I do not follow sports.So when I saw this item in the table of contents for this
week’s New Yorker -- “Amy Davidson on the Richard Sherman affair” -- it
meant nothing to me.I read
it only because it is the lead article in the lead section -- “Talk of the
Town”:a spot that, in recent
years, is reserved for weighing-in on matters of wide moment, often written by
the first decades of the magazine, which was born in a spirit of cheeky and
amiable humor, it was more often some winsome pen-portrait of a walk about
town, written from the standpoint of the editorial “we” -- which takes
reflexive singular concord:ourself, not ourselves.But we have
all become so serious since those days…)
It turns out that Richard Sherman is -- Well, but you know
that already;you don’t need old
Doctor Justice (peering up behind bifocals, from his dusty books) to tell you
Anyhow, turns out the fellow is a splendid cornerback who
just insured his team’s participation in the Superbowl.Hero, right?No, villain, thanks to the magic of
The fairly undisputed facts are these:
(1)A pass was thrown to one Crabtree, that might have saved the
game for the other side, and Sherman forced an interception.
(2)In the NFL equivalent of the traditional sportsmanlike
tennis gesture of the winner’s leaping over the net to shake hands with one’s
respected colleague who happens not to have won this one, Mr. Sherman went up
to Mr. Crabtee with outstretched hand.(Tennis was formerly a sport of decorum, but has since been subject to
the mass fanbase with its Darwinian imperative.)
(3)Crabtree then shoved him in the facemask -- which, football
fans will know, is more serious than it sounds, “Facemask” bringing a
particularly severe penalty in play.
(4) Interviewed immediately after
that, Mr. Sherman unfortunately followed the example, not of the judicious
Nestor, but of Achilles, if not Thersites.
(5) For this he was roundly hounded
by the Erinyes of Twitter.
Now, what lifts this from the level of quotidian sports
trivia, into something worthy of the lead article in The New Yorker,is that the incident illustrates the
increasingly perturbing power of YouTube and Twitter to serve as the
contemporary equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials, though with even less
evidence.The anonymous online audience
is like a crowd of cicadas:Devastate;devastate;move on.
Sherman, fleeing the Furies
As Ms. Davidson shows in her excellent essay, Mr.Sherman may be about as close as you
can come (certain exceptions aside), in these debased days, to a Gentleman and
Scholar (a Stanford alum, no less) in the NFL.His autodéfense
in the matter of the “epic rant”, is almost poetry:
was in the moment,
it was a small part of the person I am.
(Even Achilles, you might recall, was not without his
faults.And I don’t mean just the
heel.)Indeed, as Ms. Davidson
He talked about the switch he has
to turn on and off to play “a very barbaric sport”.
And the thing about switches is:If (like the human soul) the item it regulates has a large
capacitor, then turning it On or Off does not result in an instantaneous change of state.Mr. Sherman was evidently still
in barbarian mode when (among the screams from the stands) some reporter shoved
a microphone into his face.
Well, so, anyhow.What business have I, a linguist, to blog about this at all.The fragile peg I’ll hang it on
is simply this:
The word that came up again and again in the Tweets
denouncing him (sent from the comfort of a Laz-E-Boy, with chips and a drink
ready to hand) was “thug”. (A
semantic bridge was perhaps provided by rappers’ approving use of gangsta.) Mr. Sherman observed that this
“bothers me because it seems like it’s the accepted way of calling somebody the
N-word nowadays.”And as
someone who closely follows the Vox Populi in the Readers Comments columns, I
can attest that this is true;much
as, in an earlier generation, in America, inner
city came to be a code-word for ‘obstreperous minorities’;much as, in our own generation, in
France, la banlieue has come to mean
the same thing (somewhat ironically, since it literally means ‘the outer cities’
or suburbs;the connotation is
thus the opposite of that for suburbs).
