Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Schimpfwort of the Day: "schnurzegal"

Jean-Claude Juncker seems to be really getting into his role as the Dick Cheney of the European Union.   After blocking any input from the individual parliaments of Europe, into the proposed CETA agreement with Canada, Juncker sniffed that the whole thing was to him…. schnurzegal. 
That is a very colloquial, even vulgar German expression;  difficult to translate, but at a venture:  “Like I give a flying fuck.”

Again, exactly the sort of attitude that made the Brits want out.   (And, according to polls, ditto the French, and by an even larger margin.)

[Weiteres zum Thema  hier.]

Anyhow, it’s a neat word.   And in answer to Juncker et al’s strident demands that Britain be quick about it, chop-chop, in chosing a new Prime Minister (this, before it has even been decided, which party shall rule, or even who shall be the chief of either party -- both are in crisis), simply because such a rush would suit the tastes of the Brusselcrats,  Britons may now reply:  “Na ja, das ist uns ja aber halt schnurzegal.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Marine on the “fuite en avant”

Today’s New York Times published an op-ed  notable in two respects:   One, it is written by the head of a conservative/populist group  normally marginalized by the goodthink media (here, the Front National;  similarly AfD, UKIP, FPÖ, Swedish Democrats, etc.), Marine Le Pen.  Two -- remarkably -- it is offered (along with a translation) in the original French:

[Onomastic/orthoëpic note:   The surname Le Pen  is not pronounced by dropping the -n and nasalizing the preceding vowel.   The vowel is oral, the nasal fully sounded:  rhyming with reine, saine, pleine, and other nice words.]

And within her essay, she uses a favorite phrase that we elucidated earlier -- “fuite en avant”.  Here we find it in its natural habitat:

Une chose est certaine : le départ de la Grande Bretagne ne rendra pas l’Union européenne plus démocratique. La structure hiérarchique des institutions supranationales va souhaiter se renforcer car comme toutes les idéologies mourantes, l’Union européenne ne connaît que la fuite en avant.

(So far that prediction has proved true, with the incredibly bullying responses by Juncker and by Ayrault.)

The Times translated that  thus:

Like all dying ideologies, the union knows only how to forge blindly ahead.

For the full treatment of “fuite en avant”, click here:


[Sprachpolitische Bemerkung]  The Times’ language stunt was a novelty and a courtesy;  it was not an illustration of the absurd meme that has suddenly sprung up (like weeds at the spot where a bear has pooped) in the columns of uncritical journalists, to the effect that “the English language may be endangered” owing to the proposed Brexit!   Umm… Neither the USA, nor Canada, nor Australia, nor New Zealand, nor for that matter India or the other countries that use English as an official language, nor those many countries (e.g. Hungary, Poland, …) whose only hope of conversing with Joe Random Citizen (from Eritrea or Japan or wherever), are members of the EU, and English is flourishing.   It does so purely democratically, by practical free choice.    The fact that certain Eurocrats and their mouthpieces are muttering about disenfranchising the language, shows simply the authoritarian pettiness that led to widespread disgust with Brussels in the first place.

Word of the Day: “Airman”

Since 9/11, I have worked side by side with folks in the Air Force  every day.  The universal term for any one of these is Airman.   It rhymes precisely with chairman -- which means that the -man is here merely suffixal, the vowel being unstressed and qualitatively reduced:  chairm’n, airm’n.  (Phonetically, the unstressed vowel has been demoted to at most a schwa, and often has disappeared altogether, the -n becoming syllabic by compensation:  cf.  rock ‘n’ roll.  -- Contrast the vowel in stunt man, which remains full.)
Accordingly, the term *airwoman does not exist, and no-one is clamoring for it.  And no-one, but no-one, is demanding to be rechristened as *airpeople or *airpersons or *airindividuals or *Americans with airiness or whatever.

The USAF has a lot of cool slang, and perhaps sometime I’ll share it (or you… airmen  can add your favorites in a comment to this post);  but the point here is merely to notice the irenic lexical state of affairs in today’s Air Force, versus the hurry-scurrying going on over at the Marines, as reported in today’s MSM:

The Marines just took ‘man’ out of 19 job titles, and people are losing their minds
The force will rename 19 of its job titles to make occupational specialties more gender neutral. Critics argue political correctness is taking over the military.

“You’d think someone who has seen combat would have more stones.”
You know, I was going to [complain] about PC crap … but “Infantry Assault Marine” sounds kinda cool …”

Now, there are neologisms and neologisms;  this batch seems to have been crafted with a good ear, at any rate. Infantry Assault Marine  does indeed sound way cool.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Richard Fortey monostichs

[Continuing our series on scientists who write like angels]

Earthquakes are the shudders
of the reluctant crust
as plates plunge
              one another


the sun cracked the mud   into  crispy polygons


where frost prised slabs of rock away,  and rain carried off  its stony booty

[Source: Life, 1998]

~     ~     ~

And, from his fellow geology-maven  John McPhee:

Near the far side of Utah,
the flats turned blinding white,    corn-snow white;
revolving winds were making devils out of salt.
Over the whiteness, you could see the salt go off the curve of the earth.

