Saturday, January 20, 2018

Furlough Reading

Many of you may know some poor unfortunate Federal worker who has been reduced to a piteous and meaningless existence by the furlough.   What (you ask yourself) can You do to help??

Wonder no longer!  Here is a list of perfect Furlough Gifts -- thrilling reading to keep your loved-one functionary from drifting into senility and despair:



All of them available -- with free excerpts -- here:


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Mystery of the Analytical Chemist (further updated)

Among the unpublished manuscripts of my late friend Dr. Watson … no, just kidding.

Our Mutual Friend, the last finished novel of Charles Dickens, does not lie at the center of most readers’ affections;  yet connoisseurs there are, who wóuld award the palm to that late work.   And one of the most memorable minor characters therein -- as minor as might be, since (if memory serves) he utters not a word at any time -- is the discreetly appearing and vanishing figure of the Analytical Chemist.  His denomination is never explained, and he is given no other name.  His ostensible function is to wait on the Veneering’s table, at that elegant or elegantesque or simili-elegant supper party which is to seal the coming-out of these arrivistes or nouvel-arrivés; his deeper purpose is … well, it must be guessed-at.   But whatever it was, Dickens was evidently quite satisfied with the results.

What does he mean, then -- and especially, why ever is he called that?
The proper approach, I now believe, is not to be overly … analytical about it (as I tried to be, upon first encountering the character, with wonder).  The phrase simply wandered into Dickens’ mind,  without any nicety of correspondence to the Dalton or Lavoisier theory of the day, and serves perfectly to suggest what needs suggesting:  neither fawning nor class resentment  on the part of the table-attendent, but cool detachment, and unwavering observation.  In this he is a forerunner of that other supranatural butler, Jeeves.
(There are differences, but these are subtle, and must await another time  for treatment, when Jeeves himself shall consent to appear at the center of our lens.  -- Compare further another Wodehouse character, Lord Emsworth's secretary, The Efficient Baxter.)


If Hawthorne had not been a story-teller, he might have been a famous chemist, for he was a mental chemist in his method of handling emotions and passions.
-- Van Wyck Brooks,  New England:  Indian Summer (1940), p. 297

This what-if re Hawthorne is implausible;  but the citation has merit in displaying the contemporary connotations of chemist.

Bonus quote:

Hungarian goulash, always a dish to be avoided unless you had had the forethought to have it analysed by a competent analytical chemist.
-- P.G. Wodehouse, Ice in the Bedroom (1961)

Note: in a British context, the modifier analytical is necessary to distinguish what Americans call a chemist from what Americans call a pharmacist.

For further Dickensiana:

[Postscript May 2016] A foretaste of the denomination may be found in chapter 8 of Barnaby Rudge (1841).  Describing the farcical Tubby’s-Clubhouse-style subterranean meeting of the ‘Prentice Knights:

One of the conductors of this novice held a rusty blunderbuss pointed towards his ear, and the other, a very ancient sabre, with which he carved imaginary offenders as he came along  in a sanguinary and anatomical manner.

Savor the semantics of that “anatomical manner”, and you will be well on the way towards the Analytical Chemist.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Sunrise Monostich

cocks passing the reveille  from farm to farm

-- Washington Irving

[For a matching monostich about the dusk, try this.]

Monday, January 15, 2018

Twinned Witnesses

For Christmas, our son gave me a brace of books -- carefully boxed together, a kind of electron-positron pair.   He conceived them as forming, not a mere set-theoretic union, but a tensor product of two Hermitian conjugates, intricately linked.  These are:

J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power:  An American Tragedy (2017).

BLUF:  both excellent, and “better together”.

To comment on their sociopolitical content  would be beyond our brief.  But a literary note on the structure of the former.
An anthology of articles spanning years  is problematic.  At the worst, it can be a gaggle of op-ed pieces  that turn out to be less than the sum of their parts.   Eight Years is notably successful in this respect.  It reprints the original (memorable) pieces of essay-reportage, from The Atlantic (these have aged very well), and embeds them successively in the skeleton of a memoir of those very years.  The personal/reportorial dialectic proves energizing.

