Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Ontology of Linguistics (expanded)

[I have noticed that some people fight shy of long essays -- doubtless an effect of the syndrome lamented here.   Accordingly, as an experiment, we shall intitially put up just a bit -- a “stub”, in Wikipedia’s terminology;  or, as Professor Malkiel loved to say, a “torso” -- adding to it as the days go by,
as the moon rises and the sun sets,
as the leaves  fly off the calendar  in the winds of Time ...]

The ontology, then, of “linguistics”:  and not, note, of “language”.   Similarly, we may speak of the Ontology of Psychology (and not of the psyche), the Ontology of Geology (and not of the Earth).   All That Is, is what it is;  “I am that I am”.   But for purposes of this or that variety of study, we structure things.  Such structures are constrained by what is Out There, but are not straightforwardly or uniquely determined.)

So, first of all:  What is linguistics?’
(We cannot pose this tiresome question, save in squotes, just as we did for ‘What is Mathematics?’)

Two candidates present themselves:

(I)  Linguistics is the study of language.

(II)  Linguistics is the study of languages.

In many modern perspectives,  these are distinct.   And each, in its own way, is problematic.

(I)  Already with Saussure if not before, the nature of the pre-theoretical notion ‘language’ (langage) was split, for precision, into langue and parole.  Subsequently, this basic bifurcation acquired theoretical heft with, in one corner (in the red trunks) those championing “I-language” and the innate “Language Acquisition Device”, versus (in the blue trunks) corpus-mavens, connectionists, frequentists, “usage-based” grammarians, and other sundry nominalists.  For a riposte to the latter, confer Frederick Newmeyer, whose tautologically-titled essay “Grammar is Grammar and Usage is Usage” (in Language, 2003), makes many useful points.

(II)  This formulation is less problematic, as being less ambitious, and more traditional.  Indeed we may say:  Philology is to languages, as linguistics (in the contemporary sense) is to language-tout-court.    But then we are faced with the question, what is “a language”  -- as opposed to a different one, or a dialect, or some other semantic signaling system.  And there we meet disagreements once again.

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

This antinomy of language-per-se versus languages, has become acute since Chomsky, who has little interest in the endless gabble of actual tongues.  If this seems an extreme position, it is nonetheless exactly parallel to that of physicists, who seek general physical laws, rather than endless descriptions of individual objects falling or rolling or spinning or colliding or what have you.

Chomsky bitingly writes:

The grammar is a function-in-intension … the language is epiphenomenal.  Its ontological status is the same as that of a set of pairs of expressions that rhyme.
-- Noam Chomsky, Rules and Representations, p. 83

Here he is using language in the sense of ‘parole’ and not ‘langue’.   But, epigrammatically, it is startling to see language as of but peripheral interest to linguistics.


Marveling at the philosopher’s opacity, two linguists write:

In a recent article, Ryle even claims that sentences are not part of language, but only of speech.
--Jerry Fodor & Jerrold Katz, eds., introduction to The Structure of Language (1964), p. 11

Yet Chomsky would later also demote much of what was traditionally thought of as language, to a second-class status as “E-language”.


The units of social life are far less clearly defined than those of language … Linguists are fortunate in possessing a domain whose units are at least relatively self-defining and isolable.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 82

The minimal unit of spoken language is not the sentence, but the utterance or intonation unit.
-- William Bright, ed.  International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (1992), vol. IV p. 11

Schuchardt enquires, “What is dialect?” -- the neogrammarians having used the term in formulating their theories -- and shows that it is an abstract notion, with no real existence.
-- I. Iordan & John Orr, An Introduction to Romance Linguistics (1937),  p. 32

With similar vigour, Schuchardt opposes the notion of ‘linguistic periods’ .. Just as there are no fixed boundaries between different vernaculars, so the chronological boundaries between successive periods of a language  are purely fictions of our minds.
-- I. Iordan & John Orr, An Introduction to Romance Linguistics (1937),  p. 33

And indeed:

Die Gesamtsprache ist etwas Abstraktes, ebenso wie die Gesamtseele  gegenüber der Individualseele.
-- Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 386

The term language is … a relatively nontechnical term.  If we wish to be more rigorous .. we have to employ other terminology.  We shall use variety as a neutral term  to apply to any particular kind of language which we wish … to consider as a single entity.
--J.K. Chambers & Peter Trudgill, Dialectology (1980), p. 5

(Ontologically/methodologically, this picture is not particularly reassuring.)