[Source:  Annals of the Former World (1998), p. 60]

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Phrase of the day: “Euro-Tartuffe” (Brexit edition)

[In honor of today's Brexit-vote festivities, herewith a re-post of an earlier essay, originally posted 4 May 2014.]

~   ~   ~

Time was, in this country, and around the world, when idealists used to dream of an End to All Wars -- to be enforced (a necessary codicil, though not spoken so loud) by a One World Government.   Americans were among those in the forefront of this, signally Woodrow Wilson, who garnered a Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of the League of Nations (la SDN), the first step towards such a new order, established as the dust was settling from the Great War.   But when push came to shove, Senate Republicans and prairie populists  would have none of it, and Wilson’s brainchild was a prophecy unhonored in its own country.

The ethos of that time  is now impossible to re-experience, though students of history may imagine it.   The Release 2.0 of the League, the United Nations, is mostly a debating shop, for harangues that few heed.   Not a bad thing;  good that it’s there;  but no shadow or echo of the original vision of One World Government (whose aftershadow lives on only in the nightmare imagination  of the prairie populists).


Europe, however, shaken to its foundations by the deeper trauma of the Second World War, which no-one ever imagined to dub “the Great”, and which turned out even worse than our fears, adopted a more regional version of the original vision, one which actually has some teeth to it:  what is now known as the European Union.   The average American has probably not even heard of the thing (indeed, I almost wrote “EEC” by anachronism), but it is very real.   And its existence has no doubt contributed to the one big spectacular fact of the past nigh-on seventy years, what must astonish any student of European history (which has been bloodier at every level, than the non-devotee has any idea):  unbroken peace among nations belonging to that Union.  An astonishment that grows with each passing year of No World War Three.  And if there have, in the course of those decades, been occasional instances of fussy Brusselian bureaucratic overreach -- in one actual, notorious case, regulation of the length and curvature of bananas -- this pales beside the Holocaust (to take one example, hm, at random).  

In time though, the freely adopted multiheaded yoke  has come increasingly to chafe certain individual withers;  and resistance to further EU encroachment has become a key issue in the upcoming pan-European elections:

In part, this swell of opposition comes as a result of actual EU overreach, such as the dismanteling of borders at a time of a great “inwash of the unwashed” (see essays here and here), in part because, from a more zeitgeistlich perspective, the diktats of Brussels have encouraged fresh overreach by, for example, the misandrists of Paris and Stockholm, who mean (and here I write hyperbolically, though only barely) to police and limit (with a ruler, of the sort once used by nuns to smack the palms of naughty boys) the length and curvature of erections.

[Update Memorial Day 2014;  from the NZZ:
Europa und die EU, das sind Klischees über Normen aller Art, etwa diejenige über die Krümmung der Gurke, die zwar längst nicht mehr gilt, aber an Stammtischen unvermindert als Beispiel einer fehlgeleiteten monströsen Bürokratie angeführt wird.

OK, so maybe it was cucumbers, not bananas.  Same idea.

Gurke mit Attitude

Anyhow, the people have spoken, in the Européennes, “un séisme europhobe”, avec percée du FN.]


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


Anyhow, all that is but by way of dilettante kibitzing;  I am not among those solons such as Thomas Friedman or George Will  who are licensed to pontificate  each Sunday, across from the editorial page.   I do, however, carry an official Linguist’s License, and am a paid-up member of the Global Sociophilological Association (QG:  Genève -- it is actually a subunit of the WDJ).   And hence am permitted to observe this new coinage, reported in this morning’s press:

L'écolo Durand s’en prend aux "Euro-tartuffes"
"Plus forts que les euro-sceptiques ou les euro-béats, voici venu le temps des euro-tartuffes", écrit-il. Soit, à en croire Durand, ceux qui tiennent un discours à Paris et un autre à Bruxelles.

Which, being Englished for the convenience of our obligate-anglophone friends, is no more than to say:  A prominent Green politician has coined a category to join the extant extremes of the Euro-sceptics (those who oppose further EU encroachment), and the euro-béats (difficult to translate exactly:  it refers to those bobo-bisounours, who embrace the Union and all its present and potential works, with a great big smoochy kiss):  the opportunist Euro-hypocrites (after Molière’s character Tartuffe), who, speaking alternately out of either side of the mouth spout one thing in Brussels  and another thing at home:  here to butter-up the goose, there to flatter the gander.

