Sunday, October 30, 2011

Murphy’s Most Perplexing Case

A missing person -- a bum guy and a wrong dame.  Par for the course in Murphyland.  But when he meets his client, Murphy cannot believe his eyes.  And when she states her business, his ears too seem like liars.

A tale  ‘twill harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, and make thine each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the humble woodchuck.

Read it for free over at our sister site:

Word Wars

A word can become a compacted doctrine.
-- William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (1951)

We have earlier noticed how substantive issues can be disguised as a wrestling over

Now there has been another terminological volley in the never-ending abortion-wars.  This one, the “personhood” movement.  You can read all about it on the front page of this morning’s “Outlook” section of the Washington Post, in an article titled “Pro-life’s new tactic:  Redefine a ‘person’”, or read it (clumsily re-titled) online:

Friday, October 28, 2011

REPORT FROM THE PROVINCES: Poetry Alive and Well in Princeton

"That curious grey hopelessness  which always afflicts me
when I am confronted with literary people in the bulk..."
--  P.G. Wodehouse, Ukridge (1924)

Last night I attended a poetry reading at Micawber Books on Nassau.  The poet of the evening  was Mr. Jonathan Galassi, chairman of the American Academy of Poets and editor-in-chief of possibly the most respected publishing house in the literary world, Farrar Strauss & Giroux.  So you figure: it doesn't get much better than this.  At least not more anointed.
   This Galassi guy  turned out to be a very pleasant man, really the very soul of amiability; he spent the first scheduled half-hour  circulating around the rows of chairs and chatting with his many friends.  Those of us who could not count ourselves among that number  and who had come in the naïve expectation of a poetry-reading  passed the time thumbing through one of the many copies of his new and actually apparently only second collection, North Street, available later for purchase and fond autograph, about eighty pages of poetry -- rather quickly thumbed -- for $24.95 plus tax.  Really makes you want to weigh each word.  Worth its weight in greenbacks.
            And yet they heft uncertainly in the hand.  He has an ambling, rambling style with little concentration.  The first poem of the collection, "Water", lived up or rather down or rather exactly to the middle of its name:  cool, colorless, refreshing if that was what you were thirsty for, but an hour later you could not recall the savor.  They are the versified equivalent of polite conversation.

            Finally he made his way to the podium, and opened the slender volume. From this he read a slender selection, abstaining from textual exegesis  except to remark that the last poems should actually be first, and the first ones, correspondingly, last.  (An appreciative  murmur among the audience, at this self-deprecating insight.)  He would read, he told us, some "dithyrambs", a wild genre of ancient Greece.   A promise that might evoke the intercrural juices of an old maid.  Yet read, without looking up, occasionally stumbling over a word, in the mildest of tones, from the mildest of verse.  A dithyramb for eunuchs. 
                                    stopped ……

…   ?  …

……… …………   ………

A moment passed before it dawned on us  that the communion with the Muses was at an end,  the speaker’s fee already earned; at which point the Princetonian tips of fingers began to patter against fingertips, in what passes  in our town   for dithyrambic applause.   Any questions?  Yes I have one,  Do you actually get paid for this?  But had no chance to ask it, as someone broke in and suggested he read one of his (maestro! maestro!)  translations from Montale  (the name evoking knowing nods, from the one or two people who knew what the hell that meant) :  an immense volume of the collected poems, of that worthy gentleman, on which Galassi had labored diligently (in a garret?  No, doubtless in a loft) for fourteen years.   Galassi fumbled a bit, Well yes, I do happen by mere chance  to have that actual exact volume right here in front of me, on this very lectern; which was funny, because he'd borrowed it before the talk  from the woman sitting next to me, so obviously he'd already intended to read from it, from the outset.  (One detects a claque.) 

Anyhow, one poem later, the meeting broke up into little standing circles, sampling the (of course white, and possibly de-alcoholized ) wine (wine of a safe sort  guaranteed not to transubstantiate, however much the priest might try),  and the, actually not cheese exactly, but those adorable (if inedible) little Japanese whachamacallum little  (tiny, asshole)  cracker-snacks.