Structural linguistics has a favored suffix to denote status as a unit in the ontology or theoretical apparatus:  -eme.  Familiar (though embattled) are the phoneme and morpheme; lexeme (roughly: dictionary headword, so that eat and ate are part of one ‘lexeme’ even if you might call them different ‘words’ in one of the senses of that pre-theoretical term).  Hjelmslev proposed seme (or sememe), as the atomic unit of sense (the ‘semantic atom’), though these do virtually no work;  and, getting into the borderline-silly spirit of the thing, from outside of linguistics  Richard Dawkins coined meme. 


The ontological status of ‘meanings’:

Quine is quite correct in protesting that meanings are not entities.
-- Harold Lee, “Discourse and Event”, in: Hahn & Schilpp, eds., The Philosophy of W. V. Quine (1986), p.

One might have thought that being an ‘entity’ would be  rather a low bar.
(I recall one smitten young man, back in Berkeley in the 1970s, pleading with her whom he adored, “What do I mean to you?”  -- And she replied, wrinkling her young brow and thinking hard,  “Well, …  you’re a person ….” )

It goes even lower:

Though we sometimes need to conceive meanings timelessly,  we do not therefore need to conceive them as subsistent entitities.
-- Jonathan Cohen, The Diversity of Meaning (1963), p. 161

(“Subsistent”:  cf. Meinong.  Actually, “subsisting” is a very low bar, lower than “existing” entities.)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

On Tarski’s “Convention T” (expanded)


Convention T embodies our best intuition as to how the concept of truth is used.
-- Donald Davidson

My lone dissent:

More boredom thou shalt never see
than Tarski’s Truth Convention T.
“Snow’s white” is true -- let’s get this right --
if, but only if,  snow is white.

A.T.,  logician and skirt-chaser

When Tarski’s logical machinery is used to provide languages with an interpretation, it should not be seen as giving us a definition of truth. [Emphasis in original.]  When used in this way, it gives us a theory that, for each of the infinitely many sentences of the language, assigns a condition that obtains if and only if that sentence is true -- where truth is something we takes ourselves to understand antecedently, without definition.
-- Scott Soames, Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century (2003), vol. II, p. 293

For a major empirical research program, investigating the validity of Convention T, click here.

A fellow dissenter:

See for example the panegyrics in Wallace:  “It may strike the reader that Convention T is an astonishinglhy powerful intellectual device…” (etc.)  Wallace’s expressed admiration for the achievements of modern logic  is of course sincere, and I share it (not always for his reasons).  But these achievements should not be used to terrorize the reader …
-- Saul Kripke, “Substitutional Quantification”, in Evans & McDowell, eds., Truth and Meaning (1976), p. 340

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Slices of Time

Brian Greene monostich

(Not quite a monostich,
nor a haiku neither.
It is  what it is.)

Every moment is illuminated,
and every moment    remains illuminated.
Every moment  is.
-- Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), p. 141


I have  on occasion  fulminated against “Physics porn” -- the tawdry down-dumbing of physics for a popular audience -- not so much a matter of (necessary) simplification, as of appealing to their baser, sensationalistic instincts.
Brian Greene does not practice that. The books of his that I have read (The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos) -- with titles like the Parthenon, elegant but restrained -- are worthy examples of haute vulgarisation.   The matters he treats of  are difficult to explain, even to fellow-physicists (if they work in a different lab, and thus subscribe to a different groupthink); he does a laudable job of trying.  Moreover, the fellow writes really, really well -- at times even poetically (witness the above).