[ Updated here/ Mise à jour ici / Hier auf den neuesten Stand gebracht:]

[Update 25 June 2016] 
So, Brexit it is.    In the feelgood media, there is plenty of scolding against those yokels who voted for national sovereignty, and a paucity of self-examination on the part of those who, like Merkel and the MSM, helped bring this fracture about.
Thus, pursuing its human-interest brand of journalism, NPR goes around interviewing this person and that person in England, whose school or whatnot had been receiving part of its budget “from” the UE.  Unmentioned is the sheer arithmetical fact that Britain has long been a net contributor to the  rest of Europe -- they send out more than they get back;  and what they get back comes with all sorts of Brussels-set restrictions and conditions.
Or again the French.    It is by now admitted that concern over uncontrolled immigration was a principle motivator (probably the main one) of the Brexiteers;  Exhibit A being the euphorically irresponsible cave-in of Germany, Exhibit B (for England) being France, which supinely admitted thousands of illegal intruders from Africa, and -- doing nothing for their integration, which they don’t especially desire anyway -- allowed them to accumulate up around Calais, where for years they have been trying to barge their way into England; uncharacteristically, (with scattered exceptions) Britain stood firm.   French editorialists now put a bizarre spin on this, typical of the mentality that repelled the Brexiteers:  Brexit (largely a vote against uncontrolled immigration) should mean that now Britain changes course and takes all those unwanted Africans off French hands:  their Wonderland watchword for this is, that “the English border should now move from Calais to Dover”.   If by that they mean that England can now be relieved of bearing the bulk of the costs of insuring security in Pas de Calais, well and good;  but the bisounours will be disappointed if they await the dissolution of the white cliffs at Dover.  -- Similarly, French politicians (such as Macron) have followed Erdogan in using unwanted migrants as threat-material:  do as we say or we open the floodgates.   But, all England really has to do in this case is to dry-dock the ferries and shut the tunnel.

Bienvenue en Françafrique ! 

Interestingly, readers are generally not fooled.  From a comment in today’s Le Figaro:

Regardez combien présomptueux sont ces eurocrates vexés, furieux des peuples qui ne votent pas comme ils veulent. L'Angleterre est un grand pays, très grand, et ne se laissera pas imposer une vitesse par des politicards. Pression? Tigres de papier.

Interestingly, readers are generally not fooled.  From  comments in today’s Le Figaro:

Regardez combien présomptueux sont ces eurocrates vexés, furieux des peuples qui ne votent pas comme ils veulent. L'Angleterre est un grand pays, très grand, et ne se laissera pas imposer une vitesse par des politicards. Pression? Tigres de papier.


je suis mort de rire devant les menaces . en fait les dirigeants de l'Europe c'est à dire Merkel et ses valets n'ont pas apprécié qu'un pays les envoie balader de façon démocratique . N'oublions jamais les paroles de Junker : "il ne peut y avoir de choix démocratiques contre les décrets européens ". Au moins c'est clair de ce côté du Chanel on n'aime pas les choix démocratiques et il fallait s'attendre à une volée de bois vert .

[Update 29 June 2016] Jean-Claude Juncker seems to be really getting into his role as the Dick Cheney of the European Union.   After blocking any input from the individual parliaments of Europe, into the proposed CETA agreement with Canada, Juncker sniffed that the whole thing was to him…. schnurzegal. 
That is a very colloquial, even vulgar German expression;  difficult to translate, but at a venture:  “Like I give a flying fuck.”

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The “Dissent Channel” memo

When news of the recent State Department “dissent channel” memo  hit the headlines a few days ago, in which 51 diplomats called for U.S. airstrikes against the opponent of ISIL and defender of the Syrian Christian minority umm, the evil tyrant Bashar al-Assad,  I first assumed that this was something dug up from several years go.  Given all that has happened since -- given what has happened whenever a Muslim dictator was removed by force by the West or with heavy Western assistance (Mullah Omar, Saddam, Gaddhafi; and cf. the mess in Egypt and Yemen) -- surely no-one in their right mind would be calling for that now.   Accordingly we looked forward with Schadenfreude   to see  with what contortions  the signers would now backtrack from their foolish proposal.

But no -- the memo is new.  One gasps;  one stares;  on croit rêver.

Fortunately, the New York Times today published an analysis -- cum explication de texte -- of the memo, saying the things that seem so obvious  but which today’s unenterprising journalists seldom rise to.

BLUF:  Those diplomats must each have been dropped on their fontanelles shortly after birth, by some careless nurse.


Research by Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations found that airstrikes account for only a fraction of deaths in Syria. Mr. Zenko also found that no-fly zones tend to escalate wars rather than calm them.
Syria would be particularly tricky, given that many airstrikes are carried out by Russian rather than Syrian warplanes. The memo does not address whether a no-fly zone would apply to Russia or how Washington could enforce it without risking a major conflict.
Airstrikes, the memo argues, could be the leverage the United States needs to commandeer the negotiations and force Syria to compromise. This intervention would need to be forceful enough to overpower not only Mr. Assad, but also his Russian and Iranian backers, who have so far shown a willingness to escalate their involvement to keep their ally in power. The only way for the Obama administration to out-leverage Syria’s allies is to surpass their commitments, which at this point could require something as extreme as a ground invasion.
The most revealing aspect of this memo is what it excludes. It does not address how to resolve the deep disagreements even among allies about what a peace deal should look like. It does not offer a legal basis for war against Syria, which Russia would surely block at the United Nations. It does not say how to remove Mr. Assad without letting the Syrian government collapse.

