Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Healing of Jesus

For Christ he was both Man and God;
as God by death our sins hath bought.

Oh Christ he was both God and Man:
the man felt fear and frost and pain.

            ~            ~            ~

A dusty road then Jesus trod
with sandals only was he shod

He felt a touch upon his clothes,
and lo alarm within him rose.

He sensed a touch upon his clout,
and felt some virtue going out.

He spied the people on the path,
and turned to them a face of wrath.

"Who touched me?" cried the Christ aloud
and sternly stared among the crowd.

No answer came.  His face was black.
The chosen and the mass fell back.

His men exchanged uneasy look.
Then one of them arose and spoke.

"O master, see the pressing throng,
so close ye move  the crowd among,

jostled, chivvied, begged of, budged --
Can ye then ask  who you hath touched?"

Behold, from out the crowd there stepped
a woman trembling, knelt and wept.

"Lord, that was I, who without leave
reached out, for that I did believe

a touch might heal   what physic's leech
lo these twelve year  had failed to reach."

He stares at her; and gasps;  he sees
her faith has healed her of disease.

Renewed she stands there, washed and pure.
Nor none but faith has wrought the cure.
He moans to know  the power he hath:
behold the faithful, healed by faith!

His eyes roll back, he starts to sway,
and silently  begins to pray.

"With men I read and teach thy Word,
and with them pray, `Who art thou, Lord?'

Yet now I raise another cry
O Lord my God, tell: Who am I ?"

The answer came; we draw the veil.
What then was said  man cannot tell.

            ~            ~            ~

Then round about, the crowd felt peace,
and knew that one was touched with grace.

He gazed on her with eyes so mild.
"Thy faith hath healed thee; go, my child."


(For additional epiphany, click here: )

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Paradox (for Lent)

"Riddle this me, a thing that's three,
 and yet is only one."
"That is the blessed Trinity,
Father, Ghost, and Son."

"How then a man who dropped and died,
yet walks upon the mold?"
"That is the resurrected Christ,
of whom that tale is told."

"What then of him  who penned the prayer,
yet has forgotten faith?"
"Great God, that wretched man am I;
Help thou mine unbelief."

[For a treatise on the Trinity by Murphy the penitent detective, click here.]

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Pride and the Laws of Motion

Well over a century ago, Karl Marx set out to come to grips with history  by discovering its laws of motion.   The philosophical and scientific underpinnings of this enterprise were significant;  the allusion to Newton, deliberate.

In the aftermath, the laws he developed (the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit, etc.) have proved a most uncertain guide to actual events on the ground.   This does not per se refute these laws themselves -- to see this, we need look no farther than physics:  Knowledge of the Schrödinger equation, Maxwell’s equations and the rest, is of little help in predicting the evolution of a hurricane  or the flight of a bat.  And even in the classical arena of a single billiard-ball, prediction quickly breaks down  unless the table is one of a sharply restricted set of shapes.

A fortiori, predicting human events at any granularity finer than that of the Kondratieff cycle  finds little support in the laws of Marx.    To discern the trigger of events (as opposed to their full background), we almost need to stand Marx on his head:  A man will not revolt because he is poor, but he may well take to the streets from resentment of his better-off neighbors.   A huge amount of what happens in the world  is the immediate result of wounded pride.  SUPERBIA, and its thwarting, lies coiled at the heart of events.

Pieter Bruegel der Ältere -- Das schlimmste der sieben Laster

Thus, consider the astonishing wave of revolts these days in the Arab world.   The ultimate fostering causes and conditions  are many;  but the spark that toppled the first of the dominoes  was the self-immolation of the Tunisian Muhammad al-Bu`azizi (usually transcribed Bouazizi).

محمد البوعزيزي
Why did he do it? 
The standard narrative is a dumbed-down, sanitized version of the actual roilings of Geist und Zeitgeist -- spirit and the spirit of the times.  As:
When police confiscated his produce because he didn’t have a permit he became so sad that he set himself on fire in protest.
(Actually, lack of permit was not the problem:
… the desperate act of an unemployed man. Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, distraught when police confiscated his unlicensed produce stand, set himself on fire
Mona Eltahawy Washington Post, Saturday, January 15, 2011
(Not quite right to call him unemployed;  he worked as a street vendor.)
Likewise Le Monde (5 Jan 11):
Ce diplômé au chômage s'était aspergé d'essence devant la préfecture, après s'être fait confisquer la marchandise qu'il vendait dans la rue par la police municipale parce qu'il n'avait pas les autorisations nécessaires.
(Actually he was not a diplômé -- he may not even have finished high school.   This meme crept in probably because it conforms more exactly to a self-pitying standard Western narrative:  college graduate can’t find employment commensurate with his/her own outstanding excellence.)
And the New York Times:
March 1, 2011
Future historians will long puzzle over how the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in protest over the confiscation of his fruit stand, managed to trigger popular uprisings across the Arab/Muslim world.
Future historians  may indeed wonder, if that is the narrative they are working from.  Such an account leaves it incomprehensible why the man resorted to such an act -- “They took my bahnahhnahs!   Pass the kerosine!” -- nor why it resonated so sharply among the populace:  the more so since, as these same accounts acknowledge, petty police harassment of vendors was an everyday thing:  a harassment that, indeed, pales beside the tortures that go on in the prisons, out of sight.   And it highlights the foolishness of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks who point fingers at the intelligence community and demand to know why it did not predict this.
This morning, the Washington Post belatedly alludes to the truth:

