Friday, August 28, 2015

The Medium & the Message

Recently, my Maxima, faithful companion of almost seventeen years, gave up its mechanical ghost (escaping towards the heavens, like steam from a radiator), and departed this life, hopefully for a better world.
Dialing back the horsepower expectations, for an era and region in which it’s impossible to drive fast anyway, I settled on a sensible Civic, which (as though through influence of its very name) I had always associated with courteous drivers.  Being brand-new, it had various electronic doodads I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole, but my wife loves them, so I have her that car, and took on the one she bought, used, a few years ago.  Even at that rate, it has a CD drive but no cassette drive (the old Maxima was the other way around).  Which means that the vast library of language tapes and the like, which I constructed piecemeal over years, and (dutifully) used to listen to on the way to work and back, are now obsolescent.  So instead I listen to sacred music -- Thomas Thallis, Palestrina, William Byrd, Josquin des Prés.  Quite a change.

Coincidentally, at work, I finally acquired a “green” machine with an internet connection, and thus am able to listen to a wider selection from the same genres (focussing on performances by the Hilliard Ensemble, Kings Singers, Thallis Scholars, and such) through headphones  while working on the “grey” machine.

There was a time, some years back, when I listened only to such fare, for religious reasons.  Whereas now, simply because I like the music, it is beautiful and soothing, and does not distract from driving or from Saving American Lives.   It is good for tranquility.  Also, it goes will with driving more slowly, and with extending courtesy to others who wish to merge.


For an earlier meditation on such musical monoculture, try this:

Imagine, indeed, a world in which, for a thousand years, music just was the Goldberg Variations – no other music existed, nor had anyone an idea of composing any new.  The score was thus like the text of the Mass – you didn’t meddle with it. 

Doctor J endorses The Donald!

[If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
 This train is pulling out of the station,
 with great chuffing of engine  and puffing of smoke.
 If you want a low-number party-card,
 time to get on board… ]

OK,  so -- Me?  I’m putting my chips on Trump.  -- Why?  Cause he’s a classy guy, a class act.  He got class coming out of his ass, class coming out of his wherever.  So yeah, him.   Whomever.

My new hero. 
Donald?  Have your people
call my people …

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Trump: a Perturbative Approach

One learns early-on in calculus (or, if you are well brought-up, at your mother’s knee), to be wary of conditionally convergent series.   If the series is not absolutely convergent, then you may not arbitrarily rearrange the order of terms, as that could well alter the limit.  Indeed, Riemann proved a surprisingly strong result:   that with an appropriate permutation, you can come up with any ‘limit’ you like:

I was reminded of that caveat, reading the repeated strictures of Roger Penrose (in Road to Reality) on the ‘renormalization’ of divergent series (in QED and QFT), where many infinite bumps may be thus swept under the rug.    More generally, he questions many uses of perturbation theory,  which turns a problem into that of summing an infinite perturbation series.   These are admittedly tricky (“There is absolutely no guarantee that perturbative methods result in a convergent solution. In fact, asymptotic series are the norm.” -- Wiki), but widely used (and perhaps abused) in physics.

To illustrate the power of an unbridled perturbative approach, we now shall prove, by its methods, a surprising result:

Donald Trump is a feminazi

(Step zero)  Begin with Trump in his ground-state.
(Step one)  Perturb this by addition of a couple of boobs.
(Step two)  Add a Hitler-style toothbrush-moustache.
(Step three)  Within the limits of experimental error, higher orders of perturbation can be ignored.


(The technique used in that proof  is known technically as the "Mr Potato Head algorithm".)

Donald Trump, looking mildly perturbed

Thus we see that, using the powerful techniques of Perturbation Theory, we can achieve results scarcely obtainable otherwise.


[Update 28 August 2015]  The above was a sotie -- a learnèd jest.  But there is a deeper sense in which the notion of “perturbation” does apply.   Namely, in quantum theory, where the Schroedinger wave-function blithely evolves in smooth linear splendor, entirely non-committed as to the values of such parameters as location or momentum:  when suddenly, it is ‘perturbed’ -- probed, interfered with -- in the form of an ‘observation’.   At which point, “the wave-function collapses”, and out rolls a value for the parameter measured (orientation of the polarization, or whatever), like a silver dollar  rolling out of a slot-machine.
In the case of an amateur running for President (and this would apply to retired neurosurgeons, pizza moguls, generals, whomever, as well as to casino magnates or Miss Universe impresarios), the “perturbation” comes not from a physicist (‘observer’), but from a reporter or interviewer;  but the effect is the same.   Within the mists thitherto swirling within the novice’s head, there is no conception of a position on:  the Armenian genocide  (who did they kill?), quantitative easing, the independence of the continuum hypothesis, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the role of the Illuminati in the moon-landing hoax, or whether Jeb Bush was really born in Florida as he claims or rather in Communist China as the short form of his birth-certificate clearly states (the long form claims that he was never born at all).   To keep the conversation flowing, an opinion -- a position -- is required:  and voilà !   Suddenly our neophyte, without having given the matter a moment’s thought, has an actual stance on, say, the nuclear deal with Iran (the product of years of work by both diplomats and boffins, from several leading nations).

