language, philosophy, photography, science

Emergent Leaves and More

Much more.  Careful consideration of emergent things provides some hints about how to live fully and righteously on a little blue planet in a big oblivious universe.  Does that sound too grandiose?  Let’s start small, with some spring leaves and two ways to make adjectives.
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Turning Verbs into Adjectives

While we do it mostly by adding the suffix [-ing] (and maybe tweaking the spelling), we sometimes add [-ent] (or [-ant]) instead.  There is a subtle but important difference when we turn [emerge] into an adjective.  Leaves emerge and then go about the business of growing and photosynthesizing.  It would be a little better to say that my photo shows “emerging leaves” because there is no “and then” for emergent things.  They just are emergent.  What they emerge from is still there.

For example, look again at my photo, not as leaves but as an image.  It emerges from about 700,000 pixels encoded with about 480 KB of data in JPEG format.  That matters if I want to e-mail it to somebody who pays for data flow over a slow connection.  For many other purposes, to fret about the underlying pixels and bytes is a waste of effort.  The shapes and colors and composition are not in the pixels themselves.  They emerge from the way the pixels are arranged and interact with each other and the viewer.

My mild misuse of the [-ent] suffix for emerging leaves is a point of departure for considering bigger issues, not just a bow to the exact wording of Patrick Jennings’ challenge:

Emergent ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #232 – Pix to Words

Poetic Naturalism

Once we start looking for emergent things, we find that the world teems with them.  (Water, ice, and steam all emerge from crowds of the same kind of molecule.)  We find that fretting about “ultimate reality” may well be as pointless as trying to understand my photo by always diving down into those 480 KB and never looking at the emergent image.  While some contexts demand a deep dive, others demand a shallow one.

One of many places with examples and discussion of various emergent phenomena is Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture, which somehow manages to be a good read (and a mostly easy one) despite dealing with deep stuff in science and philosophy while being fair to other viewpoints.

While nothing in science is nailed down as tightly as 3+2 = 5 in math, there is much evidence that we are in a tiny corner of a vast universe that goes its own way with no overall design or purpose or supernatural intervention.  Can we live fully and righteously in a cosmos that does not give a rat’s ass about beauty or goodness?  In much more detail than I can hope to put into a blog post, Carroll argues that we can.  Emergence is part of the story.

Tho a little queasy about Carroll’s use of the phrase [poetic naturalism] to name his upbeat attitude in the face of knowledge that would depress many people, I can’t think of a better name or a better attitude.

Don’t despair if love and justice seem as fanciful as unicorns when U consider only the underlying dance of atoms and molecules.  Love and justice may be real enough, but emergent.


haiku, photography, science

Cracks in a Facade

As happens in many natural places, this stony mass presents a facade of barren sterility.  Gripped by Earth’s gravity, the rock seems weighted down by its own mass.  Then we look more closely.
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Mass ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #221


Morose Monolith
|Sullen mass of stone,
|hosting only black lichen?
|Seeds and spores found cracks.


fiction, humor, philosophy, science

A Tale of Two Kitties

In Dickens’ tale, Madame Defarge is obsessed with vengeance.  The characters in our tale have different obsessions.  One of them is with understanding the code used to knit the fabric of reality.
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When they called for weird stories to be submitted for Volume 2 of The Rabbit Hole, the editors suggested science and/or weather and/or entertainment as themes.  While the suggestion was not a requirement, many of the writers who responded did use those themes.  In particular, You’re Not Late has great synergy between weather and an aspect of science other than weather forecasting.  Maybe there are other great synergies; it will take me a while to read all the stories in RH-2.

Modern scientific theories are also stories, of a special kind.  Tho hard to read w/o wrangling equations, they are gloriously predictive and useful.  (U don’t need hard copy to read this post.)  They are also weird.  As the editors remark in the preface:

The stories are weird because life is weird; all these stories do is cross the boundary of our logic and assumptions, fetch a few samples from whatever lies beyond, and bring them back for you to see.  Just as explorers did in ages past, and scientists do today.

Back in 1935, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger told a story to illustrate the weirdness of quantum theory.  The story eventually became a celebrated meme, and here is yet another celebration:

Ode to Schrödinger’s Cat
|Schrödinger’s cat
|is both skinny and fat;
|both dead and alive
|(past age seventy five);
|both purring and hissing
|(while measurement’s missing);
|both mewing and yowling
|(while Einstein is howling).
|Schrödinger’s gone,
|but his cat carries on
|with a Cheshire cat grin
|at the pickle we’re in.


Hmmm.  Saying that the cat is “both dead and alive” is a common (and admittedly oversimplified) shorthand for the statistical limbo called “superposition of states” in quantum theory.  Here is a closer approximation to what the theory actually says:

If the box is opened now, there is a certain probability P_q (which we can approximate) that the cat will be observed to be dead, along with the complementary probability 1-P_q that the cat will be observed to be alive.  Before the box is opened, it makes no sense to say that the cat is “really” dead or alive.