Nor is the cited haikustich  poetry merely.  The idea behind it, appears in the next paragraph  in plain prose:

Einstein said that the problem of The Now  worried him seriously.  He explained that the experience of the Now  means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference  does not  and cannot occur within physics.

Albert Einstein,  worrying about The Now

That is not to suggest that the Now at all resembles a mathematical instant, as in the calculus and thus in classical physics.  Each perceived ‘moment’ of consciousness presumably corresponds to an integral over some interval.   The ‘density’ being integrated need have no determinate evaluation at a single point of the continuum, any more than does the Dirac delta.  The psychological present is more of a Nowabouts.

The same point, with a different metaphor:

The practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own  on which we sit perched.
-- William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890), vol. I, p. 609

The present is simply the past’s ever-moving outer edge.
-- Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker, 18 Dec 2006, p. 33


That the “now”, as such, has no special status in physics, is unsurprising, since it is relative to each observer.  That simultaneity (implicitly dependent thereon:  “Both A and B are happening now”) turns out to be untenable, was a shock introduced by Einstein; eventually you sort of learn to live with it.   The real scandal is that physics is likewise agnostic as to any distinction in principle between the future and the past.   And that thesis is cognitively and theologically abhorrent.
Feynman among others calmly accepted solutions to equations, whereby certain particles ran backwards in time.  At its grandest, as a prominent mathmatician-cosmologist writes, “the time-reverse of the universe  is just as much a solution of the dynamical equations” as the one we thought we lived in (Roger Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 729).

For humans, the unidirectionality of time’s arrow  is as fundamental as the privileged status of the Now.  America’s premier 19th-century psychologist, on remembering:

However the associationist may represent the present ideas as throning and arranging themselves, still, the spiritualist insists, he has in the end to admit that something, be it brain, be it ‘ideas’, be it ‘association’, knows past time as past, and fills it out with this or that event.
-- William James, The Principles of Psychology (1890), vol. I, p. 2

eppur’ si muove …


James crops up in the first paragraph of a New York Times op-ed concerning durée (subjective time) from 10 May 2015, by Gregory Hickok, a professor of cognitive science:

In 1890, the American psychologist William James  famously likened our conscious experience to the flow of a stream … the stream … of consciousness.

The professor then puts his predecessor in his place:

Recent research has shown that the ‘stream’ of consciousness  is, in fact, an illusion.  We actually perceive the world in rhythmic pulses rather than as continuous flow.

The cognitive scientist then climbs down a bit from the claim that this insight is “recent” -- “Some of the first hints of this new understanding came as early as the 1920s, when physiologists discovered brain waves.”

One suspects, however, that James would not slap his forehead upon being apprized of this newly-minted insight, since he cites “the Humian doctrine that our thought is composed of separate independent parts, and is not a sensibly continuous stream”.  (Hume wrote in the eighteenth century.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The *Real* Paleolithic Diet


Anything less,  is for wimps.

(I.e. : Weakly Interacting Massive Particles.  These never eat meat.)

Mastodon meat is an acceptable substitute.

While awaiting our hunters streaking back in the Wayback Machine, there is this:

(That, by a man  who has wielded weapons in Iraq.
Chuck Norris wilts at his approach.)

Monday, June 22, 2015

In Defense of “Pascal’s Wager”

I have always particularly disliked Pascal’s Wager.   First, on logical grounds, since, like Anselm’s Ontological Argument, it can just as easily lead to the Great Pumpkin or the Great Penguin, as to God as conceived by Christians (of whatever stripe).  Second, on psycho-religious.   Romeo does not pitch upon Juliet by a process of totting up her good points, and subtracting her bad (suitably weighted  statistically or otherwise), comparing the result with the similar figure for the other wenches in Verona, meanwhile having his accountant double-check for accuracy, and then proceeding (with degree X of Bayesian confidence) to the balcony of the lucky winner.   Nor do such cold considerations yield any sense of the Christian feelings and beliefs about God.