The psycho-sociological crux is front-and-center in this earlier, better article:

This is not a narrative that Western liberals wish to hear.  Neither Thomas Friedman,  sucking such factors as “Google Earth”, “the Beijing Olympics”, and “something I’ve dubbed ‘Fayyadism’ ” out of his outsize thumb to explain it all, nor Hillary Clinton, peddling her one-size-fits-all Wellesley agenda around the world, is  furthering comprehension.  Nor will Marx help much -- more like Freud.

Update:  Indeed, as reported in the 4 April 2011 New Yorker: "The initial slogan was 'Dignity Before Bread', because Bouazizi was humiliated.”

[Update 6 Aug 2011] Sidi Bouzid:  the sorry, sodden aftermath.

In Tunisian Town of Arab Spring Martyr, Disillusionment Seeps In

[Update 2 April 2012] 
Triste mise à jour:

[Update 16 Sept 2012]  Reflections on the subject, in the wake of the Anti-Islamic Video affair, that led to the storming of embassies:


The basic point here is not new.  Perhaps the bottom of this page may become a repository of similar observations.  Thus, Christine Stansell (American Moderns, p. 140), on the anarchist Emma Goldman (whose floruit antedates America’s entry into WWI, and thus the Russian Revolutions and the foundations of the subsequent CPs):
She argued that it was “spiritual hunger and unrest”, not just economic oppression, that drove people to rebel.

Bertram D. Wolfe's autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries (1981):
War fits even less than nationalism into the materialist interpretation of history.  … The driving forces of modern war are fierce untamable mass massions -- pride, anger, xenophobia … The ‘war aims’, thematerial motives and calculations, had hastily to be improvised after war erupted, to give the irrational explosion … an ostensibly rational explanation…

And, again in a Muslim context:

Pakistan’s generals and diplomats  were proud but easily bruised.
-- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (2004), p.  516
In the American sociological tradition, motives similar to these (which I have called by the grand old word Pride) have been discussed more academically and sedately under the rubric status anxiety.  A valid perspective, certainly, but one that does not quite manage to get its arms around the deep upheavals that are shuddering through much of the world today.  You don’t go to the public square and set yourself on fire out of status anxiety.


When a subset seeks political independence,

Its intellectuals will exchange second-class citizenship [in the extant larger polity] for a first-class citizenship [albeit in a second-rate state] plus great privileges based on rarity;  its proletarians will exchange hardships-with-snubs  for possibly greater hardships with national identification.
-- Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (1964), p. 172

Debts versus Trespasses

Each morning in public school, from primary through junior high, we began the day with the Lord’s Prayer.   Jew and Gentile, churched and unchurched, we all -- we each -- recited it with folded hands.

Our Father, who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,  on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us, this day, our daily bread; 
and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

(It went on for a couple of lines more, which add nothing and are out of keeping with the terse efficiency of the rest of the prayer.   I regularly omit them when praying alone;  and was delighted to learn subsequently  that they are apparently not original, but a later addition.)

This healthy exercise was later abolished by the PC Police, as being damaging to non-Christians (though the content of the prayer, as distinguished from its provenience, is not specifically Christian).  
Well, was it?  I am in a position to testify to one case at any rate, since I came from a family of lapsed Unitarians and did not attend church.
It was not damaging in the least.  The recitation was a quiet, thoughtful time;  it was an experience in community with one’s classmates,  like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance (has that been abolished too, as discriminating against illegal immigrants and  people clinging to dual citizenship?)  On most days, in those safe and pleasant but intellectually mediocre pre-Sputnik public schoolrooms, it was our sole contact with anything loftier than the ABC’s, or with any style of language antedating “Hound Dog” (1956).

For a mini-movie
of madness and salvation,
click here:


The first hint that there might be any rift within the lute, came at a family summer camp when I was around nine.   We all stood outdoors in a large circle, and the head of the camp, a proper white-haired woman, lead us in the prayer.  Before we began, she stipulated:  “Let’s say it with tresspasses, and not …. the other.”   I had no idea what she meant by this mysterious unspoken “other”, and would not for some years more, but her faint frown and pursed lips are with me yet.

Eventually I heard the version “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.  It sounded strange (and now has an unwelcome resonance, in this subprime age of mass welshing, both at the individual and the national level).   I looked at the Latin, and sure enough:  debita nostra.   But then the Latin is simply one translation of the Gospel Greek.  And that in turn is a translation of whatever it was that Jesus said:  and Jesus spoke Aramaic.


For illumination, I turned to my learnèd friend and spiritual advisor, Dr. Massey.

The Greek opheilemata (and verb) means more literally "debts." But it can also mean "trespasses." There is a perfectly good word for sin -- hamartia -- which, along with the Hebew root OUA, etymologically meant "to miss the mark with an arrow".

