Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Phrontiers of Physix

Q:  What is the fundamental difference between protons and electrons?
A:  Protons stand up to pee;  electrons sit down.

Q: How come Einstein was so brilliantly right in everything he ever did (including even his so-called ‘greatest blunder’, the cosmological constant, which has returned to the forefront of research), whereas everything Donald Trump does is so moronically mistaken?
A:  Trump is actually Einstein’s antiparticle.

Q:  Does the sky look blue from the outside as well?
A:  What a question.

~  The World of Dr Justice ~
~~  Science You Can Trust  ™~~


Sunday, December 28, 2014

A New Proof of the Existence of Coffee-Cups

But the math had not clarified one basic question:  what the hell did it all mean?  How could the world of atoms be nothing but a puff of probabilities, and yet conglomerations of those atoms could create something as strong and unbending as the  chair on which he sat?
-- David Kaiser, How the Hippies Saved Physics (2011), p.  54

[Update to an earlier essay.  For the original, with readers’ comments, click here.]

Re the authors of “The Stability of Many-Particle Systems” (1966):

They couldn’t explain why it was  that ordinary everyday objects wouldn’t just go up in smoke.  It was quite anomalous.  Inert matter just lies there in a kind of steady state, ticking over silently in a metaphysical sort of way, but this ordinary and plain fact of experience  was incomprehensible to physics.
-- Ed Regis, Who Got Einstein’s Office? (1987), p. 185

There comes a time in the life of every young person, when they doubt the existence of coffee-cups.  So here comes jolly old Doctor J, to prove it for you;  and more importantly, to reassure you that, even should you someday forget the details of the proof, you may continue  to place entire faith in the existence of these useful objects, asking no questions for conscience’ sake.
(We earlier sketched the idea of the proof, but there the argumentation was informal.)

So!  It’s a quiet Sunday, the desk and the mind are clear, let us pour out a generous helping of this fresh-ground, new-brewed, steaming darkling French roast, into the convenient receptacle which (to all appearances, at any rate) sits within easy arm’s reach upon the solid oaken desktop, to stimulate the grey cells, and set ourselves to this great task  of confounding the nominalists and solipsists.

[Excursus:  Historique du problème
Dr Johnson famously proved the existence of stones  by kicking one (a martyr to science -- he reckoned without his gout).  The Cambridge philosopher of banality, G. E. Moore, satisfied himself (I choose the verb with care) of the existence of physical reality, by noticing his own hands.  (The choice was not a happy one, being potentially seen as solipsistically self-centered, not to say onanistic;  further, the phenomenon of phantom limbs complicates the picture in irrelevant ways.)
Accordingly, we shall proceed by proving the existence of coffee-cups:  both because they form the prototypical physical object for philosophers (apart from mats, which are ignored unless they have cats on them), and because, for mathematicians, who in general care not a fig for the physical, do care crucially about this one concrete object, since coffee is their essential fuel.]

But before embarking upon the abstract part of this argument (since some folks are uncomfortable with abstractions -- though really, they need not be;  what follows makes a lot more sense than most of what gets uttered around the water-cooler), I shall offer what critics have called the objective correlative:  a description of the actual coffee-cup whose space-time coordinates are My-Here and My-Now[** But now see below!].  (Rather than the ambiguous “here and now”;  for such coordinates must indeed be relativized to some observer, though not necessarily a mortal observer.)  After all, we wouldn’t want you to wonder whether we might not be just making the whole thing up.

[**Horrified update, August 2019:  Testing the link, I clicked, winding up  indeed at the sales-site for the "Catholic Attitude" mug;  but -- It has been censored!  Shorn of its knight, along with his attitude! -- Fortunately I -- Fahrenheit-451-fashion -- saved the original image, and included it in this essay; vid. inf.]

From the standpoint of the chemist, the object in question would appear to consist in some sort of ceramic, whatever that may be, though I really couldn’t say -- anyhow, something sturdily non-porous.  In general outline, it forms a cylinder, sealed off at the bottom and evacuated at the top.  Somewhat spoiling this sleek Platonic profile, a handle protrudes from the side, a concession to the physical infirmities of hominoidal incarnation.
It is thus strictly speaking a ‘mug’ rather than a cup;  but still I say “coffee-cup” because, for philosophers (who don’t get out much), that is the prototypical object in the cosmos.  (At least this is true for hypercaffeinated Americans; more leisurely Oxonians look to "the tree in the Quad").  In similar fashion, the propotypical Contingent Truth for the Oxbridge set is:  “The cat is on the mat.”  (That last one is not true at the moment, b.t.w.;  she seems to have wandered off.)

