Monday, May 29, 2017

A Day of Memorial

With fortuitous appropriateness, I’ve been spending part of today taking in an audiobook of the 1959 novel A Separate Peace, a high-school staple, which I read one summer at -- again appropriately -- a New England prep school (Mount Hermon, in this case).   I was about the same age (fifteen vs. sixteen) as the protagonists of that book.   And again, looming large in the background  a war was going on (Vietnam vs. WWII):  and like those young men, I was temporarily sheltered.
Since that summer I never re-read the book, nor thought about it much, though it is an ingredient in any young reader’s formative character.

The book’s main action takes place in 1942-43;  but it opens with its narrator, now twice his age of the time of the fateful events, revisiting his old campus in New Hampshire.    He returns with a sense of melancholy and dread.
Thus too I, now fully four times the age I was when I read it, return, not to the physical grounds of the tale, but to my own teen mind as it once received and grew inside it;  and with this, a sudden pang of unexpected dread as well.

The phrase of the title, “a separate peace”, would have been self-explanatory to anyone living through the second World War, and remembering the first;  it the context of the novel, it had a second resonance, in individual psychology.   The latter is now still readily available;  but young readers today, unschooled in diplomatic history, might miss the original significance.

The end of World War Two marked a sharp break in our nation’s history.  With it began a period of practical ahistory -- forgetting the recent conflict (my parents never spoke of it, never reminisced) -- while young families grew, and focused on making the world as pleasant as possible for their children.   Then the Vietnam conflict spread ever more darkly over us, affecting everyone, but draft-age young men especially.  These two factors somehow spawned what is to me still largely an enigma, even though I was a physical participant in all of the times’ events:  how a generation that had been (for the most part) very well treated indeed by their society, and by their parents in particular, came to contemptuously reject their birthright.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Cat's Eye nebula

Ceiling Cat iz watching U

Fun factoid:

No field has benefited more from the computer revolution  than astronomy.
-- J. Richard Gott, The Cosmic Web (2016), p. 144

Gott’s book, handsomely produced by Princeton University Press, is at opposite poles from the usual popular “If it’s Tuesday, these must be black holes” (or even dinosaurs) breezy overview of cosmology.   He focuses on a single research interest -- the statistical distribution of stars, galaxies, supergalaxies etc. -- and gives us a lab-bench look at it (or at least, as per the above, a computer-screen view -- heavy reliance on simulations).   Despite the sexy title, “Cosmic Web”, the book is very far from “Physics porn”, since it really is about the cosmos, and the stellar distributions do indeed resemble a web -- or rather a sponge (a Sierpinski sponge, so to speak).

A view from the atrium of Sierpinski Tower

Nonetheless, he does, without fanfare  and towards the very end of the book (p. 210), finally arrive at the payoff you have all been waiting for:

The Fate of the Universe

Turns out the whole thing hangs on a little parameter dubbed w. 

W !!!!

W (artist’s rendering; not shown actual size)

This he defines as “the ratio between the pressure associated with dark energy  and the energy density of dark energy”.  

Now, given that nobody really has a clue what ‘dark energy’ may be (it is likely not reducible to any of our extant physical categories), the idea that your destiny hangs upon the ratio of two of its purported aspects  does rather bemuse.   Nevertheless, experts have been able to conclude, that one of the following three fates await you, based upon that ratio:

w > -1 :  Temperature drops as universe becomes virtually empty

w = -1 : Universe approaches a constant temperature.
Intelligent life dies out.
:-(  :-(

w < -1 :  Planets, then atoms, are torn apart.
:-(  :-(  :-(

Take your pick.
Meanwhile, shelter in place.

The pageview count on this blog has frankly been dismal of late.  In an effort to goose the stats and attract roving eyeballs, we here publish the following sensational astronomical discovery.

World of Dr JusticeTM discovers a new constellation!

The Astrophysical Squadron® of the World of Dr Justice©  (headquarters: Geneva) has announced a major new denizen of the night sky.  Already celebrated in physical circles for his discovery of the Higgs boson,  the reclusive Doctor, heading up a team of scantily-clad researchers at his mountaintop mansion, and aiming up a supersized telescope (longer than yours),  has revealed the following, slightly blurry but still impressive astral image:

The new entity has been christened
the “Aurelie Delvaux nebula”,
after the noted Belgian astronomiss

Using algorithmic filtering and in-silico techniques, the team was able to evoke, from a seemingly random distribution of bright dots, an outline that, seen from a certain angle and in a certain light, strikes some observers as vaguely resembling a human female.
(Or perhaps a camel.  Yes, very like a camel.  A Bactrian camel -- the kind with two humps.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

“Refutation” inflation

The present note is an exercise in logic and linguistic hygiene.  It is not political per se, and in particular is agnostic as to the facts and merits of the tangled case under discussion.]

