Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Doctor Justice names the penguins

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

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

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

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

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

Appellavitque Adam nominibus suis cuncta animantia

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

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

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

(2)  [Update, 28 April 2017]

Five hundred thousand and counting:

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

Te baptizo, Nitide !

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

The problem of the reality of Universals, or Natural Kinds, goes back to the ancient Greeks, and has been a live topic for philosophers all through the Middle Ages (under the rubrics of Realism vs. Nominalism), down to the present day (by which time the enriched apparatus of set theory and quantification  were lending additional spice to the debate).  The Nominalist denies the real, discourse-independent existence of these abstract demi-entities, these being, for him, a mere conversational convenience, a façon de parler, with no ontological standing.  Thus, for such thinkers, there is not really any such thing as Penguinhood, or Penguinkind, or Penguinity, but only the individual penguins themselves;  namely: ….
And here he falls silent;  for he has no names for all these many, many penguins.  In fact, many a Nominalist  can scarcely tell one penguin from another.  -- Singeing in defeat, ears burning, the Nominalist slinks from the stoa in humiliation,
while the Realist (tall, serene, admired by maidens) stands with folded arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Lumpy, Stumpy,
     Dumpy, Frumpy,
  Immortal Diamond…”

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Happy World Penguin Day !!

On this, the most joyous of all secular holidays,
we join the planet in celebrating  World Penguin Day,
with a series of funposts


The singing, dancing throng

By coincidence, today Antarctica celebrates World Featherless Biped Day (that’s us).  Coincidence, because the celebration does not always fall on April 25;  as you might expect, penguins follow a lunar calendar.  In this they resemble the ancient Hebrews, of whom some reckon them to be a Lost Tribe.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Bard's Birthday

In honor of Shakespeare's birthday (many happy returns of the day to you, sir),
herewith a link to our obiter dicta concerning the man:

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Word of the Day: “Pigovian” (expanded)

[update of a note originally published  4 Dec 2012]

The lead item in this week’s New Yorker introduces (with considerable fanfare) a new word:  Pigovian, as the adjective derived from the name of an otherwise little-celebrated economist, one Pigou, who, many years ago, floated the idea (which had surely been floating of its own accord, for millennia) that if you make a mess, you should maybe chip in to the costs of cleaning it up.   The author of this “Talk” piece, Elizabeth Kolbert, is a frequent writer on climate-change matters, and her proposal is that the general public now embrace the designation of a carbon tax as “Pigovian”, in that it pays back some of the costs of global warming.
Now, it might well be imagined that the suggestion is superfluous, and that the notion already has a name:  nuisance tax.  Yet that phrase has already long been defined in an entirely unrelated sense:  not of a tax on nuisances, (the way a luxury tax is a tax on luxuries), but (apparently -- it is really not a happy coinage) a tax that is considered to be itself a nuisance (in that it is not large enough to qualify as a burden, say).  As Merriam-Webster © defines it:

an excise tax collected in small amounts on a wide range of commodities directly from the consumer

Yet, even did the old phrase nuisance tax mean what, syntagmatically, it ought to mean, there is an argument for using a more distinctive word for a category that is growing in importance, as ever-wider circles of citizens become alert to what economists have long called the tragedy of the commons.   For, once you have a word like Pigovian, entirely unburdened by other associations, you can readily extract it from the phrase Pigovian tax, and use elliptic derivata like “Pigovian considerations” or “counter-Pigovian” (where “counter-nuisance” here wouldn’t work at all, since it means the opposite of what “counter-Pigovian” would mean, i.e. ‘pro-nuisance’).  Such relationships between morphology and semantics are discussed in my book The Semantics of Form in Arabic, and form the core of the chapter “The Stokes Conjecture”.

[Update 23 April 2017]  This just in:  a Pigovian accord:

So!  Now for the morpho-phonological characteristics of this rather odd-looking word, Pigovian.   The base-form is pronounced pig-OO, yet the adjective comes out pig-OH-vee-an.  Why?

Unlike sturdy old Anglo-Saxon suffixes like -ness, -dom, -hood-, -kin-, or -ly, which allow themselves to be simply tacked-on at the end of a word, leaving all else as is, the Latin-derived -ian is a tyrant, demanding that the stress be moved to the immediately preceding syllable (if it wasn’t already there), and that its vowel (if not tense already) be tensed.  Thus:  Dickens (DIK-enz) vs. Dickensian (dik-ENZ-ee-an), and (with vowel-tensing) Jacob (JAY-kub) vs. Jacobian (ja-KOH-bee an).  (Thus the derivative is pronounced in the mathematical community. An unrelated adjective with a different suffix, Jacobean, relating to history and literature, is pronounced jak-ub-EE-an.)  And as a further impudent exigency, this tyrannical suffix spurns unmediated Anschluss onto a vowel, demanding rather a bridge-consonant -v-:  thus (Bernard) Shaw vs. Shavian (SHAY-vee-an, with both vowel-tensing and inserted bridge).   As well as (in a more roundabout fashion -- this one doesn’t really count) Warsaw vs. Varsovian (rhymes with Nabokovian).  It is thus that our poor unassuming Mr. Pigou (whom I picture rather as Mr. Magoo)) becomes, adjectivally, a roaring shouting syllable-rattling PIGOVIAN.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *

