humor, philosophy, photography

Old Gold

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Tattered old gold still glows.

gold-point_800x600

But is it really silver?

silver_800x600

Or some nameless pearlish color?

Shifting light; flaky white balance; …

Ultimate reality is elusive (or maybe illusory).

Rashomon

All photos in my response to

Gold ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #111

were taken by daylight on sunny late winter mornings in 2017, using the same dried silver dollar plant in the same corner of the same room.  The old camera’s unpredictable white balance sometimes lucked into interesting images.  It also inspired a riff connecting an old Beatles song to a recycling incentive, but the old camera was replaced after showing more signs of senility.

Another response to the same challenge shows that silver dollar plants sometimes do look golden in natural light!

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haiku, humor, math, philosophy, photography, science

They Are Beyond Space & Time

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Taught myself a crash course in digital photo manipulation to respond to

Numbers ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #106

by posting how Plato bounced back from an encounter with intellectual ancestors of Karl Popper.  Hope I did not flunk.

Plato woke up with a nasty hangover after a symposium that had gone badly for him.  Some new sophists who called themselves “natural philosophers” had come to Athens, and the kind of philosophizing they advocated was anything but natural to Plato.

The new sophists spoke about “observations” and “conjectures” and “predictions” rather than abstract reasoning about perfect ideal forms.  Plato could tolerate his student Aristotle’s interest in easy casual observations and simple inferences from them, but the new sophists were different.  They wanted to measure minute details of how the shadows on the walls of Plato’s metaphorical cave flickered.  They would consider anything imaginable as a candidate for “explaining” their observations, even things so fanciful that Homer would never have dared to sing of Odysseus encountering them on his way back to Ithaca.

Instead of trying to establish a conjecture by reasoning to it from first principles, the new sophists wanted to reason from it to a prediction about what they would observe.  Conjectures that led to many diverse predictions matching what was actually observed were to be accepted as true, but only until somebody came up with “better” conjectures that yielded more accurate predictions by more elegant reasoning.  As one of the brasher “natural philosophers” said,

All knowledge is provisional,
never more than the best we have at the moment.

Flummoxed by such craziness, Plato had been hitting the wine harder than usual.  He had passed out just as another “natural philosopher” began replying to the brash one:

Well, that is a little over the top.  For example, …

All that was last night, when stars had carpeted an inky black sky.  Now the sky was light blue, the sun was shining, and Plato’s head was aching.  He winced when he remembered a new sophist’s remark that each star might be something much like the sun but almost inconceivably farther away.  That example of a loony conjecture had prompted a nightmare with Athens (and its circling sun) lost in a humongous whirling vortex of innumerable stars (rather than stationary near the center of the universe, as Athens so obviously was).

The cash bar at the symposium had been pricey, and Plato wondered if he still had enough money to buy some willow bark to ease his headache.  He put his coins on the nearest flat surface and counted them.  Five should be plenty.  Then he noticed that three coins had the side with the face of a leader facing upwards, while two coins had the side with the leader’s mansion facing upwards.  Suddenly, Plato felt much better.  He even felt ready for another encounter with that brash sophist.

Athens_724x505

Plato’s Revenge
|Three plus two was five
|before any mind could know.
|Where do numbers live?

haiku, humor, philosophy

Yin and Yang

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Carpe Diem #1229 Yin & Yang

The ancient insight that «seemingly opposite … forces may actually be complementary … and interdependent» has modern echoes in wave/particle duality and concerns about work/life balance.  The insight is profound but (like many insights) is sometimes pushed to absurd and pernicious extremes.  I refuse to shrug off falsehood as the yin that complements the yang of truth.

Maybe the yin of solemn generality needs a little more of the yang of irreverent specificity.

Harmonious Completion of Necessary Cycle
|Balanced yin and yang.
|Spinning world will not wobble.
|Cosmic clothes washer.

enlightenment, haiku, humor, miracle, philosophy

Miracle: Satori from an MBA

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It started so gaily.