One of the top stories in today’s crowded news:

The family of slain Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich rejected Fox News reports that he had leaked work e-mails to WikiLeaks before he was fatally shot last year in the District.
The reports, which gained traction on social media, said an FBI forensics examination showed Rich transferred 44,053 DNC e-mails and 17,761 attachments to a now-deceased WikiLeaks director.
Rich’s parents, Joel and Mary Ann, said Tuesday through a spokesman that they do not believe their son gave any information to WikiLeaks.

That is admirably and neutrally stated.  However, some news sources are reporting the same facts with headlines like “Seth Rich Parents Refute New Claims On Wikileaks Contact”.   Therein lies a confusion.

To refute is (in its original, non-catachrestic sense) to disprove.  The allegations in question are perfectly precise and emprical, subject to either (partial) refutation or (partial) confirmation.
But the only party in a position to refute the allegations is someone who professionally and forensically examined the laptop in question.    Does it contain such material, or does it not?  The family is in no position to “refute” the allegation, however false it may be.  Indeed, on the Post account, they cannot really be said even to have denied the allegations;  they simply said they don’t believe them.  A perfectly rational stance; but not exactly a denial (for after all, how would they know -- if their son had been secretly betraying his employer, why would he inform his family?), and certainly not a refutation.

Increasingly, the less careful media uses refute where deny would be appropriate.  Part of this may be simple semantic weakness on the journalists’ part (to which many other technical terms, like impeach, are subject), but partly also to the fact that deny has accumulated invidious connotations, as though anyone who “denies” X  is himself shady in some way.   That is a legitimate worry;  other synonyms are available (the family discounted/pooh-poohed/scoffed at/… the allegations) which lack such connotations.  Better to use these than to induce a crucial ambiguity in the verb refute, in a way that renders it inapt for precise usage.

Part of the problem in the fluidity of use of refute  might be  not political, but cognitive and linguistic:  confusion with the paronym rebut.
 [TBC ...]

Note:  There are other ways of disposing of an allegation, other than outright refutation:  you may undermine, or infirm, or discredit it, in various ways.   Thus, if a witness presenting himself as Dr. Smith (M.D. Harvard) testifies that the deceased died of psoriasis, another doctor (or team thereof) might refute that testimony (on its own ground) by presenting evidence that the deceased had a huge malignant brain tumor but had never had a skin condition.  But anyone -- say, a lowly clerk at Harvard Medical School -- could discredit the testimony on entirely other grounds, by showing that Smith never attended Harvard Medical School, nor (with a bit of extra digging) ever so much as finished high school.  That would be devastating counter-evidence, but not a “refutation” in the technical sense.  (Logically, Smith might nonetheless have blundered upon the correct explanation of the demise.)

One can’t help suspecting that the media’s terminological laxity might be connected to an epistemological weakness:  presenting counter-allegations as evidentially telling (whether or not they are actually awarded the accolade “refutation”) although (consider the source) they are suspect or underminded at the outset, as coming from the accused's family, or attorney, or partner in crime.  Some of these are treated with great journalistic reverence, and actually pass into folklore  --“he was hoping to go to college”, “he was starting to turn his life around”,  “he didn’t have a gun” (though one was found in his possession, surrounded by spent cartridges).


A particularly piquant use of the term “refutation” occurs in the mathematical polylogue by Imre Lakatos, Proofs and Refutations (1976).  The title impishly echoes that of Karl Popper’s better-known Conjectures and Refutations (1962).  But whereas that title reflected the expection rough-and-tumble of normal science, Lakotos’ phrase produces a double-take:  if a “proof” gets “refuted”, it wasn’t really a proof to begin with, but only a purported proof.  But Lakatos is not referring to those (relatively rare) instances of purported proofs that turned out to be fatally flawed, and left no progeny in mathematics.  Rather, he considers mathematical demonstrations that were all right so far as they went, but which contained hidden assumptions.  These being unearthed in a “refutation”, the original proof, or something much like it, gets deepened, until further unsuspected subtleties become revealed.    He offers a dialectic analysis of the process of mathematizing.   The result does not demote mathematical truth to a mere just-so story, as among nihilists and relativists.  It rather offers a more epistemologically modest picture of the mathematical enterprise (the human excavation of a transcendental reality, a Platonist would say), in which the notions of “proof” and “refutation” both get toned down a bit, and the process becomes a bit more like developing a software package, finding and fixing bugs along the way.  The result is real progress.