Saturday, August 15, 2015

String Theory for Trump Voters

A high-powered team of cybernetic linguisticians have run detailed studies and concluded that, from the standpoint of syntax,  Republican Presidential front-runner talks like a fourth-grader:

That, as regards vocabulary and grammar, merely.  From the semantic-pragmatic standpoint, he speaks like a schoolyard bully.


This, however, is by no means to criticize our (potential) next President.   (How foolish would that be, after all;  he’ll have the power to revoke our Junior Woodchuck Blogger License.)   Nay more, we have concluded that it is time to board that train before it leaves the station;  and accordingly, we are preparing a series of scholarly monographs, written at a fourth-grade level, for exactly this audience. 

The debut volume is called String Theory for Trump Voters, Simply Explained.   It responds to an express desideratum from the top.  “So what are these stupid little … stringy things, anyway?” the candidate mused in a recent broadcast.  “Sounds totally bogus!”
(A prerequisite for this opus  is the prequel, written at a third-grade level,  Quantum Field Theory is our Friend!)

Other titles in the series:

The Homoousian Controversy:  a Trumponomic perspective.
The Gospel according to The Donald.

In a junior-auxiliary line aimed at lower-information voters will be versions of the smash-hit “for Dummies” series, rewritten in Googolian “Simplified English”.   Offerings include:

“Computers for Dummies” for Imbeciles
“Intermediate Arabic for Dummies” for Deaf-mutes

and the unique, twice-distilled

“ ‘Algebraic K-Theory for Dummies’  for Morons”  for Trisomy-21.

Major credit cards accepted.

Friday, August 14, 2015


The word (and with it, the original notion) bravery  has started to go the way of pride :  abducted by the autophiles, trivialized, and rendered unfit for serious use.   Examples of the new (ab)use  are too numerous, and mostly too stale, to sample;  we mention only a recent cause célèbre, in which a celebrity gigolo, long a glutton for the limelight,  perpetrated in public  an unhallowed transmogrification, thereby attracting great gobs of further publicity (a Vanity Fair cover, a new reality show), along with the ululating adulation of the chattering classes:  for all of which  “she” was commended for “her” ‘bravery’.

The speech-communities behind these two semantic etiolations or devolutions, are essentially the same:  the partisans of “everyone gets a medal”.  (Which means that any medals given to actual heroes, are meaningless.)

The inflation-infection has spread  even to the military, even in combat zones.  A buddy of mine was serving in Afghanistan, very much in harm’s way, when he and everyone in his group, regardless of work-role,  was given a medal in the form of a large commemorative metal coin.   The inscription thanked them all “for your service”, in …. “Iraq”!   (In other words, there were some medals left over from that conflict -- in which my friend incidentally also served -- and they were recycled bushel-fashion.)  On the reverse side was inscribed the name of the awarding entity: … Anheuser-Busch.
(Can’t make this up.)
(And no, the coin wasn’t good for anything -- not even for buying a Bud.)


Less widespread as yet, and conceivably a sort of contre-coup of the above development, are cases in which the flip-side notion, that of cowardice, is wrenched awry.   The first widely noted example was the nearly universal tagging of the 9/11 pilots as cowards.   Now, condemn their actions however you please;  but to denominate their plunging into the jaws of certain death, for a cause that they believed in, as ‘cowardice’, is to have no idea what cowardice and bravery mean, and in particular  to misunderstand our adversaries.

More recently, the denunciation has been put to very odd use.   Consider the bizarre episode of the dentist,  who (following in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, a notably courageous man both physically and morally) tried his hand at big-game hunting, yet somehow (ananke) displeased the Erinyes, and was suddenly caught up in an upwelling of populist vitriol  for which one must seek far for an equivalent:  the social media increasingly  evokes the Beast.   The absurdity, even indecency of the spectacle (hordes of carnivores, the Big Macs still fresh on their breath, calling for this man’s blood) would beggar comment;  but one detail we do note:  that among the vices attributed to the man, was that of cowardice.   Now, traveling half a world away, to unfamiliar territory, to face a healthy, fully-grown male lion, armed with nothing but a bow and arrow, scarcely illustrates the concept.