A tongue-in-cheek post about writer’s block led to
 a tongue-in-cheek comment that led to
 a tongue-in-cheek post that led to
 a tongue-in-cheek comment that seemed to
merit a tongue-in-cheek reply.

But the volleyball hit the floor before I could whack it upward.

That last comment in the cascade included the question

What made you the lucky poet whom God speaks through?

While the comment’s “you” is me and my claim to prophecy was indeed tongue-in-cheek (and perceived as such by the commenter), I could not get past the fact that many people do claim (seriously and stridently) to speak for God.  Many of those who are serious and strident are also willing to coerce people they cannot convince.  Many of those who are willing to coerce are also willing to kill people they cannot coerce.

lesson-learnedNON SEQUITUR © 2014 Wiley Ink, Inc.. Dist. By ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

While I cannot just keep it tongue-in-cheek, I still see the wisdom in Oscar Wilde’s remark that life is too important to be taken seriously.  So I will continue semiseriously.

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish literature from either literal truth or bogus claims to tell it.  Now I will tweak the font as a gentle reminder that the rest of this post is just lit.

Management consultants are often hired by executives who want an outsider with “MBA” after their name to bless what they have already decided to do.  While God could bless well enough on His own, He did want advice from a management consultant on how to get out of a procedural rut.

Aware that the complexity of the Real World (and how to thrive in it) was beyond immediate comprehension, He had endowed some otherwise unremarkable creatures with abilities to observe and learn; to imagine and reason; to build bridges and write poems.  He had tried repeatedly to nudge them in good directions by inspiring a few of them, with a little success and a lot of failure.

As He told the consultant:

I keep it simple and age-appropriate, but they oversimplify half of what I tell them and obfuscate the rest.  The Golden Rule gets thru as something to proclaim but not as something to practice.  Absurdly much of what they think has been revealed to them is just their own bigotry and bullshit.

The consultant read over the case histories and concluded that there was a personnel issue:

U tend to inspire people who mean well but score high on credulity and low on humor.  Maybe it would help to go outside the box.  How about inspiring a nerdy atheist who digs sacred music and pushes the envelope of haiku poetry?

God balked at the suggestion:

Does anybody like that exist?

The consultant smiled the enigmatic Mona Lisa smile that sometimes appeared when he was moonlighting as a Zen master.  He leaned forward and spoke softly:

Does anybody like U exist?

At that moment, God attained enlightenment.

humor, language, philosophy, science

Writing Well – Part 4

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Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?

Here are links to all posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
  3. Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
    We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
  4. Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
    An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
  5. Ambiguity Sucks!
    Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.
  6. What is the Point of Punctuation?
    Careful punctuation helps avoid unwanted ambiguity.
  7. Yogi Berra’s Paradox
    Sometimes bad English is good English that’s good because it’s bad.
  8. Blood & Gold End This Series
    Apart from a concern about the examples on 2 late pages in the book, I could applaud those pages until my hands bleed.

This post’s subtitle is a quote from the book’s Chapter 8, which considers 2 versions of the question.  How did English spelling become such a mess?  Why is it still such a mess, despite various reform efforts?  A major insight into why reform is extremely difficult is also applicable to a wide range of otherwise very different activities (digging in rocky soil; making software run faster; philosophizing; …), so I will devote this post to it.  That devotion will make this post a little off-topic for the project, but the general insight is worth the detour and the length.  If U trust me about the wide range, U can skim or skip some examples to make it a much shorter read.

There is a tweetable (but crude and cryptic) way to formulate the general insight:

The word [the] is the most misleading word in English.

Huh?  My tweetable formulation uses the word [the] twice, with a mention of it in between.  The first use (in “The word”) is OK.  The second use (in “the most misleading”) is extremely misleading because it presupposes that there is a single word more misleading than any of the other words.  Be alert for bullshit whenever U see [the] followed by a superlative.  Sadly, the same kind of bullshit lurks in many phrases that start with [the] but have no superlative to raise a red flag.  A lot of effort can be wasted on questions of the form [What is the … ?] that cannot be answered at all well w/o refuting an implicit uniqueness assumption smuggled in by [the].