Matthew has forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. But Luke has forgive us our sins as we forgive our debtors.

This shows us that Matthew is the original text and even Luke didn't understand it.

Jesus uses the example of forgiving debts as an example of how we should forgive one another (Matt 18).

But why does the prayer use debt instead of sin?

I'm not sure that any authoritative answer exists.

I'm tempted to say that this may all go back to an infelicitous translation into Greek from an original Aramaic statement. Perhaps the same is true of the equally puzzling "Lead us not into Temptation."

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
For our book-length semantic investigation,
in Arabic and the European languages,
click here

For further observations from Dr. Massey, concerning Biblical translation, click here

Saturday, March 26, 2011

This morning’s gleanings from the political pooper-scooper

Massive assault takes down key terrorist:
Your tax dollars at work

Not your tax dollars, this time.

A democratic election in sub-Saharan Africa, conducted without violence, the result certified by a wide range of international observers.  But le président sortant  refuse de sortir.
This one would be on the front page, if newspapers had six or seven front pages:
Oddly, WaPo has its own bylined article on the subject this morning, but it is almost impossible to find on its Web site.  I found this by googling the name of the reporter:

"Only suckers pay taxes":
This one’s puzzling, from the standpoint of political psychology.  You would imagine that GE -- which can pretty much structure its balance sheet any way it wants -- would carefully arrange to pay at least some token US taxes, so as to deny the New York Times the headline that it pays none.    This is beyond brazen:  part and parcel of the new ethos of greed without shame.
Workers, meet you in Tahrir Square.

That Wacky WaPo

Front-page headline, 13 March 2011 Washington Post:

In assault case, anxious parents recognize ‘dark side of autism’

There’s a bright side?

~ ~ ~

Front-page headline, 14 March 2011 Washington Post:

As kids get bigger, car seat tests fall behind

A brief moment passed before I realized what they meant.
In normal informal usage, bigger, used of kids, means ‘older, more mature’:  “You’re a big boy now.”  But the Post means:  fatter.  Yet dares not say it.

~ ~ ~

Photo caption, 20 March 2011 Washington Post: :
This item cannot be printed in a wholesome family blog like this one,  but readers over the age of 18 can read it here:
(If they’ve cleaned up their act by the time you read it, the original wording probably survives in the Readers’ Comments section.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Let’s nip this one in the bud

Donald Rumsfeld popularized the syntactic quirk of framing a simple statement in the form of a question which one answers oneself:  “Is the cat on the mat?  Yes, definitely.”   Initially this may have been a rhetorical move to drown genuine pointed questions from reporters in a bog of pseudo-questions, along the lines of:
Reporter:  “Why did you refuse to supply up-armored Humvees to the troops?”
Rummy:  “Were mistakes made? Certainly.  By Democrats, by Republicans, by liberals, by the media in general.  Is the war effort producing results?  Yes, daily.”

But eventually it became a linguistic tic -- one quite in keeping with the self-absorbed life of potentates dwelling in a bubble.   The public failed to fight back with withering and unrelenting scorn, and now the virus has spread among the population at large.

Now here is a new bleb that has appeared upon the body politic -- perhaps it is not yet too late to lance it.  I refer to the phrase,   “Well, again, …”
Presumably this phrase first reared its ugly rump in Congressional testimony.  There, indeed, “questions” get “asked” over and over again, not to elicit an answer, but to grandstand.  So the person giving testimony naturally tires of repeating himself, and might legitimately use that phrase.   But it has spread far outside that context.
As:   Robert Siegel of  NPR just now interviewed some twerp from the White House about our attack on Libya.  Opening greetings were exchanged;  Siegel asked a question;  and the gormless dwarf answered:  “Well, again, ….”.    Obviously there was no possibility of a legitimate use here;  the NPR audience was being introduced to this pygmy for the first time.   The troll went on to use the bastard phrase several further times in the course of the interview:  and it was interesting to note, that these weasel words usually introduced an evasion.   Thus they serve something of the function of Rumsfeld’s fake self-questions:   to scatter tinsel in the air and confuse the radar, in the pretense that we are all just going over old ground, the reporter’s question was uninteresting, the listener might just as well tune out.

We hereby heap scorn upon that wretched shrunken munchkin and all his ilk.   Perhaps this changeling “Well, again….” may yet be strangled in the cradle, with its own umbilical cord.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lenten reflections

For some reason, I cannot offer these directly yet.
But you might check out the reflections of the penitent private detective:

Monday, March 21, 2011

Arms and the Man

A notable feature of the Yemeni resistance has been the relatively peaceful and disciplined behavior of the protestors, in a land  alas not known for either discipline or peace.    Particularly noteworthy is that the protestors have been, for the most part, unarmed -- this in one of the most democratically armed countries on earth.   They have faced armed government thugs  weaponless -- by choice and not necessity.

That statement might seem to be belied  by images you may have seen  of tribesmen milling around Taghyir Square with an alarmingly large dagger at the front of their belt.  This is the jambiya(**), the traditional wide-bladed curved weapon.  Its use is principally ceremonial, not for real fighting.   Sometimes they are almost comically large and impractical.  More care is lavished on the belt and on the handle (rhinoceros horn is especially prized [***]) than on the blade.  The latter, on some cheap ones I’ve seen, might serve to cut butter -- but not if it had been in the fridge.   The tribesmen left their real weapons at home.

