Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Contributions to Exobiology

It has been said that exobiology is "the subject without subject-matter".  Here, then, an attempt to remedy the lack.

(1)  Reason would suggest that so splendid a species as the penguin  must somewhere have their own planet.  And yet, it is not so.  For the Megapenguins of the galaxy of Arcturia  are restricted to no single orb, but stride across the bridges of stars, ceaselessly, blasted by the stellar winds, circulating along the spiral arms.  They are searching for something, and they think that they know what it is, but it cannot be put into words.  And with this, dear people, we must rest content.

(2) One of the lesser-known species of our own planet is the snow bunnies.  These come out in winter, and scamper rapidly across the tundra until they are happy and tired.  But they have never been observed, because they blend in with the snow.
            On the planet Lemuria, snow bunnies are the sole species.  Like our own snow bunnies, they are white – because they like to be.  Yet remarkably, snow on Lemuria is a pale, pale green.  Hence on Lemuria the snow bunnies can actually be made out, flitting ghostlike across the frozen, phosphorescent wastes.  This planet has no atmosphere, therefore there is no sound.

(3)  A lovely planet to contemplate is Numlandia.  It is larger than Jupiter, and proud of the fact.  There are many curious species, but here the koala is king.  Accordingly, too, the eucalpytus reigns supreme.  Lacking all competition, it grows to a height of seven miles, penetrating the eternal cloud cover  out into a skyful of stars.
            When night falls on Numlandia, it covers the expanse of the planet, envelops the whole globe.  At that time the koalas climb to the tops of their tree-homes, and snuggle, and whisper sleepy secrets among the leaves.  Night on Numlandia lasts for a thousand years.  Softly, deeply, they sleep.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Philosophical Scratch-Pad (bis)

Continuing our wildly successful “Scratch-Pad” feature,  we now inaugurate an on-deck circle for stray philosophy-related quotations,  pursuant to their eventual incorporation into the appropriate Host Post.

[Cf.  Causality]

In The Decline of the West [Der Untergang des Abendlandes]Spengler had argued that the idea of destiny was the answer to the narrow and lifeless theory of causality  used by historians, and that ‘the destiny-logic of the world-becoming’ was to be preferred to ‘the causal logic of notion and law’.
-- Gordon Craig, Germany 1866-1945 (1978), p. 492

That is mistily/mystically worded;  to decipher, consider the metaphor of embryonic development  (largely pre-programmed -- ‘destined’) versus the vicissitudes of post-uterine life.  -- That observation is not necessarily to defend Oswald Spengler’s dark doctrine -- indeed, my initial purpose in quoting it  was mere mockery -- but simply to render it parsable to the contemporary mind.
And yet and yet -- as we watch history  before our wincing eyes unfolding, in all its irrationality, its mad rush to doom, we must wonder:  mayhap he was right.

[Cf. What is Truth?]

The objection is not only false, but very much the reverse of the facts.
-- G.K. Chesterton, All Things Considered (1908)

(This is more than wordplay -- it is the difference between contradictory and contrary.  Something can fail to be strictly true, based on a triviality.  Chesterton is here after bigger game.)

The intellectual structure of micro-economic theory  is very similar to that of theories controlling the behavior of perfect gases in physics.
-- David Berlinski, The Deniable Darwin (2009), p. 129

(This is probably hogwash;  but still, it’ll wash your hog bright ‘n’ shiny.)

Egyptian engineers  working under the pharaohs  knew that the angles of a triangle  sum to more or less one hundred and eighty degrees.  The number appears as a free parameter in their theories, something given by experience and experiment.  The Greeks, on the other hand, could prove what the Egyptians could only calculate.
-- David Berlinski, The Deniable Darwin (2009), p. 268

Monday, July 29, 2013

With friends like these…

WDJ is no fan of Political Correctitude, even when I happen to fall in a demographic that is supposedly aggrieved and in need of pampering.

I’ve known a fair number of spunky oldsters over the years, and nary a one of them was keen on this “Senior citizens/Golden-agers” gush;  as my mother-in-law used to insist, “I’m not a ‘Senior’, I’m old.”  (She has since passed on to a better place, where no-one is pimping for her vote.)

Just heard a treacly-smarmy spot on NPR, plugging some outfit that caters to people “sixty-two or better” (sic!), striving to provide them with … wait for it … a “services-rich lifestyle”.
(We pause briefly to barf.)
In other words, a life of parasitism and idleness.

I’m just 62 -- and not “better” -- and have no desire at all to be fawned-over like that.

[Update 29 July 2013]  I asked my wife if she had some probiotics, and she handed me a jar, from “Garden of Life”, which stated that its brand was for “Women 50 & wiser”.   Presumably this “wiser” is like that “better”:  meaning, older.
This is truly contemptible.  Likewise its targeting women:  these things are for the digestive, not the reproductive tract;  if there is any difference in which probiotics the genders need, I am unaware of it;  the point of the thing is merely so that the female customer can feel catered-to, special.