            At this point (having  no longer  anything to lose),  I made so bold as to approach the invited speaker himself, reigning at his rostrum.  "In your poem `Flâneur', you're ambling easily along in plain English,   and then you suddenly say `simplex munditiis'.  What does that mean?"  (No-one had asked him that.  It had all been softball, nay whiffle-ball questions:  like, In what precise manner do you perform your mighty works?  Did your greatness come upon you suddenly, or gradually? )  He seemed taken aback at my ignorance;  but then, evidently remembering that he was down in the provinces here, said (with gracious tolerance of our hayseed shortcomings), "Yes, I should have explained that.  It's a tag from Horace – extremely well-known… It means `the simplicity of elegance', or…"  (Wink wink;  blink blink.  His voice trailed off.)
"Mm.  Ah.  Uhsee. --  Also – why did you title your collection `North Street'?" (Nothing in the poems or on the jacket had given a hint, and the “reading” had offered no particulars, beyond what you would get for your  $24.95.) 
            He glanced at the woman shimmering beside him, and gave a complicit smile.  She returned it.  Mmmmmmm….  For a moment, they basked in complicity.  Like twin muffins.  Mmmmmmmm… "She knows," he breathed at last.  She nodded; a knowing nod.
And they fell silent for a while.

"Oh, really???" I said, "She knows?  She does? That's nice for us, you f*cking milksop, you overpaid penman of overpriced poetizings, you
  sherry-swilling, biscuit-nibbling
  limp-wristed, lily-livered
  semi-addled, over-coddled
  trust-fund-sucking panty-waisted
Tribeca-haunting watered-down dipshit-dripping wilted wet waterlily --  I'm asking YOU!"
            No no, of course, I didn't say that; wouldn't be prudent.  Anyhow he then revealed the secret.  "I ... live ... on North Street.  And…  the poems…. were written on…” (a pause, where one might weep, or sigh, according to one’s personal sensibility) : “ … North Street.  And because North Street….has a deeper… meaning…which I am loth to reveal…"  We all maintained a respectful silence.  Then he revealed it anyway.  "It has a meaning…about … g-growing old…."  (Ahhh! …… swoon ………)
            Yeh, totally, it's a bitch, all right; but I figured I'd do the rest of my growing old somewhere else, and effing left.

~     ~      ~

            What that poet, and many another literary speaker, fails to realize,  is that, even apart from one's personal coterie, who have heard it all before and basically come, not to listen, not to learn anything,  but to bask in one another's approval, -- the rest of us as well  do not go out of our way to attend these things  simply to hear an author (who, whatever his merits with the pen, is not a rhapsode, a professional reciter) drone out a few scraps off the printed pages, which we could as easily read ourselves, or listen to  in an often masterful performance  by a professional reciter  on cassette.  We come in the half-conscious and absurd hope that the author will, taking us into his confidence, tip his hand; as, My poems all actually mean the opposite of what they say; or, The lover in Filched Kisses is actually Madonna, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Hillary Clinton; or, By means of this simple alphanumeric key  you may decode my poems into messages meant only for the Illuminati; stuff like that.  Or even:  “The reason these poems are called North Street  – and I’ve never revealed this to anyone ever but your own extraspecial selves! – is that I used to live on…. N-N-N-North Street !  Don’t tell anyone !”  -- Or, even if there comes no esoteric exegesis of the work itself, yet may we gain some revelation from beholding the man in his unvarnished selfhood, a glimpse of the spirit that animates and gives meaning to these lines.  As, the Melville I always imagined at the back of Moby-Dick, no slim despondent clean-shaven youth like Ishmael, but a broad and salty sea-dog, a cross between Hemingway and Jehovah, roaring with anecdote and flushed with grog: from such lips  should we hear  a salt tale of the sea!  (Later I saw a photo of the actual Melville, and he did have a beard, but a weird beard, and was looking askance as though at the possible source of a bad smell.)


[A pause, to rinse the taste from the mind, of these self-celebrating literary onanists….]

*      *      *     *     *

Quite otherwise was the recent poetry slam, sponsored by the Arts Council, right here in Princeton.  [Yes, that Princeton; but it includes in fact  a second Princeton, much of it on drugs, or in despair, or surfing the world on gloomy skateboards; of which the first Princeton knows nothing, and wishes to know  less.]  I can’t recall where it took place, exactly; off on a side street somewhere, in some vague spaces located above something anonymously else, which was closed.

Slams have become a truly demotic-democratic institution, in which we detect the echo of our musket-bearing ancestors, crowded round the fire, sipping toddies and swopping stories, ready to defend their freedoms against all comers.  What is spoken is seldom poetry  from any structural or formal standpoint; but then, printed poetry (swooning upon the subsidized printed page)  long ago ceased to be that.  In fact it is refreshing, in slamland’s oral presentation, the lack of visual flimflam to disguise the bare word.  Whoever gets up in front of his neighbors to speak  cannot hide behind the tricks of those

who fondly imagine (assholes)
that by setting their words

   like                              this

they can turn their puerile prosings   into a poem,

thereby however forgetting
the wise words of Li Po
that you cannot make a sow's ear
out of an old turd.