Nevertheless, I am uncomfortably aware of having embraced something somewhat akin -- a leap of faith across a crevasse of uncertainty, borne on the wings of reason -- in subscribing to the Nicene Creed.

Credo ut intelligam

But just now, perusing the thoughtful and chatty treatise of a (non-religious) philosopher, this:

Very few people today are impressed by Pascal’s wagers.  But decision theorists have long been using the arguments he invented … Pascal’s logic is sound. The trouble is that his starting points  no longer apply for most of us.  They are no longer “live possibilities”.
-- Ian Hacking, An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic (2001), p. 123

Bingo!   That crack about the Great Pumpkin  misses the mark, because that portly vegetable only comes into perspective when seen from afar, from some philosopher’s distant star.   For anyone else (with the possible exception of Seneca the younger -- vide “The Pumpkinification of Claudius”), that rotund worthy is not a Live Possibility.

Our purpose here is not to argue for the intellectual respectability of adhering to the Christian faith (or to that of Islam), but to pursue the (psycho)logical point.   For, you,  respected and right-thinking reader, have almost certainly (if you are reading these words) made a similar bargain yourself:  in embracing the Religion of Science.

Not knocking science, nor denying its partly empirical character:  ever since my seventeenth year, my almost every effort has been bent in pursuit of scientific understanding.   But such is not easily to be had, even for those who majored in scientific subjects at top-flight colleges  and never slacked or looked back.   Most of what we accept, at least outside our own field of research, we largely accept on faith.  (And indeed, even within that field -- QFT or String Theory, say -- there are doctrines and assumptions you just swallow  and then push forward, not really questioning these, trying to come up with something publishable that hews to the Narrative, at least until you get tenure.)   To reject science sweepingly is intellectually disasterous;  but embracing it involves certain … wagers.

(For more on the subject, try this:  Veracity and Verifiability.)

Bonus:  For a relatively friendly look at Anselmian ontology, try this.
For a previously-unpublished tractate of the Saint:

Sunday, June 21, 2015

What would Richelieu do?

Cardinal Richelieu, pioneer of Realpolitik, selected some sketchy bedfellows for the sake of maintaining the balance of power in Europe.  Metternich continued the balancing act, even going so far as to strike an alliance of convenience with the Ottoman Empire.

Quite recently, America announced it was moving heavy weapons into multiple countries on the very border with Russia.  (Think:  Russian missiles in Canada and Mexico.)  By way of riposte, Russia is upping the number of nuke-equipped subs.
Such gamesmanship is approaching brinkmanship.   At some point you realize, you are no longer playing with Monopoly-money.

Suppose, at the worst account, that the Russians are the New Ottomans.  Does this make sense?

The military mostly think tactically.  Statesmen, strategically.  (Politicians, viscerally.)   While historians (and philosophers) … call it the Long View, or “supra-strategically”.  And here, the dominant determinants, are the Clash of Civilizations, and the demographic time-bomb. 
In that meta-battle, the Russians and ourselves are on the same side.

(Of this, there is more awareness  in Europe than here.  Keyword: Euro-Sibérie.)

Background here:



Rachel Dolezal : the “Caitlyn” Jenner of racial politics.
“Caitlyn” Jenner : the Rachel Dolezal of gender politics.

... nor good red herring.

What’s sauce for the goose,
is sauce for the gander.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Case of Greece (updated)

Greece has been in the headlines du jour -- in Europe, at any rate -- over what, on the surface, is a complex economic matter, a re-run of what we have seen before, involving  the IMF and a potential rééchelonnement of sovereign debt tranches …..
(ZZZzzzzzzzzzz …. Oh, have I lost you?)
What deeper waters this narrative might tap into, I have little idea, since I do not follow Greece;  taceo igitur;  the point here being merely to notice the oddly canted perceptual stance of Americans in regard to Greece, victims of distance and history.