Note:  Strictly, the derivatum should have been Pigouvian, on the model of Peru :  Peruvian.  The word succumbed to the gravitational attracion of the plethora of words in -ovian (a productive category, given all the Slavic names in -ov/-off).  Further, why burden an already ungainly word with the stressed syllable GOO, as opposed to GO ?  This way, it gets to rhyme with a cool studly word like Jovian.

Footnote:  Something in our Teutonic blood  disdains such tricks.  Thus, instead of a morphological equivalent of Pigovian tax, German just says Pigou-steuer.  And rather than submit to the indignity of a  *Hemingwavian (hem-ing-WAY-vee-an), we go with a different suffix altogether, once that leaves vowels as they are and requires no bridge-consonant:  Hemingwayesque.    (Still not very dignified, though, as the suffix here hogs the main stress to itself, and tends to make you think of words like grotesque and burlesque.)

Compare and contrast  Babeuf => Babouvisme.

French in particular is pre-attuned to such vocalic ablaut  by the existence, side by side, of  locally-developed place-names, along with gentilés derived more transparently from the original Latin toponym.  As, Loire (from Latin Liger) => Ligérien.  Such transformations may be found even when the etymon is not Latin, as
   Aisne => Axonais
=> Rhodanien
   Reims => Rémois
and even such acrobatics as
   Seine-Saint-Denis => Séquanodionysien
Compare, in (British) English,  Cambridge => Cantabridgian.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Truth and Provability (expanded)

[A footnote to this.]

Trying to suss out the nature of Truth by staring straight at it  is like attempting heliology by staring at the Sun.   In both cases, more assimilable enlightenment  comes from the corona.

Thus the related but distinct notion of Provability. Gödel was the first to neatly delineate the two notions:  the Propositional Calculus is deductively complete (i.e., all truths may be derived via the defining rules of the system), whereas anything as robust as the integers is deductively incomplete :  one can, within that more expressive system, formulate statements that are true but (intra-systemically) unprovable .  Previously, the Formalists (Hilbert et al.) had seen provability as an analytic explanation of what is meant by ‘truth’ itself.
Pre-scientifically, and indeed theologically, we are not surprised that the two notions should not be equivalent (though of course we had no notion of the precision afforded by Gödel’s results).  Some things, existing from before we were born, and lasting ever after,  just are true;  why should they be logically derivable, or even humanly comprehensible?

~     ~     ~

There is a perhaps related notion within the philosophy of language:

(Intended-meaning : truth  ::  expression : provability)

Yet the very existence of our word ineffable, suggests that we at least entertain the possibility that this may not be so.

In the words of a Neothomist philosopher:

La communicabilité de la pensée  est un fait immense, incontestable  et elle n'est possible que par le langage;  mais tout suggère que, dans le langage, la pensée reste  par nature  essentiellement autre que son moyen de communication.
-- Etienne Gilson, Linguistique et philosophie (1969), p.  39

Taking this in a maximalist sense  would imply, not merely that certain thoughts are ineffable, but that no thought is quite equivalent to its verbal expression.

A further discussion of this topic may be consulted here:
The "idea" idea.


It is clear that we need a notion of truth independent (or partially independent) of provability (however vexed and vague that notion must necessarily be, without such buttress), else how to assess the validity of what purportedly is proved.   In the Awful Warning against dividing by zero, delivered to pupils in their tender years, the young scholars meet a Falsidical Paradox:  an impressive display of mathematical handwaving, purporting to show -- there it is on the blackboard, plain as day --  that zero is equal to one.  Yet even a lad in short-pants surely resists such demonstration, if only with an incoherent “Uh, no, it’s not.”

Compare the smoke and mirrors with which philosophers and neuroscientists demonstrate that consciousness is an illusion, and free will  a will-o’-the-wisp.  Equally we reply: “Uh, no, it’s not.”