Basically slam poetry consists in this:  that you can touch on any subject, say anything, with a certain attention to how you say it.  This in itself lifts the experience somewhat beyond the bulk of streetcorner / armchair / how's-tricks / got-a-match  conversations.

These events too  were half an hour late in starting, as befits bohemia.  The slam-master, a portly old poet with a seasalt-and-crackedpepper beard, stood puzzling at length over a list of performers who'd registered, many of whom had not shown up.  (That’s life in the counterculture;  get used to it.)  Some filtered in late.  Some had probably  in the meantime  died.  And by way of compensation,  a young fellow in a backwards baseball cap  who hadn't registered  and who gave his name only as "Doug",  bounded at the last minute  into the room  and onto the list. (A crafty-angry poet, he went on to win his round).
Finally we got down to it.  The genial gentle slammaster explained the rules, how the judges would hold up cards Olympics-fashion, with numbers from zero to ten.  "You can use decimals, and I encourage you to use them," he said, with a wisdom that became apparent as the evening went on.  There was such a range of presenters, from kids of twelve to grandmoms, and such a painful range of abilities, that the only way to score things without making invidious distinctions, was to tacitly agree that every performance would be scored with an eight or a nine, with various frowning fussy sometimes two-place decimals  giving the appearance of judiciousness, and deciding things in a way that made it hard for people to do the math.
As for the judges, the main qualification was lack of eagerness to be one.  "We consider that wanting to judge your fellow men is a character defect.” (The demotic equivalent of nolo episcopari.)  “And if you're a professor of literature, -- you're overqualified."  (More wise words right there, than I have ever imbibed at McCawber.)  Judges for the night included a young, vaguely punk couple; a high-schooler; and a stock assistant (shades of Bartleby!) at the university press.  And they acted, one must say, with great sobriety, their judgments never straying far from that basic eight or nine, and corresponding pretty well (though in decimally telescoped fashion) to the merits of presentation and content, unswayed by the occasional audience inputs of "Woo, woo!"  (these  in no wise related to the actual performance, but based upon ties of blood or age, or being in the same class in high school);  assessment of the weak acts being rounded affirmatively upwards  for any of a hundred disabilities, but never so far as to produce a win.

            The first up  had a sort of Julia Roberts strut and swagger, and she eyed the audience awhile before embarking on her poem.  This seemed to portend a note of competition and contention  such as does in some places prevail among the scribbling set, but her poem turned out to be, with absolutely no irony, "A Mother's Prayer".  The burden:  Kids are tough to bring up, and Mom deserves some credit.  Applause was hearty, and would remain so throughout the evening, maintaining the generally wholesome tone.
            Next up was a black girl, ushered up with enthusiastic whoops from her homeys  before she had said a word; the high-schoolers had their claque, and dominated the evening in this regard.  Her performance was delivered without notes, eyes half-closed, chanting in a sort of Eartha Kitt accent, body swaying to a rhythmic murmur, apparently on the subject of dancing.  It was the kind of voice-music that can be effective  even if you can't quite make out the lyrics.
            A skinny fellow barely in his twenties  was next.  He looked like the young Allen Ginsburg: which is to say, not handsome, but in this context it seemed a plus.
            A blonde girl of perhaps fourteen  came forward from the table where she'd been sitting with her family, and recited a prim little poem about unrelieved bleakness complete and total hopelessness implied threatened suicide and terminal despair.  She delivered it as though it were a Sunday School recitation – not entirely inappropriately, for this wasn't teenage mutant nihilism, but the sort of plain and faintly formal language her grandmother might have used in an earlier age, in similar impenetrable distress.  And though it contrasted oddly with her scrubbed bobbed look, there must have been some sort of a kind of a layer of truth to it, or she wouldn't have prepared it so carefully  and recited it before a roomful of townspeople.   (We --  are – un-know-able…)
            It soon became apparent that technical proficiency in the traditional sense scarcely mattered.  Anything really intricate  would not be understood by the ear  on the fly anyway.  And even when the production is that of a reasonably ungifted twelve-year-old, the slam format has an advantage over, say, Amateur Night at the piano.  A botched chord is a botched chord, and hard to appreciate.  But we each of us have a voice, the very voice God gave us; and a body, and things that matter to us; presented with spirit, these cannot fail to enlighten and entertain.

            We then were treated to a 17-year-old  who looked like the cheerleader in "American Beauty" though more scantly clad, indeed you could hardly call it clad, more like barely veiled.   (Naturally, none of us had the slightest reaction to this.  Six times seven is forty-two;  seven times… six is…. forty….. eleven……)  Her contribution was addressed to "a co-worker", apparently a man far sunk in middle age (a contemptible age for anyone to be), whom she rebuked  for being turned-on by her (possibly understandably, given her provocations); but she would not leave it at that.  She drove in the knife, wiggled it, twisted it, swished it from side to side:  mocking his over-the-hump hopelessness, and exulting in her own fresh    ripe   peach-like  dew-bedecked   succulent young age, as were it a virtue,  like courage or fidelity.  "I have a tightness which is purity," she said in one memorable line.  (Not making this up, folks;  not making this up.)  It was the only queasy note of the evening.