In any event, I wish Mr. Sherman a splendid SuperBowl, just
as I do for his worthy opponents.May that team win, which Fortuna-the-fickle favors.And may the warriors, en preux chevaliers, embrace one another
afterwards, regardless of the outcome, as befits scholars and gentlemen.
You can still make fun of priests (in fact, that same
faction encourages you to), and still make fun of …. we-ll, maybe not rabbis:
but imams, for sure [**].But
Mothers-in-Law will be off-limits, by order of the Speech Police.
[** Footnote: Actually, that only goes for the United States. In Europe, the subject is by now completely taboo.]
Mysogyny is to be outlawed;mysandry … Aber
freilich;be my guest.
We interrupt your weekend merry-makingwith a red alert:
Let us imagine a planet covered
with calm water. If you drop a large rock into the water at the North Pole, a
wave will propagate outin a
circle of ever-increasing radius.In due course, however, this circle will reach the equator, after which
it will start [inexorably] to shrink,until eventually the whole wave raches
the South Pole at once, in a sudden burst of energy.
-- “Manifolds and Differential
Geometry”, in Timothy Gowers, ed., The Princeton Companion to Mathematics
(2008), p. 44
Moral of the story:DO NOT DROP A LARGE ROCK INTO THE WATER AT THE NORTH POLE !It would swamp the penguins!
[Note for connoisseurs: This effect is an analog of what S|G|NTers call "antip*dal recepti*n", one variety of the 'whispering-gallery' phenomenon.]
Incidentally -- For an example of a manifold in the form of
a differentiable penguin, click here.
and I think I’m pretty good at
keeping my moral compass
while recognizing that I am a
product of original sin.
-- President Barack Obama (quoted
in the current New Yorker)
Had it been merely up to me, I would not have gone and seen
the movie, based upon David Denby’s review in The New Yorker, and a
general lack of interest in watching Wall Street sharks on the screen.(In this respect, they are
classed with serial killers, boxers, and baseball players on my personal
cinematic to-avoid list.)The
blandishments of glitz and drugs are among those I happen to be immune to.And, had I been watching it
alone, rather than in the company of a Named U.S. Spouseperson who (a stone Di
Caprio fan) was loving every minute of it, I would have walked out after half
an hour.My appetite for cinematic depravity is
extremely limited;for a time, I
actually used to dial up the minute-long recorded reviews provided
telephonically by the Catholic Church, for some guidance as to what to see.Yet, having stayed, I found much
to enjoy, principally the comedy,
both physical and verbal.
We went, knowing that the film was controversial.My companion had been perturbed
that people had been denouncing the film by saying that the villain doesn’t get
his comeuppance.Afterwe had seen the actual movie, she
wondered which movie the others had seen.She rather thought that losing your wife, your kids, your house, your
car, your bank balance, and going to jail,does count as a comeuppance of some sort.
However, what makes a movie moralis by no means
that the ultimate verdict of Judgment Day shall be anticipated here in this
life -- as it so manifestly is not, despite the hype and come-ons from certain
motivational evangelists outside the discipline of the Historical Church.It is probably a good thing that
movies aimed at children do mete out such punishments and rewards on-screen, by
way of gently shepherding the development of Just Deserts, to be followed later
by that of Right and Wrong, ultimately to be heightened and quite transformed
in the fullness of Christian understanding.Hollywood habitually panders to the childish
desires of its audience in this regard, as the Historical Church notably does not;but we cannot fault Mr Scorcese for refraining from
regressing to that level.Moreover, he was closely following the perpetrator’s memoirs in his
narration:the actual scamster was
not sent to prison for life, nor was he struck down by a thunderbolt from the
blue, nor (as the Erinyes would have it)gobbled up by gerbils, beginning with the genitals;sorry, it didn’t happen.