So far as it goes, this augurs well for the (inshallah) post-Saleh era.  The principle challenge to the nation -- dwindling water resources (and the qat plant that sucks them up) -- cannot be solved by force of arms.

(**) Normally so spelled in English , though underlyingly it is janbiya (then pronounced with anticipatory assimilation), as witnessed by the plural, janaabi.
[***] The most highly prized are made from the horn of a unicorn:  but these have not been seen since the time of Solomon.

~ ~ ~

Another hopeful sign:

Each Yemeni tribe is concerned  with defending its own territory, and its own members.   But this is not on the level of “my tribesman right or wrong”.  There is a long and carefully crafted tradition of mediation and reparation.   Indeed, by comparison with our own legal system, it has certain points of advantage. A system, less of laws  than of justice, you might say;  though like all things here below, imperfectly implemented.

So I don’t think that, once Saleh is gone, there would necessarily be civil war.   My general impression -- admittedly, it is only that -- is that Yemenis are an exceptionally sweet-tempered people. (Such is, indeed, their own self-impression:  al-yamaniyiin saaliyiin, as they say.) Rough around the edges, and many current deficiencies, but with a core of good nature that will serve them well once they take their destiny into their own hands.
God be with them.

~    ~     ~

[Update 4 IV 2011]
As always, the protesters were totally unarmed...

The scene today in Ta`izz (gas)
More from today in Ta`izz

[5 IV 11]
“The regime has surprised us with this extent of killing,” parliament member Mohammed Muqbil al-Hamiri told the al-Jazeera television network. “I don’t think the people will do anything other than come out with bare chests to drain the government of all its ammunition.
Uncannily reminiscent of the Christians in the Colosseum.

[29 IV 11]
Infographie au sujet des sit-ins pacifiques

Saturday, March 19, 2011


The current issue of the New York Review of Books  has a couple of especially fine reviews.

(1)   He reads it so you don’t have to

One of the very best books I have read, and re-read, concerning the life of faith, is Bare Ruined Choirs, by Gary Wills.   He is best known for historical and political writing,  but always this foundation lies at the back of it.

Here he lays bare  the shallows into which atheism wades:

(2)  She watches it so we don’t have to

There is perhaps nothing on this planet -- nothing inside the Oort cloud -- that could interest me less than some TV special starring Sarah Palin.  On the other hand, there is no keener analytic mind than that of Janet Malcolm:   if she puts her byline to something, it is worth a read, however unlikely the subject.   This proves true once again:

This, merely by way of illustrating, that, given the right craftsman, you can indeed make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Explication de texte

A prayer for the Lenten season:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who hatest nothing that thou hast made,
and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we  worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness;
 through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sterling commentary  here:

Gavagai !

[Note to nonprofessional philosophers:
The following follows the classic treatment of W.V.O. Quine, in Word and Object.]

This Sunday's papers contained an interesting report from America’s premier naturalist, Mark Trail.  It offered a curious observation, of interest to linguistic analysis in the style of Quine, and to the theory of Mind generally.

According to this consummately reliable source,  our furry friends the prairie dogs, are preyed upon by coyotes.  But they are difficult to catch, since these loveable rodents dwell in gigantic underground colonies (a single one of which, in Texas,  once numbered 400 million -- now that’s a lot of prairie dogs),  with a great many escape hatches.  The instant any one of them  spots a coyote, it lets loose with “Gavagai !!!” (or squeaks to that effect), at which distress signal everybody  -- pop!  underground.   Leaving the coyote going mad with hunger.

But!  There’s a catch.  -- Let Dr. Trail himself tell it, since we can scarcely improve upon his prose:

Sharp-eyed [ed. note: and also furry]  prairie dogs [oh and -- did we neglect to mention? -- also cute]  sound the alarm when coyotes approach, but the coyote seems to know that these creatures can’t count.   With his mate he trots along in plain sight, right through the mound city.  The inhabitants all dive into their tunnels  as he continues on his way.  But his mate stops and quietly crouches among the mounds.
The first curious rodent who pops out to watch his enemy depart  suddenly becomes the coyotes’ dinner.

Alas!  frisky and adorable, the prairie dog -- like his cousin the humble woodchuck -- is entirely unfamiliar with the Peano postulates -- or in layman’s terms, with Our Friends the Integers.   Therefore they get eaten.  Gobble gobble gobble !!!  Gone!

Now, from this we may conclude, that apud the sciurideans, the vocalization “Gavagai!” does not mean “Lo, coyotes!”, but more something along the line of “Lo, undetached coyote parts!”, or “Lo, Platonic ideal of coyotehood  currently manifested locally!”.  In any event, the denotatum is a mass noun, not a count noun, and does not obey the digital rules of subtraction.

Dr. Trail goes on to report that, by such means, the prairie-dog population has declined by a whopping 98% over the past century.