For a more technical discussion of refutation and its semantic field, try


The flip side of the coin, by which the media use artificially strengthened language when presenting the allegations of the victim class, is artificial down-grading when the allegations come from the authorities.   As, headline from a moment ago:

South San Francisco police officers on Wednesday morning shot and killed a man who they say was allegedly armed with a shotgun.

Either “they say” or “allegedly” would be an adequate and appropriate editorial distancing from the official police statement.    Together, they are at best redundant, or, if taken literally, false:  the police did not state “He was allegedly armed with a shotgun”;  such a statement would be in place if, say, the police had not actually seen the shotgun, but a bystander reported such possession of a shotgun (which had  been abstracted from the crime scene by the time the police arrived). 

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Trolley Problem: a new variant

What is currently commonly known as “the Trolley Problem” is an old chestnut in moral philosophy.  History and variants here:

In today’s superheated psychosocial climate, a new variant has arisen:

A child is lying unconscious across the trolley track.  Donald Trump is standing nearby, oblivious, thinking about his ratings.  A trolley is rapidly bearing down on the scene. You only have time to do one of two things:

(a)  Pull the child off the track to safety
(b)  Push Trump in front of the trolley

Which do you do?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Word of the Day: “Appropriation”

The latest catchphrase from the “trigger-warnings” crowd  is:  “cultural appropriation.”   Snowflakes are melting in the heat of the phrase.
The current epicenter of this kerfuffle is Canada.  Since Canada doesn't get to be the epicenter of all that much, we'll put the maple-leaf links front & center:

Bad, bad  Bard !

Take an example: Logically, if an author is male, there could be no female characters in his book.  He couldn't possibly present their inner truth -- and if he did, it would be even worse:  appropriation.
Quickly running the classics through the mind, the only novel that passes the test is Moby Dick.  All others, by male authors, must be burned.

It's okay -- a male whale

For more about our lovable subaqueous sea-chum, try these

[Update] This just in:  PETA has demanded the censorship of Moby Dick.
HarperCollins is preparing a new P.C. edition, minus the whale.

(/ satire.  Not worth analyzing.  We have not to get down in the sandbox with the bisounours, to wrangle over such notions.  As Hegel (or someone) once wittily put it:  “When you hear the terms ‘safe space’ or ‘appropriation’ -- entsichern Sie ihren Glock.”)


A generation ago, a somewhat related notion was that of coöptation.   The Establishment (that was the “They”, back Then) would dangle a carrot; and if you took it, you’d been co-opted.


Although lists of huffy demands by aggrieved poetical Eskimos  have little resonance outside a certain milieu, there is a deeper and much more general issue hiding behind it, one discussed  over the decades  under such rubrics as “The Uses of the Past”.
An especially subtle one is offered by the historian Tony Judt, in his wide-ranging pre-post-mortem exposition Thinking the Twentieth Century.   Here he refers to the “misappropriation” of the Holocaust narrative, by a motley assortment of factions.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A side-bet for “Pascal’s Wager”

For the most part, Pascal’s Wager gets little respect these days, whether among believers or agnostics.  But it turns out you can take Pascal’s logic quite seriously, and wind up … backing a horse of another color entirely.

Such are the Yazidis:  devil-worshippers by repute;  but not, it appears, Satanists.  Let us explain.

Historically, Satanists do not form any single actual church, apart from occasional aberrations:
Rather, they are individuals of a particular bent, who, like Faust or Aleister Crowley, out of diabolical Superbia, dabble in the dark arts.  They generally (like Faust or Crowley) formed part of some ambient mainstream faith, before defecting in service of the Prince of Lies.