The critical reactions to this film have been all over the
The Guardian reviewer complains (with what passes in these
times for the equity of Solomon) that, while much pussy is on display, we do
not likewise get to set lots ‘n’ lots ‘n’lotsof cocks, and the one they did show he found (apparently a connoisseur) personally disappointing (duly noted; "More cocks for the gentleman in aisle three, please") And he objects, with great Correctitude,
that “With a couple of notable exceptions, the women here are all wives, girlfriends
and sex-workers.”(The complete
absence of nuns,
woman Supreme Court justices, or female astronaut-cum-brain-surgeon-cum-rocket-scientists
from the trading floor
is indeed inexplicable other than
by imputations of sexism.) Though also (as he does not note):with (as we shall argue) only one notable exception, there are no admirable men.-- Folks: If you want positive role-models for
women, do not go to Wall Street, neither in the movie-house or on lower Manhattan.(Cf. further the
excellent memoir Liar’s Poker in this regard.) And if you want to see your favorite identity-group
glowingly portrayed upon the silver screen -- women, or Hispanics, or plumbers, or meteorologists,
or Pacific Islanders -- then make a movie;
don’t kibbitz the one that other people have made.
Actually, as the Telegraph reviewer pointed out, the movie
does make an extra-textual concession to current sensibilities:
Scorsese includes a sensational scene that echoes the
moment in The Public Enemy where Cagney vengefully pushes half a grapefruit
into the face of his lover. Here, though, it is Belfort’s outraged trophy wife
Naomi, played by Margot Robbie, who hurls a first, second, then third glass of
water in her husband’s face, while he throws a spluttering tantrum.
That is very much in line with the current fashion, in
movies and especially on television, of depicting men as schlumpfs (an
emasculated Cagney) being easily pushed around by superwomen.Maybe that’s an improvement, matter of
taste;but surely we have seen
enough of that.
(There are other scenes of Belfort being masochistically
abused:One by wife as he
crawls on the floor, the whole thing watched on a hidden camera; and one by a somewhat homely dominatrix -- an unpleasant
scene (mercifully brief), but which ends with a very funny line:“Wolfie, Wolfie!” he yelps, as the hot
wax becomes too much;yet she continues
the torture.“Hey, that’s my Safe
Word!” he objects, in the jargon of that sad trade.“Fuck your
safe-word” she retorts, and keeps on abusing him .)
And what of that lone male exception to the general
depravity, which I mentioned earlier?
“Down these mean streets, there must walk a man, who is not
himself mean.” (The credo of PI Phillip Marlowe.)In this movie, in a brief and understated role, that
upright man is Denham, the FBI investigator (based, we are told, upon the real
agent Gregory Coleman, whom we here salute).The small but crucial role is played with great
patience and self-effacement by Kyle Chandler, whose visage in reposesays more than words.The virtues of such dogged
self-restraint recall those we praised in our review of Argo,concerning the role taken up by
actor/director Ben Affleck.
Among the most poignant and elegiac moments in movies, come
towards the very end of the weary road traveled, and occur without words.Such is the silent and solitary walk
beneath the falling leaves, that culminates “The Third Man”;such, the blowing leaves across the
lawn, as a single shot rings out in the distance, in the second
“Godfather”;and such, here, the
agent’s lonely ride on the New York subway, after another wearying day at work,
as he silently beholds the care-worn faces of the strangers around him, whom he
is sworn to protect.
Belfort chides the prosecutor
Denham for living what Henry Hill would have called the goody-two-shoes life,
and in a scene near the end, as Denham rides the subway home, we can see that the taunt stuck in his craw.
(He’s not a prosecutor, he’s an FBI investigator, but
David Thomson agrees:
When he tells the FBI man who has been tracking him for years
that on his lowly government salary the agent will still be riding home on a
hot, slow subway watching the lost faces he’s supposed to be protecting, this
could be the bravado of a crook on the run. But then the movie depicts that
glum moment and Mr. FBI looks like a stooge who realizes every Belfort boast
That might well be the director’s intention;I don’t know, I saw it through my own
lenses, with a vision entirely different, tutored and clarified is it has been by the example of Father Brown.As Denham’s eyes beheld the tired
and decent subway-riders at the end of another workday, to me it felt like a
return to sanity.Here were the
people that Belfort had fleeced:and -- thanks to Denham’s tireless efforts -- Belfort (as we are
reminded in the next shot, surely a hint at what was in Denham’s mind as well
at that moment)was heading off
for a stretch in the slammer.