A Dissent Channel is a good institution, offering an alternative to groupthink  and addressing the reluctance of subordinates to question their boss.  But it is not a guaranteed conduit for pearls of wisdom.

FWIW:  The stated foreign policy of Riemannistan  is to sit on the sidelines in lawn-chairs, and cheer Putin on, as he wades into yet another Islamic quagmire.


Observers have for some time  had qualms  about the martial adventurist tendencies of the former First Lady.   (Ditto John McCain, but he’s not running this year.)  Some observations from back in 2011:

Since then, especially since President Obama inked a pact with Iran (which already has brought great benefits to Boeing), such scenarious seemed less likely.    But apparently there is indeed a bloc out there that would back her, were she to decide to dive, once again, head-first into an alien morass.

Bashar al-Assad: Orthography and Orthoëpy

As regards the current controversy over the actions of the Syrian President:  In the absence of capacity  materially to affect the direction of political debate, we can at least advise the instruction-hungry public  how to spell and say his name.   In this, we echo the immortal observation of Professor Henry Higgins, who in his learnèd treatise  Bella Damma Mea  observed:   “The French don’t care what they do actually, so long as they pronounce it properly.”

In a nutshell:  In Arabic, the sibilant in Assad is actually pronounced as single, and thus in principle should be so written.  The ‘shibilant’ in Bashar is, by contrast, a phonetically long (morphophonemically doubled) consonant, and ideally would be so transcribed.  In short, the usual spelling in English transcription has it exactly bassackwards.

If you really wanted to be exact about it, you would transcribe the name (if diacritics are available) as  Baššâr al-Asad.  Or, in our usual alphabet, Bashshar...

 And indeed, it appears that the State Department does indeed use the Asad style (while suppressing the al-).  From the "Dissent Channel" memo  published today in the New York Times:

(SBU) Secondly, a more assertive U.S. role to protect and preserve opposition-held communities, by defending them from Asad’s air force and artillery, presents the best chance for defeating Da’esh in Syria. The prospects for rolling back Da’esh’s hold on territory are bleak without the Sunni Arabs, who the regime continues to bomb and starve. A de facto alliance with the regime against Da’esh would not guarantee success: Asad’s military is undermanned and exhausted.

  [Acronym note:  SBU means:  You won't be prosecuted for sharing this (a good thing, too, since I just did), but do not disseminate beyond the circle of your very closest BFFs on Facebook.]

The given-name بشار  is not itself a dictionary word, but is an emphatic/frequentive form based on a root meaning “rejoice, good news”.  The surname means ‘lion’, and, in the Arabic context, connotes nobility and bravery.

As for the pronunciation:  bash-SHAR al-AH-sad (capitals representing stressed syllables).   Now, what do you immediately notice?
Unlike French or Turkish or Persian or many other languages -- and pace some American radio announcers -- Arabic wordstress is not fixed upon a given-positioned syllable (counting either from the front or from the rear).  Superficially, Arabic is like English or Russian, allowing free contrastive stress.  But in fact (speaking only of Classical Arabic here), it is instead like Latin:  the wordstress is predictable given knowledge of the sequence of long versus short syllables. Baššâr has a long vowel in the final syllable, and hence is oxytone; Asad, a short, and hence is a troche.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

James Jeans monostich

 … an objective world,  external to man,
            independent of man,
                          indifferent to man ……………….

[Source:  The Growth of Physical Science (1951)]

Historical note:
That quote recalls that of Pascal -- “Le silence eternel des ces espaces infinis m'effraie” -- except that the English astronomer, unlike the Frenchman -- the Jeansonist vice the Jansenist -- took it in stride, with a stiff upper lip.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Non-Acronym of the day: “Jason”

The saga of Jason and the Argonauts  has spun off some delightful dubbings.  One, the “Argo” escapade, we discussed here.   Another was the secret elite group of physicists called Jason.  

An intrepid historian of science  ran down the true etymology, after an initial (indeed, “initials”) red-herring:

I asked my husband’s physicist-colleagues  “What’s Jason?” and collected the following:  Jason is an acronym fof July-August-September-October-November, the months this group of academic physicists   met secretly to solve the problems  the Defense Department couldn’t.
-- Ann Finkbeiner, The Jasons (2006), p.  xii

That suggestion quickly dissolves  in the universal solvent of Common Sense:

These stories I didn’t believe.  An acronym for months sounded silly.  [But more tellingly:] Academics couldn’t meet that long during the school year because they had institutional responsibilities.
-- id.

Another false-lead was the assertion that Jason was named after one of the members’ family dog.   Not.  The true story she tells on pages 39-40:  the wife of one of the members chose it, after the Greek myth -- most appropriate for a group that was going after the scientific equivalent of Golden Fleece.