Canny Darwinians will, however, already have noted the likely result of all this.  By ruthlessly culling the fluff-head innumerates of the population, generation upon generation (quite a good idea, really), Mother Nature (note to secularists:  that's Natural Selection in drag) is insuring  that  those who are eventually left  will be the mathematically most astute animals on earth.   Already we perceive the distant sound of scribbling upon chalkboards, in the M.I.T.- corridor-like  underground tunnels.

-- This just in!  Actual footage of a prairie dog suddenly conceiving the solution to the Riemann Hypothesis!   (This fellow has generally been known, in despite of taxonomy, as the “Dramatic Hamster”, for assonance’ sake.  But he’s really a prairie dog.)

Further proof that prairie dogs have already become the linguistic wizards of the animal kingdom  here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Another bravura performance

In the first volume (Hadhramaut) of the multi-volume masterwork of M. le comte de Landberg, a Swede writing in French about Yemeni Arabic,  Etudes sur les dialectes de l’Arabie Méridionale (adequately to praise which, words fail  in every language), we find a panoramic portrait of music and poetry in nineteenth-century  Yemen.   And one transcribed piece  begins thus:

            dan dan daani dan, dann-dandan…

This ancient refrain (the “doo-wop” of Felix Arabia  -- sometimes referred to by the noun dandaana) is with us yet: 
LIVE from Taghyir Square, San`aa!  --

Classical Arabic poetry is characterized by rhythmic complexity;  and we certainly see this here, in a delivery that is not so much syncopated as…  phlogisticated.  Yallah!

Here the incomparable Muhammad al-Adra`i  does not take the easy path of satire, nor of bare defiance:  he sings, with love and longing, of the wretchedness into which his own country has fallen -- a plunge as tragic as the bursting of the Ma’rib dam, lo those many centuries ago…  The song contrasts the condition of “people” -- al-naas -- that is, other people, normal people -- with the sad state of “us”:  the folk of Yemen.

There is a word for this in Arabic, Tarab --  scarcely translatable (unless it be by the Portuguese fado):  in music, elation and anguish, intertwined like the rose and the briar …   Those more knowledgeable than I, must weigh in as to the musical mode, which seems to go back as far as Orpheus.

Superficially, visually, the present piece may resemble that posted earlier, al-naas yuriid isqaaT al-niZaam.   But it is really quite different -- and hints at something of the range of this consummate artist, previously known only as a comedian.   In the earlier piece, he played the buffoon, with lots of wordplay, and deliberately let himself be squashed by the resolute audience, by running on a bit over the prescribed length of the verse (much like the dithering President he was imitating):  but the People will not be deterred, they chime in intoning “The People demand the fall of the regime”, right on time, every time. -- In the present piece, by contrast, there is no psychic split between singer and audience:   all lament, in exaltation, their fallen state.   (Actually, come to think of it, a perfect piece for Lent…)

God be with the Yemeni people.

[More here.]

Yemeni excellence

الشعب يريد اسقاط النظام

[Note:  for the latest updates to the upheaval in Yemen, click here.]

I don’t usually allude to Arabic on these pages, for a number of reasons;  but currently we are witness to acts of stunning bravery and discipline in many parts of the Arab world.  In particular in Yemen, where a broadening coalition of workers, intelligentsia, and tribal peoples, add their traditional good-natured humor to the mix.    And here we see the long history of Yemeni political poetry  coming brilliantly to fruition  in a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk  of poetry, music, dance, and fist-pumping  all in one, performed recently in Taghyir Square -- literally 'Change Square', the recently bestowed nom de guerre of the esplanade abutting the University in San`aa, after Tahrir Square ('Liberation Square', as in Cairo) was pre-emptively occupied by government supporters.  (The words rhyme in Arabic; and in that sense, were a taste of things to come.  Think:  May '68, Paris)

You would have to go back to the Berlin of the Weimar republic to find any comparably excellent mix of artistry and insurrection.   And even that is not really comparable, since Brecht and his buddies performed in the relative safety of fashionable caberets -- not in the public square, surrounded by the police.

The principle performer is Muhammad al-Adra`i,

محمد الأضرعي

a comedian and activist from Dhamar.  Here, he chants a witty ironical poem, written for the occasion.   This, over an ostinato or basso continuo (“The People --  demand -- the fall of the regime!”), courtesy of the masses in attendance at this historic demonstration.   Towards the end, new themes join the mix:  the national anthem  (“Bilad al-Yemen”), and an anthem born of the Tunisian struggle, which has spread across the borders (“Idha l-sha`b yawman arâd al-Hayaa”).  This intricate blend is notable in itself, since  traditionally  Arab music has not been polyphonic.

Antiphony, by contrast, is quite characteristic of Arab political demonstrations, leading to much more interesting chants than the monotonous old monophony of our own antiwar demos during Vietnam ("Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" -- da capo al fine, ad nauseam).   Here the relation between the chant-leader and the mass audience is more complex, since he does not overtly share their point of view, but pretends to be President Saleh pleading with "his" people:    "Oh you who have been patient for a year -- it wouldn't hurt you to just sit tight another day.   Please, don't be precipitate -- even if the heat turns scorching.  Why the hurry?  Please, people, whaddaya say you just chill out -- say, for another thirty days."  (A veiled allusion to Saleh's thirty-two years in office.)  --  Solidly, stolidly, the demonstrators reply with the refrain  in one voice:  al-sha`b  -- yuriid -- isqaaT al-niDHaam !