The perspective I have in mindis difficult to convey in a few lines;but I shall try, simply by way of
pointing to a short work which, all in itself, is worth a dozen of the films of
Mr. Scorcese:G.K. Chesterton’s
“The Queer Feet”, featuring the portly bespectacled detective-priest, Father
Brown.In this tale, Brown
is obliged by circumstances to undo a swindle being perpetrated upon “The
Twelve True Fishermen” (the name is an irony), these being a group as select
and wealthy as the money-men of Wall Street:
Since it is immeasurably unlikely
that you will ever rise high enough in the social worldto find “The Twelve True Fishermen”, or
that you will ever sink low enough among slums and criminals to find Father
Brown, I fear you will never hear the story at allunless you hear it from me.
The key to solving the mystery, which Father Brown, even
more immured than Nero Wolfe, solves purely by listening to footsteps, from
within the confines of a cloakroom, lies in something just a bit off about the rhythm,just as, in the classic story “The Wrong Shape”, it turns
upon a subtle corruption of shape.
Father Brown recovers the silver loot and returns it to its
(improper) owners, while recovering (how far more precious a treasure) the
thief to Grace.(Though, in a
merely physical sense, he lets him go.)
“Did you catch this man?” asked the
Father Brown looked him full in his frowning face.“Yes,” he said, “I caught him,
with an unseen hookand an
invisible linewhich is long
enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back
with a twitch upon the thread.”
And then, his work there done (though never understood or
Brown must end his workday.
And saying “Good evening,”he pushed upon the heavy doors of that
palace of pleasures.The golden
gates closed behind him, and he went at a brisk walk through the damp, dark
streets,in search of a penny
Thus far have faith and philosophy had their say.What of the actual human
response of my companion, who watched the whole thing enthralled.
At one point, as the Bureau’s investigation inexorably
progressed, she remarked (the first thing she had said in the course of the
movie): “It’s too bad he’s doing things that are illegal.”
I turned and stared.“Um, honey, even apart from that:he is not a good man….”
Her attitude (which I report with reticence) flowed by no
means from generalized moral obtuseness, but from a specific scotoma supplied from
the collective unconscious, from the psychic substrate from which we grow:She sees in Di Caprio the visual image
of her former suitor and her current son. (This insight was originally supplied to me by someone who
knows us both.)Do not scoff at this;it is because of such instincts that
mothers put up with us at all.
A.O. Scott begins and ends his review with a question;respectively,
Does it offer a sustained and
compelling diagnosis of the terminal pathology that afflicts us, or is it an
especially florid symptom of the disease?
Does “The Wolf of Wall Street”
condemn or celebrate?
Answer (respectively):“Neither”;and “Both”.
It’s not important to “get this movie right”; it is not an
important movie.One good
friend hated it;my wife loved
it;de gustibus.The bacchanalia quickly
fades;eternal things remain.
For Christmas, our son gave me Stephen King’s recent novel,
11/22/63.(He might have chosen a
more mellifluous and less mouth-filling a title, I must say;mais
passons.) A quite intriguing
minor character is the “Yellow-Card Man”.What he is up to, I cannot yet say;but consider this predecessor, from a century before:
One of the signal developments in semantic theory during my
lifetimehas been an increased
appreciation for the role of prototypes
in organizing our knowledge.To
introduce or elucidate a concept, don’t try to define -- to delimit -- the
whole domain, which can get fuzzy around the periphery:give a central, typical, illuminating
sparrows, and animals like that
clams and the like
are not-half-bad characterizations of the idea of ‘bird’ or
‘mollusc’.You might need to learn
a bit more become earning your doctorate in zoology, but for ordinary folks,
for everyday purposes, that is pretty much what we mean by bird and mollusc.