That is pretty much all you need to be  to call yourself a coffee-cup.  But these days, most cups are not quite so minimalist:  most of them sport some wacky slogan of office lore, or the logo of a sports team.  This particular specimen displays the image of a medieval knight, standing in contrapposto, his tabard emblazened with a cross pommée.  On his face is an expression difficult to read, some blend of troubled arrière-pensées and manly determination.  He is set largely within a blue circle, which his mailed headgear slightly overtops; at the bottom -- a detail I just noticed only now -- the end of his belt (bulging slightly at the tip) laps down and over, in a way that, hm,  might be misinterpreted.  And written boldly above him, the words:

Catholic  Attitude

Well.  So much for the objective correlative.  Now for the proof, deo volente -- while mindful of the strictures of Kant:

It remains a scandal for philosophy  and for human reason in general, that the existence of things outside us  must be taken only on faith,
and that, if it occurs to someone to doubt it,
we can produce no counter-argument  sufficient to prove it.
-- Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
~ ~ ~

We must confess at the outset (well, it’s a bit late for that) that we cannot actually prove the existence of coffee-cups, by the lofty standards of proof first intuited by Euclid, and refined  in our own day  to a high sheen.   Outside indeed of mathematics, such a capability appears not to exist:  Whenever I try to read a physics article reporting recent research, it always appears at some point to be hand-waving, “You’ll just have to trust us on this.”   And within mathematics itself (trade secret; don’t whisper this to Muggles) we seldom explicitly set out all the steps, even in the final published results.   As for the actual process of mathematical discovery, it normally bears no relation at all to Hilbert’s formalist program;  at its deepest and most mysterious, it is more like…. (and here we’ll have to whisper very softly) … Revelation

Anyhow, we obviously can’t actually prove the existence of coffee-cups, because logically, strictly speaking, they might not exist:  We might all be just brains in a vat, hallucinating the whole thing.   So to clear the air, we frankly state our Auxiliary Assumption:

(AUX)  We’re not just brains in a vat.

If you personally reject that assumption -- well, happy marinating.  For the rest of us -- to proceed.

[Excursus:  Among the merits of d’Abro’s history The Rise of the New Physics (1939), is that he repeatedly points out the (sometimes unacknowledged) auxiliary assumptions that were required in the development of even the most successful programs in the physical sciences, by the most celebrated researchers, during physics’ Golden Age.
Almost nothing we do in everyday life  is free of unspoken assumptions, sheer force of habit, and random whims.  So, simply by listing such propositions as (AUX), we are making some modest progress.]

The principal premises of the proof, and the only ones that would occur to most people, are evidential.   This is where the hard work of science is done.  Fortunately, in the case of perceptions of ordinary middle-size objects, Nature does it for us, that we need not continually trouble our little heads:  all sorts of cross-connections and epistemological assumptions are hard-wired into our brains.  (These brains, b.t.w., reside in a cranium, vice a vat.)  We shall nevertheless lay out some of the perceptions and observations that serve to buttress the conclusion to objectual existence -- not so much to convince you yet further that your mug is real, but rather, virtually the contrary:  by such explicit exposure of our evidential grounds, to make plain their essential poverty, absent certain grounding metaphysical principles, along the lines of (AUX) though more substantial -- or rather again, more abstract and as it might be insubstantial, since (AUX), though it has the look of a metaphysical assumption, might in some circumstances be actually demonstrable, and thus empirical, as happens in the movie “The Matrix”.

(PE) Perceptual Evidence

(1) I seem to see before me a colour-patch (Note to the lay reader: These colour-patches compose the whole of the world for the positivist empiricists, who never quite manage to convince themselves that coffee-cups are real, and therefore cannot drink the coffee, and die of thirst), roughly cylindrical in outline -- though the exact projection upon the retina depends on the viewing-angle in complex ways (blah blah blah; insert usual empiricist verbiage here).
(2) When I reach out with my hand (for reassurance as to the existence of your own hands, consult the works of G. E. Moore), groping in the general direction of the above-named coloured patch, I abruptly encounter what seems to be a solid object -- a bit too abruptly, it turns out, as some sort of dark hot liquid is now pouring into my lap.
(3) (Insert more such evidence here -- crucially, cross-modally, involving the sound of the mug as you strike it with your pen; the smell and the taste of the coffee within).
(4)  When I pour a small amount of coffee into this apparent container, it does not quantum-tunnel out:  thus recalling, by uniformity and analogy, such similar objectual posits as the Water-Glass.
(5)  Jones here -- a stout fellow of sound mind -- affirms that, egads, he too perceives a coloured patch in what, calculating the parallax by triangulations, dum-de-dum, doing the math, appears to correspond to the same space-time locus that I myself have identified.
(6)  (etc. etc. etc.)

(C ) Conclusion

Coffee-cups really do exist.

(They do, but this one's just an image of such a cup)

Now:   The thoughtful reader will already have noticed how grotesquely speckled with gaps  such reasoning is -- why, it shouldn’t convince a child.  For, though it pretends to consist of but simple reports of perceptions -- “observation sentences” in the lingo -- rather than any abstract reasoning that might be open to critique, it actually smuggles in a great deal of unbuttressed assumptions.  Thus -- what ties (1) and (2) into any sort of connection with each other?  Why,  the unexamined assumption that the visual coordinates of (1) map smoothly and without controversy to the kinesthetic coordinates of (2):  a fact by no means obvious  -- intellectually, that is;  of course, the identity is more or less hard-wired, though it may take baby a certain amount of groping and spoon-dropping to get the respective ordinates and abscissae to finally match up.  Nor is the correlation in any sense necessary -- indeed, it can be easily overturned in simple experiments involving funny spectacles.
And as for that “Jones” there -- you are assuming the existence of Other Minds, about which great vats of ink have been spilled!  (There is, in fact, one sense in which philosophers at any rate  are brains-in-a-vat.)  And indeed you need vastly more than that -- for the Other Minds projected by mere analogy, might be only Other Monads, and incommunicable among themselves.  All right, wire them one to another -- still not enough:  you are assuming that you each mean ‘the same thing’ when you utter the same (or: “similar”) syllables:  an assumption demonstrably false in every political summit or marital argument.  All right, plow ahead and assume that:  you’re still not there.  With all the intelligence and good-will in the world, your private knowledge might not be transmissable intact: witness the celebrated case of determining whether or not your extragalactic pen-pal resides in a world made of matter or of anti-matter, or whether he is right- or left-handed.  -- And here my grey-cells throw in the towel; but were you (younger, and keener) to pursue this line of speculation further, things would probably only get worse.