The other weirditude about this product is that, in addition to “33 probiotic strains”, it claims to contain “83 billion live cultures”.   This sounds like delirious nonsense, but who knows what it even means.  Anyone?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Someone I’d never heard of

The Sunday-evening program “The Big Broadcast”,  NPR’s token sop to middle-aged white males,  tonight offered something unusual:   A country song, and not from the radio-drama 1940’s ff. fare  that forms the bulk of the show:  “The Ballad of Forty Dollars”, by Tom. T. Hall.

Here is an album version:


(1)  This is one more example (if more were needed) of why Rock&Roll is for adolescents;  Country, for adults.
(2)  I have spent the weekend  immersed in reading and thinking about German history and literature from the onset of the Great War  through Weimar.   Not at all in the mood for anything shallower than that.   Yet,  this song is surely as deep and as meaningful  as anything that Tucholsky  ever wrote.
(3)  It is depressing, to sample the effusions of some potentate or bigwig, which turn out to be worthless.  Yet such instances as this, more than compensate:  People you have never heard of, who are absolutely worth listening to. 
You mostly won’t find them on the vertical power-structure of television -- or, if so, buried in peripheral glitz -- but (if at all) horizontally, through friends-of-friends;  which is why I bother to post this, though I know  less  than do any one of you,  about this man.

[Update 29 July]  A couple of you were incredulous that I had never heard of this man.
This is probably connected with the fact that I have spent the past fifty years residing on a remote region of Saturn,
where reception is poor.

On Reading in Someone Else’s Traces

As an impecunious graduate student, and later as a threadbare lexicographer, I bought used copies of books  whenever possible.  Sometimes, these had been ill-used.  This happened especially in the case of volumes currently being used as textbooks.   Absurdly overpriced when new, these might come within the price-range of the elbow-patched pauper  after having passed through the hands of some subsidized undergraduates  who never really should have taken the course in the first place, and who now sold their texts, out of sight out of mind,  allowing us (as Leviticus prescribes) to survive on their leavings and gleanings.   These individuals would often underline in ink, or highlight in yellow (or, horresco referens, pink), sometimes every other sentence or paragraph:  and the color would bleed through the page, spuriously hemi-highlighting many a quite random passage.   To read through the work, I had to wade through the swamp of their mediocrity of mind.   Why couldn’t they at least highlight in pencil?

At present, I am reading a used paperback copy of Gordon Craig’s classic 1978 history of Germany.   And as the chapters go by, it becomes increasingly apparent that the previous owner had been a scholar, or scrupulous autodidact.   The passages marked are few, and always in faint pencil.  Moreover, these do not constitute “highlights” in any obvious sense;  rather, they illustrate some theme which that reader was pursuing in his mind, no longer apparent to this one.   His interests, whatever they might have been, do not match mine:  the phrase “civil service” merits, in his recension, a rare double-underline.  Moreover, there are occasional pithy marginal notes, but penciled-in so small that, even with a magnifier, I cannot decipher them -- in part because he uses personal abbreviations, in part because the thought is not predictable.  But one sigil thus used  I do understand, and it marks him as my Sinnesgenosse:  that little pyramid of three dots, which signifies “therefore” to a logician.


Someday, when I am gathered  to that great library in the sky,  my own annotated holdings will flood the market (if it still exists;  perhaps paper will be obsolete, and everyone on Kindle).   And the purchasers will puzzle over my own arcane jottings.   To aid later philologers, I shall mention here, that many of the abbreviatory symbols stem from lectures by Gleason or Quine:  the rounded curly-d for ‘boundary’, an acutely downhooked upright for ‘restricted to’ (whence ‘only, just’), a perpendicularly downhooked horizontal for ‘not’, a square for ‘necessarily’ (whence ‘must’), a diamond for ‘possibly, maybe’, a thick-shafted arrow (=>) for ‘causes, gives rise to’, an upside-down A for ‘all’, a backwards E for ‘there is, there exists’, an inverted point-triad for ‘since, because’, and so forth.  Or perhaps, like my own sad ashes, they will simply all be pulped.

[Note:  The more usual symbol for restriction of a function to a subset of a domain  is simply vertical-bar.  But that has many, many other meanings;  so I follow Gleason in adding a hook, which  quite appropriately  depicts the restrictor as a grappling-iron …
Likewise, there are many traditional symbols used for ‘not’, all of them grievously ambiguous.  I follow Quine in adding the disambiguating hook.]

Phrase of the Day: “Jour de libération fiscale”

The concept behind this phrase  is equally applicable to any country whatever, yet I cannot recall having seen an American English equivalent.  [Update:  But now cf. the Comment below, from a reader in Canada.  I stand corrected.]   It alludes to a thought-experiment in which one imagines that, up to a certain day of the year, you are working entirely to pay your various state, local, federal, sales, payroll (etc. etc.) taxes and fees;  and thereafter, working entirely for yourself.  If the former proportion were, say, fifty percent, then for the entire first half of the year (in this scenario of the imagination), you would be working for the gummint, receiving not a penny for yourself.  Somehow, without changing any facts, this depiction touches the gut, more nearly than abstract talk about percentages.
The rhetorical move is comparable to that whereby we are informed that, upon reaching the ripe age of ninety, we shall have spend roughly a third of our lives -- thirty years ! -- doing nothing but sleeping.   And (even more depressing) a year doing nothing but brushing our teeth …

Anyhow, in France, it turns out, today is the first day that Frenchmen are working for themselves:  right down to 27 juillet, it was all pour le fisc.