The author adds some linguistic details:

“Jason is both a collective and a proper noun:  if you belong to Jason, you are a Jason.” (p. xiv)

Jason is usually capitalized [completely],  JASON, as though it were an acronym.  I have no idea why -- maybe because, written like a name [with only the first letter a capital], it might be taken to be a personal name.  I shall not capitalize it.
(p. xxviii)

Another reason it was initially written all-caps is that DoD and the IC often so style cover-terms.


The choice of Jason as a group name  is typical of the playfulness of physicists.  When DoD does the dubbing, the result is likely to be humdrum. As,

The task force was called the Defense Communications Planning Group, or DCPG, a name chosen for its meaninglessness.  (p. 77)

When a secret project does get a lexical designation, this may be chosen precisely to throw off anyone to whom the term might get leaked.  Thus, the Manhattan Project:  so named because it had nothing to do with Manhatten, and indeed was centered at locations far from any city.  One of the things they worked on (my Dad did, for one) was called “Tube-alloy”, a nicely misleading alias for uranium (which is an element, not an alloy).

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Metempsychotic Monostich

 we might wake up as woodchucks   -- yea,  before the night is through

(aging david, to his lady-love)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


Fire    flies,
live    light;
flit and flicker
in the night.

Sleep   time
kiss and hug --
dream about
the lightning bug.

On the Nature of Being: a Slacker Meditation

Cogito, ergo sum,” quoth Descartes.  Only that’s … so much effort

Can I just am without thinking?  The verb to am -- I am you am he am she am …
-- David Lodge, Thinks… (2001), p. 4

The novelist’s here wrestling  with the innards of language, recalls the essay of Woody Allen, who, finding “I love you” too hackneyed, said to his paramour:  “I… loave you… I lerve you …”

Monday, June 13, 2016

EXXXclusive! Actual transcripts of Omar Mateen’s 911 calls !!!

Many observers have questioned the depth or solidity of the Orlando killer’s ties to ISIL.   That he called 911 during the drama three times, is beyond dispute.  But -- was he just then attempting to make initial contact with the group (a bit late, that!); or was it a pre-arranged call?
The essential scenarios  could not be more different:

(A) “Hi, you don’t know me, but my name is Omar, and I’m a loser, and my wife dumped me, and I spend all day whacking off in the basement and want to kill myself, but, better to go out in a blaze of glory, y’know?  As a “martyr”?”

(B) “Heyyy, Abu;  Omar here.   ConOps 938b is in progress as we speak.  Inform the Illuminati.”

Obviously, we need to get to the bottom of this.  And thus the spectacularly tentacular research department at the World of Dr Justice (Headquarters:  Geneva), which has a mole in every organization of any consequence, drilled into the matter, and came up with the actual tapes, “transcribed in Hollywood” by our team of international linguists.

Call #1:

Caller (dials; waits;  gets dial tone, which times out)
Caller (dials again; gets a recording, “We are sorry, but you need to dial a “1” before--“; caller hangs up.)
Caller (dials again, and again, and again; finally gets through).
911 (recording):  “Thank you for dialing 911; your call is important to us.  For Spanish, stay on the line.  For English, press 2;  for Lithuanian, press 3;  for Arabic, press 3 only do it backwards;  for Hebrew…”
Caller (to himself):  Damn it!”
911: “You call is important to us -- reeally, reeeally important to us!  Muy importante! Sehr sehr importgestrudel!!  Please stay on the line!!!”
Caller (Waits; fifteen minutes pass)
911 (dispatcher):  “Good evening, how may I direct your call?”
Caller:  “I am Omar -- Omar! -- and I have hostages--“
911: “Please hold while I attend to a caller on another line.”
[Ten minutes pass.]
911:  “Thank you for holding. We--“
Caller:  “What was that about?”
911:  “Tragically, a kittehhh climbed up a tree and could not come down---“
Caller: “Allah’s curse upon the kittehhhhhh!   I am holding hostages and I--“
[A time anomaly occurs as the convo is shifted back to the technology of the 1950s:]
Operator: “Your time has expired.  Please insert another dime--“
[Call ends.]

Call #2:

Caller [dials 911 seventeen times in succession, for good luck]
911:  “Good evening.  How may I direct your call?  For City Hall, press 1.  For--“
Caller:  “I am Omar, and I am loaded for bear!  Fear me!  I am calling to pledge allegiance to the Caliph, the Lord High Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, master of Mosul, regent of Ragga --“
911:   “Sir, can you spell that?”
Caller: “? --! -- ??!!!    -- No, I can’t spell that!  I can barely spell my own name, how do you expect me --“
Hostages [voices in the background  cannot refrain from intervening.  “Aboo Baker Al Big Daddy--“  “No, you fool. A-Boo Ben Adam --“  -- Shots ring out, and the voices cease.]
911: “We are sorry, but there is nobody by that name at this extension--“
Caller: “Damn this extension!   And a plague on bacon!”
[Call unexpectedly cuts out.]