[Update 25 III 11: ] This slogan, incidentally, has gone international.  It was the arrest of children in Syria for spray-painting it, that triggered the deadly riots and repression in Dar`aa (درعا‎)
Similarly, the simple central slogan in Cairo's Tahrir Square,  irHal  'Leave!  Depart!  Hit the road!'  resounds in Yemen as well, and is painted on arms and faces.   Often, though, with a Yemeni twist, in wry allusion to the profusion of local subdialects in that fractured land:  irHal ya`ni barra` ya`ni ... -- as it were, "Scram! (and if you don't know that word) Skedaddle! (and if that one baffles you) Vamoose!"

We salute the valor, vim, and determination of the people of Yemen. 
May that tortured land  become Arabia Felix once again.

[More here.]

And.... Bonus link:
Moroccan excellence

[For more Yemen-related posts, click on the Label "Yemen" below]

We alluded above to the esprit ludique of mai soixante-huit.   Something of the sort bloomed on Cairo's Tahrir Square as well, as recounted in a very interesting article in today's NYTimes:

[update 1 May 2011]
South of the Sahara, the popular protest chant comparable to the Arabic al-sha`b yuriid isqaaT al-niZaam -- or simply, "irHal!" is the French "Quitte le pouvoir !", originally from Ivory Coast. Recently this slogan has achieved prominence in Burkina Faso.

Si cela vous parle,
savourez la série noire
en argot authentique d’Amérique :

[update 1 Aug 2011]
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[Update 31 Aug 2011]
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Monday, March 14, 2011

On Aboutness

We sometimes meet dismissive statements like this:
“Mathematics appears to be not about anything at all.  On such a view, it has no subject-matter.”

When confronted with such a pronouncement, we resort to the Weierstrass Penguin Test:  namely, does the same objection apply to penguins?  What are they “about”?  Well, in the colloquial sense, they are all about :  playing, swimming, sliding on their tummies, and all the rest;  but that is not a meta-level aboutness.  They are not the less funny and fat, for all that.

When someone speaks of mathematics, dismissively, as not being “about” anything, we suspect he never made it past simple arithmetic, and finds the integers pale and spectral  next to nice red apples.   And it is true, you cannot eat the number 2 [**]; but then, neither can you really take the square root of a couple of apples.

There is plenty for mathematics to be about. Geometry is about spatial structures.  Number Theory is about Our Friends the Integers.  Topology is about sets together with a neighborhood system. Algebra is about relations that generalize those familiar from simple arithmetic.  And so on.  The reason it is hard to say what mathematics overall is “about”, other than the tautological-sounding “mathematical objects”, is that it is so rich and deep and broad.  What, for that matter is literature ‘about’, or politics, or scholarship?

[**]  Actually, according to the frantically nominalist view of Bertrand Russell,  you can -- or a part thereof at least.  Namely, those two apples, which, along with the Everley Brothers and much else, go towards making up the unimaginable vastness of duple things, which his Lordship once fancied were simpler than das, was der liebe Gott gemacht. To such extremities is the atheist obliged to travel.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What Is At Stake

Realism about mathematics is just a part -- and not the chief part -- of Realism about Reason.   One can actually get along pretty well, from week to week, without having recourse to Algebraic Geometry.  But Reason is at the core of our being and our freedom:  and it is Reason that, in these dark days, finds itself under attack.

The case for Reason has recently been ably and gracefully put by Thomas Nagel, in The Last Word (1997);  I shall not repeat his arguments, but simply urge you to buy his book.

Sheer Reason, however, is difficult to reason about.  Mathematics is thus a useful test case for the larger thesis, since  when the truths of mathematics come to be known, it happens  only by Reason (occasionally supplemented, it may be, by Revelation, which then however feeds smoothly into the usual operations of Reason itself:  exactly like a theorem that has been proved, to your satisfaction, by someone else).   Math has the added advantage of being species-neutral (unlike Ethics, and much else).  It has also proved useful in opposing what Nagel calls “Darwinian imperialism” (p. 133), namely “the ludicrous overuse of evolutionary biology to explain everything about life, including everything about the human mind”.   (I satirized this in an earlier post, “The Urysohn Metrization Theorem:  an Adaptationist Account”.) 

            A psychologist or philosopher, soddened by overlong splashing in the swamps of Raw Feels, will tend to be satisfied, in his Gedankenexperimenten, with the most trivial sort of elementary arithmetical facts, for the organism’s tacit recognition of which  a Darwinian account may seem not too far-fetched, especially to someone who doesn’t really care about mathematical reality anyhow, and thus is easily satisfied.  But hyperDarwinists (not a slur -- that is Dawkins’ self-chosen label) can less readily account for our familiarity with E8. -- Though, to be sure, a deep acquaintance with this object will prove crucial for our species’ survival  when, in the year 30,906, we shall be forced to flee our imploding galaxy for a cosmos in which -- but that is of no account, for Darwinian orthodoxy emphasizes that Natural Selection cannot peek into the future.