            Between rounds, the slammaster chipped in with interesting bits of history.  Such as:  Slam was born in Chicago, which still boasts one of its Meccas, the Green Mill.  And: It originated as the equivalent of jazz “cut” sessions, poets interrupting one another and handing the energy off.  And:  The present media attention is partly sparked by the commercial success of Cowboy Poetry, which draws thousands of paying customers to the West every year.
            [A note in passing:  While Cowboy Poetry is no doubt a healthy development, as a fad it sort of misses the point.  What we need is Plumber Poetry – poetry by and for the guys who fix your HVAC.  We already hear quite enough about cowboys.  Indeed, the ranks of actual working people, are surprisingly thin  in cowboys.]

            A tall thin black guy  in a white stretch cap  got up and immediately won the audience  by commenting to the previous poet, who had received uncharacteristically stingy sevens, "I would have given you a nine,"  he said with a mischievous grin. -- He then chanted something rhymed and rhythmic, accompanied by a series of complex small gestures  involving touching the elbow and bending the arm and what have you, evidently from the rap repertoire.  This kinesthesia is a useful adjunct to the spoken word;  an ancient Arabic poet would use his staff to thump out the beat.  -- General observation fyi, about the teen-aged poets: The blacks rhyme, the whites do not.

            Absent from the pool of contestants  was any widely-known or conventionally published poet.  This circumstance may stem from more than mere hauteur.  For were anyone to stray into this backwoods belowdecks den of expressional democracy, and recite the sort of exsanguinated pap that passes for poetry in the pages of The New Yorker or the Little magazines, in the pained costive tones that the grotesquely overrated T.S. Eliot used for reciting his own involved excretions,  and imitated ever after  by every  MacArthur-aspiring, grant-enabled  Mischling sans estrogen sans testosterone sans everything -- : he she or It  might well be hooted from the stage;  and the judges, brows clouded, awful in their majesty, be moved to issue the little-used rebuke  of a "six point seven".

            Finally a haunted-looking,  tense old man, thin to inanition, appeared at the microphone. He clutched a tiny scrap of paper bearing a scrawl,  and stared down at it; beneath the black brim of his ranchhand hat, you could not see his eyes.  This was obviously hard for him,  but he pushed on, stammering through a short poem consisting of a narrow range of variations on the theme "Loneliness…is an empty room."   Its combination of visible truth and utter artlessness  made it actually paradoxically powerful; he scuttled off to thunderous applause.           

Oh we went to the poetry slam,
to dine on green eggs and ham.
  A grizzled 'bo    from an S.R.O.
was telling the world, "I Am".

©2000, David Bruce Justice

I, Heretic

Heresy is a dreadful thing.  In general, on this blog, with its mathematical and poetic focus, there is little risk of that;  but, when in doubt, I check with my spiritual advisor, Dr. Massey.  (If you are reading this, it has received his nihil obstat.)
(BTW, neither he nor I is officially a Catholic -- Wheels within wheels.)
Yet there is one point on which, if it ever came to that -- which GOD forbid -- I might (in grief and trembling) defy the Church.   Namely, on the matter of Free Will.  Should she ever (deus avertat) deny that, thus implying that we are but robots, and that Christ coming to redeem us was no more than the Repair Guy coming to fix the Xerox machines -- I would cry,  Thou, heretic !  to the whole church.

Which raises the matter of Predestinarianism -- a part of Calvinism, and hence of Presbyterianism, and hence of the confession which I joined when I was baptised, and from which I have never officially withdrawn.
The matter was moot, in practice, since On Any Sunday, at Nassau Pres, in Princeton, the matter never ever came up.   In fact, actual contentious points of theology were almost never mentioned, despite the relatively detailed and well-delivered sermons.  Which is odd, come to think of it, for a church  but a stone’s throw from the Princeton Theological Seminary.

Now:   Logically, philosophically, Predestinarianism does by no means contradict the thesis of the existence of Free Will.  Neither does the Satanic scenario of Brains in a Vat contradict the existence of Free Will.   In both cases, you have it -- it just doesn’t do you any good.  Faith, shmaith;  charity, shmarity -- You doomed, ‘bo, just ‘cos We felt like it ! !