Historical footnote:  As most who have even heard of him  know, Mr Coates champions an old idea -- Reparations -- whose current status in the zeitgeist resembles that of a letter-bomb.   Some perspective, from a wide-ranging book of psychosocial history, which begins in Colonial times  and concludes with a chapter called “Native Sons”:

Faced with expanding black claims, resistance and repression may become more bitter, even, than in the past. … A more equalitarian ideology  might itself increase savagery if repression occurs, given the tricks guilt plays in the human mind.
-- Wilson McWilliams, The Idea of Fraternity in America (1973), p. 613

Orthoepic footnote:  Mr Coates’ puzzling prénom put me in mind of Nefertiti; but adepts assure me that it rhymes with Tallahassee.   Thus, it is not exactly “pronounced the way it’s spelled”, but then neither is François.

Mirror Monostich

Words   form    in the eyes of the dwarf:
I too was made in His image!

[quarried from:  Jean Toomer, Cane (1923) ]

Recent sightings of giant penguins

This just in:

Figure shown 1/50 of actual size

For full  scientific background on these discoveries, google

   =>  Pinguinus ingens

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Deep Dusk / Monostich

a mellow glow arose
and   spread   fan - wise
into the low-hanging heavens

[from:  Jean Toomer, Cane (1923) ]

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Pucker Up

The world took notice when some old mathematical conjectures  were finally solved in our own lifetimes:  Fermat’s Last “Theorem”, and the Poincaré Conjecture.   To somewhat less fanfare, a conjecture concerning sphere packing, dating back to Johannes Kepler in the seventeenth century (yes, that Kepler -- the planet guy) was finally solved in the twenty-first.   A breakthrough came in 1998, but a formal proof was not recognized until this very year.

George Szpiro wrote an unusually readable account in his book Kepler’s Conjecture (2003).   It is an example of a sphere-packing problem,  which is a global problem, with applications stretching from the fruiterer’s tray to error-correcting codes. Among the related matters is the kissing number problem, which is a local problem:  how many spheres (or, in two dimensions, discs) can you pack around a given central sphere.  The answer is the Newton number or kissing number for that dimension.   
In two dimensions, the answer is six, as you can verify by ringing a penny with six of its fellows;  that no further coin could butt in, can be seen “by inspection”.  (That, incidentally, is the only known use for pennies, in our own day.)   For three dimensions (the everday space we live in), the answer turns out to be 12.  That is more difficult to see, though you can accomplish it using a baker’s dozen of beachballs and a dozen undergraduates.
Somewhat surprisingly, for dimensions four, five, six and seven, the answer is not known exactly, only upper limits.  Very surprisingly, we then suddenly get a break :

In eight dimensions, all of a sudden the Newton number is known exactly:  240 white balls can kiss the black ball in the center.  Why is that number known precisely?  In this case the upper bound came out to be 240;  but a certain well-known lattice arrangement, called E8, also allows 240 balls to touch the central sphere.   Since the actual kissing number of E8 coincides with the theoretical upper bound, 240 must be the highest kissing number. -- From dimensions nine to twenty-three, again, only bounds are known.   (p. 96)

What is so gratifying about this is that what is in essence a simply, concretely conceptualizable problem  should be solved by the testimony of so fiercely abstract an algebraic object as E8.  (Szpiro calls it “well-known”;  depends what circles you move in.  I just asked the fellow next to me in the pub, and the poor fool confused it with the Leech lattice.)  I first learned about this enormous structure from a 2007 article in the New York Times.   Or rather, learned virtually nothing about it at all, beyond its mere name, since the journalist, and all hands asked, concurred that the thing is indescribable.  A sketch of that encounter, back from when we were shilling for Platonism, can be read here.

Language note:  This metaphor of ‘kissing’ (for tangency) is used elsewhere in mathematics: osculating plane, osculating circle.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Double Truth

It is clear by now that the old Averroist doctrine of the “double truth” (veritas duplex)  must be revived:  this time, not along scientific-vs-theological lines, but political.  Radio talk-shows have long recognized the incommunicability of one set of truths, to partisans of the other, by offering separate Republican vs. Democrat call-in lines.

