Sullen mass of stone,
hosting only black lichen?
Seeds and spores found cracks.
Sullen mass of stone,
hosting only black lichen?
Seeds and spores found cracks.
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:
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
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).
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:
Despite having a deterministic philosophy, Einstein had no qualms about common-sense probabilities:
Is 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.
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.
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).
Taught myself a crash course in digital photo manipulation to respond to
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.
Three plus two was five
before any mind could know.
Where do numbers live?
… 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
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 »
Here are links to all posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.
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.
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.
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:
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]!
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.
Here are links to all posts in this project of reviewing and supplementing the splendid book
The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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]!