There are tons of such structures in mathematics, where the
prototype literally came first and then was generalized.Thus, the integers are the
prototype for ring theory;although, as a matter of idiom,
mathematicians usually do not say “prototype”, but motivating example.
(For further examples, and a vigorous defense in principle,
from some leading Russian mathematicians, of the wisdom of motivating-examples
for mathematical pedagogy -- and indeed, even for mature cognition -- try
this:Abstraction and Generality.)
Now, this procedure works only if the prototype is
antecedently known.Thus, to
revert to zoology, suppose you run across the term Chelicerata and ask your
naturalist friend what that means.Casually he replies, “Oh, that’s like harvestmen and solifugae, and all
that sort of thing.”You’d
probably be pretty much where you started out.
Such was my experience, while trying to learn what is meant by "vertex operator algebra", upon meeting this helpful hint:
“Chiral algebras are the
prototypical examples of a vertex operator algebra.”
The status of “What is …?” questionsdiffers pragmatically -- subtly but
importantly -- depending upon circumstances, in particular what field fills in
the blank.Thus, suppose you
ask, “What is exobiology?”, already knowing the sense of exo- and biology but
being unclear as to what these parts mean in conjunction (sort of like the
opposite of “internal medicine”, perhaps?Like dermatology, or the study of scales and fur?).Upon being told that, no, it means the
study of extraterrestrial life (should any such exist), you have been told all
you need to know.
Take it a step further:“What is etymology,
as opposed to entomology?”(a question which, as a licensed
etymologist, I have indeed many times met).In this case
you’ll be enlightened merely by “Word-origins versus insects”.For here your semantic Wissbegierde is probably minimal, and
may be actually zero as regards one or other of the paronyms:you simply want to be set straight
about an easily confusable pair.In this case, clarification happened via verbal signs;but it need not.The case shades into those in which no intension is involved at all, but merely
extension -- reference.As, “Which of the Wilson
twins is Bobby?”A
satisfactory answer might be simply pointing;the questioner is not asking, “Who is Bobby Wilson really -- as a person?”
We may say that, in this case, we have definition not as description, but as delimitation.Such a style of defining is called ostensive definition.
duality between interior/intension and boundary/delimitationmay remind adepts of that jewel in the crown of the higher
calculus, the generalized Stokes Theorem, displayed in all its refulgence here.However, the analogy is superficial.)
A similar case from the vocabulary of mathematics.I ask, “What is a semigroup, as opposed to a quasigroup?”Without the second phrase, I might be asking for a concise
but contentful thumbnail, such as “like a group but lacking inverses”.But perhaps I simply stumbled across
both terms on the back of a cereal box.Now my friend admonishes:“Semigroups are the things we met briefly back in
undergraduate algebra, remember?Quasigroups are fancy new items which, if you can’t even recall the
definition of a semigroup, you really oughtn’t to go bothering your head
O-oh, so-o-o … Do we feel patronized by that?Okay, here you go, an actual
definition, quoted from Wikipedia:
(Q, *, \, /) is a type (2,2,2)
algebra satisfying the identities:
y = x * (x \ y) ;
y = x \ (x * y) ;
y = (y / x) * x ;
y = (y * x) / x .
Nun, alles klar?
Sometimes to be met with in the practice of math (the
praxis, rather than the pre-existing body of truth), and scarcely outside it,
is the dialectical definition:Posit, analyze, refute, sublate;repeat until golden brown.Lakatos’ Proofs and
Refutations illustrates the process.(For an example of such a “working, preliminary definition”, click here.)
Further illustration of the vocabulary, with concrete
Just as Euclidean space can be
thought of as the model Riemannian
manifold, Minkowski spacewith the
flat Minkowski metric is the model Lorentzian manifold.