Wondering -- actually mostly about how to spell the thing, whether the word even exists or whether you have to say predestination both for the (alleged) fact of the thing  and for the doctrine,  I googled the word, and found this, from, as it turns out, the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Predestinarianism is a heresy not unfrequently met with in the course of the centuries, which reduces the eternal salvation of the elect, as well as the eternal damnation of the reprobate, to one cause alone, namely to the sovereign will of God, and thereby excludes the free co-operation of man as a secondary factor in bringing about a happy or unhappy future in the life to come.

Y-y-y-y-YES !!!! 

~     ~     ~

Why the dramatic subject-line?  -- On the model of:  He who hath committed adultery in his heart, hath already sinned.  Well:   Might I die before it ever came to that, but on this one issue of Free Will, I stand ready to bid defiance to any who deny it, though they be mitred.
Fortunately, the only ones I’ve had to break a lance with  on this issue, are drooling one-eyed God-denying hunchbacks, scuttling like dry scorpions around the neuroscience lab.

[Note:  The subject-line is modeled on the title of Isaac Asimov’s classic sci-fi novel, I, Robot.  Quite a brilliant title, if you think about it.   We could well more imagine robots -- or animals -- attaining consciousness, than admit that Satanic thesis,  that the offspring of Adam are no more than robots.]

~     ~     ~

I ran this past the learnèd Doctor, and he replied:

A fine treatise. But you do realize that the Catholic Tradition, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, can never  and will never  waver  on the defense of Free Will. You will rest peacefully in your grave five hundred years from now, your soul in sweet Communion with the Savior,  while the sixth Chinese Pope issues yet another Encyclical stating pretty much what this post asserts.

My soul is at rest;  my heart is at ease.  The grave holds no terrors, for folk of the faith.

~     ~     ~

[Update, 26 II 2012]   Dr. Massey’s comment is absolutely valid and solid.  I had not realized until recently, just how fiercely militant  is the Historical Church  in upholding Free Will:   not merely as existing -- a plain and pallid, commonsense thesis, which I have spent ink defending, simply because it is currently under academic attack --  but as… central to our very being… certain beyond the existence of coffee-cups … and mystically crucial to the whole panorama of the cosmic arc.
Contrast the humdrum received account, whereby the Church is merely trying to get us to behave.   (Whereas our greatgreat-grandsires, e’en Eve and Adam,  in exercise of God’s own freely-granted gift of freedom, so grandly  misbehaved, that by comparison, our present peccadillos  are on the order of failing to wash the dishes or take the garbage out.)

Compare this passage, written by a Jesuit, and which I stumbled upon  just a moment ago:

The felix culpa  does imply that the Incarnation … is the surprising, almost shocking, response of God  to our freedom.
-- James Schall, S.J., The Order of Things (2007), p. 193

This, merely by way of noting, that Christianity, preserved in its full richness by the Historical Church, is simply … astonishing.

That fact I first learned  from that rollicking rotund teacher, G.K. Chesterton, several decades ago;  and yet this strange religion still continues to astonish.  That the Church could describe the Incarnation as…. “shocking”.  Well of course  she is right -- but how dare they say it? --   And that  felix culpa … look up the phrase, Wikipedia is perfectly sound on this.  (Again, Chesterton, with his keen appreciation for paradox.)

The Dementors -- known in our day as “neuroscientists” -- strive to deny Free Will, against all evidence of reason and the senses.  And we, beleaguered, logicians, defend it, in terms of finger-twitches, or immobile-and-merely-willed finger-twitches (brains-in-a-vat, we yet can yearn).  But the Holy Mother Church  portrays the same as

 ~ ~  PEGASUS  ~ ~

soaring, unbound ….

[I have attempted to portray the wild mad wonderful superbly soaring Pegasus-nature of Christian doctrine  here. ]

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Soundtrack for “Occupy Wall Street”

I’ll never forget that night, rioting outside Adams House, to the sound of the Rolling Stones “Street Fighting Man”, which a thoughtful undergraduate had cued up, the speakers pointing outward, blaring from the open windows of his rooms.
We relished the militancy in the delivery, and in fragments of lines, not noticing the wry put-down in the song as a whole.  Same situation with that other demo favorite, the Beatles’ “Revolution”.
Afterwards, I returned to the dorm, bandana picturesquely awry, jeans torn in the scuffle, and exuding the manly scent of tear-gas:  to find, waiting, her, for whom my loins then thrilled -- nay, they thrill for her still (her tale is recounted here).  Demurely (waiting by the home-fires) she observed, that I resembled  at that moment  some kind of Eye Wobbly Wobbly. 
“I’ll be your Commie, if you’ll be my mommy,” I said.
“Any time, baby,” she replied.
And then we made love.
~     ~     ~