As for what is really going on with the Yazidis, it is difficult to know, since they themselves -- a hermetically closed sect -- are mum on the subject, and their neighbors, being all of them detractors, cannot well be relied upon.  But roughly (and since we are dealing here with theological logic, and not with Mideast anthropology, that rough cut will do): 
(Not history, but rational reconstruction):
At some point around the dawn of the sect, its elders reasoned thus:

(1)  God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, is notoriously forgiving.  -- Here they reason with Heinrich Heine, whose reported last-words, trifling with God on his death-bed, were:
Bien sûr, il me pardonnera; c'est son métier.
(2)  Satan, on the other hand, has an evil reputation:  vicious and vindictive.  You don’t want to get on his Enemies List.
(3)  Ergo:  Placate Satan (in words, at least) in this life;  and hope for forgiveness in the next.

Such a prudentially propitiatory policy  may be compared with paying protection-money to Al Capone.  Doesn’t mean you like the guy;  it’s just an expense of doing business.

Se non è vero, è ben trovato;  think of it as a Gedankenexperiment.

The pros and cons of Pascal’s Wager  are reviewed here:

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Leckerbissen aus dem deutschen Sprachraum.

Aus dem Deutschen Goethes, aus dem Deutschen von Hammer-Purgstall, aus dem Persischen von Hafis…

Quelle: West-östlicher Divan, Buch Suleika…

Den starken Zeitwörtern  zugewidmet

Der Detektiv -- Private Eye, versteht sich -- ist ein Mann ohne Eigenschaften…

The following poem is not merely “correct”, from the standpoint of German;  it embodies the Germanic folk-ballad  to the very core …

Znüni ?  It’s Schwizerdütsch for what in general German would be Imbiß (etymologically: ‘in-bite’):  ‘snack’, or rather specifically a morning snack, since etymologically it means “a nine-o’clock-er” (from the Alemannic equivalents of zu + neun).


“Träume sind Schäume”

… aiming for a slight Entfremdungseffekt,   along the lines of Heidegger’s  Was heisst Denken? or Dedekind’s Was Sind und Was Sollen  die Zahlen?

"Die Vermessung der Welt"

I have frequently had occasion to quote the Comments of the alert and witty Figaronauts;  here, the readers of the Frankfurter Allgemeine  likewise do not disappoint.

Es war eben nur kurz nach meiner Promovierung zum Doktor der Medizin, als ich noch mich als Forscher im Physiologischen Institut Brückes in Wien tätig machte, da kam es zu mir im Labor  eine mir bisher unbekannte junge Dame …

“During a performance of Parsifal  in the Vienna Staatsopera,  in the middle of the most solemn scene,  he had the most irresistible impulse  to shout at the top of his voice:  Mazzesknoedel!” “

“Unter allen großen Völkern der Erde  entnationalisiert sich keines so leicht  wie die Deutschen.”

Hurra!  Wir kapitulieren !!!

“Who Am I – Kein System ist sicher”

This sort of logopoeic confection was completely characteristic of the Russian of the time, e.g. Komsomol (roughly: COMmunist /SOviet/MOLodyets (youth).)
Somewhat similarly, in German, among the opponents of the Hooligans (who are perceived as right-wing) are the Antifa

the parallel between Schutzverwandte and dhimmis,

“Künftig ist es verboten, Kennzeichen oder Symbole der Miliz in Deutschland zu verwenden…”

“Der dunkle Schatten des F-Worts”

“Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.”

Gröfaz:  a name ugly enough to have served some monster of mythology, some twisted kobold or goblin…”

"Hör' zu, Maria, zärtliche Vorschläge

It is the central plot-device of Chamisso’s celebrated  novella Peter Schlemihls wundersame Geschichte, in which the hapless title character (a Pechvogel, and eponym of all later schlemiels and schlemazels) sells his shadow to the Devil

“Palmström loves  to wrap himself in rustles … “

“Der Gröfaz ist ein gräßlich Ding…”

So,  schneeweiss means ‘snow-white, white as snow’.  Whereas schlohweiss means:  white as snowbunnies.

“Meinecke … was never taken in by those he called the Schlagododros …”

Wie eine Kultur  sich selbst auffrißt

A mittel-europäischer rationalist recalls “those golden, and, all in all very peaceful final decades of the colonial system”,  and adverts ad the hermeneuts …

Monday, May 1, 2017

Blue Lives Shatter

This is what police in France have to put up with these days, under the socialiste government that has manacled them and berated them for the past five years.

Vivement le 7 mai !

At this attack, the police didn't even shoot back.   While they watched their comrade being turned into bacon, they responded with ... tear-gas (against a mob that was already well-proteced against that).