No, for the various clauses of (PE) to have any cohesion and probative force at all, we require a vast apparatus of non-evidential, metaphysical assumptions, almost never made plain.  The above syllogism,  (PE) => (C ), is thus in reality an enthymeme .  Suppressed is what we might dub the enthymematic assumption, which we now state here:

(EA -- full version)  Background metaphysical premises
(Insert the entire body of philosophy here, along with the whole of science.  Do not omit to mention the Assumption of Cosmic Uniformity (spatial; temporal; spatio-temporal), the Problem of Induction, the Reliability of Deduction, along with some still-unnamed rules of thumb concerning our right to ignore pesky quantum-mechanical paradoxes when speaking of mid-level objects, etc. etc.)

Now, that is rather a tall order, and even were it somehow to be accomplished for this particular case (which might or might not "go over" towards founding the existence of pickles, say), no individual mind could survey the results and verify their correctness and inter-consistency.   And yet, this is the heavy machinery that we need to conclude to so modest a proposition as the existence of coffee-cups.  So let us superadd, as a concession to our feeble powers of ratiocination and memory, the following Concise Version:

(EA -- concise version)  God is Good.

This one works for me;  but if you’re an epistemological stickler, you can probably get by with this weaker assumption, as stated by Einstein, and applied, not only in his life, but in the practice of his physics:

(EA -- weakened version)  Boshaft ist er Nicht.

Which is to say, anglicê:  at least He is not plain mean.   By which he meant:  The cosmos is not just some vast joke, jerry-rigged to baffle our senses.  Overall, it ultimately makes sense -- even if what we perceive here below, is but the thread-gnarly underside of the grand patterned carpet.

(Note:  The basic point is more logical than theological;  still, the realms do tend to intertwine.)

Historical footnote:

Descartes derived the principle of inertia from two premises:
* the homogeneity of the straight line, and
* the immutability of God, of which the constant quantity of motion in the world is an expression.
-- Charles Gillispie, The Edge of Objectivity (1960), p. 90

Note incidentally that the first of these Cartesian principles is at least as fraught as the second (the problems and paradoxes of The Continuum).

~ For a theo-philosophical fantasia, try this:
Murphy and the Magic Pawnshop
~ ~ ~

To add some punch to our insistence on the Importance of the Enthymeme, with all its tacit metaphysical assumptions, let us instance another, less familiar syllogism.

(P) Evidential Premises:
1. Something funny’s going on here.
2. What’s that smell?
3.  I can’t find my car keys -- probably somebody swiped them.
4.  What’s that noise?!
5.  So where does Jones get the money for a fancy car like that?
6. No way I’m letting that bastard merge into my lane.
7. Why are all those people staring at me?
8. Ouch!
9. It’s a conspiracy.

(C ) Conclusion:  The world is ruled by giant lizards.

That conclusion is an actual doctrine, firmly held by some people:  non-institutionalized people, actual citizens who have the right to vote (and who seemingly exercise that right with disproportionate frequency).  I’d provide a link to the relevant Web sites, but fear lest these poison your computer.

What, though, must be the missing enthymeme, which licenses this deduction?  Apparently something like this:

(E)  The cosmos is ruled by Satan.

Compared with (E), (C) begins to look relatively inviting.

~  ~  ~

But enough of such stuffy studies!   The sun, renewed, has broken through the clouds, the bird-sounds rise in chorus, and a breeze bestirs itself among the leaves.   Let us then fare forth, into the wide world, whose splendor bears the imprint of its Maker, as plainly as had He signed it, John-Hancock-style, with His celestial pen.

~  ~  ~

[Afterthought]  But what then, of the java, that flows from the mug whose reality we have just proved???  Why, it flows to fuel the brains of mathematicians! 

[Appendix, Jan 2015]  Having at length satisfied ourselves as to the reality, or at least reliability, of coffee-cups, would should not  on that account sink back into an attitude of Moorean complacency (“I’m all right, Jack;  I’ve got hands”).  For our commitment to these  suggests yet further commitments, which we had not realized were there to assess.  Such as :  Realism with regard to quantum state vectors.

The question of ‘reality’ must be addressed in quantum mechanics -- especially if you takes the view that the quantum formalism applies universally to the whole of physics -- for then, if there is no quantum reality, there can be no reality at any level.
-- Roger Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 508


The question of the objective existence of the objects of mathematics … is an exact replica of the question of the objective existence of the outer world.
-- Kurt Gödel, “What is Cantor’s continuum problem?”, in American Mathematical Monthly, 1947.

In for a penny, in for a pound.