Call #3:

Caller [so heated, the steam purls over the wires]:  “This -- is -- Omar --….”
911: “Ah, Omar!   Welcome back!  This is the third time you’ve called tonight.  Can we interest you in our exclusive Frequent Callers Club ™?  For a moderate weekly fee, you’ll receive premium service, including reduced wait-times--“
Caller: "Don't you get it? I have--"
911:  "-- and for a slightly fatter fee, you can get "911 Prime":  after one hundred successfully completed calls you win a toaster."
Caller: “I HAVE HOSTAGES !!!”
911:  “We are sorry sir, we do not offer hostages services to other than our premium customers.  Transferring your call to the Department of Motor Vehicles….”
[spray of gunfire; the line goes dead.]

[Note:  That is satire; but what the media have told us stretches credulity even further.  Reportedly, the perp not only put in multiple calls to 911, he also called a TV station ("Am I famous yet?") and surfed the Net to see how the attack-in-progress was being reported.  The question poses itself:  During all that time, and the assailant's distraction, what were the patrons doing?  Why didn't they rush him?  Or simply leave?  The building had half a dozen exits!]

[Update 15 June 2016]  More 911 fun:
Verizon: 911 calls mistakenly routed to empty back-up call center

"Your call is important to us..."

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Achilles and the Tortoise: the inside dope

Famed indeed is the fable of Achilles and the Tortoise, known since Antiquity to every schoolchild.  And yet the telling of it has steadily decayed, until contemporary versions have become equivalent to the old Irish Bull about how you could never walk from your table to the bar  for another pint, since in doing so, you would first have to traverse half the distance, and then half the remaining half, and then half of that remaining segment, and so on “to infinity”.    Anyone who has every enjoyed a cold, foaming pint of Guiness ™  knows how absurd that is.  -- Bartender!  Same all round!

Anyhow, the tale of Achilles racing the tortoise, as told by the mathematician Zeno in ancient times, recalls an actual contest, held on the plains of Troy ca. 1278 B.C. (Historians differ as to the precise date.)  For a bar bet, the wily Thersites bet Achilles than he couldn’t outrun a tortoise, if he gave the tortoise a head start.  The Achaean hero snorted and said, “Ha!  I’ll grant the creature a thousand cubits.  Gentlemen, place your bets!”

Achaeans and Trojans alike foregathered at the appointed time, Achilles arrogantly lounging on his shield, the tortoise waiting humbly, a thousand cubits in front.   Unfortunately, Achilles was better famed for his fleet foot and his ferocity, than for brains (you had to go to his countryman Odysseus  for that), and had neglected to inquire the length of the race.  In fact, it had been set at precisely … one thousand and one cubits.

Achilles, realizing belatedly that he’d been had, set off like lightning at the sound of the bell:  but when he finally reached the finish-line, there stood the tortoise, contentedly munching on grass.

Thahhhhh ...  Winnnnahhhhhhh !!!!

Zeno’s arithmetical point was that, although Achilles was much faster than the tortoise, he was not a thousand times as fast, and thus lost.  Indeed, even had he been a thousand times as fast, he’d have been vanquished: since in the time he covered the first thousand cubits, the tortoise would have traveled one cubit, to the finish-line.  (Left as an exercise for the reader:  How fast would Achilles have to be, to beat the tortoise under these conditions?)

In the event, Achilles had the last laugh, since he supped on the tortoise, in the form of soup.

The tale then takes a darker turn, as arcane mathematico-philosophical disputes led many who had lost the wager  to refuse to pay up;   a free-for-all ensued, which led directly to the Trojan War.
[Note:  You were probably told some foolish tale in school, about how the cause of it all was a woman.   As if.  We shall not deign to refute  that account.]


As the centuries went by, the lessons of that fateful day  were lost, finally issuing in a folkloristic version for children, “The Tortoise and the Hare”.  Once again, the tortoise wins;  but the mathematical substructure has been completely discarded.  Proving once again that the level of geometrical sophistication has sadly declined since the Age of Troy.

Lawrence Livermore monostich

a glowing yellow tent   against a black sky
and a laser shining   straight up to God

[Source: Ann Finkbeiner, The Jasons (2006), p. 166]

Constructivist Angelology

But yet when considered, may help us to enlarge our thoughts  towards greater perfections of it  in superior ranks of spirits. … The several degrees of angels  may probably have larger views.
-- John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)

Man’s understanding, though allied to the angelical, operates differently.  The angels understand intuitively, man by the painful use of the discursive reason.
-- E. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (1942)