Despite having a deterministic philosophy, Einstein had no qualms about common-sense probabilities:

The cat is really dead or alive, but we don’t know which.  From what we do know, we can compute an approximate probability P_c of the cat being dead now and an approximate probability 1-P_c of the cat being alive now.

Greenish-BunnyIs the clash between quantum theory and common sense just something for novice philosophers to argue about?  Nope.  To see why, we don’t need the nasty gadgets in Schrödinger’s story.  We need two kittens from the same litter, in separate boxes some distance apart.  We also — ah — ah — ACHOO!  The cat dander is ticking off my allergy.

Never mind.  There is a short humorous allegory about this stuff in my story Entanglements, with petting but no pets.  Spoiler alert: quantum theory wins.

Getting You’re Not Late and Entanglements and 27 other stories is easy.  Just buy RH-2.  To consider buying it from Amazon as either a printed book at $11.50 or an e-book at $2.99, click here.  To consider buying an e-book from other retailers at $2.99, click on the rabbit.

To see the Disney version of the Cheshire cat do its thing, U can get to a video on Facebook by clicking on the cat’s image here.  Clicking twice on the cat’s image there will start the video, but only buying RH-2 will get U to the 29 weird stories.

humor, mundane miracle, philosophy, photography, science

Partially Reflected Light

There is much to celebrate in the simple act of flipping a switch, and the resulting light provides many other mundane miracles to ponder.  Look closely at a partial reflection in a window.
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As the natural light outdoors fades, a mundane miracle occurs.  Tho I have no supernatural powers, I create light and see that it is good.  I need only flip a switch, and the resulting light provides many other mundane miracles to ponder.

Light ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #133

Before I close the curtains, a pine tree across the lawn is still visible thru the window.  Conversely, a bird roosting in the pine could see the light fixture I have just turned on.  Most of the light that my fixture throws toward the window goes right thru the glass, harmless and unharmed.  My fist could not do that.

It gets better.

Some of the light that hits the window is reflected back.  I see my fixture as a ghostly sphere, apparently hovering between me and the pine.  Hmmm.  Consider a single photon among the zillions that whiz from my fixture toward the window.  How does it decide whether to continue on toward the pine or bounce back toward me?


I know.  Photons are mindless particles that do not decide anything.  They just do whatever a divinely perfect knowledge of physics would say they do, and a humanly possible imperfect knowledge of physics is rather good at saying what big groups of them do.

By far the best current human knowledge says that what a single photon does is unpredictable.  Not just unpredictable because we do not know all the details about the laws of nature or how the photon is moving or what is in the glass where the photon hits it.  Not just unpredictable because exact calculations are not feasible. Intrinsically unpredictable!  On a photon-by-photon basis, even divinely perfect knowledge of the rules and the current situation does not determine what will happen in the next picosecond.  Even God must wait and see.

Dunno whether I will succeed in posting more about intrinsic unpredictability and its consequences.  (Don’t hold your breath.)  Without wrangling equations, a great deal can be still be said about the quantum physics behind partially reflected light and its wider implications.  See pages 173-176 of the excellent book Dice World by Brian Clegg (or web pages like the one U can visit by clicking here, if U do not have the book handy).

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.


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

haiku, humor, photography, science

Tho I know no Noh …

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I think I see serene contemplation in this face:


Hmmm.  The face is a mask that nobody is wearing.  Who could be contemplating?  And yet

There is no nothingness.
|Quantum physics finds
|tumult in vacuum behind
|contemplative mask.

If the allusion in my haiku responding to
« Contemplation ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #103 »is too cryptic, I recommend A Universe from Nothing by L.M. Krauss.

While the form is conventional, the content of the haiku may be the farthest outside the box that I have gone.  As of now, anyway.  So the haiku is also a response to
« Carpe Diem Writing and Enjoying Haiku #6 new ways »

humor, language, politics, science

Writing Well – Part 5

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Ambiguity Sucks!

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 slightly oversimplified.  Apart from deliberate and obvious ambiguity in language jokes, ambiguity is almost always unwanted and at least a little harmful to clear communication.  It can be disastrous.  Suppose I write something ambiguous that I interpret one way.  Suppose the reader interprets it differently w/o noticing the ambiguity.  (Verbal ambiguities tend to be much less obvious than visual ones.)  Maybe the reader just writes me off as a jerk.  Maybe the reader objects in a way that makes no sense to me because I also do not notice the ambiguity.  Maybe we eventually sort it all out after wasting time in an unpleasant exchange; maybe not.  Ambiguous language can act as if the artist in the famous duck/rabbit illusion sees only the duck while the viewer sees only the rabbit.


  • Jastrow, J. (1899). The mind’s eye. Popular Science Monthly, 54, 299-312.
  • The soft copy used here has been downloaded, resized, and cropped.

Don’t context and common sense make it obvious how to resolve ambiguities in real life?  Yes and no.  Speech among native speakers on familiar topics may be safe, especially if the conversation has many redundancies and/or few surprizes.  In a casual setting, a hearer who notices an ambiguity can request and get a clarification in real time.  Not all settings are casual.  Not all ambiguities are noticed.  After briefly considering a setting quite unlike casual speech, we will ponder how to cope with ambiguity in the vast middle ground between utterly casual speech and utterly formal prose.