The tone and temper of these times  is different.  (My wife by the fire with her knitting;  and I reading the Farmers Almanac through my bifocals.)  But the old Stones -- though they may have gathered a bit of moss since then -- still chime in with appropriate vocals.
"I went down  to the demonstration,  to get my  fair share  of abuse ..."
 Going out to all the Occupiers …

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hot Hits

Certain posts began with but the germ of an idea, but then it sprouted.   Here are some that have been significantly updated  and are now ripe for consumption:

Categories and sameness:  On the notion of equivalence
Consilience in mathematics: Kinds of patterns across math
Eliminative materialism: Atheistical reductionism
On What There Is:  Ontology for home and school
Metaphysical Infrastructure:  The unspoken assumptions we live by
Yemeni Excellence: A glimpse at some moments of the Arab spring.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Vive la différence

There is only one way to unite the great branches of learning  and end the culture wars.  It is to view the boundary between the scientific and literary cultures  not as a territorial line  but as a broad and mostly unexplored terrain  awaiting cooperative entry from both sides.
-- Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998), p. 126

Hmm…. Personally I’m smitten by both sides of this divide, and they do not conflict.  They do seem to require different patterns of the brain -- I’m typically either in “math mode” or “language mode”, the transition between one mode and the other  has usually been sluggish, typically taking months, and scarcely under voluntary control  -- though a switch might be triggered, with an electric flash, by the mere sight of a book-cover of one sort or another, from some past time at which I reveled in this mode or that.
There exist, to be sure, a couple of loosely-defined camps, of chai-sipping pinky-lifting poetizing types who will have nothing to do with math or science, and of good grey engineers who see nothing beyond their own eyeshades.   But for those of us  alike alive  to the delights of Calliope and of Minerva,  there is no more conflict  between science and letters  than between wine and cheese,  different though those estimable comestibles may be.   The main time when the gears begin to grate, is when poachers from one camp or the other set up tents on the other side of the line:  soupy Dancing-Wu-Li-Masters approaches to physics, or the All-Culture-is-Nitrogenous-Muck annexations of history and morality and the arts, by a few greasy hunchbacks from the back of the lab.

Here is Wilson’s own view of the golden mean:

From diverse vantage points in biology, psychology, and anthropology, they have conceived a process called gene-culture coevolution.  The conception observes, first, that to genetic evolution  the human lineage has added the parallel track of cultural evolution;  and second, that the two forms of evolution are linked.
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998), p. 126

“Linked” -- how -- à la Lamarck?  Or in essentially non-interactive parallel, as in nucleic vs. cytoplasmic inheritance?  Or is the “linked” part  just a hope for a program. -- In which case, there has been no actual conceptual advance beyond Darwin.   (Really, he was quite a guy, that one;  not a slam-dunk to leave that sucker in the dust…)

Monday, October 24, 2011

Linguistics porn

Oh, Lor-r-d… Not linguistics too.
On NPR, I just heard a report -- well, as much of it as I could stand, before projectile vomiting intervened -- about some freak who presumes to explain the Greek debt crisis on the basis of linguistics: specifically, the encoding of the future tense in various languages.
Absurdity piled on misanalysis and I turned the thing off.  And if this story dies, there’s an end to it:  I’ll be relieved of the burden of having (prouesse oblige) to swab out that particular septic-tank.  Meanwhile, the takeaway:  It’s garbage.

As a prophylactic against any future such claims, bear in mind this simple example.  Consider the position of women in Iran; and know that Farsi has gender-neutral pronouns (the same word goes for ‘he/she', or for ‘his/her’).


[Update 9 May 2012]  Good news twice over.
(1) The story died.
(2) It is our pleasure to salute an excellent article by a non-linguist, on English usage -- a subject that tends to attract cranks.  By Joan Acocella, in the current issue of The New Yorker:
Liltingly written;  level-headed (nay more:  keen-minded) -- and even:  funny.  And at times, of almost Biblical eloquence.

[Update 1 June 2012]  Hm, well, the ever-alert Steven Pinker thinks her article is linguistics porn as well. U B the judge:

[Update 21 May 2012] A useful contribution by the ever-trenchant Geoff Pullum,
dissecting George Will's disinformation about President Obama's pronoun patterns:

 Another carefuly analysis of a linguistic fraud, this one by the classicist Keith Massey:
Once a fabrication gets into the informational bloodstream, there is no scrubbing it completely, as H.L. Mencken proved decades ago with his "Bathtub Hoax".  But in the case of these falsifiers, their lies have wings, and grow grander, since there are ideologues with an interest in keeping the scam going.

For fun:

“It depends upon what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

President Clinton  acutely and relevantly spoke this truth, as the curs were baying at his traces.  
It went right over the head of most, and excited mere japery in the many.