Listen to this entertaining account by journalist Robert Buissiere:

Pour d’autres friandises
de la confiserie 
du docteur Justice,


Well, so much for French fiscality.   For the more sedulous héxagonophiles, we have just updated our classic and popular post re


[Note:  You must be over twelve to read that post, though exceptions will be made for would-be dirty-minded eight-year-old boys.]

Still not had enough?   Try this!   Dames, dames, dames !


Naming & Necessity

In a celebrated lecture by that title, later reprinted as a booklet, the philosopher Saul Kripke argues for an account of proper names as being in origin ostensive/baptismal, handed down then  to the generations  by a sort of isnâd (to use the term of Islamic traditionaries).   This, by contrast with the more traditional understanding of names achieving their reference via matching some understood description -- you manage to pick out Aristotle from amidst the hordes of shades, by his embodying certain characteristics --  teacher of Alexander, author of the Organon, known to his homeys as “the Stagirite”.

The essay sparked an extensive debagte, to which I would not presume to attempt to contribute;  save that one signal example, supportive of Kripke’s a-posteriori necessitarian position, has never, to my knowledge, been cited in the literature.   Namely:  How (on the descriptive account) do you pick out an individual who has no characteristics? 
I refer, of course, to the Mann ohne Eigenschaften, to whom the novelist Robert Musil  has dedicated an extensive tome (widely praised, though seldom read).

To be sure:  Lacking all characteristics  is itself a kind of (meta-)characteristic, distinguishing its (non)bearer much like the “Invisible Man” of Monty Python.

A critic might object, How do you know you have managed to pick out precisely that individual by that (meta-)description, “the Man without Qualities” -- rather than a whole grey horde of characterless/uncharacterizable wannabes and also-rans? 
This conundrum brings to mind some mysterious passages in Quine’s essay “Ontological Relativity”, which basically posit a kind of non-identity of indiscernibles:  things you might quantify over, on the substitutional sense of quantification, but at the same time slur over, since they lack individual names, and may be indistinguishable from any of the named entities.

Well -- nunc dimittis, I have said enough;  time for a nightcap, and so to bed.   Perhaps these puzzles may be unraveled by our grandchildren.

Social notes from Copa: SlutWalk welcomes the Pope


For our earlier reportage on this global phenomenon,
conslut -- I mean consult -- this:

(Non-)word of the Day: Schlagododros

Gordon Craig, in his magisterial history of Germany (1978 ), wrote:

Meinecke … was never taken in by those he called the Schlagododros, who believed that force would bring Germany mastery over Europe.

Puzzled and perturbed, I forthwith wrote to my friend and philological counselor, Dr. Keith Massey:

German Schlag 'a punch, a blow' melded with some Greek word ending in -dodros ??

German used to do this sort of thing a lot, with Latin, e.g. Sammelsurium.

The learnèd classicist  replied by return of post:

This is a curious thing. A google search on the word reveals on this quote and that which it references. It is certainly a coinage, one which the originator believed others would understand. Google books has a few more, none elucidate the term. Despite the Hellenic flavor to the final bit, it doesn't match with any real root.

I likewise:

Ah, exactly like Sammelsurium, then, whose tail-end is Latin-ish without being lateinisch.
More curious is that Craig figured that his anglophone readership, many decades after the event, would grasp this coinage from Meinecke’s personal correspondence, without a footnote.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(Ich bin der Geheimrat Meineke, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Ontology of Psychology (bis)

Updated here:

Monostichon ohne Eigenschaften

~      ~

wie Leichen   früherer Gelüste

~      ~

[Found-poetry, from Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (vol. I: 1930)]

Friday, July 26, 2013

What to say when you see a rabbit

As the great anthropological linguist (or linguistical anthropologist) W. van O. Quine discovered, over the course of a lifetime of exhaustive research in the field, most native peoples around the world exclaim “Gavagai!”  when they spot a rabbit.
What they mean by this is radically indeterminate:  Some are identifying the specimen as of the family Leporidae;  others are coolly assessing an instantaneous leporiform manifestation in the Earth’s configuration-space, while remaining quite agnostic as to the ultimate taxonomic status of said apparition;  still others are not attempting to communicate anything at all, but simply reveling within themselves (though the vocable escaped their lips) at the lovely, furry vision; others yet …  But I digress:  for the stimulus-meaning  is the same for all:  Mr. Cottontail manifests himself, and the masses cry, “Gavagai!”

The settled practice of Doctor Justice differs significantly from this.   The stimulus-meaning of his resultant utterance is again, apodictically, the same; the syllables used in response,  however, differ:  being:


(this uttered while crouching, and making pleading come-hither motions).