Relativist conceptions of truth  are familiar.  As the Harvard philosopher wittily put it, mimicking the cant of the post-‘60’s undergraduates:

“You may not be coming from where I’m coming from, but I know relativism isn’t true for me.”
-- Hilary Putnam,  Reason, Truth, and History (1981), p. 119

Less familiar is a relativist conception of provability.   Here, Ernest Gellner comments on the position of fellow-philosopher Michael Oakeshott:

What is proof? -- he asks.  There is no such thing as proof in general, he answers himself.  There is only proof  persuasive for this, that, or the other kind of man.   Cogency of proof  is relative to what you are.  he notices that this does not seem to apply to mathematics, and brazenly comments that just this has always made him suspicious of mathematics.
-- Ernest Gellner, Contemporary Thought and Politics (1978), p. 180

Actually Oakeshott  put his case too weakly:  varying standards of proof are relevant in mathematics -- indeed, it is only within mathematics  that such scruples have structure and are in point.   In pre-Cauchy/Weierstrass analysis, proof was a bit of a kludge.   Later on, Constructivist qualms  came into play.  And in our own day, we distinguish between theorems whose proof requires the (disputed) Axiom of Choice, from those that can dispense with it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Italian lesson for the day

Santa   Maria



[From: GKC, The Resurrection of Rome (1930).
Thus endeth today’s lesson.]

Monday, April 17, 2017

Word of the Day: “anti-parody”

A sterling literary-historian and lay theologian  writes:

The excellent lyric ‘All my lufe leif me not’ … belongs to a large class [of] ‘anti-parodies’ (if I may coin a most necessary word):  the conversion of popular and secular songs  to devout purposes.
-- C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1944), p. 112

To the man on the Clapham omnibus, this coinage  may not seem “most necessary”;  you require long schooling to harmonize with that need. 

The notion of anti-parody is in line with Lewis’s special use of baptize, whereby a natural (pagan) trait, such as love of nature  or appreciation for music, may be said to be “baptized”  once such feelings are viewed on a higher plane, from a Christian perspective.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Locked Room Mystery (redivivus ter)

The caterpillar   with shrivelled skin
in a tent of silk    was laid therein.

This crumpled thing,   shrunk like a shroud,
was laid in silk   white as a cloud.

The sons of men   stood round about
warding the worm   should not get out.

Three days they stood   with solemn face,
never eyes wavering   from that place.

Then did they open   that mute cocoon,
and stood amazed:   the worm was gone !

Then some believed   and some did doubt
how that the worm   could have got out.

Yet to the sky   in spiral rings
the new flew forth   on crystal wings.


[ For a tale of Paschal miracle:
Murphy Makes a Mitzvah ]


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Another Lewisian non-epigram

“There is no morality in Heaven.”
-- CSL, Letters to Malcolm

[baffling out of context, sensible within]

Friday, April 14, 2017


A Lewisian anti-epigram

Life is as habit-forming as cocaine.
-- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

On the face of it, that is a zinger, of no very clear meaning,  jejune and shallow.  From the pen of an Oscar Wilde, it would have been exactly that.
In fact, it is a serious statement, only incidentally somewhat epigrammatic.  It occurs during Lewis’s discussion of G.K.C.’s Manalive (the scene about dangling the God-mocker out the window).  It is one step in a complex argument which I shall not attempt to summarize.   It is thus an anti-epigram (the antiparticle of an epigram):  whereas an epigram, for what it’s worth, survives its loss of context, seeking only to glitter, CSL’s observation is rigorously contextual.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Trinity (triune unity -- re-renewed)

[In observance of Maundy Thursday,  a re-post  from yesteryear.]

I spend a fair amount of time in the company of Muslims these days;  indeed, at present, by an accident of the seating-chart, I probably spend more time in close propinquity with Muslims, than with Christians, Hindus, Jainists, Jews, and Zoroastrians combined.   (Lotta LDS, though.  Plus all that could change with the next re-org, as my next podmates might be Zoroastrians.)   [Update March 2017:  And now, in fact, our branch chief is a Zoroastrian.] There is an effort of good-will on both sides;  my Sunni neighbor points eagerly to passages in the Koran, where good things are promised to ‘believers’ (mu’miniin) rather than specifically ‘Muslims’ (muslimiin).  A kind-hearted man, he hopes to be with me in Paradise, and not to gaze down on me roasting in Hell.  (`Uqbaalak, ya shaykh.)

Now, we Christians know implicitly, that the doctrine of the Trinity is no polytheism:
that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, are not at all like Apollo, Zeus, and Hera, say, but more like le père Dupont, at once father, and Frenchman, and fireman.   But to explain this to our Muslim friends, is difficult.   I often have to fall back on saying:  the Trinity is a Christian mystery; it may be true or false (in some transcendental sense of those categories), but it is no descendent, direct or indirect, of the sort of pagan polytheism which stuffed the Kaaba with idols, and peopled the trees with dryads, and Olympus with squabbling gods.  For us as for you, God Himself -- Allah -- Yahweh -- e’en He -- is indeed One.