This is not “model” in the sense of mathematical “model
theory”;it is an informal term
equivalent to the linguists’ prototypical.The latter is occasionally also
used;as here, by algebraic
topologist Raoul Bott, speaking pedagogically in the introduction to a text:
We use the de Rham theory as the
prototype of all cohomology.
For further considerations, focusing mainly on math, try
[Update Jan 2014] There is a ludic, aesthetic dimension to this, which you
notice immediately in the case of the ungainly quenelle (at least you do if you are
not humor-impaired, like Valls and Hollande), along with a certain modest pride
in coming up with a gesture that never previously existed. Here is
a somewhat subtler case:
This gesture is new to the global political landscape, and
could only have been born in Arabic, in particular in Egypt. For it
depends upon an Arabic double-pun.
The hand is holding up four fingers (thus the visual pun in
"R4BIA"). The reference is to Râbi`ah Square in Cairo, where
protests against the military coup that overthew the elected President Mursi
were held. The square is so named after a medieval saint,
“Huh?” you say.Well, although Râbi`ah was her
name, like many names in Arabicit
has a literal dictionary meaning:in this case, the feminine form of the adjective meaning ‘fourth’.Reinforcing the four-ness of it
all is the fact that Râbi`ah Square, unlike its more famous Cairene sister Tahrîr,
a large, roughly round arena,is a
quadrangle, fed by four streets, in which the demonstrators massed.So something of a pun.
Or actually, a double one, or else none at all, depending
upon whether you think the next link in the etymology reinforces or reverses
the sense of word-play.For the
saint herself was named, not by randomly selecting a girl’s-name out of a hat,
but because she was the fourth born in order.
[Update]The Director of the Latin Divison at the World of Dr Justice
(headquarters:Geneva), Dr Keith
A. Massey,weighs in with this:
also named their children by ordinal numbers, hence things like Julia Secunda,
Somehow, to our present perspective,
that seems sort of impersonal.But
-- autre temps, autre moeurs.
[Update 2]For a tendentious piece, but with lots of intriguing
information, try this:
It is a matter of current debate, to what extent this Rabiah symbol,
born in a broad-based protest, has been hijacked by extremist jihadi
groups.The matter is not
entirely academic;it could affect
actual choices in CT.
My hunch is that, simply as a matter of
psycho-geometry, the symbol is
ill-suited to serve Salafists, let alone out-and-out takfiris.It is too inclusive, like those
four streets all leading into the square, as though from all four corners of
the Earth.Quadruplicity, as we
know from Russell, drinks procrastination;it does not quaff Hotspur.(Inside joke, folks, you get it or you don’t;moving along.)And if Jung is correct (which he
probably is not), this implication common among Westernersshould be universal.
Indeed, if any number were to be a
symbol for Muslims, it would have to be one,
since Muslims are such rigorous monotheists.As, accordingly, the finger-gesture:
Kamal asked, “When is he going to
The mother gestured upward with her index finger and murmured, “Forgiveness comes from God.”
-- Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk
(transl. of Bayn al-Qasrayn, 1956), 1990, p. 210
(That gesture has also been common in
recent yearsamong evangelical
Note further that, for those using the
gesture, it is not simply “holding up your open hand” (as opposed, say, to a
militant fist), as it might strike a Westerner;it quite definitely contrasts with a five-finger symbol that antedates it by centuries in the
To ward off the evil eye, Khadija
spread her fingers apartand held
up her hand with the palm facing Yasin, reciting “And from the evil of the
envious person in his envy.” (Qur’an 113:5)
-- Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of
Desire (transl. of Qasr al-Shawq, 1957), 1991, p. 34
If someone flashed you that symbol, it would be an insult;much as the Quaker/hippie two-fingered
“Peace” sign, if performed palm-in and in England, means something very bad.And, just as with that last
example, if you turn the palm inward for the Muslim five-finger gesture, it
changes the meaning, in this case from hostile to friendly:
He spread his hand across his chest
to express his thanks.
-- Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of
Desire (transl. of Qasr al-Shawq, 1957), 1991, p. 138