And for whoso should say, this is but a shadow-play,  we offer this envoi, from a Thomist, anent the ontological agnosticism of certain linguists:

L’oreille la moins exercée  perçoit aussitôt   sous de tels énoncés  la présence des problèmes qui, sous les noms de réalisme et de nominalisme, ont agité les écoles du moyen âge  pendant au moins trois siècles.  Aujourd’hui, on se contente de tenir ces problèmes philosophiques pour résolus  en vertu d’un simple décret préalable  de ne pas philosopher.  Il ne suffit pourtant pas  qu’une solution ne soit pas philosophique  pour qu’elle devienne scientifique.  Qu’est-ce que cet « object concret »  qui ne serait qu’un « exemplaire »  du concept ?  Platon, Aristote, Abélard et Ockham  demandent aussitôt la parole,  et on ne peut aujourd’hui que se taire  ou reprendre le problème  au point où ils l’ont laissé.
-- Etienne Gilson, Linguistique et philosophie (1969), p. 49

Travaillant au noir,
le détective  se trouve aux prises
avec le Saint-Esprit


Platonism is not the problem

Thomas Tymoczko, introduction to New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics (1986, rev. 1998), p. xiii:

To account for the indubitability, objectivity  and timelessness of mathematical results,  we are tempted to regard them as true descriptions of a Platonic world outside of space-time.  This leaves us with the problem of explaining how human beings can make contact with this reality.

Well, yes, that is indeed a question;  but not a new one.   The same conundrum confronts us in the Mind-Body problem; the problem of Free Will; and more simply, the problem of how you and I can communicate at all.  There are even puzzles at the level of mid-level objects.  The thesis of Mathematical Realism may or may not be valid, but it does not introduce a problem which we might otherwise avoid.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Touch of Pitch

In a post below, I alluded to the proverb “He that toucheth pitch, shall be defiled therewith.”  (Ecclesiasticus, XIII 1.)  And shortly after writing that, I came upon the daily briefing from the New Oxford Review in my mailbox, with a link to this (shades of Baader-Meinhof):

Worth reading.

[Murphy himself has felt that touch of pitch ... and nearly died therefrom.
Details here. ]

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Riemann Hypothesis: an Experimental Approach

This kid will go far.  Someday he’ll prove it.

Press Excess

We really must keep away from politics on this site -- lest, touching pitch, we be defiled:  for no-one convinces anyone else, and the ensuing heat helps melt the ice-caps.   But the escalating weirdness of the world compels attention.  So from time to time, we’ll permit ourselves a strictly linguistic contribution to the debates.   In particular, a semantic analysis of the dizzying spin which the media places upon events (or which they blandly pass on from partisan spinmeisters).

Thus, in today’s Washington Post (the print edition of which arrived unscathed on our porch, despite the morning’s downpour;  kudos to the delivery-man, or to some thoughtful neighbor) the headline in the leftmost column of the front page, above the fold, reads:

NPR head ousted in wake of scandal

And that is as far as many readers will get, in our busy-busy age. Note already, though, the weasel phrase "in the wake of", which smuggles in a post hoc, ergo proper hoc suggestion.

Those who persevere to the smaller-print subhead  learn further

Departure comes amid calls on Hill to defund public broadcasting

And now surely all but the most dedicated have been sucked up into the further frenzy of the workday.   What impression will they take away?

Evidently  that the NPR head was caught with her hand in the till, or in bed with a capybara.  And that her scandalous behavior adds fuel to the (apparently bipartisan) calls on Capitol Hill to withdraw public subsidies from these miscreants.

The actual story -- and this is not in dispute -- is that a different guy, who happens to have the same surname as the ousted NPR head, and who was the chief fundraiser for NPR, did X -- was outed, and promptly left the scene.   So already the natural semantic implication of the headline is seen to be aslant to the facts.

Well, what was X, that it is labeled a “scandal”?   No, he was not caught in bed with a capybara either (and had he been, he would doubtless be surrounded by defenders, in this “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That” age.  -- Actually, I hear that capybaras are really sweet between the sheets.)   Rather, he got caught in the old ploy we might dub the “Camel Trap”, familiar from the days of Abscam on down.  Advice to Freshmen:  If you are approached by some portly, pasty-faced fellows hiding beneath a keffiyah, presenting themselves as wealthy Arabian sheikhs (or Nigerian princes, for that matter),  watch what you say.
Anyhow, what he did say was … well what exactly he did say was not reported, but the way the paper put it was, he “disparaged Republicans as ‘anti-intellectual’, and tea party members as racists and xenophobes”.   Given the realities on the ground, that is rather like accusing the Pope of being a Papist, or disparaging bears for going number-two in the woods;  but let that lie.   Assume that the opinion thus expressed is seriously at variance with the facts;  it remains an opinion, expressed in what the sucker assumed was privacy.  (“Um, what are those microphone-like objects dangling from your necks?”  “Amulets.  It’s a Muslim thing.”)  Now, how -- semantically, pragmatically --  do we classify such an utterance?
Traditionally, there was no word for it -- just something you disagreed with, or that was an outrageous thing to say, or whatever -- though you would “defend to the death his right to say it”.  (Remember that one?  In memory still green…) Then the media invented a new term to characterize a statement made deliberately and in public, and widely known to be essentially true -- but impolitic:  a “gaffe”.   This already was a mind-muddling assimilation of one category to another, as though we were to start calling both sheep and goats “goats”.   Well, the kernel of truth to the move is that perhaps the speaker should have been more distrustful of what the spinmeisters can do with such statements, and the docility of their audience.  -- Next came a further extension, more dubious still, to apply the term “gaffe” to a statement made in confidence, which then is leaked.   Here the only fault of the speaker was to have failed to obey what is increasingly becoming a wise piece of advice:  Never say anything to anybody, ever
And now the Washington Post has gone the media one better (or one worse), calling the leaked statement, not a gaffe, but a “scandal”.   And a scandal, mind you, against the speaker, not against the operatives who falsely represented themselves and who leaked statements made in confidence.