This notion of ‘enthymeme’ deserves further comment, and here is not really the place;  yet I can find no other home for it, among these essays.  Thus:

This is characteristic of ancient informal logic -- that is, of the logic of proof or of thought-experiment …. ; we regard it as enthymematic  only through hindsight:  it was only later that an increase in content  became a sign, not of the power, but of the weakness, of an inference.
-- Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations (1976), p. 81

For more from this pen, try this:

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ontological Epigrams

Okhamians like Quine (for so I shall refer to him, out of deference to my former professor, so as to avoid the loathsome connotations of Nominalist) are concerned not to clutter up the ontology with extra entities like facts or meanings which parallel and move in unison with statements  without really adding anything useful.  Strawson (a reliable nutshell-stuffer) puts it in a nutshell  thus:

Facts are what statements (when true) state;  they are not what statements are about.
-- P.F.Strawson, “Truth” (1950; often anthologized)

~     ~     ~

Quantum superposition is ontological, not epistemological.  It is not that we don’t know what state the cat is in.

(Unfortunately I have forgotten who said this.  Mark Twain?)

~     ~     ~

The ontological touchstone for British analytic philosophy, whether of the Idealist or the Empiricist inclination, has ever been the Tree in the Quad.    For several thousand years, this noble oak has been under uninterrupted observation by a rota of pre-Chalcolithic druids, lest it pop out of being, unobserved.  What a shame that would be!  It was such a nice tree!

~     ~     ~

The first question of ontology is:  What is there?
The answer to this, as Quine put it: Everything.
(Yet adds the stern proviso:  But no more than that.)

The second is, of each thing:  What is it?
To answer this, we may revise good Bishop Butler thus.
=>  Everything is, what it is  --  along with several other things as well.

Thus: a diamond is:

* A costly gem, proverbial for hardness
* A face-centered cubic crystaline allotrope of carbon
* A girl’s best friend
* Forever.

Given this, the question, What is Being? (überhaupt or tout court), must be categorized as meta-ontological.

~     ~     ~

Meinong’s bizarre deviation(**) … was … jenseits von Sein und Nichtsein.  Oddly enough, I find this idea a good one, provided that we bolster it with Bentham’s theory of fictions.  Contextual definition, or what Bentham called paraphrasis, can enable us to talk very considerably and conveniently about putative objects  without footing an ontological bill.  It is a strictly legitimate way of making theories in which there is less than meets the eye.
--- Quine, “Existence and Quantification”

The concluding epigram of that paragraph  is particularly relished by Minimalists.

(** Note:  The reference is to that philosopher’s ontological exuberence,  and not to any possible undue familiarities with capybaras during off-hours.)

~     ~     ~

Thus far the apophthegmatic epitome.  If these have whetted your appetite, click here.

[Orthoepic update]  Since folks keep clicking on this post, I'll add this:
The fifty-dollar first word of this essay  refers to the Nominalist, William of Okham.  That last word is pronounced OCK-um.  But the adjective, Okhamian (which I possibly just made up, but on a proper model) would be pronounced ock-HAY-mee-an.
Try to work this into your next singles-bar conversation.  It's guaranteed.

~     ~     ~

« Ontology can be saved  with a sufficient ideology. »
-- Saul Kripke, “Is There a Problem about Substitutional Quantification?”,
in: Evans & McDowell, eds., Truth and Meaning (1976), p. 343

Not sure what that means, exactly;  but it has a lilt to it, like “Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist”;  of which, perhaps, it is a paraphrase.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Children's Christmas Eve

The stockings hang beside the hearth,
the holly on the door.
The children hope that they’ve been good --
but they’re not sure.

They think of sometimes thieving fingers,
sticky with cookie-guilt.
A tear creeps to their eye at the corners
as they think of the milk they’ve spilt.

And oh!  What of the times they tried,
but failed, to say their prayers?
Lo, woe!  their whole life seems to proceed
in the spotlight of grownups’ stares.

Untidiness, disobedience,
the list of sins grows long.
Like toddlers walking, they sway on the fence
dividing Right from Wrong.

The stockings hang like judgment
as the children search their souls.
Will sweetmeats by their portion --
or a lump of cold black coal?

Toys left lying, beds unmade,
the Sunday suit awry.
There was even a time, they know to their shame,
when they told -- O coal!  -- a lie!

The children crawl between the sheets
on the night before Christmas day.
The pillow against their cheek is wet.
Their lips begin to pray.

The stockings hang from the scaffold.
The dark tree stands by the stair.
Yet as they pray  they hear the toll
of sleighbells in the air.

Behold!  A chariot slices the sky,
the stars roll back in a tide.
Saint Nicholas stands upon the helm,
the Virgin by his side.

And all the angels  whirl like fire,
bearing the carriage along.
The heavens thunder  with the choir
of joyful Christmas song.

Sugarplums shower from the tree
where CHRIST was crucified.
Raised souls join in a jubilee
redeemed by Him who died.

The children stare at Santa Claus
as light streams from his face.
Their present’s the best  that ever there was --
the gift of Grace.

~     ~     ~

For a further story of miracles through grace,  
have a look at this:

The Devil Wore Elevator-shoes

Update 23 December 2014]   It is pleasant to learn that some movie-goers at least, will have the (dubious) privilege of seeing “The Interview” this Christmas season.   It is a comedy (indeed, NPR described it as a “farce”, so don’t get your hopes up);  but if the Dwarf Dictator of that wretched statelet keeps going further, the script might be remade, not as comedy  but as documentary.

BTW -- We've been down this road before.

According to the movie -- and to random stuff on the Internet so it must be true -- Kim Van Moron or whatever his name is, claims not to possess the organs of urination or defecation.  If true, this would (physio)logically imply that he is a dickless wonder who is full of sh*t.
In (dis)honor of that rogue state -- not so much the “Axis” as the “Anus of Evil” -- we here repost our earlier musings.