That English has become the global language of science is convenient for anglophones like me.  A few centuries ago, I would have needed to read and write in Latin to communicate with colleagues who did not speak English when asking what’s for dinner.  Now I can write in English, but I must be mindful that readers may not be native speakers and may not understand slang and topical references (especially if I write something still worth reading some years from now).  Common sense will not help readers decide what I really mean if I garble something new and contrary to conventional wisdom.

Blog posts land in a wide swath of middle ground.  Some are close to casual speech; some are researched and/or crafted.  Some are for venting or sharing a self-explanatory image; some do try to say something new and contrary to conventional wisdom.  Much of the care taken by good science writers to avoid ambiguity is also appropriate to some blog posts.  Personally, I find it easier (as well as safer) to make being careful habitual rather than decide whether it really matters in each specific case.

This post’s examples deal with lexicographic ambiguity.  They are good for displaying how a readabilist perspective differs from a descriptivist or prescriptivist perspective.  They are also conveniently short, so I will devote a little space to historical remarks inspired by one of Lynch’s chapters on lexicography.

Chapter 10 begins with a humorous account of the absurdly apocalyptic reaction to the publication of a dictionary in 1961.  True, it was not just any dictionary.  It was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (hereafter just “Webster’s 3-rd”), and it was more explicitly descriptive (rather than prescriptive) than its predecessor.  As Lynch explains in detail, good dictionaries had always been more descriptive than those who were shocked by Webster’s 3-rd noticed.  But Webster’s 3-rd took descriptivism past a tipping point.  Was it open to specific objections about how common (and/or harmless?) some mistakes must be, before they should be just be listed as alternative usages w/o being stigmatized in any way?  Yes.  Was it part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to repopulate the world with licentious ninnies?  No.  Many critics really were that wacky, as Lynch reminded me.

The furor led to the 1962 publication of a compilation by Sledd and Ebbitt of essays pro and con, with the title Dictionaries and That Dictionary. Reading and reacting to that compilation was the best part of the AP English class that capped my high school education.  I came down hard for descriptivism, w/o noticing many amusing ironies that Lynch points out.  Some of the alleged crimes of Webster’s 3-rd had already been committed by the revered Webster’s 2-nd, which had been marketed with authoritarian hype that came back to haunt the publisher in the furor over Webster’s 3-rd.

Lynch’s book came out in 2009, much closer on the calendar to 2017 than to 1961.  Calendar distance can be misleading.  In 2009, the USA was still one of many countries where authoritarian rants could be laughed off.  They did not come from the White House.

Example 5.1: Tummy Troubles

On pages 223 and 224 (hardcover), Lynch uses 3 words to illustrate how a rival dictionary that began as a knee-jerk prescriptivist alternative to Webster’s 3-rd evolved into a rational one.  The same words illustrate the kind of rule a readabilist can recommend.

Consider 3 things I might conceivably say about Donald Trump:

  1. He is nauseating.
  2. He is nauseated.
  3. He is nauseous.

Items #1 and #2 are clear.  But what if I said #3?  From a correct assumption about my politics (and an incorrect assumption about a fondness for older usages), U could infer that #3 from me means what #1 means.  But #3 from somebody else (who likes newer usages and was a dinner guest at the White House) could well mean what #2 means.  However loudly prescriptivists might claim that [nauseous] “really” means what [nauseating] means, the word [nauseous] is hopelessly ambiguous in the real world.  I cannot imagine any situation where this particular ambiguity would be wanted, so I offer a rule:

Never use the word [nauseous].
Use what clearly says whatever U want to say.

Please be assured that I am well aware of the wisdom in the old saying

Never say [never]!

and once was in a situation where I did want to write ambiguously.  But not about tummy troubles.

Example 5.2: Accidental Arson

People for whom English is a second language sometimes say things that native speakers never say.  I have a CD of Chinese music with a track list that displays a translation of each track’s title from Chinese into English.  One of the translations is [Blue Little Flower].  Before seeing that mistake, I had not noticed that native speakers of English put size before color (as in [Little Red Hen] or [big blue eyes]).  The mistaken translation is harmless in the CD track list; I only bring it up to show that nonnative speakers may blunder in ways that native speakers would not.

Suppose I tell the translator that toluene is “inflammable” w/o further explanation.  Suppose the translator is familiar with some pairs of adjectives like [accessible]/[inaccessible] and [voluntary]/[involuntary] (and many more between these).  Suppose the translator looks up [flammable] in an English/Chinese dictionary, extrapolates from the usual effect on meaning of prefixing [i][n] to an adjective, and thinks it safe to have a smoke in a room reeking of glue fumes.  Oops.

Likely?  No.  Possible?  Yes.  At best, to say or write [inflammable] wastes a syllable or 2 keystrokes.  A tiny downside is certain, a huge downside is possible, and there is no upside (unless U want to write weird poetry).

Never use the word [inflammable].
It may be ambiguous to nonnative speakers.