It is presumably not obvious to the chimpanzee (or, if this be setting his smarts too low, to the humble woodchuck) that for all m, n in Z, m + n = n + m.  Nevertheless, in his daily scurryings and burrowings, he will repeatedly meet up with particular instantiations of this modest truth.
            For the woodchuck (at any event the southern northeastern lesser striped variety) builds a number of nests and other temporary dwellings, each of which has the framework of a variously triangulated  polyhedron, built tinkertoy-fashion from a fixed number of sticks.  Now, gathering them one by one would take too long, nor can the tidy woodchuck stand to have any sticks left over.  So when constructing his summer dwelling -- an icosahedron, which needs thirty sticks (did I get that right? My calculating powers are not much beyond those of a woodchuck) -- he normally harvests a jubjub bush, which has twenty-two sticks of exactly the right specs and which blooms in the spring, then rounds it out with the eight-sticked glubglub bush, which sprouts slightly later. 
But then one year, the blooming of the jubjub was delayed, and the woodchucks despaired.  All but one, the enterprising Willie, who went doggedly (or groundhoggishly) ahead  and harvested the available glubglub, supplementing this  when the jubjub arrived slightly later.  This remarkable exploit was recorded in the annals: for 22 then 8, one may substitute 8 then 22.
            It was subsequently found that a mubmub bush (18 sticks) followed by a nubnub bush (12) would do just as well – und zwar, in either order!  This fact too was recorded.
            The years went by, then the centuries, and the millennia, and the annals grew to seven times seventy stout volumes, densely filled with such arcana as: a cube-for-cubs may be constructed of a lublub (7) plus a rubrub (5), and this in either order; and so on for billions of examples.  All this was considered a branch of botany, a purely empirical science.
            By this means, the woodchucks arrived at an analogue of Babylonian mathematics.

Interlude:   A physicist depicts the arithmetical state-of-play in a papyrus from Egyptian/Babylonian times:

It records the resolution of a great number of fractions  into a sum of aliquot parts,  the original numerator always being 2:  as, for instance,

2/97 = 1/56 + 1/679 + 1/776

But no rules are given for effecting such resolutions, and the whole treatise seems to be a mere compendium of results obtained by repeated trials.
-- James Jeans, The Growth of Physical Science (1947 [posthum.]; 2nd edn. 1951), p. 11

            Until one day one Wisedome Woodchuck, a distant descendant of Willie, figured the whole thing out, and in a remarkable demonstration of only eighty pages (rather hard to follow, but sound), showed that m + n = n + m  was a perfectly general fact, replacing the seven-times-seventy volumes at a stroke, and freeing up his brethren for yet further architectural innovations, which previously had been shunned, as their particulars were not yet in the book.  The annals were placed in a museum, which the elder woodchucks might still visit, marveling at favorite exhibits (as who could forget that remarkable winter, when 5,878 + 519 turned out to be equal to 519 + 5,878?  A tour de force!). Meanwhile generations of young woodchucks (the pride and despair of their parents, who could not follow them into Canaan, with their aging brains) studied Wisedome’s proof, breaking their little heads against it.

Meanwhile in Metropolis… The humans, learning of this, politely saluted Wisedome’s modest accomplishment, and experienced a pang of sympathy for woodchuck-kind; yet felt no inclination to visit their Museum of Particular Results: for which they felt, indeed, a kind of horror.  And even the general result, while true, is somehow to us not truly interesting. In any case we are all too busy wrestling with the Riemann Hypothesis, to have time to look back.

Meanwhile in Elysium, where throne the angels sensu strictior, the lowest order of angelic beings sensu lato, a mock compliment is paid to Andrew Wiles, who finally figured out that little Fermat puzzle, with which the angel-kind  are wont to amuse the nursery.  Not that the angels arrived earlier at his proof, nor any refinement thereof.  They simply scoop up a few infinities of integers with their fractal fingers, twist them this way and that—and see, it doesn’t fit!  Simple.
            Moreover, all facts about all structures of ordinal type omega, whether or not deducible by any finite axiomatization, are equally transparent to the angels. They just look.

            So, is Elysium the mathematical Paradise?  Not quite…

            In a remarkably lucid and accessible article*, which should be packed into every pupil’s lunchbox by a considerate mom, Gödel observes that our continuing failure to resolve Cantor’s continuum problem, left over from the previous century, is quite an embarrassment.  It means that we are unable to wrap our minds around the very simplest multiplication problem possible, beyond the finite ones that these days can scarcely stump a woodchuck. Namely, two times two (times two, times two – keep going).  He writes:
            “It is easily proved that the power of the continuum is equal to 2^(aleph-nought). So the continuum problem turns out to be a questions from the ‘multiplication table’ of cardinal numbers: namely, the problem of evaluating a certain infinite product (in fact the simplest non-trivial one that can be formed).  There is, however, not one infinite product (of factors > 1) for which so much as an upper bound for its value can be assigned. […] It is not even known whether or not m < n implies 2^m < 2^n.” 
            We are  so to speak  staring helplessly  at a pile of sticks.

            Nor does the subsequent Cantor+Cohen demonstration of the independence of the continuum hypothesis  from a particular system of axioms for set theory   set the matter aside. Gödel had already anticipated Cohen’s result, and wrote:

A proof of the undecidability of Cantor’s conjecture from the accepted axioms of set theory (in contradistinction, e.g., to the proof of the transcendency of pi) would by no means solve the problem.  For if the meanings of the primitive terms of set theory … are accepted as sound, it follows that the set-theoretical concepts and theorems describe some well-determined reality, in which Cantor’s conjecture must either be true or false.