In particular, consider the ultimate goal of spelling reform:

The way we spell a word should match the way we pronounce it.

Oops.  Aiming at “the” way we pronounce a word is aiming at multiple moving targets, as Lynch notes.  As the author of the play Pygmalion (and thus the godfather of the musical My Fair Lady), spelling reformer George Bernard Shaw was aware that various pronunciations were out there.  But he lived at a time when educated Brits like Henry Higgins could be proud of their own pronunciations, disparage those of uneducated Brits like Eliza Doolittle, and ignore those of educated Yanks.

Now that Brittania no longer rules the waves but English has become a global language that plays roles formerly played by Latin and then French, the multiplicity of pronunciations is a bigger obstacle than it was in Shaw’s time (and a much bigger obstacle than it seemed to him).

Isn’t it obvious that multiplicity of pronunciations is a major obstacle to spelling reform?  It is now that Lynch has made it item #2 in his list of 7 obstacles.  Unless U can rattle off most them w/o peeking at pages 180 to 184 (hardcover edition), please do not dismiss the insight as obvious.

While organized efforts at sweeping reform are unlikely to succeed, minor word-by-word improvements in spelling do happen spontaneously now and then.  Lynch notes a few that have already happened.  In the examples to follow, I will note a few more that may be happening now.  I will also give examples of the wide scope of the insight about the perils of [the].

Non Sequitur - nq_c170417.tif

NON SEQUITUR © 2014 Wiley Ink, Inc.. Dist. By ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Example 4.1: Realizing That Superfluous Letters Can Be Dropped


Dropping the superfluous [u] in various words that formerly ended with [o][u][r] (like [color], [honor], [humor], and [valor]) has already happened on my side of The Pond.

There are other minor improvements that do not presuppose mastery of the International Phonetic Alphabet.  For example, words whose last 2 sounds are like [eyes] can be spelled somewhat more phonetically with [z] rather than [s], as in [realize] vs [realise].  It is no surprize that prigs will object in some cases, as in [surprize] vs [surprise].  I have stopped caring about which version of each such word is more common on which side of The Pond.  Some of the wavy red underlines from spell-checkers can be ignored w/o harming readability.

Example 4.2: Common Shortcuts


While many of the shortcuts used in texting and tweeting are puzzling to outsiders like me, others are self-explanatory, improve the fit with pronunciation, and saw some use before 140 became a magic number.  Wish I could be as confident that civilization will persist for another century as I am that (assuming it does persist) spelling changes like

[you] —> [U]    &    [through] —> [thru]    &    [though] —> [tho]

will spread to formal prose.  W/o making a big fuss about it, I do my part in promoting these changes.

Example 4.3: Digging in Rocky Soil


Suppose we need to dig a hole in rocky soil with hand tools.  A pick and a shovel are in the tool shed.  Which is “the” better tool for the job?  A few minutes of digging experience reveals that neither is much good w/o the other. Using one creates an opportunity to use the other.  Tho often debased as a euphemism for layoffs in announcements of corporate mergers, [synergy] is an honorable word for the way a pick and shovel complement each other.  Similar synergies are important elsewhere, as the next example sketches.

Example 4.4: Making Software Run Faster


The instructions followed directly by a computer are mincing little steps for tiny little feet.  Writing out the long sequence of steps needed to do anything interesting is a tedious and error-prone job, so computer software is usually written in artificial “high-level” languages that are closer to how people would tell each other about an algorithm to compute whatever needs to be computed.  The computer programs that translate software from the relatively intelligible high-level languages down to the mincing little “low-level” steps are called “compilers” (despite the fact that compiling is not what they do).

Early compilers had a bigger problem than a misleading name.  They produced code (sequences of low-level instructions) that ran much slower than the code skilled people could eventually produce, after agonies of debugging.  How do we build compilers that can translate an algorithm written in a high-level language into correct code that runs roughly as fast as hand-crafted code for the same algorithm?  That was among the hot topics when I started my career in computer science.