Yet this unity by no means necessitates or logically entails, that there could be no parts at variance within the Godhead, even to dissension.  (Of course, their absence might be a truth of the Church, and thus beyond dispute;  I am speaking here only of logic, the only subject in which I have been ordained.)  How indeed could we ever know otherwise (save by some enigmatic Revelation)?  After all:  We are made in His image, and we ourselves are a bundle of contradictions;  and He contains us, as a proper part.  (Additionally, that Eloi, eloi passage would seem to point in that direction.)


C. S. Lewis saw rightly when he compared the notion of the Trinity (purely as regards its intellectual coherence, rather than anything theological) with the ‘separate’ faces of a cube -- which latter is, however, nothing more nor less than the sum of all of them.  (Indeed, if you were to go with a sort of ‘projective cube’, with antipodal faces identified, our new Cube (topologically a three-torus) would even consist of exactly three parts.)

The historian of physics D’Abro offers a similar parable, along the lines of Abbot’s Flatland (A. D’Abro, The Rise of the New Physics (1939), vol. II, p. 653), his quarry being however, not the Trinity, but the (in some ways similar) “wave-particle duality”:  or, as we might term it, the wave-particle identity.  He imagines our various perceptions of something we believe to be one entity, but which sometimes seems a triangle, and at others, a circle:  eventually we realize that it is a cone, seen now this way, now that.  And, regarding the separateness/unity of electricity and magnetism:

The theory of relativity brought about the fusion of the two aspects, no longer by utilizing the background of 3-dimensional space, but by introducing the more refined background of 4-dimensional space-time.   The underlying entity, the partial aspects of which are electric and magnetic, were found to be the 4-dimensional electromagnetic tensor  situated in space-time.
-- A. D’Abro, The Rise of the New Physics (1939), vol. II, p. 653

The Trinity, we may confide, whatever in its unknowable essence it may be, is at the very least as complex as a  tensor.


Pascal (Pensées, 1670 [posthum]), has a very odd passage, asserting the alienating nature of God’s complexity -- or perhaps not -plexity, but monolithicness :

S’il y a un Dieu, il est infiniment incompréhensible, puisque, n’ayant ni partie ni bornes, il n’a nul rapport à nous.  Nous sommes donc incapables de connaître  ni ce qu’il est, ni s’il est.

Ni s'il est ! -- A useful first step towards an antidote  might be to drop that assertion about God's lacking any parts.


Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Late Start on Lent

I did not receive the Ashes this year; and have no excuse, nor lessons to tell.  But it is never too late to … shut up;  so, no more posts until I am better instructed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Continuum: Mainstay or Menace? (erweitert)

The Continuum:  the original sin, from whose fecund loins
came all that is non-constructive in mathematics.
-- Anon.

Kronecker dismissed mathematical entities beyond the natural numbers as “Menschenwerk”.  An average practicing mathematician (who uses such entities all the time) may  agree with him to this extent:

(1)  Our intuitions about the natural numbers are clear and solid.   So long, indeed, as one deals only with some set of actual numbers (thus, a finite set), nothing especially surprising  or even all that interesting  turns up.  If we extend our horizon to the actual infinite of the set of all natural numbers, we meet some concepts that take getting used to (Hilbert's hotel):  but once we’ve done so, they seem natural enough.

(2) The rationals and negative integers  definitely, the algebraic numbers  probably, pretty much come along for the ride (that is, you can hardly exclude them once you’ve accepted N), and they still bring in no paradox – being, after all, of the same cardinality as the natural numbers themselves.  Though, a case could be made that these are not “entities” of the same standing as the integers, which in a sense we can hold in our hands (embodied in oranges, say), but rather abbreviations for operations on integers.  Thus, we cannot hold minus-two oranges in our hands; minus-two is not a thing, but a bookkeeping device. 

(3)  The real numbers, by contrast, are … a piece of work.  Maybe even Menschen-work, except that one could hardly imagine Menschen coming up with anything so intricate and even bizarre.  Their very cardinality baffles intuition  -- and the independence of the continuum hypothesis  shows that we are right to be baffled.  [Note:  The simple infinity of the integers already baffles *untutored* intuition;  but eventually you get the idea.  Click on the Label "Hilbert's Hotel" for further exemplification.  Whereas, the cardinality of the continuum is more like... Hilbert's Nightmare...] All sorts of queasy consequences arrive for simple quantification (cf. Quine re.  objectual vs. substitutional quantification).  They were invented (discovered?) for purposes of analysis, which in turn was developed largely for the sake of physics: but it now appears that physics (whether in its quantum cast, where Uncertainty provides a certain indissoluble granularity; or in the Wolframesque finite-automata approach) might not actually require, or afford, a continuum.