What occasioned this reflection are the final chapters of Robert D. Kaplan’s outstanding travelogue/history, Balkan Ghosts (1993).
In this slender book, he quite consciously follows in the steps of Rebecca West (“Dame Rebecca”, as he gallantly denotes her), whose massive memoir of a trip to Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II, Black Lamb & Grey Falcon (published 1941) is among the truly great works of the twentieth century.   Knowing that he could not hope to outdo her magisterial historical survey, he treads more lightly but more widely, his final footsteps reaching as far as Greece, where he resided, with his wife, for seven years, during the reign (for “reign” it was) of a very strange figure indeed, Andreas Papandreou. 

The first thing you notice is the very presence of Greece in a book about the Balkans.  Granted -- once you come to think of it -- that country is indisputably geographically a part of the Balkan Peninsula;  Kaplan’s point is that it belongs with the other, Slavic or semi-Slavic countries of the region, spiritually and sociologically as well.
Very few Americans think of Greece in those terms, nor indeed in any terms at all except what we half-remember from school, limited to the Athenian Golden Age, several centuries B.C.  It is as though you were to try to conceive Germany in terms of what had been going on in the primeval forests of that time -- or America, as were it a continuation of its own prehistory of open plains, speckled here and there with miscellaneous blemmyes and buffalo, and otherwise largely empty.

It’s strange how little I knew of the tale that Kaplan tells.  It’s not as though I hadn’t yet come of age during the 1980s;  I did read newspapers.   But perhaps the reason for this ignorance had partly to do with the Western press, which had assimilated just one new Greek stereotype since the Age of Socrates:  the Medi-hippie world of “Never on Sunday” and “Zorba the Greek”.   Indeed, the English Wikipedia entry is astonishingly airbrushed:

I had to blink, to ascertain that this wasn’t an account of his more conventional father George.  (Someone seems to be curating his memory.)

Andreas knew well how to exploit the “Never on Sunday” sort of nonsense.  He appointed its star, Melina Mercouri (who played, one might say, a ταίρα  both onscreen and on the political stage) to his cabinet -- and re-appointed her again and again, while other underlings came and went.  It was a true Société du spectacle: 

In Papandreou’s name, Culture Minister Mercouri organized “human peace chains” around the Acropolis, even as Greek state companies were selling arms to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, and to the two warring African states of Rwanda and Burundi.
-- Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts (1993), p. 269

Likewise an eye-opener were Papandreou’s ties to a raft of morally quite unanchored chevaliers of terror:  PASOK and the November 17th Movement;  Abu-Nidal; Qaddafi’s hit-men, and on.  These, like such later ultraviolent inscrutable groups as Boko Haram and the central African Lord’s Resistance Army, cannot be understood terms of determinate ideology or even calculated, cynical self-interest;  it is not as though they have well-defined ends (whether good or bad) and merely overdo the means.   It seems to be more a matter of the morbido, and of metastatic narcissism.

None of this is part of the general American understanding of Greece.  “Cradle of Democracy” it must be for ever and aye.  For, our brains have only so much bandwidth.  Even in cases where party or interest do not preclude comprehension, we are apt, by acedia, to sink back into the Lay-Z-Boy of our early training and first impressions.  Cognitively, we settle for very little.

[Footnote]  Rather random but -- by way of counterbalancing the overall “down” of Balkan Ghosts as regards Eastern Europe:  there is a truly wonderful chamber ensemble called “Munich Artistrio”, though they seem to be Slovene.

Brahms (truly magisterial):
(In particular the third movement, Adagio.)

Schubert (transcribed):

[Update (alas) 9 III 15]  Greece threatens to flush its cisterns upon the rest of Europe:

Our notes upon this topic ici.