~ [Original post-date: 14 Dec 2013] ~

It is depressing even to have to think about North Korea, the geopolitical equivalent of anal warts.  But alas, it exists;  and like those annoyances, when extant, it must be attended to, lest the infection spread.

Today’s Los Angeles Times features a fascinating article about the remarkable developments of the last few days, in that wretched land.   Misled by the headline on the homepage of their website,

I almost didn’t click on it,  since it sounded as though it might refer to some laughable lame pale-imitation of Gangnam style among adolescents wearing their hair around a quarter of an inch longer than the Party really prefers -- though even so attenuated a whiff of a Prague Spring would be welcome.   But no:  the term “revolution” is misused here, since the recent events do not involve any substantial segment of the North Korean population, young or otherwise, but are simply a palace coup, a bloody jostling among factions;  yet, given that country’s significant propensity for making mischief, and possession of the nukes to do so, Attention Must Be Paid.
As you are unlikely simply to stumble upon the article (since I read it this morning, the LATimes web team has  -- disgracefully -- demoted or 'defeatured' the article, removing it from the homepage entirely;  you will not find it unless you know it’s there), I here rescue it from oblivion (to the extent that appearing upon the prestigious World of Dr Justice blog  can be described as doing that) by quoting some of the juicier passages:

It is North Korea's version of a youth revolution, and it's making a lot of people nervous.
At 30, Kim Jong Un may well be the world's youngest head of state. His brother, Kim Jong Chul, two years older, is best known as an avid Eric Clapton fan but is also said to keep an eye on the leader's security. And the youngest of the Swiss-educated siblings, 26-year-old sister Kim Yo Jong, is seen frequently as an aide-de-camp to the leader.
With Thursday's execution of their uncle, Jang Song Taek, and the purge of his cronies, this impatient new generation of the Kim family dynasty appears to be kicking out the adults. More executions are expected.
"He had to get rid of the grumpy old men," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar based in Seoul. "He couldn't be a boss with subordinates who are twice his age, who don't understand him and don't take him seriously."

Arch-traitor and running-dog  Jang Song Taek confesses his guilt

Kim's tactics in some ways are reminiscent of China's Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao Tse-tung in 1966, in which youthful Red Guards terrorized their teachers and other authority figures.

The 67-year-old Jang was for decades a trusted eminence grise, the interlocutor in an otherwise eccentric family.
Jang was appointed the de facto regent before Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, a job that included reining in youthful impulses — something the younger Kim clearly resented.
In a 2,700-word screed released Friday, Jang was accused of doing "serious harm to the youth movement in our country, being part of the group of renegades and traitors in the field of youth work bribed by enemies."
Just two years in power, Kim Jong Un has made a cult of youth the theme of his rule, investing the country's scarce resources in water slides, roller coasters and ski slopes.
The most notable foreign dignitary to visit Pyongyang, the capital, since he took over is the tattooed, body-pierced former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who is supposed to visit again next week.
Along with the charges of plotting a coup, the report by the official Korean Central News Agency detailed petty grievances that Kim clearly had been nursing for the last two years. Among them: When a monument was built to showcase a letter written by Kim to a unit of the People's Internal Security Forces, Jang directed that it be placed in a shady corner rather than in front of the building.
Jang also was accused of showing a lack of enthusiasm when Kim, while his father was leader, was promoted to vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. "He behaved so arrogantly and insolently, as unwillingly standing up from his seat and halfheartedly clapping," the report said.
Since his father died, Kim has fired five of the seven elderly statesmen who walked behind the car carrying the coffin in the funeral procession.
At least two other senior officials who reported to Jang have been executed: Ri Yong Ha and Jang Soo Kil. A defector group in Seoul reported that brother Kim Jong Chul personally held the pistol when the two were arrested because nobody else was brave enough to do it.
Although the story is likely to be apocryphal, it is indicative of the myth Kim is trying to create: he and his two siblings as heroic young warriors defending the Kim bloodline against interlopers.
More executions are anticipated as the purge continues. Unconfirmed reports from Seoul suggest that Kim might be going after another of his mentors: Ri Su Yong, who was appointed ambassador to Switzerland in 1988 and served as Kim's guardian while the boy was attending school in Bern.
In March, for no discernible reason, Pyongyang declared itself to be in a "state of war" with South Korea and threatened the United States with "thermonuclear war." The tantrums prompted a rare public chastisement from Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
A more pedestrian worry is who will be running things now. Jang oversaw most of North Korea's trade, maintaining the balance between various military-run companies that sell coal, iron ore and seafood in China and in turn import most of the country's consumer goods.
Beijing is likely to be in a difficult position diplomatically if Jang's underlings, many of whom work in China, attempt to defect to avoid being swept up in the purge.
"Kim Jong Un is young, but so were other heirs of the throne in the ancient kingdoms," Kim said. "Even if an heir is only 10 years old, one still has to uphold the leader.”

Which just goes to show, that one can be expensively educated in Swiss private schools, and still fail to develop into a human being.  (A troubling consideration for theorists of education.)
In view of all that, the case of North Korea must edge toward the world’s already crowded front-burner.   To commemorate the events, we here repost our essay from March.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *    

~    { earlier post }     ~

In recognition of the recent, um, summit diplomacy, by the noted historian, statesman, gentleman and scholar Dr. Dennis Rodman, we here repost our earlier squib on arts & entertainment in North Korea.