And the meaning is:  

     Thank you, Lord, for rabbits.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Ontology of Geology

The notion of ‘ontology’ does not loom large in the science of geology.   In part, this is because geology is wedded to geological history, which, as in the case of its human counterpart, does not self-dissect neatly into freestanding classes of elements.  Further, even synchronically,  the various rocks and minerals don’t form anything like the brilliantly ordered structure of the Periodic Chart of the Elements.

Still, as a finger-exercise, joining our “The Ontology of … “ hit-parade --
-- we try our hand at it here.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *
Consider orology:  the study of the structure and genesis of mountains.
Notoriously (this is a chestnut within semantics), the notion ‘mountain’ is vague in two quite different ways:  (1)  what counts as a single mountain, rather than a blip in a ridge;  (2) what counts as a mountain at all, rather than a hill or ‘eminence’.

Similarly, the idea of a ‘continent’ :  (1) what counts as a single continent (is Eurasia one or two?)  (2) what counts as a continent at all, rather than an island or atoll.

Only with tectonics did the notion of a continent  become crisp and interesting.

It was realized later that the true edges of the continents lay  not where the shorelines happened to be, but at the edges of the continental slabs themselves, below sea level.
-- Richard Fortey, Earth (2004), p. 142

The tectonic criteria in hand, it was then concluded that, 200 years ago, theory required a meta-entity, Gondwana, a  supercontinent, consisting of several that are separate today.

A mathematical scratchpad (even further scratched)

[There simply isn’t time, at least before retirement, to integrate each thought-balloon as it bubbles up -- a proto-insight or pre-idea -- into the appropriate essayistic context in finished form.   Yet to leave these on the desktop equivalent of a desk drawer is to tempt the Reaper.   Therefore I shall place some of them here -- philosophical post-it notes;  mathematical Zettel.]

[Cf. De stultitia]

Our focus  in the essay of that name, is on the plight of those sorry souls (99.9999999 % of us) who fail to grasp what Grothendieck, or Witten, or whom-have-you, saw easily enough.
Distinct from, though related to, this, are questions of which (at the forefront of science) we are permitted a glimpse,  but which nobody understands.  As:

On cosmogenesis:

The whole vast imposing structure  organizes iteself  from absolutely  nothing.
This is not simply  difficult to grasp.   It  is    incomprehensible.
-- David Berlinski,  “Was There a Big Bang?” (1998), collected in :  The Deniable Darwin (2009), p. 229


All this leaves us  where we so often find ourselves.  We are confronted with certain open questions.  We do not know the answers, but what is worse, we have no clear idea -- no idea whatsoever -- of how they might be answered. 
But perhaps that is where we should be left:  in the dark, tortured by confusing hints, … and a sense that, dear God, we really do not yet understand.
-- David Berlinski,  “God, Man, and Physics” collected in :  The Deniable Darwin (2009), p. 270

The hardest part of a subject is the beginning.  Once a certain stage is passed, we gain confidence  and feel that, if need be, we could carry on by ourselves.
-- John Synge & Byron Griffith,  Principles of Mechanics (1942, 1959), p. 506

Alas, that has not been my experience at all.
Any technical subject is like a whirligig, which rotates faster and faster until the centrifugal force throws you off.   It’s like the Peter Principle, everyone eventually reaching his own personal level of incompetence;  only, in math and in physics, these levels stack indefinitely towards heaven, so that a few of us can ascend quite a ways, before we are finally out of our element.

[Cf.  Any Ideas? ] 

Recent years have seen striking developments in the conceptual organization of mathematics.  There developments use certain new concepts  such as “module”, “category”, and “morphism”  which are algebraic in character.
-- Saunders MacLane & Garrett Birkhoff, Algebra (1967; 3rd edn. 1999), p. vii

The reason they speak here of new “concepts” rather than additional structures  is that the notions referred to do not exist merely within algebra, but serve to organize other mathematical fields as well.


In an exterior view of the finished product, we see structure mathematics as largely logical or deductive:  P entails Q.
But from the interior standpoint of the practicing mathematician (and here, though we refer to the ‘actio’ sense of mathematicizing as opposed to the actum or product, the interest is not psychological but ideational), a key verb is rather motivate:  P motivates Q.   An illustration of this special vocabulary:  “The desire to extend Fourier L2 to Lp spaces  motivates the Riesz interpolation theorem.”


More vocabulary from the conceptual domain:  thrust, as in the following passage

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle:  The mathematical thrust of the principle can be formulated in terms of a relation between a function and its Fourier transform.  The basic underlying law, formulated in its vaguest and most general form [i.e., its most intuitive formulation], states that a function and its Fourier transform cannot both be essentially localized.
-- Elias Stein & Rami Shakarchi, Fourier Analysis (2003), p. 158

~   ~   ~

[Cf.  On Depth]

When I made my original discovery of radiation from black holes, it seemed a miracle that a rather messy calculation should lead to emission that was exactly thermal.  However, joint work with Jim Hartle and Gary Gibbons  uncovered the deep reason.
-- Stephen Hawking, in: Stephen Hawking & Roger Penrose, The Nature of Space and Time (1996), p. 44

For the mathematician, contrasting with messy  are simple and elegant -- yet in the following, even these don’t get you to the yonder side, where Depth dwells:

Having derived the equation for the vibrating string, we now explain two methods to solve it:
(1) using traveling waves;
(2) using the superposition of standing waves.
While the first approach is very simple and elegant, it does not give full insight into the problem.
-- Elias Stein & Rami Shakarchi, Fourier Analysis (2003), p.  8

String theory is sometimes described as a theory that was invented backwards … People had pieces of it quite well worked out  without understanding the deep meaning of their results. … Math is funny that way.  Formulas can sometimes be manipulated, checked, and extended  witnout being deeply understood.
--Steven Gubser, The Little Book of String Theory (2010), p. 2

[Cf. Consilence in Mathematics]

Horizontal consilience:

… the structure theorem for finitely generated groups -- a fine illustration of conceptual unification.
-- Saunders MacLane & Garrett Birkhoff, Algebra (1967; 3rd edn. 1999), p. vi

Mathematics is a coherent, interlocking whole, and advances in one area  often lead to advances elsewhere.
-- Ian Stewart,  How to Cut a Cake (2006), p. 89

Commercial Break
A private detective  confronts the uncanny;
an ecclesiastical mystery:


Expressing himself in the language of fluxions and fluents, Newton managed to conceal his insights in a notation that was miraculously maladroit.  Not so Leibniz.  The language of mathematics and mathematics itself  are mutually sustaining.
-- David Berlinski, Newton’s Gift (2000), p. 57

Note:  The first clause of that observation does not actually relate to the point about notation (as opposed to vocabulary), and is silly in itself.  The concepts were new, so obviously any term for these would either be an out-and-out neologism, or a semantic hijacking of an extant word.   There is nothing lexically more rebarbative about fluent and fluxion than about derivative, differential, infinitessimal. 
Betrand Russell, in The Principles of Mathematics (1903):

Mathematics is the class of all propositions of the form ‘p implies q’ …

The appended dribble of dots replace additional uninteresting clauses, which rob the sally of its epigrammatic pithiness, while yet failing to throw any light upon the subject.   It is a definition for people with no interest in the dark loamy richness of actual math as such;  and worthy of the author whose massive Principia Mathematica could as well have been titled Why Math Isn’t Interesting After All.
The characterization becomes even less interesting when you reflect that the expression “p implies q”, in logician’s lingo, is mere ‘material implication’ -- what would be better dubbed immaterial implication, since it involves no notion of causation or even logical entailment (and is thus immaterial to any actual problem), but is neither more nor less than another way of saying “either not-p, or q”.

Two citations illustrating the insight that axiomatizations, though perhaps logically prior, are pragmatically post-hoc:

The order of nature, and the order of logical dependence, are not the same as the order of our discoveries.
-- Morris Cohen & Ernest Nagel,  An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method (1934)

Not all axiom systems are formal systems, and formalization need not lead to axiomatization.
The axiomatic method is an orderly way of summarizing experience.
-- Hao Wang, Popular Lectures in Mathematical Logic  (1981), p. 11

I am not a mathematician, but a math groupie;  not even a math wannabe (as I once was, back in Math 55), but a math wannedabe.
And in fact, considered coldly, I did not then  even rise to the level of a wannabe, but only a meta-wannabe, a wannawannabe:  someone who wished that his dearest wish was for mathematics, but who, truth to tell, was more interested in history and literature.

[Cf. Minimalism in Mathematics]
On Ramanujan’s notebooks:

There were thousands of theorems, corollaries, and examples.  For page after page, they stretched on, rarely watered down by proof or explanation, almost aphoristic in their compression, all their mathematical truths  boiled down to a line or two.
-- Robert Kanigel, The Man who Knew Infinity, p. 204

The reasons for this were twofold.  Ramanujan himself was not particularly aphoristic.   But he had never absorbed the modern notion of proof, which would take up so much more space;  and as a poor man in India, he suffered from a shortage of paper.

Für psychologisch tiefgreifende Krimis,
in pikanter amerikanischer Mundart,
und christlich gesinnt,
klicken Sie bitte hier:

[Sui generis]

On Ramanujan, who grew up in India, and in mathematics  was largely self-taught:

He was like a species that had branched off from the main evolutionary line  and, like an Australian echidna or a Galapagos tortoise, had come to occupy a biological niche all his own.
-- Robert Kanigel, The Man who Knew Infinity (1991), p. 61