Very broadly, the strategy for producing fast code was (and still is) to start with slow code that is presumed to be correct because it is a straightforward translation of a high-level algorithm to low-level code, w/o trying to be clever.  (Whether the algorithm itself is correct and whether there are better algorithms were also hot topics.  They still are.)  The slow code is tweaked here and there, so as to do whatever it has been doing but do it a little faster.  While no single tweak accomplishes much, there are many places to tweak.  A tweak here can reveal a previously hidden opportunity for another tweak there.  Synergy!

Alas, the opportunities for synergy struck me as so obvious that I never figured out how to persuade other compiler researchers.  There was a subculture working on one bag of tricks and a subculture working on another bag of tricks.  The debates over which bag was “the” one to use struck me as more like medieval theology than science, and I was explicit about the “Pick and Shovel Principle” in a few of the papers I wrote.  Did not help.  Cutting classes in the school of hard knocks is harder than ignoring sometimes tactless writing by the brash new guy, so the lesson was eventually learned the hard way.

Example 4.5: Philosophizing


Have U noticed a big omission in this post so far?  Not a word about writing well after the title.  Let’s fix that omission to end this post.  I promise to be more on-topic in the next part.

Some philosophers have shown that it is possible to write serious thoughts about deep stuff in a way that is also clear and good-humored.  Really.  (As other philosophers have shown, it does not just happen.)  To keep it short, I will point to just one well-written book (by D.C. Dennett):

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Apart from the clunky title, Dennett’s book can be highly recommended, for both what it says and how it says it.  Indeed, some of the 77 chapters deserve to be required reading in any college curriculum.  Having been a young nerd who was hassled by his elders about getting a “well-rounded liberal education” supposedly obtainable before any serious study of STEM, I do not use the phrase [required reading] lightly.

Dennett’s chapter 43 is among those that deserve to be required.  It starts with a variant of a familiar infinite regress:

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

A careful look at what is flaky about trying to identify “the first mammal” leads to a thoughtful objection to the Socratic quest to nail down things like “the essence” of virtue.

While not so requirement-worthy as chapter 43, Dennett’s chapter 30 provides another good read about [the].  Pick any problem U like and consider the phrase [the solution].  Depending on which problem U pick, there are many possibilities.  Maybe there are no solutions at all.  Maybe there is a unique solution.  (Both provably-none and provably-just-one do happen in pure math.)  Maybe there is just one known solution and so many constraints that looking for another is a bad bet.  Maybe there are 2 or more known solutions and fretting about which is “the” real solution would be silly.  Dennett concocts an amusing quibble-proof example of this last possibility.  With a lot less trouble, the way English imports words from other languages provides a quibble-resistant example.

As a word in English, [concerto] has 2 plurals.  A minute with Google shows that both [concerti] and [concertos] are widely used by people who know what a concerto is.  Asking for “the” plural of [concerto] as a question about an Italian word makes sense; asking for “the” plural of [concerto] as a question about an English word imported from Italian does not.  Be wary of [the]!

education, grammar, history, humor, language, philosophy, politics

Writing Well – Part 2

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Babies, Names, and Snobs

Here are links to all posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

  1. Introduction
    What does the rise of “proper” English have in common with a physics conundrum about gravity?
  2. Babies, Names, and Snobs
    We name words by wrapping them in square brackets to avoid overloading more common conventions.
  3. Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, and ????
    We add a new ISM to the familiar duo of attitudes toward English language usage: readabilism.
  4. Why is English Spelling Such a Mess?
    An insight into the difficulty of spelling reform has wide-ranging significance, far beyond spelling.
  5. Ambiguity Sucks!
    Ambiguity is almost always at least a little harmful to clear communication. It can be disastrous.
  6. What is the Point of Punctuation?
    Careful punctuation helps avoid unwanted ambiguity.
  7. Yogi Berra’s Paradox
    Sometimes bad English is good English that’s good because it’s bad.
  8. Blood & Gold End This Series
    Apart from a concern about the examples on 2 late pages in the book, I could applaud those pages until my hands bleed.