His excellency the Undersecretary of State for East Asian Affairs

[Footnote:  Equally bizarre has been the (in Europe) headline-grabbing cavorting of the  temperamental actor tax exile Gérard Depardieu, with the torso-baring assassin and dictator Vladimir Putin in Russia.  As a satirist, I won't comment on this, since it comes pre-satirized.]

~    { original post }     ~

Freud … treats political society  not as an artifact  designed  out of fear and prudence  for the purpose of limiting universal egotism, but as the expression of man’s irrational longing for the return of authority. …
Lombroso … subsumed the psychology of the masses under a new science, “criminal anthropology”.
-- Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), pp. 222, 228

The NPR program “The State We’re In”  had a remarkable episode this weekend, consisting of an interview (in Korean, with translation) with a former “court poet” (not making this up) -- court poet (you heard that right) -- court effing POET  of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.  The segment was titled “I’m Outa Here” (referring to the minstrel’s eventual flight to China, and thence to the South Korean embassy), but it might just as well have been titled “The God-King with feet of clay wore elevator-shoes”, in reference to our jongleur’s rude disillusionment.

Anyhow, our KorCom rhymester churned out verse after verse in praise of the beloved Supreme Ruler -- and this, during a politically-induced famine in which millions were starving.  So appreciated were his prophetic profusions, that eventually the Great Dictator invited the lowly poet (unworthy to lick the muddy footsteps of the Great One) to a private session in the Royal (Dictatorial?) Palace.  Bowing in gratitude, the troubadour was ushered in to the Great One’s presence chamber.
Oddly, the flunky-poet repeatedly referred to Kim Jong Il as “God” (if we can trust the translator).  One had thought that the Communist North Koreans were mere atheists; turns out they are something much worse.  (Better to worship nothing at all, than to worship Satan’s minions on earth.)  
Great was the skald’s anticipation as he awaited --and waited, and waited, for hour after hour -- until the Sun-King might emerge -- like Sol himself -- resplendent in the East, shining forth his godlike face.
At last, the great double-doors opened….And out waddled a short, squat, cursing, farting  mini-monkey of a mannikin, Kim the Lesser -- turdlike offspring of the tyrant Kim Il Sung -- a rare witness to the occasional advisability of abortion.
The lowly scop waited to be noticed, but it was not to be.  The self-licking Leader’s fluttering fancy was instead caught by a giant wall-slogan eulogizing the God-King Kim Jong Il, and inquired what the writing was  made of.  “Animal skin,” he was informed.  (Whether from endangered species was not mentioned in the interview.)   This pleased him; he inquired whether all the many, many Kim-exalting slogans in the land were similarly confected.  No, he was informed, it’s too expensive, compared with gold leaf and whatnot.
Rising to the full extent of his tiny height, the simian God-King commanded that all those slogans should be taken down and replaced with slogans written in animal-fur.  And this, in the midst of a nationwide famine.
Non mais … c’est tout à fait typique…

At this point, our bard began to feel second thoughts stirring in his atrophied brain.  But ‘twas not that that finally broke the bonds of slavish adoration.  It was that he noticed that this homunculus was wearing steep elevator-shoes.
God, he thought, does not wear elevator-shoes.
It is owing to true stories such as that, that I formally withdrew from satire:  no-one can parodically top that.
Moreover, what is of interest here  are not the antics of the miniature monkey-king himself, like Mini-Me in Justin Powers.  For this was not a movie set, this was an entire nation.  A nation that has reveled in slavery for over half a century -- not writhing beneath the boot-heels of a foreign occupying power, but beneath the baseness of their own natures.   They brought this upon themselves, praising themselves lavishly for it the whole while, in the sort of robotic fulsome prose unique to North Korea.   And not one single person in the entire country, over all that time, has had the gumption to sink a pair of chopsticks into the eye-sockets of their puppet-master.  One can only conclude, as history has repeatedly shown:  The Broad Masses beloved of the Stalinoids, like Ur-horde of Freud’s nightmare imagination,  are natural slaves.
The radio program segue’d from segment to segment via interludes of those whiney, nasal, sing-song musicoidal noises that pass for music in the Orient.  This, doubtless with a view to cultural enrichment and sensitizing to Diversity.  But in context, it evoked only a shudder of disgust.

Gustav Le Bon (whose beard you may admire in the photo above) is an endless source of epigrams on the subject of servility:
"On domine plus facilement les peuples en excitant leurs passions qu’en s’occupant de leurs intérêts."
"On rencontre beaucoup d'hommes parlant de libertés, mais on en voit très peu dont la vie n'ait pas été principalement consacrée à se forger des chaînes."
Le Bon influenced Freud, who quotes him at length in Massenpsychologie.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(Ich bin Sigmund Freud, and I approved this message.)
~         ~
In the West, during this period of autophagous capitalism and social decline, our recent trajectory is different.  In the ultimate Consumer Culture (divorced from all thought of Production), rather than masses of henodemonist starvelings, worshipping the Lider Máximo, we have clutches and niches of pampered fatties, worshipping themselves.  
In a technological mass society, Freud’s erotic leader requires a build-up.  The participating audiences at the modern theatricals of power  require more and more door prizes before they will the accept the enthusiasms constantly being manufactured for them.
-- Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), p. 238

Two different approaches to the Society of the Spectacle.