[Update 16 June 2015]   The above was originally posted back in January.   Blink;  five months go by;  and the headlines around the world  are still the same:  Bras de fer entre la Grèce et le FMI.    And now we have two new hippogriff words to toy with, of the sort that Europeans love to coin:  Brexit and Grexit -- British exit (from the EU) and Greek exit (from the Eurozone).  Greece, insolvent,  is trying to blackmail is creditors with a curious threat:  Lend us even more money or we won’t pay you back what we owe you.  Or in other words:  Throw good money after bad, or we’ll hold our breath till we’re blue in the face.  And the ultimate menace:  the dreaded GREXIT.

Re-reading the original essay, a riposte suggests itself:  Fine.  Tant mieux.  Rejoin your Balkan buddies.  Have a nice life.

[Update, 20 June 2015]  A pragmatic contrary view, from Lawrence Summers:

Make no mistake about the consequences of a breakdown. With an end to European support and consequent bank closures and credit problems, austerity will get far worse in Greece than it is today, and Greece will likely become a failed state, to the great detriment of all its people and their leadership. Once Greece fails as a state, Europe will collect far less debt repayment than it would with an orderly restructuring. And a massive northern out-migration of Greeks will strain national budgets throughout Europe, not to mention the challenges that will come as Russia achieves a presence in Greece. The IMF is looking at by far the largest nonpayment by a borrower in its history. True, there are good reasons to think enough foam has been placed on the runway to prevent financial contagion. Yet, this was asserted with respect to Long-Term Capital Management, subprime mortgages and the fall of Lehman Brothers.


Summers is an economist, and  on that turf  deserves all respect.  But:

(1) The introduction to his essay (not here quoted), compares the potential post-default events to the advent of World War I, the default being a kind of Sarajevo.    But -- wait, sanity check -- though much of post-WWII history, many nations of Europe were not using the Euro.  In fact, for most of that time, the Euro hadn’t even been invented.  Were Europeans walking around clad only in barrels?  Indeed, at press-time -- and this might surprise you, if all you are going on is Summers’ piece --  certain European countries  much more important than Greece  are still not members of the Eurozone:  Notably, Switzerland and the U.K. 
Nor are those countries  clamoring to join.  Indeed, Great Britain is on the brink of heading the opposite way, with a Brexit.

(2)  Has the accession of Eastern countries to the Eurozone or the E.U.  been a benefit to western Europe?  According to the Eurocrats, abundantly.  According to the citizens who have had to actually suffer through it, not so much.

(3)  Moral hazard.  (Bailing out Greece yet again  dangles poisonous carrots before Ireland, Spain, …)

(4)   Whether Summers sincerely has the best interests of America and Wesgtern Europe at heart, we do not know;  but he is certainly in tight with the big bankers.  And Summers’ argument really reduces to “too big to fail”.  We have seen, repeatedly, where that takes us. -- Sorry, banker-guys, time for a haircut.

That was the view from the Western side.  But what would be in store for Greece -- the equivalent of the first World War, as Summers would have it?  -- The closest recent historical was Argentina’s default on debt, in December 2001, described as “the biggest debt default in history”.
This, in mid-depression.  It was followed by … a return to roaring growth.  Argentina did just fine out of it.  But a minority of private lenders -- the kind of people Summers hangs out with --  still want their pound of flesh, and have launched various lawsuits.
La Grèce au bord de la faillite, l'exemple argentin

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Homographs of the Day: ZOG/zog

Actually, these are not quite homographs, since one is capitalized and the other isn’t.  They are thus, rather, what I dubbed “Confusables” when introducing the feature of Confusables ® (paronym-disambiguation) into the Franklin spellers and dictionary products.    Anyhow, you probably haven’t heard of either;  but this one is a doozy.

(1)  The better-known of these is written in all capitals:  ZOG,  in line with its origin as an acronym.  It stands for “Zionist occupation government”;  and no, it does not refer primarily to the West Bank.   As to what-all it does refer to, you can easily find by googling (just be sure that you have your anti-malware software set on HIGH).