Sorry, but we need a short digression on ways to name a word so we can talk about it.  Some details here will also contribute later to the overall project.

Failure to distinguish using a word from talking about it can lead to confusion, as in the following dialog:

Mother :         How was school today?
Small Child :  Fun.  Teacher showed us how to make babies.
Mother :         What?  WHAT?
Small Child :  Drop the Y and add IES.

In casual speech, we can insert “the word” in a few places.  That is clunky in extended writing.  There are 2 common ways to do the job in writing: quote marks and italics.  Using quote marks works well in short documents, but it can be confusing in longer ones that also use quote marks for actual quotations and/or for sarcasm, as in

After an ad blitz from the National Rifle Association rescued his failing campaign, Senator Schmaltz “bravely” defended the right of crazy people to buy assault weapons.

Maybe we should follow Lynch and use the convention popular among those who are most fastidious about the difference between using a word and discussing it: those who often call it the “use/mention distinction” and put words being mentioned (rather than used) in italics.  I do not mind doing w/o italics for emphasis because I prefer bold anyway, but italics are also used for titles and for foreign words temporarily imported into English.  I want those uses, and I found that Lynch’s use of italics for multiple purposes in quick succession invited confusion.

There is a simple way to give any word or phrase a name that works well here and in many other contexts, tho not universally.  Wrap it in square brackets (or curly braces).  Choose the wrapper U never (well, hardly ever) use for some other purpose in the current document and run with it.  If both wrappers are OK, use square brackets and give the Shift key a rest.

Now I can avoid confusion, even if I want to be emphatic, be sarcastic, and mention words (marking some as foreign), all in the same sentence:

Some snobs flaunt their “education” by saying [Weltanshauung] when [worldview] is all they need.

While not so disgusting as Senator Schmaltz, the flaunting snobs are enemies of clarity.  An enemy of my friend is my enemy too, and clarity is both a very dear friend and a concept crucial to amicable resolution of some of the tensions that Lynch explores so ably.  So I want to be especially clear and hope U will forgive the digression into metametalanguage.  Will put a quick reminder of the square brackets convention early in each subsequent post.  The next one will get down to business.

baseball, enlightenment, humor, philosophy, politics

Riff on a Yogi Berra Quote

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yogi-berra-1

Some of the many humorous quotes (mis)attributed to Yogi Berra are trenchant expressions of genuine wisdom, akin to Zen koans.  (In his Washington Post obituary, the subtitle “American philosopher” is well-chosen.)  One of his gems is so widely applicable and important that it deserves a special name.  It is also so widely quoted that 2 versions are common, as indicated by {|} below:

Yogi Berra’s Law
{The game|It} ain’t over til it’s over.

Yes, the original context was baseball.  With 2 outs in the bottom of the 9-th inning, the home team may be trailing.  Yogi rightly admonishes both the home team (to resist despair) and the visitors (to resist complacency).  A lot can still happen with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9-th inning.  I prefer the shorter version of the law because it is more explicit about the law’s generality.  “It” could be almost anyhthing.

My current context for heeding Yogi Berra’s Law is the imminent inauguration of Donald Trump as POTUS.  At best, this event marks the start of 4 long and nasty years in the US.  At worst, this event might combine with trends elsewhere (in China, Europe, and Russia) to start a new Dark Age.  Considering the worst case is prudent, not alarmist.

Mindless repetition of platitudes like

  • It can’t happen here.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining.
  • It is always darkest just before the dawn.

is no substitute for the eternal vigilance that Jefferson said is the price of liberty.  (There are other prices.)  I resist the complacency of those platitudes; I also resist despair and continue (in my own small way) to be a citizen rather than just a complainer.

In a late inning in the biggest game of my lifetime, the Enlightenment is trailing.  That sucks.  But 2+3 is still 5 and Yogi Berra’s Law is still true.