Let us examine another example, of the relevance of tense.  Since this is a logico-linguistic exercise, rather than a religious polemic, assume  for the sake of argument  than everything asserted in the book to be discussed  is true.   Nothing hangs on this; our focus is the spin of the linguistics.

Browsing in the library, I happened upon the following title, by one Thomas Craughwell (2006):

Saints Behaving Badly

This title certainly catches the eye.  From a marketing standpoint, it is brilliant.  But then comes the subtitle:

The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men and Devil Worshippers  who Became Saints

In other words:  We have not to do with saints who, while saints or as saints, did these terrible things; quite the contrary.   The subject treats of men and women who, in their original fallen state, did these dreadful things;  yet who, by God’s grace, were redeemed -- even these ! -- and later achieved sainthood. 
The natural implication of the actual title is that those so-called “saints” are a buncha hypocrites and goddam phonies, not nearly in the classy class of you’n me, as we sit here with our whore, in the bar, gambling on imaginary horses.  The subtitle has at least the honesty and decency  to take away what the title implies.

In all likelihood, the author is innocent of any ill-intention, the slimy title having been presumably imposed by sulphurous marketing-types (you know them from Dilbert, with their little horns and hooves)  over his strenuous objections.  

[Footnote:  Although  “Buffy” and “Angel”  are not remotely -- overtly -- Christian shows,  still the theme of redemption -- of difficult redemption -- of Spike and Angel, strikes a chord among any who have knelt and accepted the bread.]

[‘Nother footnote:  For a sternly beautiful portrait of a pre-Saint  behaving… well, not badly perhaps, but not as the Chamber of Commerce might wish him to behave,  cf. Chesterton’s biography -- succinct and to the point -- of St. Francis.]

On Critters

The conception that Hume wanted to root out  had its basis in religious belief.  Taking very seriously the saying that God created us in his own image, it saw us as hybrid beings, in this world but not entirely of it. … Animals are quite different.  They have no souls, but are just very subtle and complex machines, nothing more.   The really significant line comes between us and them, not between us and God.  Hume wanted to move it:  we are not inferior little gods, but somewhat superior  middle-sized animals.
--Edward Craig,  Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (2002), p. 26

We earlier alluded, with smiling approval, to the thesis of the intrazoological ontological gap, as articulated by His Holiness the Pope.  (It’s a long essay; just scroll down to the picture of the naked lady with all her ontologically discontinuous animal-friends.)  Yet, alarmingly, as evidenced by the passage above-quoted, this God-given gap threatens to be pried open (by those busy goblins, the atheists, ever wielding their picks) into something gaping

So, note:  It’s a gap, not a chasm.   Hamsters are not tiny machines (What idle demiurge would have made them?); they are furry little wonderballs.   (For the diffeomorphic significance of their rotundity, click here.)

True, back in the day, ourselves squatting in the rain  around our pile of dismal sticks, waiting for some bright-guy to invent fire,  we may have cut no very dashing figure.   (Though you’d have been a fool to place your bets on what otherwise seemed pre-eminent, the sabre-tooths and the mastodons.)  But things have changed a bit since then.

There is truly no excuse for Hume.    Granted, he did not have access to the extensive literature on (to take an example entirely at random) the Urysohn Metrization Theorem, but he had already, not merely the results of Euclidean geometry, endlessly interesting though these be, but the example of the Axiomatic Enterprise -- an insight worthy of the Lawgiver.

~     ~     ~

As to what animals are, I don’t know, though I’ve made a stab at it  here and here.  For the real answer, you would have to ask  St. Francis.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Progress Report

Substantive changes have been made to recent posts in the following two threads:
I commend them to your attention.

Brains in a Vat

You probably know it from “The Matrix”;  the basic idea goes back to Plato at the very least.   Having often alluded to the philosophical issues involved, we won’t mention them here.  (Executive summary  for those pressed for time:  All the truth ye need   is in the Nicene Creed.)

Our quarry here  is,  rather,  literary.   In a philosophical context, “Brains in a Vat” refers to the very hypothetical situation in which we are now, and have always been,  and (crucially) unbeknownst to ourselves:  brains in vat.  All we see is an illusion;  cf. “The Truman Show.”  (Believers in the Creed need not fret about that scenario.)

Quite different is the situation presented in a classic episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, which I watched long ago, as an impressionable lad  in (possibly) ass-flap pyjamas.  (Do these even exist anymore? -- Not sure how long ago it was;  Google didn’t help;  reader clarifications  welcome.)  For better or worse, it has quite tenaciously  stayed with me.
Here, a man conventionally alive in our familiar reality, is facing death.  We get but a glimpse of him, short-tempered with his wife for her incessant smoking.  Rejecting our appointed time of circa threescore and ten, he arranges for his brain to be kept alive in a beaker:  thus seeking eternal life, not on God’s terms, but on Satan’s.  (These deals usually do not turn out well.)