[Appendix] For a dramatization of the theme people-as-sheep, see "The Prisoner", episode 12:

[Update 25 June 2014]  This just in!  A movie not to miss!!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Squirrel vocables

Squirrels of this region (the Eastern Grey) make characteristic, rather irascible-seeming sounds.  Just now I had the opportunity to observe one in especially stark form, perching on a branch of a leaf-denuded oak, on a cold but cloudless and breeze-free day.  There was no other squirrel -- nor any other animal -- in sight, so he was apparently not responding to any evident threat, nor was there any answering call.

The vocalization consists of

(1) a series of from around 8 up to 11 short grunts, during which the whole body convulses somewhat, most visibly the curled tail;
followed by
(2) a series of two to three squeaks, during which the body is tranquil.
(Repeat ad lib.)

Why do they do that?  Someone must know…

[Update 8 Nov 2015]  I happened to re-read this, and was took aback:  Good Lord, that reads like a description of coitus.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Jan Valjean in memoriam

Towards Christmastime, all the old radio plays had episodes keyed to the theme.  This worked well for comedies;  not so well for thrillers.   So this evening  I mostly gave “The Big Broadcast” a miss;  save that, doing dishes, I lent an ear to what happened to be on at the time -- Dragnet.  The crime:  The infant Jesus had been stolen from the crèche of a church.  When had the theft occurred?  The priest did not know; it could have been at any time during the preceding night.

Sgt Friday, incredulous:  “You leave the church unlocked all night, where any thief could walk in?”
The priest:  Especially thieves, Sergeant.”

Laus deo.


Hooked, I stayed for the dénouement.
And sure enough -- the crime was not so much solved, let alone avenged, as sublated.  For lo, in walked a little Mexican boy, “no bigger than a pint of milk”, pulling the figurine of the infant in a brand-new little-red-wagon.  Questioned by the priest (in Spanish), the boy explained that he had prayed for that wagon as a Christmas present, promising that baby Jesus would get the first ride.

(The episode ended in soaring sacred music;  but then reverted to the standard crisp signoff, “The story you have just heard is true;  the names have been changed …”   Somehow one wonders.  Ma se non è vero, è ben trovato.)


Right after that, “Gunsmoke” ran a version of the Christmas Eve story -- a poor couple on a cold dark night, finding no shelter, finally winding up in some outlying make-do.  The dramatic strategy with these instantiations of the universal theme,  is not to tie it in with its historical antecedent in any obvious way, until it dawns on the viewer -- no “Biblical” trappings.  Thus, one effective re-imagining from a few years ago  had the wind-blown pair (or rather : trio, as it turns out) holding up in a dingy motel.  And then we learn, the woman is with child.   And all blooms forth, and the heart stops beating  in wonder and mute praise.
Even when you know what’s coming, it’s very powerful.

La fuite en avant

In recent days, media commenters have been tossing around the old line about “if you’re in a hole, stop digging”:  most recently Thomas Friedman in this morning’s New York Times, anent Putin, who made some risky gambles, and whose back is now economically and diplomatically (though not internal-politically, yet) against the wall:

Might he lash out militarily now, to distract his people …?  Yes, he might, but then he’d only be violating another rule of geopolitics:  “The First Rule of Holes” -- when you’re in one stop digging.

The problem with that sound but rather self-satisfied piece of advice, is that there exists an alternate strategy, repeatedly exemplified in history, the fuite en avant:  which is to say, discard the shovel, and resume with an excavator.  That is what the world has to worry about.

Herewith a look at the political linguistics of the idea.

Phrase of the Day: “sunk cost fallacy” 

[Post from 15 Oct 2014]

Today’s WaPo offers an instructive application of a notion we previously examined under the headline “fuite en avant”:  namely, the sunk cost fallacy:

The sunk cost fallacy can be disastrous. World War I and the Vietnam War were examples of nations falling for the error, with combatants doubling down on failed strategies, in part because they had already invested so much, making decisions based on what had happened in the past rather than solely on the costs and benefits for the future.

The author, Neil Irwin, draws the relevant analogy with the current behavior of the House Repo’s (as we shall dub them).

Another pertinent comparison would be with the currently crucial phrase raising the debt ceiling.   The general public may be excused for imagining that this means “increasing future deficit-spending”, whereas all that is legally driving it is the obligation to service debts already incurred by past action;  it would spare us much ire and confusion  were we to denominate the process, not “raising the debt ceiling”, but “honoring our debts”.

Herewith our original post on the concept in general and its vocabulary.

Phrase of the Day:  “fuite en avant”
[original postdate 24 VI 2012]

A trenchant phrase of subtle use.  (Pronounced, roughly:  FWEET on ah-VAHN.)   Literally, “fleeing forwards”, which of course we never say.

The usually excellent Oxford-Hachette dictionary  rather muffs this one, defining it only as “headlong rush” (Note to the unsuspecting public:  the phrase is never applied to Pamplona bulls, nor a bottom-of-the-ninth audience rushing for the exits).  The large Collins-Robert is somewhat better in giving a concrete use: “la fuite en avant du gouvernement dans le domaine économique: the government’s relentless [dbj: “dogged” would have been better] pursuit of the same economic policy  in spite of all the evidence.”  Google it on the internet, and you get (from a source that is not quite clear) “course effrénée vers l'inconnu, même au risque d'erreurs importantes”, which ably covers part of it.