The unusual career of Ramanujan  is one of the most celebrated biographies in the history of mathematics.   His achievements in the face of relative intellectual adversity as a child of modest means in the rural subcontinent,  are indeed inspiring, and warm the hearts of those in quest of Diversity -- whence, for those who can decipher the trobar clus of modern peri-academic patois, the book’s subtitle,  “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”.   (Genius he indisputably was;  but the word these days is mainly used to celebrate anyone other than straight white males -- a “genius at basketball” or whatever.)
Yet the larger lesson is not how divergent Ramanujan was, but how much in the mainstream of things:  He did not found a new field of mathematics, he worked within number theory.   And this fact in turn reminds us of two characterizations of math as a whole, on which we have often dwelt:
            (a)  It is not something we invent out of whole cloth, it is something we discover.   This must channel our discoveries, just as the facts of the actual universe  discipline physics.
            (b)  Mathematics has already, for at least two hundred years, been uniquely rich conceptually  among human endeavors.   In a landscape embracing Cantorian set theory, algebraic geometry, and topos theory, it is next to impossible to come up with something unprecedentedly deep and strange;  in any case, Ramanujan did not.   To return to the metaphor:  We certainly treasure our quirky friend the echidna;  but only to someone whose zoological experience extended no further than a European barnyard, would he seem all that aberrant.   In a world of social insects, benthic hypothermophiles, and communal slime-molds, the echidna seems like just one more furry friend.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(My name is Ramanujan, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Psychology Scratch-Pad

Given the pressure of events, plus the global success of our “Mathematical Scratch-Pad” feature, we here institute  an occasional thread of miscellaneous thoughts and quotes,  to be stored in this holding-pen  until such time as time permits, their appropriate incorporation into the Host Post (the which should be listed as a Link).

[cf. Acolytes]

David Lewis, the premier representative of modal realism, got his Ph.D. under Quine -- modal logic’s most relentless detractor.   Magistricide !

Infimae Scala Naturae

A frog -- for such I take it to be, that or some other crouching thing -- emits  in the night  a rasping monotone, not the classic bivalent “ribbitt”, but more like an extended belch.   At an interval, a like vocalization blats out  from across the way, by way of response.  The cycle is destined to repeat throughout the night,  until both parties either tire, or mate.
This is as close as these beasts will ever come, to the balcony serenade to one’s Juliette.  Yet it does point along this direction.   Such creatures are needful, lest the scala naturae  wane at its base.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Zimmerman/Martin case, served in Goose-Gander Sauce

[Erklärung des Titels / explication du titre.
The subject-line alludes to the old proverb,

“”What’s sauce for the goose  is sauce for the gander.”

A more contemporary equivalent would be, “Turnabout is fair play.”

It is a wise and spicy saying;  for, unlike the sullen, passive plea-or-protest, “Fair’s fair”, with its insipid and unconvincing tautological form,  the quip about the goose and the gander (Gänserich, jars) points out, with a tasty culinary metaphor, that  once you have described Case A as to be treated by certain general principles, those same principles may well apply, unexpectedly or against public sentiment, to Case B.
There doesn’t seem to be any equally savorsome equivalent in the other languages I’m familiar with.  The best my available dictionaries could do was by Wildhagen:  “Was dem einen recht ist, ist dem andern billig.”  So true, so true;  but not near so well-expressed.
On prie nos lecteurs de nous en fournir de meilleurs.]

[Update 19 July 2013]  In today's low-key but eloquent address,  the President has made many of the same points we put forward below.
It was a wise, sad speech;   sad, because the President is well aware of facts like these -- to take yet one more example, this from this very day:,0,1569435.story

[Update 20 July 2013] In  France likewise, the bien-pensant press normally refrains from any mention of the ethnicity of those involved in large violent public disturbances, even when that fact is key to the storyline;  only, over there, the ethnicity is different.  And again, French readers are not fooled.  
Sometimes the journalist manages to sneak in a tipoff without explicitly mentioning race creed or national origin:  with us, a hoodie, with them, a veil:

Le garçon de 14 ans a été atteint au cours des affrontements survenus dans la nuit de vendredi à samedi entre habitants et policiers. Ceux-ci semblent avoir pour origine l'interpellation, jeudi, d'un homme qui s'était opposé au contrôle de son épouse voilée.
Retour au calme samedi matin à Trappes1 après une nuit de violences. Habitants et forces de l'ordre se sont affrontés pendant plusieurs heures, dans la nuit de vendredi à samedi, devant le commissariat de cette ville des Yvelines, avant de se disperser vers 3 heures du matin à la suite de prières spécifiques au ramadan.

[Update, an hour later]  Really, there is no shortage of such incidents.  The following concerns the attacks on police and looting, alleged to have happened at the scene of the worst train disaster in France in many years.   Again, no mention of anything … sensitive … but “racailles” is a code-word, and readers understand:

Brétigny-sur-Orge : «T'as trouvé quoi dans les bagages ?»
Des policiers ont trouvé des SMS explicites dans le portable de jeunes interpellés le jour du drame. Une enquête doit être menée pour savoir si les victimes du déraillement du train ont bien été volées.
Les forces de l'ordre ont-elles été «caillassées» à Brétigny, comme elles l'affirment, ou simplement accueillies «de façon un peu rude».
Un texto d'un CRS envoyé à ses collègues décrit même «des victimes pillées par des racailles». Un tract de l'Unsa-police s'offusque du fait que «des individus» aient pu «profiter de la détresse des victimes pour les piller et agresser les intervenants».
Ancien officier de police, élu UMP, Bruno Beschizza, demande, lui, des explications au ministre de l'Intérieur. «On s'aperçoit qu'il y a tout une machine d'État qui s'est mise en branle pour démonter les faits!, s'indigne-t-il. Cela laisse présupposer une vraie chape de plomb sur beaucoup d'autres incidents ailleurs en France…»

Si cela vous parle,
savourez la série noire
en argot authentique d’Amérique :


~ [the original post] ~

As usual, we are not trying to be political here, but simply to make a single logical point.  I have not been following the case closely, so it may be that someone (or a hundred people) have made this same point before, but I haven’t seen or heard it done, despite the point’s being obvious.