What is interesting about this is that it is among the very few terms -- and virtually unique among monosyllables -- whose mere utterance brands the utterer as a very particular political breed of beast.
These are harder to find than you’d think.  The only one that springs immediately to mind is “Social-Fascist” (and its German equivalent), whose use invariably revealed the user as a Third Period Stalinist (or at least someone parotting their patter).  The use of the term liberal as a sneer-word (as opposed to simply denouncing concretely various policies of liberals) does tell the listener quite a bit about the user, but of course the word is used objectively as well.  The term reactionary is almost always a sneer-word for conservative (thus revealing much about the speaker), but it can also be used, cavalierly, as a defiant synonym of laudator temporis acti (indeed, the historian John Lukacs self-applies the label).  The concept Antichrist makes sense only in a Christian context, but you can easily discuss the term (say, in comparing it to that of the Dajjâl ) without subscribing to any of the tenets of that belief-system.  ZOG is different.
It’s not just that most people don’t believe a “Zionist occupation government” (in the intended sense) exists.  After all, people use terms like Santa Claus, unicorn, phlogiston, Higgs boson, and will even predicate positive qualities of them (“Santa wears a red suit”, “the Higgs boson is necessary for the consistency of the Standard Theory”) without thereby making any existential commitment (Quine’s term) at all.

(2)  As a (somewhat nonce) term in physics, it is written in lower-case.  Here is the first (and only) passage in which I encountered the term:

Massive particles of spin 1 can be described as having three ingredients:  a left-handed zig (helicity 1), a right-handed zag (helicity -1), and a non-spinning ‘zog’ (helicity 0).
-- Roger Penrose,  The Road to Reality (2004), p. 653


Western interest in Ebola has been eradicated;  the disease itself  has not:

The chances are there will be a new wave at some point, some months or years down the line;  by which time, the beast may have mutated.   And this, in ways that might make it more fearsome, or less.
For:  Ebola, like any pathogen, doesn’t really want to harm us:  we are, after all, their playground, their womb.  They’d like us to remain alive as long as possible, so that they can frolic in our rich system.  Their only purpose in what viruses call “life”, is to reproduce, and reproduce, and reproduce some more.  (Actually, they sound like teenagers;  although these only wish to practice the preliminaries of reproduction, and not actually change diapers.)   One way of expanding their reach is to invent new pathways of transmission (the dreaded “airborne” route);  but another is simply to learn to live with the host, which many many organisms have (over the eons) learned to do.

Who knows?  By the time that ebolavirus has settled into a merely commensal relation with ourselves, it might confer such advantages as immunity to the dreaded Stuxnet worm, which by then (having escaped the confines of the thumb-drives) will have evolved into epizoötic forms, and be decimating the planet.
So, while awaiting the release of “Ebola III”, here are some suggestions for summer viewing and reading.


As a rule, I avoid disaster flix;  and shun movies about diseases ‘like the plague’.  Thus, a fortiori, disease-disaster flix.

But out of interest in the psychological dimensions of global climate change, I did watch “Take Shelter” -- which, to my delighted surprise, turned out only to pretend to be a meteorological disaster flick, but in reality is a psychological thriller.  At least, that was my take on it, in an intricate essay here.

And now ebola, elbowing much else off the front page these days.

* “The Andromeda Strain”  (novel: 1969;  movie: 1971)

Michael Crichton’s novel is differently focussed from the works that follow, being about big science and extraterristrial organisms and spooky military stuff.   And it has no psychology whatsoever, just a workmanlike plot  laid out in a wooden style, interrupted from time to time by edifying mini-lectures in biology (Crichton began as a physician).

*  “The Cassandra Crossing”.()

The opening scene, in which terrorists insinuate themselves into the World Health Organization in Geneva (our own WDJ headquarters are just down the street, as it happens), and one of them gets infected in a secret lab, is a masterpiece of economy and timing.   The fact that the rest of it takes place on a train, is also to the good;  trains go with movies like peanut-butter with jelly.   And the collateral-damage/government-conspiracy plot towards the end, is even more plausible now than when the movie came out.
So, a fun watch;  but no real food for thought. 