So, let us consider that simplest possible area of human belief and inquiry:  arithmetic, the discipline that offers up such hoary verities as “2 + 2 = 4”.  
In modern mathematics, the study of such numbers (called integers)  has exfoliated quite a bit, and indeed has bifurcated into named subdisciplines.   Thus we have, on the one hand, analytic number-theory,  which deals with such things as the Riemann hypothesis and the Goldbach conjecture, using techniques from complex analysis, and on the other, algebraic number-theory, involving extensions of the integers such as algebraic number-fields.   Both subfields have developed to such an extent, that specialists in the one will be scarcely able to understand, let alone prove, theorems in the other;  thus reproducing, unintentionally, a simulacrum of the current partisan Dialogue of the Deaf.

And now we have two new entrants to the disciplinary matrix:   Democratic number-theory and Republican number-theory.

Democratic number-theory is characterized (up to isomorphism) by its claim that all numbers are equal.   The denial of that doctrine is termed ‘fascism’.

Republican number-theory, by contrast, generalizes the ancient concept of a perfect number (equal to its aliquot sum) to that of the awesome numbers, which are greater than the sum of everybody else.  The leftovers are called the  pathetic numbers (also termed ‘losers’).  This theory focuses exclusively on the former subset (although the membership in this set  can vary capriciously  from day to day).

So far, neither body of theory has produced interesting theorems.

[Update 8 Jan 2018]   No sooner had I posted that would-be satirical thought-dream, than I happened upon this,  by the philosopher Stewart Shapiro:

Hartry Field takes mathematical language at face value.  Since he holds that mathematical objects do not exist, mathematical propositions have objective but vacuous truth-values.  For example, he maintains that ‘all natural numbers are prime’ is true, since there are no natural numbers.
-- Thinking about Mathematics (2000), p. 226

So once again, reality beggars satire.  (Apparently this Field fellow is some sort of an academic, rather than an inmate or homeless-person.)

Note, a propos, that the Fieldian assertion “all natural numbers are prime”  is actually an axiom of Democratic number-theory.   (“Everybody gets a trophy.  Everyone is special.”)

[Historical footnote]    If satire is the production of humor by clever exaggeration of a real situation, then here again the satire lacks its bite:  for such ideologically infected strains of the hard sciences  are already exemplified in history -- not merely in the musings of philosophical fantasists, but under dictators with the power of life or death.   Thus Hitlerian notions of Aryan science vs. Jewish science, or the various scientific orthodoxies under Stalin.    Under those two regimes, mathematics, fortunately, was relatively spared distortions of actual content (so long as the formulaic obeissances to ideology were packed into the preface),  though  in human terms  there were profound and pernicious effects on who was allowed to be mathematical practitioners.   The neo-Stalinoid zealots of “anti-racist mathematics” go further, prescribing severe limits to content and presentation as well.

Welcome to Dr J’s “satire-free safe-space”

A senior Administration official (whose name, at present, escapes me -- senior moment), refuting innuendos to the contrary, has announced to the world that he is in fact  a “very stable genius”.  For the benefit of l’homme moyen sensuel  who may be unfamiliar with the arcana of Stability Theory and Stanford-Binet, he has kindly paraphrased this as “like, very smart”  (“like” is here evidently a vernacular equivalent of anglicè  -- itself a rare expression which means, in plain English, ‘in plain English’).

In line with our autumn-years vow of abjuring the high-jinx of satire, rather than make merry over that frank self-assessment (in either of its formulations)  we shall see what we can learn from the incident, as regards our own tardigrade character-development.   And indeed we find, after much self-searching, that we are what might be described as

“a metastable oligophreniac”

Definition and exemplification  here:

Afterthought:  For those of you who might be saddened that we have donned the robes of penitence, and laid aside forever  the nib of wit,  you can here scroll through our earlier, pre-repentance efforts (which we now roundly renounce):

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

What -- you call this *cold* ?!?

Media hysteria:

You wanna know cold?  I’ll tell you co-ld

On Saturn, where we penguins originated before planting an Earth-colony at Antarctica, it grows so cold, the oxygen freezes right out of the air…
You got to chip off a chunk with a chisel and chew it, even to breathe…


Want further truth-defying tales?  Try these:

Perfect days
to catch some rays