His wish is granted -- as it was for that Cumaean Sibyl, who later was found hanging in a jar.   All we can see is a brain and a single eyeball;  and all that eyeball can see is a cylinder of optics above its liquid home.  Bubble bubble bubble go the oxygen blobs; a beeper monitors its brainwaves.   And now we see the venomously smiling figure of his wife, as she leans over into its field of view.  She promises to take ve-ry good care of him;  and slowly, voluptuously, voluminously -- as the beeper shrills furiously --  blows into that helpless lidless eyeball,  a curling plume of smoke.

~     ~     ~

Again, for the benefit of readers who may have just joined us, this reminder:  We are not, in fact (Donald Trump to the contrary), brains in a vat.  But increasingly, some Americans are acting as though they were, and by their distortion of the culture, drawing others in with them. 
Thus consider this Author’s Note prefacing The Crazyladies of Pearl Street (2005), a fine memoir --  umm, novel, by the exiled American Trevanian:

Although the characters and incidents of this novel are set in a closely observed and carefully described block of Albany, New York, during the Great Depression and the Second World War, a lively desire to thwart the litigious impulses for which Americans have become renowned  obliges me to declare that all the characters and names are products of my imagination and exist in no other reality than my own.

~     ~     ~

A contemporary update to the old brains-in-a-vat idea  is a particularly foul exudation of that already-malodorous  brain-fart of physics, is that our entire cosmos might be merely a simulation run by some supersmart aliens with these like, really big computers, in some parallel universe.  This fantasy  has stained the name, in particular, of Martin Rees.

Freeman Dyson points out, in his essay "Many Worlds" (2004; collected in The Scientist as Rebel (2006), that Rees was anticipated in this by the sci-fi writer Olaf Stapledon.  Stapledon enjoys a high reputation among those who don’t generally read schlock science-fiction;  personally  I found him unreadable.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

O Tempora, O ... huh? ?

Texas man sought in frozen-armadillo attack

Be advised -- This is just one more reason to vote for Rick Perry !

[Predictably, witty Comments are springing up.]

When frozen armadillos are outlawed, only outlaws will have frozen armadillos.
Typical liberal double-think. Outlaws don't freeze armadillos -- freezers freeze armadillos.
I prefer to pack a porcupine.


Reductionism porn

The main thrust of the consilience world view  is that culture … will make complete sense only when linked in causal explanation to the natural sciences.  … I know that such reductionism is not popular outside the natural sciences. … The difference between the two domains is in the magnitude of the problem, not the principles needed for its solution.
Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (1998), p. 267

There are not “two” domains, but a couple of bunches;  set that aside.  Even within the natural sciences -- nay  let us further even restrict ourselves to physics:  there are several domains within physics, each with its own principles and techniques.   Those of thermodynamics were developed in their own realm, quite apart from the details of each atom.  (Later, a certain reduction to statistical mechanics was achieved -- indeed, one author cites this as the only completely successful instance of a broad reduction, within physics or indeed science at all.)  Quantum mechanics notoriously is a world apart.  String theory, yet another world, straining for any contact with this one.    Crystallography, cosmology, planetology, low-temperature physics, materials science  -- each boasts a clique of adepts  initiated into the Masonic mysteries of their own particular discipline (which alas, by its very success and progress, threatens to fragment further),  no one of whom could explain the principles and techniques of any other.  Which principles did the professor have in mind, for, say, the analysis of the Elizabethan theatre?  Heisenberg Uncertainty?  Maldacena duality?  Allopatric speciation?  (“Certain memes play out upon the stage, in full sight of the audience.  We call these the ‘observables’; they are given by Hermitian operators.”)

Each new horizon of science has brought with it  a new problematics, evoking new principles and new tools  not remotely to have been anticipated.  Some things now taken for granted, such as spacetime, and curved spacetime, and the various possible geometries for the universe as a whole, would previously have counted as analytically false  by the Kantians, space and time and Euclidean geometry being categories that were unquestionable and simply given.  It would be surprising if, say, a unified theory of the forces of nature turned out to consist of the old horse of the hyperweak simply hitched up to the wagon of general relativity and off you go.   Nor is a deeper understanding of free will or interpersonal communication or our emergent intellectual resonance with the most abstract mathematical principles imaginable,  likely to just fall out of the petri slime and the endless button-pushing experiments of the neuroscientists -- though they try, O Lord, they try.