First, if we just consider that narrow slice of space-time  in which Z. is on his back, apparently having been knocked down by M., and M. is pounding his head against the pavement (vide photos of the wounds), a plea of “self-defence” is obviously plausible  -- this is no doubt why the police initially decided not to charge him, until political pressure built up.  Furthermore -- and it is remarkable that so little comment has been expended on this key legal point -- this would seem to be exactly the sort of case that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law was meant to cover.   That law may be ill-advised, whatever;  but the intent of the legislature is here prima facie met.

This defense begins to stick in people’s craw once we allow our camera to pan back and take in a larger slice of space-time, where we see Z. persistently looking for trouble -- “asking for it”, some might say.  But this is a grey area, one of shades and degrees, and mere logic has little to contribute here.

But more starkly evident -- and this is the fact that I have not seen referred to, an elephant-in-the-room fact, in other words -- is that this same plea of self-defense could be claimed by M. -- and would so have been claimed, with at least equal justification, had chance so decided that the scuffle over Z.’s gun (which Z. states took place) resulted in the death, not of M., but of Z.

“At least equal”:  actually, more.   For:  Here is M., going about his business (possibly contemplating mischief -- say, burglary, or preferring Brahms to Beethoven, or denying that names are rigid designators -- none of that is anything to the purpose) when this “creepy-ass cracker” starts stalking him, in the dark of night.   (Some have tried to make hay out of M.’s use of this colorful and alliterative phrase, but Beowulf would have loved it, and even the exigent M. Gustav Flaubert would have admitted it as le mot juste.)
Now, people wanting to make Z. look bad (and this includes everyone in the media I usually glance at) keep emphasizing the phrase “unarmed black teenager”, as though this a-posteriori assessment were some sort of Carnapian Protokolsatz, and  should have been obvious to Z.  “Gavagai!” he must have exclaimed to himself (on this widespread but absurd account);  meaning, in this instance, “Lo! A youth, dusky of hue, yet undoubtedly unarmed, though it is too dark to tell.”    So, we exonerate Z. of the media insinuation.  But this exoneration applies as well to M. -- and indeed, again, much more strongly.   For here, not only did M. have no basis for assuming that his pursuer was unarmed: in point of fact, the pursuer was armed, and M. knew this as soon as he saw the holster (which, in Z.’s own account, M. did).
So now M. can quite reasonably picture himself in peril, not merely of a beating, but of his life.  What is he supposed to do?  Well, according to that same Florida law, he is entitled to stand his ground.   And the safest defence in this case is a good offense: to knock down your pursuer and attempt to wrest away his deadly weapon.

So the predicament is actually symmetric, though it is never depicted as such:  M. and Z., by that point, had become two scorpions in a bottle.  What, then, should the law do in such a case?  Who knows -- hard cases make bad law.
We may notice, though, that historically there is indeed a whole class of cases of approximate symmetry -- and complete symmetry as regards the instruments of violence:  dueling swords, or pistols at twenty paces.   And the way European law traditionally treated such cases is:  The victor got charged with a crime.

[Update, 14 July 2013]
The verdict is in, “Let the healing begin”.

And meanwhile … a spot of non-logical, apolitical, purely psycholinguistic analysis.  To wit:
Every splashy public case like this  is, among other things, a kind of global street-theatre, part of the société du spectacle.    The principles that rule here, are not those of Frege, nor of the Founding Fathers, but Freud and Jung.   The narrative is shaped according to the rules of literature and folklore, not forensics.

So, two persistent leitmotivs of the case;  both, as in dreams, representing wish-fulfillments:

(1)  The phrase “unarmed black teenager” was repeated ad nauseam, as though it were a fixed phrase, from which the epithet “unarmed” was inseparable, like that of the wine-dark sea in Homer.   
One detects a certain repetition-compulsion, as though the populace were trying to reassure themselves,  to allay their anxiety of faceless threatening minorities at large.   (There is also a more purely Freudian reading, which I shall not go into;  as well as a subconscious Christian narrative, which I leave as an exercise for the reader.)

(2)  So what’s with the Skittles?  Over and over we were told:  the kid was carrying Skittles, as though this were a decisively important (and indeed exculpatory) element of the case.  “You see, Watson?” exclaims Holmes, as he retrieves the telltale candy-wrapper from the shrubbery.  “Skittles!  Just as I suspected.”

Was für Krimi liest wohl Dr. Sigmund Freud?
Schauen Sie mal!

