they alone, are on the right track, in which case, the more fools we.


A startling development in some corners of recent physics  is an actual ‘Maximalism’ -- basically, the catastrophic breakdown of any parsimonious project, yet not taken as a reductio ad absurdum of reductionism itself, but rather embraced, by amor fati (a fancy name for making the best of a bad bargain).   No longer can one really -- nor does one aspire to -- explain anything, since everything that might exist, does exist, and the (now uninteresting) facts of the matter in our own neck of the woods  can be chalked up to Selection Effect.  (We satirized this Rabelaisian Fay ce que voudras  here).   

Templeton-Prize winner Paul Davies,  in The Goldilocks Enigma (2006), p. 264, takes rather understated notice of this:
The disadvantage of the multiverse theory is that it invokes an overabundance of entities, most of which could never be observed, even in principle.  This profligacy strikes many people as an extravagant way to explain bio-friendliness.

Likewise, though for different reasons, the earlier Many-Worlds school (or cabal) of quantum theory,  in which entities -- again, entire universes in this case -- are multiplied, not simply beyond necessity, but beyond common decency.

The ethos of all this is atheistic -- a-anything, really.  It is perhaps no accident that Hugh Everett, an early pioneer of many-worlds, was (in Wiki’s words) “a committed atheist".  Or that the thélémisme of the distinguished hexagonal/pentagonal humanist  was taken up with gusto  by the diabolist Aleister Crowley, the stench of whose cinders may occasionally bother your nostrils, whenever a high wind blows up from Hell.

[Update 27 III 12]  Freeman Dyson in the current NYRB, reviewing a book by Margaret Wertheim about eccentric amateurs:

String cosmology is different. String cosmology is a part of theoretical physics that has become detached from experiments. String cosmologists are free to imagine universes and multiverses, guided by intuition and aesthetic judgment alone. Their creations must be logically consistent and mathematically elegant, but they are otherwise unconstrained. That is why Wertheim found the official string cosmology conference disconcertingly similar to the unofficial Natural Philosophy conference. The insiders and the outsiders seem to be following the same rules. Both groups are telling stories of imagined worlds, and neither has an assured way of deciding who is right. If the title Physics on the Fringe fits the natural philosophers, the same title also fits the string cosmologists.

[Note:  Dyson -- a notably fair man -- has long been a fixture of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton; and the IAS, in recent years,  has been premier in string theory.  So Dyson's assessment here  is by no means that of an envious outsider.]

On the extra profusion of different string theories, a mathematician remarks dryly,

It was hardly an idea calculated to appeal to a man with a taste for desert landscapes  … There are more than 10^500 versions of string theory  lounging indolently about.
-- David Berlinski,  The Deniable Darwin (2009), p. 532-3

It will sometimes not be obvious, which proposals are Minimalist in spirit.  Thus, imagine some wretched Nominalist, who balks at the infinite, and proposes that the numbers needed for physics  are finite -- specifically, the field of integers mod a prime p (necessarily quite large, to accord with observation).   Finite’s gotta be simpler, more minimal, than infinite, right?  Roger Penrose retorts (The Road to Reality (2004), p. 359):
A physical theory which depends fundamentally upon some absurdly enormous prime number  would be a far more complicated (and improbable) theory than one that is able to depend upon a simple notion of infinity.
More precisely:   The problem is not essentially that the number is so large, but rather, with infinitely many primes to choose from, the choice would seem arbitrary:  in much the same way that the omniscient computer in  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reveals, quite disappointingly, that the Meaning of Life is … “26”.


Differing from a theory-wide programatic theoretical minimalism, is a kind of personal cognitive-epistemological economy, described by Gerald Holton, The scientific imagination (1978), p. 158:
Fermi ordered the overwhelming and vast amount of knowledge  into a set of very few principles and ‘cases’, which allowed him to understand almost any new problem as an example of one of about seven primitive or primary physical situations.  Fermi would return throughout his career  to a listing or digest of the chief ideas in physics, which he had made when he first organized the field for himself as a young student.

Our own thoughts about such Leading Ideas in other areas, may be surveyed here.


A curious philosophico-cosmogonic anticipation of the TOE vs. Landscape divide  goes back several hundred years:

Leibniz … assure que la perfection de Dieu ne lui permettait pas de procéder d’autre manière que de la meilleure … mais Thomas d’Aquin sait que, créant du fini, un Dieu infini pouvait librement créer un nombre illimité d’univers différents, tous bons  et chacun commençant de manière différente.
-- Etienne Gilson, Linguistique et philosophie (1969), p.  163

And indeed, though Leibniz coinvented the calculus, we must say that, here, from a mathematical standpoint, it is Saint Thomas who is closer to the target.