And yet standard mathematics speaks indeed ontologically of the reals, not merely pragmatically.  Thus for instance, Rudin’s standard text (Principles of Mathematical Analysis, 3rd edn. 1976, p. 8):
We now state the existence theorem [emphasis in original] which is the core of this chapter.
Theorem. There exists an ordered field R which has the least-upper-bound property.

The author then mentions that the proof actually constructs the Reals out of the Rationals.  This is, of course, the most solid sort of proof of all – not one of those Cantorian diagonalization thingies that has you winding up assenting to the Infinite Woodchuck, without ever quite knowing how you got into such a fix.  It gives you an actual recipe for the construction of these extended numbers, as concrete and explicit as for baking a cake.  And yet… all kinds of things can be thus “constructed”, at will, including items which presumably are not part of the furniture of the universe, in the sense that angels actually sit on them.


A roaring vote of confidence in the continuum  is voiced by the noted mathematician René Thom:

“God created the integers and the rest is the work of man.”  This maxim spoken by the algebraist Kronecker  reveals more about his past as a banker who grew rich through monetary speculation  than about his philosophical insight.  There is hardly any doubt that, from a psychological and, for the writer, ontological point of view, the geometric continuum is the primordial entity.
-- “’Modern’ Mathematics: An Educational and Philosophic Error?”, in American Scientist (1971), repr. in Thomas Tymoczko, ed., New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics (1986, rev. 1998), p. 74.

That is in-your-face Platonism, with which, quâ Realism, we have no quarrel.  But the psychological claim seems dubious:  Our intuition of the continuum is probably no more than a vague notion of a smear (and not very infinite at that, neither going out nor going down).   And as for the ontology … When we first meet the Real numbers mathematically (that was the very first thing we did in first-year calculus, with the opening chapter of Spivak’s text), we conceive them as the completion of the rationals.  And such they are indeed:  only, with respect to the metric provided by the absolute value.   With a p-adic valuation, you get a different completion of the rationals, the p-adic numbers.   Lastly, the surreal numbers augment the continuum in yet a different unexpected direction.  (I have less than no intuition about any of this.)

The physicist Schrõdinger is less sure:

The idea of a continuous range, so familiar to mathematicians in our days, is something quite exorbitant, an enormous extrapolation of what is really accessible to us.
-- Erwin Schrõdinger, “Causality and Wave Mechanics”, repr. in translation in: James R. Newman, ed. World of Mathematics (1956), p. 1059

And from an Intuitionist (close kin to a physicist):

This could be done  by seeing the continuum as something that is infinitely becoming, instead of already being.
-- Dennis Hesseling, Gnomes in the Fog:  The Reception of Brower’s Intuitionism in the 1920s (2003), p. 333

(Compare our old friend the actio/actum distinction.)
Might be fine for physics, doesn’t work for math.  ‘See’ it however you like; that uncompleted-account doesn’t jibe well with Cantor-style constructions.


One might say:  The continuum feels unproblematic enough, so long you take it for granted, as just some kind of smooth dense slippery thing, like mud.  Yet so soon as you pause to enquire more nearly, you are back in Saint Augustine’s predicament with regard to Time: “Quid est tempus? Si nemo a me quaerat, scio …”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The crown-bound brows of the Bard of Hibbing (expanded)

Well I recall, in 1965, listening to the new album “Highway 61 Revisited” in my parents’ basement;  thinking:  This is the real deal.   Unlike much of the pop music my generation has enjoyed, this will last;  people will still be listening to it,  fifty years from now.

Then the decades went by, his career veered into less interesting avenues, and his voice lost some of its timbre and zing; I no longer followed his activities.

Yet lo -- Who would have predicted that, half a century from 1965, not only would people still be listening,  but the old codger would still be touring.  A lot.  Amazing.

And now the Nobel Prize.   Kind of out of left field, but one of the committee members made the valid point:  that, going back as far as Homer, poetry has been meant to be performed, even sung.  And this, in many different cultures.

The rustic troubadour, in a lyrical mood

So:  A tip of the stetson to you, old man.

~  [The genre now shifts  from memoir  to sotie] ~

It is not for us to add any groat’s-worth of comment to his abundantly documented biography.   Yet we do take comfort in having been, apparently, the only HRNS [highly-respected news site] to document Ibn-Guthrie’s  brilliant but little-known 1965 concert in Oslo:

[Footnote] I just checked the link for this song:
Remarkably, it is still available -- most songs by the Prairie Skald  have been deleted or disabled on YouTube by the Copyright Police.   The Norwegian lyrics of this one  apparently protected it -- de minimis non curat Attila.   If this trend continues, by 2076, all Internet content will be in the Norwegian language.