The most recent use of the phrase I have heard, came half an hour ago, in a Medi1 broadcast concerning Syria’s downing of a Turkish jet.   Turkey had indignantly called upon the NATO military alliance (hey cool!  yet another Mideast war!!):  yet neither side, said the newscast,  in their heart of hearts  desired a fuite en avant:  which in this context could be translated “(pointless/knee-jerk) escalation”.

The phrase is important because, concise and stereotyped, it denotes a certain psychopolitical pathology, and thus -- lying ready-to-hand in our Wortschatz -- actually helps us recognize cases thereof  when they arise.   (This notion is explored at greater length in the chaper “The Stokes Conjecture”, in The Semantics of Form in Arabic.) The basic idea is:  “Well okay, that didn’t work;  but maybe if we do the same thing again only more of it/faster/harder, it’ll work this time.”  (This cantilevered emotion, common among politicians, is believed to be controlled by the pineal gland.)

In its strictest use -- literally ‘flight forward’, and not merely ‘soldiering on’ -- the term tightens the stakes a notch, over mere pointless perseverence, mere more-of-the-same -- the sunk funds fallacy, a.k.a. “throwing good money after bad”.  For in the French phrase, you actually up the ante, hoping  not only to win this hand, but to make up for previous losses.

Fuite en avant has long been one of my favorite phrases, in large part because of its complex meaning, and its lack of an equivalent in English.  But later a new term spread generally throughout our American tongue, one which, while not an exact equivalent, still covers important shared territory:  doubling-down.
The metaphor comes from the world of gambling;  and accordingly, in a country which reverenced Maverick, and which could seriously consider a casino magnate (whose name shall not stain this page, but which rhymes with dump and rump and frump) as a candidate for President, retains a certain roguish allure.  Doubling-down may not be a winning formula, but it leaves open the possibility that the cards are hot tonight;  whereas fuite en avant always designates an unwise and even foolhardy move.

Note:  Doubling one’s wager, when raised from a nonce impulse into a betting strategy, is known (in French, and thence in English) as the martingale.   This bright idea is probably rediscovered by every boy in each generation;  he is chagrined, later to learn, that the policy is statistically unsound.
In French, this term is again used figuratively, as:

La martingale à haut risque de Mitt Romney
En choisissant le moine-soldat Paul Ryan comme colistier, le candidat républicain a l'élection présidentielle américaine vient de faire un sacré pari.

Pour d’autres friandises
de la confiserie 
du docteur Justice,

A related and subtle word, also with its origins in the world of wager, is surenchère.  As:

Mariage homo: la surenchère du PS
Les députés socialistes veulent inclure la procréation médicalement assistée (PMA) dans le texte

Here the French Parti socialiste (which in reality is not so much socialist as bobo -- bourgeois-bohemian) ups the ante:  Not only do they wish to join inverts in a parody of matrimony, but to insure that those whom Nature has expressly made, not to procreate, may yet  by artificial means  pass down their defective genes.  (An apter phrase might thus be fuite en pentefuite en enfer.)

~ Recommendation posthume ~
“Si j’étais encore en vie, et que je  désirais un bon whodunnit,
que lirais-je?"
Micmacs divorce --Pouah!
(Je suis Charles de Gaulle, et j’ai approuvé ce message)

A milder counterpart of doubling-down is soldiering on;  its slogan, “Hope springs eternal”.  As, Christopher Robin’s toy train with its “string sort of thing”:

            It’s a good sort of brake
            but it hasn’t worked yet.

Also distantly related:  a Hail Mary (in football).  Related, because desperate and flashy; but, distantly, because, unlike the case of fuite en avant or doubling down, losing a Hail Mary play is no worse (does not impact your score) than losing a more conservative final play.   Given the rules of football, a swansong hail-Mary is entirely rational.

And:  bet your bottom dollar; go for broke.

As, confronted with the morass in Vietnam:

Nixon might order an escalation, in a go-for-broke bid for victory.
-- Stephen Ambrose, Nixon: the Triumph of a Politician 1962-1972 (1989), p. 305

And:  failure forward.


A classic example of an unstable and self-defeating fuite  is the song about the “Little Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly”, for reasons left unspecified.  To get at the fly, she then deliberately swallowed a spider, which “wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her”; so to get rid of that, she swallowed a bird;  then a cat; then a dog; then a cow;  and finally a horse:  whereupon the song abruptly ends (on a rhyme:  “she died, of course”).
*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *
In his brilliantly-written book, Liar’s Poker (1989), Michael Lewis describes (p. 218)  the S&L crisis as of 1981, and the decision to go for broke:  “The U.S. Congress decided to let the savings and loans try to speculate their way out of trouble.”  (Speculation, of course, having been the way they got into this pickle in the first place.)

[Update 18 June 2015]

Alexis Tsipras s'est mis tout seul dans une ornière. D'abord en se faisant élire sur des promesses irréalistes, ensuite en ignorant la véritable situation de l'économie grecque. Aujourd'hui, il n'a plus que des mauvais choix: soit il obtempère aux demandes de réformes de ses bailleurs, au risque d'être lynché par ses électeurs ; soit il poursuit sa fuite en avant vers le précipice d'une sortie de l'UE (le fameux «Grexit»), et le danger posé par la colère d'une population ruinée n'est pas moins grand.