 * “12 Monkeys”.

* “Contagion”  (2011)

This one I really looked forward to, since it comes highly praised by critics, and is from the director of the excellent “Traffic” (2000);   but it turns out to be one of the worst movies I have ever seen.   That being so, there’s no point in even listing its demerits.   Just skip it.

Leaving the best till last.

*  “Outbreak” (1995)

Early on, purportedly at Fort Detrick (a site not far from where some friends of mine live), there is a useful review of the different levels of bio-hazard.  
While still in the Level-3 room, she casually takes off her mask;  and walks out, leaving the door open behind her.
Now:  As a cinephile, you ask yourself:

(a) Is this meant to be a foretoken of some horrible events that follow from this negligence?
or is it
(b) just some stupid movie sloppiness that banks on the inattentiveness of viewers to overlook? (Hitchcock famously defended this latter view.)

Having seen the movie, I can report:  (b).

OK, so, the movie is sometimes cinematically sloppy, much as that researcher was sloppy.  But over all, it repays what you spent on the popcorn.

The film has extended sequences at what purports to be the CDC.  These days, that is roughly the equivalent, in terms of tense attention, as the CTC of “24”.

Dustin Hoffman is excellent in this, at least when not bogged down in an uninteresting human-interest subplot about an ex-wife and some freaking dogs.  (Whereas Matt Damon was wasted -- in both senses -- in the wretched “Contagion”).
Donald Sutherland and Morgan Freeman are suitably icy in chilly roles.  (Sutherland even manages to look like ice.)
The monkey is wonderful.  This must surely rank in cinematic history among the all-time greatest performances by a capuchin.

The movie then slides off into a whiz-bang finale, basically reprising Crichton’s plot-device of a secret government plan -- there called, aptly, “Cautery” -- to simply incinerate any area harboring the otherwise unstoppable infection.  In the novel, that eventuality is avoided by a ridiculous turn of events, whereby all the virions simultaneously, in the lab and outside of it, suddenly ‘evolve’ to a non-virulent form.  In “Outbreak”, some stab is made at verisimilitude, as the immune monkey’s blood provides material for a serum.  In practice, it would be quite some time before such a serum could be developed, tested, manufactured in quantity, and distributed: by that time, everyone you had seen on the screen would have died.  But whatever.

It goes back, arguably, to 1950’s “Panic in the Streets,” in which heroic doctor Richard Widmark saves New Orleans from an outbreak of pneumonic plague carried by Jack Palance and Zero Mostel.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The latest in Math Porn

An attempt at moyenne (ou basse) vulgarisation, by a (slumming) specialist in Category Theory:

To make mathematics palatable for the lay reader, the author must sweeten the pill. There are many ways to do this, but Eugenia Cheng is surely the first to have approached the task literally, writing a math book in which almost every chapter begins with a recipe for dessert.
Cheng never quite overeggs her metaphor of the mathematician as chef, however …
But while she successfully conveys a love of her subject, I felt shortchanged; Cheng never explains exactly how category theory has shaped math, never shares its major results and its great unsolved questions. Perhaps she thought the answers would be too arcane or complicated for a book aimed at general readers.

Hard to get more random than that.   How mathematics is like a poker game;  how mathematics is like baseball;  how mathematics is like a chimpanzee riding a bicycle …

It is not that one cannot introduce ideas of category theory to an intelligent general audience, without flattering their baser natures with similes from the kitchen. Lawvere & Schanuel do just that in Conceptual Mathematics (1997): elementary in the sense that it begins from the elements, without assuming technical prerequisites from special fields, but sophisticated in that it doesn’t glide or gloss over.  But you won't find that sort of thing reviewed in the New York Times, where (increasingly) puff-pastry drives out the protein.