Meanwhile, the snarky, fairly brainy site Boulevard Voltaire, is underwhelmed:

Nobel de littérature : aujourd’hui Bob Dylan, demain un « twittérateur »

They offer a political décryptage for the Committee’s choice, which I leave to your perusal.  That the choice might be politically motivated is not out of the question:  certainly this year’s choice for the (always highly politicized) Peace Prize makes no sense at all aside from such a perspective.  (And it’s not the obvious one -- nothing to do with the FARC really.  But my keyboard is running out of pixels, so you’ll have to figure it out for yourselves.)


Back to the blind bard of the Achaeans.
Whatever might have been their origin in oral performance, some folks have felt that such hit ditties as “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” read pretty well on paper too.  Whereas Zimmerman’s lyrics, so displayed, are thin stuff.  He himself took them seriously as poetry; the lyrics were printed in full on the backs of his albums of circa 1965. 
I recall in the late ‘sixties, when (excellent) bootleg albums  were appearing (like the Basement Tapes), a book of poems came out, Tarantula.    Still very much a fan, I almost bought a copy, but, glancing at it first, was obliged to toss it aside.  (Lennon’s In his own Write was actually amusing by comparison.  Heck, I even enjoyed Ono’s Grapefruit -- now there’s a collecter’s item.)

It is no knock on his song-lyrics as lyrics  to say that they fail to impress on the printed page.   One of the finest lines of all time, from the world of music, goes:

Bom ba-bom bom,  ba-dang ba-dang dang,
ba-ding ba-dong ding   BLUE MOON.

No seriously, it’s great;  but you have to hear it, not read it.

Okay, that said:  We could still defend the Committee’s decision on the grounds that it recognizes the oeuvre, not sub specie printed poetry, like that of the modern eye-poets, but as a Gesamtkunstwerk, the music no more abstractable from than lyrics  than flesh from bones, or “The Godfather” from its soundtrack.

In any event, the Nobel committee was not the first to consider pop lyrics an integral part of the poetic canon, next to T.S. Eliot  and all the rest.  For, the anthology of American poetry published in 2000 by the prestigious Library of America, includes ditties from Tin Pan Alley (Ira Gerschwin, Lorenz Hart) and Delta Blues (Blind Lemon Jefferson  et alia).   And indeed, as I near the end of reading through both volumes, it may be affirmed that those offerings, while hardly standouts, are at least entertaining and worth reading  -- an evaluation that I would deny to (alas) a great deal that made it into these volumes, and that from  famous pens.

[Update 26 March 2017]  A judicious and enjoyable survey of the state of affairs, by David Orr, may be savored here:


Sunday, March 19, 2017

Singapore twistystich

A wa-ry cat   with a lopped-off tail
dashed   past  a plaster    lion
and disappeared
behind a forecourt wall.

-- Mark Abley, The Prodigal Tongue (2008), p. 62

Julian the Apostate mini-multistich

I folded the letter
into many squares,

than the other.

[--Gore Vidal, Julian (1964), p. 199]

Friday, March 17, 2017

Julian the Apostate multistich

“Do you think I would have minded  that?”
She turned  full on me,
and the  large  black  eyes       blazed
like obsidian
in the sun.

[--Gore Vidal, Julian (1964), p. 157]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Code Red

            Code -- Red!
            Rest in bed.
            Time to soothe
            your sleepy head.

{ for more about the lovely snow,
   gently press …    here …. }

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kahneman, Dyson; Freud and James; plus Pinker (expanded)

Daniel Kahneman is an intellectual grey-eminence of the past several decades.  If you read at all, you have met some of his ideas (usually written in conjunction with his trusty sidekick Tversky) , though generally at second-hand.  Now he has written his own lengthy and systematic account of his research, aimed at a lay audience.

Most reviews of Daniel Kahneman’s new book (Thinking:  Fast and Slow) simply choose a few from his wealth of anecdotes  and recount them.  Not a bad plan -- they are all worth hearing.  By contrast, Freeman Dyson, in a typically canny offering in the current New York Review of Books, goes beyond the usual review, offering some trenchant personal experiences that illustrate the cognitive case being made, and -- quite surprisingly in the current climate -- puts in a word for Freud:  not the Freud of Die Traumdeutung or the cigars, but of the seminal Psychopathologie des Alltaglebens.   He concludes: “The insights of Kahneman and Freud  are complementary rather than contradictory.”
Noting that neither Sigmund Freud nor William James comes in for mention in Kahneman’s long book, Dyson also outlines the present relevance of this giant of psychology (and one of the heroes of this blog).