O tempora…

The latest updates

To The Continuum (roughly, the real number line):
Reuben Hersch, “Some Proposals…” (1979); repr. in Thomas Tymoczko, ed., New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics (1986, rev. 1998), p. 13:
If we teach our students anything at all about the philosophical problems of mathematics, it is that there is only one problem of interest (the problem of the foundation of the real number system), and that problem seems totally intractable.

~ ~ ~

Analytical appendix:

‘Twere a mug’s game, to cite specific instances of sociobiological overreaching -- just-so stories that purport to explain Love, Music, Art, what have you.  Chesterton already skewered these  several generations back.   More worth noting are the (rare) cases where such thumb-sucking is found among mathematicians themselves.
Thus Reuben Hersch (apparently during a brief psychotic episode) wrote (“Some Proposals…” (1979); repr. in Thomas Tymoczko, ed., New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics (1986, rev. 1998), p. 23):

Our mathematical ideas fit the world  for the same reason that our lungs are suited to the atmosphere of this planet.

Yet the author knows better.  Just a bit further up the page (with his customary lucidity) he wrote:

Consider the theorem  2^c < 2^(2^c), or any theorem in homological algebra.  No philosopher has yet explained in what sense such theorems should be regarded as referring to physical ‘possibilities’.

They are thus devoid of selective advantage.
(That other, simpler, arithmetical abilities may indeed have survival value, is demonstrated  beyond all rebuttal  here.)

Hersh’s initial statement is rather like saying that the observed patterns of conic-section orbits fit the gravitational inverse-square law as result of evolution:  these do indeed cohere, but not like that.  To that he adds a kind of category mistake, replacing  “the actual mathematical facts” with “our mathematical ideas”.   The math (in certain of its aspects) matches the world, you might say, and always has.   Our ideas have over time come slowly to discover and partially appreciate a handful of these mathematical patterns, rather the way we have come, in time, to discover the New World, or quasars, or quarks.   Just how we can do this, and why we wish to -- neglecting, at times, our own physical well-being, and the hope of progeny, for the sake of the purely ethereal and extra-worldly attractions of homological algebra -- is a nice conundrum, to be discussed over brandy.  I rather suspect -- ah, but we don’t want to spoil it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mathematicians Contemplate the Afterlife

Hao Wang,  Reflections on Kurt Gödel (1987),  p. 112, quotes Russell’s Autobiography:

Gödel turned out to be an unadulterated Platonist, and apparently believed that an eternal ‘not’ was laid up in heaven, where virtuous logicians might hope to meet it hereafter.

I must say, I do hope for rather more from my (deo volente) eventual ascension to that better place, than some face-time with the eternal Not.  We’re quite well enough acquainted with that already in this life;  as when standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.  It is perhaps unsurprising that Russell, the robust atheist, uses the eternal Not as his example, since that appears to be what he himself anticipated from the afterlife.  But as for us, we hope for something more.  What might this be?

You have probably, when flying above the clouds, imagined what fun it would be to romp upon them, as on a landscape.  How trivial a modification of our in-any-case-contingent physics  that would require!  A little more tensile strength to the cloud-stuff, a bit less heaviness in ourselves, and we might bound from cumulus to cumulus, tumbling down their gullies and ricocheting along canyons – playing Tag and Hide-and-Seek with the lovable cloudbunnies.
Well.  Here then is something to look forward to in the afterlife.  Imagine romping in as many dimensions as you could handle (these would increase with practice) along the intricate curves of a Riemann surface.  And what, you inquire, is a Riemann surface?  Well, basically, a bosom  that has been to heaven.

What will people do in Heaven, who have no interest in mathematics?  I dunno – mah-jongg?  volleyball?
Actually Gödel, the arch-abstractionist, had a rather homey picture of the pleasures of the afterlife: “The main feature of Gödel’s concept of paradise  is that everyone has a happy marriage and a happy job.” (Wang, Reflections  p. 238)

Remarks on Justification

As Lent begins, we offer these Christian reflections from Mr. Michael Xavier Murphy, the celebrated pre-Conciliar private eye:

Mr. Murphy has since retired, and is leading the contemplative life.