And, latterly, the epithet has been applied to the Oath Keepers on the mean streets of Fergustan.   Judge their actions wise or foolish, needlessly provocative or what you will:  but again  the epithet pinned to them is cowards.   Whereas objectively what you see is a handful of middle-aged men, leaving the comfort and safety of their living-rooms, voyaging into territory where absolutely nobody will have their back, and confronting mobs which, earlier, have repeatedly shot at police and sandbagged reporters.   The precise term for their action might be foolhardy;  but if so, then the same term must apply to Admiral Farragut ("Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!").

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Updates to essays:

And now, a cool, level-headed contribution to the free-speech-vs.-PC debate, by Kelefa Sanneh, in this week’s New Yorker.

In a You-Tube video of a militant Salafist demonstration in Bonn, posted in February of 2015, the remarkable German convert and Hass-Prediger  finishes his tirade by exhorting the onlookers:  “The Jews say the Prophet [Muhammad] left only girls.  But no!  He left men.” (He adds in Arabic:  khalaf rijâl.)
Meaning:  Biologically, the Prophet had, as a matter of historical fact, only daughters (that survived infancy);  but as a legacy, he left men.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Bogus phrase of the day: “Routine traffic stop”

(1)  First, a logical point.
Semantically,  epistemologically, the expression routine traffic stop is comparable to successful candidate -- you don’t know until after the event that the candidate was successful, or the stop routine.  If the officer gets shot, turns out it wasn’t so routine after all.
The term “routine traffic stop” is currently deployed so as to load the political dice, much like “unarmed black teenager”:  until you have searched him, you do not know that he is unarmed.

(2)  Second, a statistical/criminological point.
Many traffic stops, especially at night, are a time of peril and tension for the officer involved.  For an example, we need seek no farther than this morning’s headlines:

The reader may wonder,  whether the media frenzy over the recent Cincinnati case, may not have sapped the officer’s vigilance, and thus contributed to his death.

(3)  Third, a rhetorical point.
Some traffic stops that the police themselves, with good reason, present as “routine”, in fact are a tactical pretext in the investigation of a crime scene in progress.  The police know for certain that a violent and dangerous individual is on the loose;  what they don’t know is whether the person in the vehicle (whose description loosely matches the necessarily provisional witness description of the perp and his getaway car) is the felon in question.   Until that is established, it makes plain operational sense  not to alert the suspect to the fact that he is under suspicion, so that he goes for his gun before backup can arrive.  Hand him a line about a tail-light, or a front license plate, or whatever, to buy time.

A dramatic illustration of this appeared yesterday on NPR.  They were interviewing a black DC lawyer who has just published a book about how the public should deal with police.  He presented what, on the face of it, was a plain case of wanton police profiling and overreaction.  While not speeding or otherwise infringing any traffic laws, he was pulled over, and told it was because he had tinted windows.   He did not, in fact, have tinted windows.  Several cops with guns drawn  swarmed the car.  After investigating, they let him go;  he filed a complaint with the city.

At this point, every listener would be siding strenuously with the motorist, and fuming at the DC police.  But as a result of the complaint process, the motorist eventually learned what had really been going on that night;  and he was man enough to share this with the audience.
A couple of blocks from the stop, shortly before, a murder had been committed.  The killer was on the loose; his description and that of his vehicle were within error-range of what the cops were confronted with here.  That bit about the tinted windows was simply the best the frontline cop could think up on the spot -- not very skillfully;  if it had indeed been the perp, the guy would have caught on to the ruse.

After this lesson in the basics of police technique, the lawyer still doesn’t quite get it.  He still holds it against the police that they didn’t give him the real explanation right on the spot.  But that was while the killer was still on the lam.   It would have been a gross operational infraction to divulge information on an operation in progress, to John Random Citizen, who then posts this exciting news on social media, potentially alerting the killer that the cops have a description of his vehicle so he’d better ditch it pronto. 

(4)  A game-theoretic perspective

The officer/motorist scenario is a case of ‘asymmetric warfare’:

Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr., said late Saturday that the shooting “evidences the fact that there are so many guns on our streets in the wrong hands…At any given minute in a 24-hour day, [police officers] are dealing with folks who have no rules of engagement.

(5)  The broader legal context

The lead article in this morning’s New York Times  profiles a trainer and researcher who focuses on exactly such matters, and often serves as an expert witness:

[Update 8 Dec 2015]
The latest "routine traffic stop":

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Bloggers avant la lettre

Re 16th century England:

Men, and sometimes women, wrote for the amusement of themselves and their friends, not for publication.  Their verses were handed round, copied out into the manuscript books, of which many survive  in public and private libraries, and admired in a small circle.
Ward & Waller, eds. The Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. III: Renascence and Reformation (1908), p. 180