Make no mistake -- Kahneman, like Steven Pinker, is one of psychology’s good-guys, plumbing the richness of human experience  though coming to mostly dry and deflating conclusions.   Unlike the eliminative materialists (which includes many of the tribe of neuroscientists), they do not take mere mechanism as a posit, rather than as an occasional result.  James and Dyson, unlike most of their scientific colleagues then and now, have thought deeply about religion and take it quite seriously;  our family had the benefit of Dyson’s teaching at the Presbyterian Church in Princeton.   His invariably broad and thoughtful perspective is ever welcome.

Footnote:  I subsequently borrowed an audiobook of Thinking:  Fast and Slow from the library, to listen through in stages along my commute.   Alas, it turns out not to be suitable for that medium, save perhaps for a beginner.   Far too much of it is platitudinous  -- boring to sit through, while the reader-aloud drones on.    With a printed work, your eyes rapidly scans past the overly familiar, and plucks the occasional novel niblet.
Part of the problem is adumbrated in this passage from America’s premier psychologist of the nineteenth century:

Philosophers long ago observed the remarkable fact that mere familiarity with things is able to produced a feeling of their rationality.
-- William James,  “The Sentiment of Rationality”, in The Will to Believe (1897).

Kahneman rediscovers that remarkable fact, with much spilling of ink, waving of hands, and conducting of unsurprising experiments. 

More interesting in what James writes immediately after that, showing that today’s postmodernist-style relativists  have also not brought forth something new under the sun:

The empiricist school has been so much struck by this circumstance  as to have laid it down that the feeling of rationality and the feeling of familiarity  are one and the same thing, and that no other kind of rationality than this exists.

(I have satirized that dreadful mindset  here.)

In an earlier essay, we examined the politics and natural selection of sex as reflected in the writings of Steven Pinker.   There is a Kahnemanian cognitive dimension here as well, of which we now give an example.

Pinker wades patiently through the swamps of Political Correctness;  we salute his perseverence.   It really is remarkable, the sort of emotionally-founded cognitive distortions he must contend with.

Thus, consider this thought-experiment:  Imagine that some researchers published a study suggesting that the higher crime rate for American Blacks is a consequence of innate criminality.  They would of course be denounced by Blacks and their champions;  but would scarcely be denounced as blaming White crime victims.  So much is obvious.

Yet now put in different substitutions for x and y, and though the logical structure has not changed, the political picture has changed entirely.   The Blank Slate, p. 161:

Even heavier bipartisan fire has recently been aimed at Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer  for suggesting in their book A Natural History of Rape  that rape is a consequence of men’s sexuality.  A spokesperson from the Feminist Majority Foundation called the book “scary” and “regressive” because it “almost validates the crime and blames the victim.”

By contrast,  men as such  did not object.  We’re used to it.
The average zealot would be quite incapable of perceiving the logical parallelism between the two accounts.
Similarly Pinker, op. cit., p. 372, re the "Laws of Behavior Genetics":  "It is because the laws run roughshod over the Blank Slate, and the Blank Slate is so entrenched,  that many intellectuals cannot comprehend an alternative to it, let alone argue about whether it is right or wrong."  A depressing, accurate, and important observation.

Here and elsewhere, Pinker counters the Noble-Savage ideology that whatever is found in nature must be good.  P. 164

It is inherent to our value system that the interests of women should not be subordinated to those of men, and that control over one’s body is a fundamental right  that trumps other people’s desires.  So rape is not tolerated, regardless of any possible connection to the nature of men’s sexuality.

So far, the standard viewpoint, sensibly put.  But then Pinker, whose logical scalpel is sharp, cuts down another level to make a quite interesting philosophical point:

Note how this calculus requires a “deterministic” and “essentialist” claim about human nature:  that women abhor being raped.  Without that claim  we would have no way to choose between trying to deter rape  and trying to socialize women to accept it, which would be perfectly compatible with the supposedly progressive doctrine that we are malleable raw material.

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Nook lovers are book lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

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For college psychology instructors:
Here is an experiment you can do with your class, if you don’t mind being denied tenure.

Divide your students randomly into two groups, and send them to separate rooms.  To the first group, present the sentence:

Men are hot;  women are cold.

(This is along the lines of such parlor-game titles as “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”.)
To the other group, present this sentence:

Women are hot;  men are cold.

Assignment:  Discuss.
Prediction:  Both groups will denounce their respective sentence as sexist and anti-woman.