At the simplest level, what that meant was:  “… and not drugs” (though the latter would have been equally irrelevant to the logic of the case).   But there is more to it than that.
It really does matter that it was Skittles.   It renders their carrier  folkloristically harmless.   The word itself is cute (skittish kitten, ittle-bittle);  the actual bonbons are like buttons, small and round and brightly colored, such as would appeal to a tiny child.   Had the teen instead been carrying some jumbo-size chunky-nut chocolate-knobbly Baby Ruth bar, it would have been much more unsettling, and swiftly dropped from the press.


The two sidelights above  could have been noticed by any rhetorician, on the basis of mere textual frequency.  But there is another aspect of the case that does not yield to linguistic analysis, but must be intuited.

The case as it played out in court  has been less race-based than people anticipated.  Partly because (so we have argued above) the logical structure of the matter is entirely race-neutral;  partly because people prefer to tiptoe around this issue.  But there is another dimension entirely, that has played a role in this case, other than race;  and this, almost entirely unremarked-upon.   I refer to the matter of gender.

But before I extract that rabbit from the hat -- a word on methodology.  How to spot, that something is afoot?  Not, as in the case of “unarmed” (used as an inseparable prefix) or “Skittles” (improbably personifying the victim, month after month):  yet still, by noting an anomaly.
Such a modus operandi is more characteristic of our colleague Holmes, than of our friend Freud.  The latter had the luxury of asking his patient to free-associate, beginning from anything that struck the good doctor as salient, whether apparently anomalous or not.  Whereas Holmes could not grill the criminal (his identity yet to be established), nor even (in some cases) question the witnesses.  As, in the celebrated case of the purloined thoroughbred Silver Blaze (as schematized by Wiki):

    Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
    Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
    Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
    Holmes: "That was the curious incident."

And the key anomaly here, is not anything that anybody said, or did,  but something that the Defense didn’t do.

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a gripping mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(I am Sherlock Holmes, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

Legally, as opposed to emotionally, the key to the case was the plea of self-defense.  As we argued above, M. would have had quite a strong right to such a plea, had the struggle over the gun (if one took/had-taken place, as Z. contends) had resulted in the death of Z., either accidentally or deliberately.    Now, in many states, the measures you are permitted to take in your own self-defense  are severely circumscribed, even if the threat is not in question:  you can punch back, but not shoot to a punch.   But in Florida, the case of anyone so pleading is significantly strengthened by the Stand Your Ground law.   That, textually;  plus the law in question is not some obscure antebellum statute, but the recent ratified will of the Florida legislature.  A gift to the Defence, on a silver platter.  Yet in the actual trial, as opposed to the pre-trial, the Defense did not avail itself of that.  Why?

Note first how anomalous this is, legally.  Typically, the Defense does not stand on ceremony.   The defence attorney is not looking for a Mr Nice-Guy award, or a Political Correctness commendation:  if he’s any good, he uses any and all wiles at his disposal  to get the guy off.   To have forsworn this one, requires comment.

Look again at the name of the (as it turns out) unmentionable law: “Stand Your Ground!  Grammatically, it is an imperative;  not simply permitting, but enjoining.  As such, it is straight out of the world of John Wayne, or his less-salonfähig successors  Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson.   And the ethos behind it  speaks deeply to the soul  of any heterosexual male.  You will get no glimpse of this from the bienpensant commentariat:  but the Readers’ Comments, vox populi, fill you in, with relevant references to Z. being “punked-out”, “sucker-punched”,  or “bitch-slapped”, by the blow that felled him low, low, despicably low, to the ground.  At that point, there was nothing he could do but fight back with all available force, if he was to leave the field a honor with some shred of dignity.  And the same calculus applied to M., harassed and cornered by his relentless armed pursuer.
That ethos is a fact, going back to prehistory; this is not to commend it or condemn it.  But the fact is, just as there have lately been a great many laws specifically tailored to address, or even to pander to, the demands of women, so this law  essentially  addresses the men.
And the defense attorney looked up and saw a female judge on the bench, and an all-female jury.  And figured… Um… Let’s just forget that Stand Your Ground stuff.
The white-on-black account, or black-on-Hispanic, does not capture this dynamic.  It was Male on Male.


“Hard cases make bad law,” the saying goes.  And the bad laws thus inspired, engender further hard cases.
Laws passed in the face of pressure from emotional interest-groups  are likely to be hastily drafted and ill-thought-out.   They are intended, after all, not really to work (in the long term) but (in the short term) merely to appease.  (Rule of thumb:  Any law named for a specific victim  is likely to be of this sort.  And any law named for a cute little girl, definitely does.)
The “Stand Your Ground” laws, operative in a number of States, do not quite fall into this category.

But their unintended effect may be pernicious, nonetheless.

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weiterblättern möchten,
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[Update 28 July 2013]   )* sigh *(     And so it goes …

A Bethesda man was beaten and robbed early Saturday morning in Adams Morgan by three men who yelled, “This is for Trayvon Martin,” before attacking him.

[Wacky update, 29 Dec 2013]
The Beatification of Saint Skittles
In a California creche, the figure of Jesus is replaced with that of Trayvon Martin.

This sort of thing is the reason I retired from satire:   You just - can't - make - this- stuff - up.

[Update 14 Oct 2014]  Following Saint Skittles, we have:  The Man with the Sandwich.