The CGT (Communist unions) chortled over the incident, speaking of poulet grillé (poulet, literally ‘chicken’, is slang for ‘cop’).


Berlin as well  had its share of incendiary attacks on police.

Berlin, 1 May 2017

32 officers were injured in Berlin alone.,-32-Polizisten-bei-Demo-am-1-Mai-in-Berlin-verletzt-_arid,331144.html

For the background to such atrocities (cela ne date pas d'hier), consult:


Footnote to a footnote

(Or rather, to what turns out to be even less than a footnote, but merely an after-echo of C.S. Lewis.)

Just added to the essay “Internal, External, Universal”:

I had rather hoped to have added a “Footnote to CSL” with that shtick about creatures as homomorphic images (of various cuts and complexity) of their Creator, a more flexible metaphor than Lewis’ example of the faces of a cube.  But upon re-reading his essay “Transposition”, I learn that Transposition is his term for much the same thing -- he even uses the term algebraic in that connection.  The whole idea is worked-out exquisitely in that place.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Doctor Justice names the penguins

[Prefatory remarks:
In this space, we intend, favente deo, to begin a quest of world-historical import:  the Naming of the Penguins.   The project is to appear in installments.  To prepare yourselves, read (or re-read),  L’Ile des pingouins, by Anatole France.]

(1) We read in Scripture, how that Adam did name the beasts:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field ..

Appellavitque Adam nominibus suis cuncta animantia

Further research reveals, however, that our Original Parent did not name each beast individually, but only by kind:   Behold, these are the lions, these the lambs;  these the hawks and kites and crows … 
Thus, much work remains to be done.  And as a linear descendant of Adam (on my mother’s side -- father’s too, in fact), I feel it is incumbent to me to take up this cross.

Where to begin?   Well, more numerous than all the beasts of the field, are the Penguins, of pure repute:

Accordingly, all the penguins of Antarctica have lined up single-file, and are passing patiently beneath my hand, as I sain each one, and give each one its name before God.

“Fluffy; Chubby; Tumtums; Blackie; Whitey; Roly-poly; Poly-Roly …”

As of press-time, Dr Justice has individually named eighty thousand penguins; just five million more to go.

(2)  [Update, 28 April 2017]

Five hundred thousand and counting:

“….  Fishsnitcher, Egghuddler, Iceberg Bertie, Lollybop,
 Antarctic Archie, Austrobird,  Gus the Glacier Guy, Snowmelt…”

Te baptizo, Nitide !

(3)  Philosophical interlude;  for there is more at stake here than Biblical fulfilment.

The problem of the reality of Universals, or Natural Kinds, goes back to the ancient Greeks, and has been a live topic for philosophers all through the Middle Ages (under the rubrics of Realism vs. Nominalism), down to the present day (by which time the enriched apparatus of set theory and quantification  were lending additional spice to the debate).  The Nominalist denies the real, discourse-independent existence of these abstract demi-entities, these being, for him, a mere conversational convenience, a façon de parler, with no ontological standing.  Thus, for such thinkers, there is not really any such thing as Penguinhood, or Penguinkind, or Penguinity, but only the individual penguins themselves;  namely: ….

And here he falls silent;  for he has no names for all these many, many penguins.  In fact, many a Nominalist  can scarcely tell one penguin from another.  -- Singeing in defeat, ears burning, the Nominalist slinks from the stoa in humiliation,
while the Realist (tall, serene, admired by maidens) stands with folded arms.

But that were a victory cheaply won;  we disdain such “victory by forfeit”.   No, our support for Universals lies deeper than that;  and with stout spirit, we shall give hostages to our adversaries, and name the little featherballs ourselves.

   “….Bunchkins,  Slippyswimmer, Bellyboggan,  Sprinx…”

For all his carping at universals,
Occam himself never managed to name
so much as a single penguin.

(4)  Patiently, patiently, the penguins file by, each in its turn, to receive the unimagined, the unimaginable blessing.

They always do look as though they have been waiting for something, some thing they know not what, from the beginning of incalculable antarctic time, as they huddle together, helplessly, against the blizzards, the knifing winds.

And now, at last, some thing, some one  has come, attending to them, dispensing they know not quite what, but which they receive with stoic acceptance, and perhaps -- who knows -- the beginnings of a glimmering of understanding.

“…Lumpy, Stumpy,

     Dumpy, Frumpy,

  Immortal Diamond…”