            Indeed Gödel suspects that the Cantor conjecture is actually, factually false: which means that somewhere, among the actual literal real numbers, there is hiding a set of cardinality intermediate between aleph-nought and its power set, with definite members which the angels could name.  Not, however, the lowest order thereof; this lies beyond them.  But at the next step up, the archangels hang these sets from mobiles over their infants’ cribs.  In fact a woodchuck may somewhere inadvertantly have used one of these sets for nesting materials, and even now lies sleeping on it – a night of troubled dreams.

            So much for a simple pancake-stack of omega-many deuces – the limit of the lower-angels’ ken.  What about the square root of omega-to-the-omega; or cross sections of fibre bundles on toroidal cap-omega-cross-theta space? For each level of angels, there will be something beyond them that they just don’t get.


There are two poles of the range of approaches to the problem of infinities.  One is that of the badger-like Brouwer, who simply sweeps the chessmen to the floor, folds up the board and goes home.  (An only somewhat more amenable figure, says Gödel, is Weyl, who allows as how there might be something to board games, but suggests we play checkers – or Chutes ‘n Ladders – rather than chess.)  The other pole says:  Infinities are tricky, but they all exist, and are present to the Infinite Mind. Gödel himself uses that term, e.g. noting that Ramsey’s admission of formulae of (countably) infinite length  might be constructivistic for an infinite mind  but not for our own.  Gödel does not, however, seem to feel much need for any desperate appeal to such a mind, in the course of an ordinary day, since he -- like Badger’s amiable friend the Water-Rat-- is a thoroughgoing Realist, and comfortable as such in his own skin.  For him the assumption of infinite classes “is quite as legitimate as the assumption of physical bodies, and there is quite as much reason to believe in their existence.”  The outwardly gloomy Austrian  is really the jolly Dr. Johnson of set theory.
            Only now there’s a problem, of a sort which did not confront the schoolmen, who never counted on the uncountable:  the Infinite Mind is all very well, but -- Which infinity did you have in mind?
            Who comprehends *everything*? God does, by definition. Yet He cannot be simply the crown on a tower of constructively ascending intelligences.  He is like an “inaccessible cardinal” – and not the first.  Nor perhaps ‘the last’, if there is no last.  Whatever He might be, there is Cantor in the wings, grinning, waiting to perform a Power Set on God, yielding – what?  -- Nothing one can begin to commence to pretend that we can approach with our sadly finite understanding.

            All of which suggests, if nothing else does,  that God is something more and other than an alternately wrathful and affectionate granddad  with a perfectly enormous white beard – however much longer that beard might be, than the stubble which disfigures your chin or mine.  Who one day, apparently from sheer idleness, as one might choose chocolate, chose the Jews.  Who later, some say, cast a Jove-like eye  on a certain Palestinian virgin.  And who at present is very angry indeed with the Democrats (or the Ravens, or whomever).  Yet what He in fact might be, we cannot even begin to imagine anyone’s beginning to conceive.  (Cf. the suggestion of 1 Kings 8:27  that the heavens themselves have heavens (and so on up); and that the whole omega-tower of them  cannot encompass God.)

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We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

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            We actually wind up with a sort of hamstringing of the Ontological Argument. Notoriously its conclusion does not really follow from its premise;  but now even its premise limps: “Since we can imagine a Perfect Being…”  But that’s just it, we can’t!  Not even little infinite bits of one! Yet paradoxically (and God reportedly loves paradox – at least Chesterton does, His publicity agent on Earth), this seeming stomping on the prostrate corpse of the offspring of Anselm, this despairing cry that somehow even Infinity does not suffice, so far from opening the agora  to legions of snickering atheists chanting “Toleja so!”, points somehow upward, -- outward,   -- onward ….  Praise Him!

John Locke himself, normally regarded as the Poster Boy for Empiricism, of I'm-from-Missouri common-sensicality, yet delivers himself of this (Essay,
That there should be more species of intelligent creatures above us, than there are of sensible and material below us, is probable to me from hence:  that in all the visible corporeal world, we see no chasms, or gaps.

That is to say:  The gap between ourselves, and God, must somehow be filled, according to the Principle of Plenitude.

And again (IV.iii.23):

He that will consider the infinite power … of the Creator of all things, will find reason to think, it was not all laid out upon so inconsiderable, mean, and impotent a creature, as he will find man to be;  who  in all probability, is one of the lowest of all intellectual beings …
Angels of all sorts are naturally beyond our discovery, and all those intelligences, whereof ‘tis likely there are more orders than of corporeal substances, are things, whereof our natural faculties give us no certain account at all.

Since theism is far from central to Locke’s Essay, it is curious to see the emphasis on this scala naturae idea.

*”What is Cantor’s Continuum Problem?”, repr. Benacerraf & Putnam, eds., Philosophy of Mathematics.


Postscript:  For the possibility that the structure of certain mathematical truths relating to an infinite domain  might resist any but a case-by-case “Babylonian” approach, cf. the quotation from Michael Dummett towards the end of this post:

Compare further (re ascending ranks of abstraction and generality):