[Postscript]  Chesterton anticipated this sally:
Re G.B. Shaw:
He has pleased all the bohemians  by suggesting that women are equal to men;  but he has infuriated them by suggesting that men are equal to women.
-- G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (1905)

Kahneman, as Dyson points out, avoids discussing religion; this is probably just as well.  Pinker -- whose range of interests is extraordinarily broad -- to his credit  does not avoid it;  indeed he quotes (pp. 186-7) from the magnificent 1996 address by Pope John Paul II on the subject of Natural Selection and the “ontological  discontinuity” (we have treated of this subject here);    but analytically, in this arena, he is not at his best.  On page 189  he dishes up an absurd false-dichotomy:

Who says the doctrine of the soul is more humane than the understanding of the mind as a physical organ?

Already so much has gone wrong.  We do not adhere to the doctrine of the soul (or of free will) because it is “humane”, but because it is true, and we experience it as such.   Nor does such a doctrine impede or even impinge upon the understanding of the brain as a physical organ.  As for the mind as a physical organ, um, did you really mean to write that?  Are we back with Descartes and his lodgement of the soul in the pituitary or the pineal gland or wherever the hell he placed it?
It gets worse.  The consequences of the “doctrine” of the soul (though, in our view, this is rather like speaking of the “doctrine” of the existence of the physical world)  is “letting people die of hepatitis  or be ravaged by Parkinson’s disease  when a cure may lie in research on stem cells…”  Indeed a cure might be thus expedited, or it might not;  the soul is nothing to the issue.   The moral quandary is rather to what extent society is willing to go, to benefit group A at the expense of group B.   Effective but morally debateable maneuvers include:  harvesting stem cells from embroyos;  harvesting embryos; harvesting aborted fetuses; harvesting fetuses not yet aborted but which, for a fittybone, the unwed mother would be happy to sell you.  Plus harvesting organs from dead adults; from living but brain-dead adults; from criminals; from political prisoners; from the luckless, kidnapped for this very purpose.  Perhaps less effective from a flinty Western medical perspective, but quite real and effective to its practitioners, is harvesting such organs as genitals from living children (our group B, here rather at a disadvantage) for use in sorcery to benefit group A (which in their own estimation, includes all the best people).  All these practices may be found in the world today, though generally not in places where the influence of the Holy Mother Church is at its strongest.   John draws the line at one place, Mary at another; and if you were to do a statistical study, it might well be that churchgoers, on average, place it somewhat more towards the less-interventionist end  than do vivisectionists, grave-robbers or eliminative materialists.   That would be sociologically rather interesting, if true;  Pinker has however made no logical point.   Nor does his heroically rising to the defense of helpless Alzheimer’s patients, who apparently are being abused by nuns when these are not otherwise engaged in cackling over the sufferings of Parkinsonians,  contradict anything a theist would say (apart perhaps from heretics like Christian Scientists):  “Sources of immense misery” (notice the purely emotion-evoking addition of the adjective) “such as Alzheimer’s disease … will be alleviated   not by treating thought and emotion of manifestations of an immaterial soul  but by treating them as manifestations of physiology and genetics.”   Amen; hear, hear;  we can all of us drink to that.  Pinker’s lance has pierced a straw-man.

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We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

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Pinker touches bottom with this assertion:  “The doctrine of a soul that outlives the body  is anything but righteous, because it necessarily devalues the lives we live on earth.”   (Compare:  "The doctrine that we should become adults  is offensive, as it devalues childhood.")
Leave aside that outsider’s-assessment-word “righteous”, analogous to the skewed perspective of the word “humane” above (We believe, or disbelieve, or simply hope, as the case may be, in eternal life, from conviction or revelation or even logic or what have you, but not because such a belief -- true or false -- seems “righteous”).  Notice, though, that qualifier “necessarily”, which changes the assertion from a sociological generalization or barroom opinion  into one of logico-philosophical apodixis.  Yet the only evidence he offers for this extraordinary doctrine  is the self-serving rationalizations (or irrationalizations) of maniacs who kill their kids, and the rants of al-Qaeda suicide-bombers.  (Page 189 -- look it up if you can’t believe your eyes.)
Good - Heavens!  For all we know, some serial killer has excused his crime-spree by an allusion to the Riemann Hypothesis;  the effect of such grotesques upon number theory  will rightly be nil.
Beyond the logical point, Pinker’s assertion is psychologically absurd.   It may well be the case (though God forbid), that those who hope they may one day rest in the bosom of Abraham  are destined to be cruelly disabused;  but their doctrine does tend rather to distinguish this view of life  from that of scorpions in a bottle.

For a glimpse at the value placed upon human life  among a proud, free people  unpolluted by Christian superstitions, click here, and here.
[update 8 May 2012] And now here:
South Korean customs said it had confiscated more than 17,000 “health” capsules smuggled from China that contain human flesh, most likely extracted from aborted fetuses or stillborn babies.

(Note, though:  these are quibbles;  just a turf thang, folks.  Pinker's book overall is broad, sound, and beautifully written.)

(For more along these lines: )