humor, language, photography, science

Squirrel at the Center of the Universe

Science says there is no place special, so the center of a coordinate system can be any place convenient for the purposes of the moment.  While the fluidity of centrality would have freaked out Aristotle (and still induces some queasiness), squirrels take it in stride.
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Centre ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #247

«Hey, stupid!»
«My empty gut is the center of the universe.»
«Refill the “bird” feeder and I’ll do rest.»

Squirrels also take it in stride when
science says space has no special directions.

Do they chow down or chow up?

language, philosophy, photography, science, seasons

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.


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

Taught myself a crash course in digital photo manipulation for a post on how Plato recovered from a hangover and bounced back from an encounter with intellectual ancestors of Karl Popper.  Hope I did not flunk.

Numbers ~ Pic and a Word Challenge #106

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.

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.tifNON 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]!

enlightenment, grammar, history, humor, language, politics, science

Writing Well – Part 1

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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.

Writing well ain’t easy.  If the word “ain’t” in the previous sentence raised hackles, U really need to read The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.  If not?  Read it anyway.  This post starts a series of posts that includes a glowing review of the book, with my own additions and amplifications for some points (and a few mild disagreements).

One of the few complaints I have about the book is that the title is too narrow.  Yes, the book considers lexicography.  It also considers grammar, punctuation, spelling, and vulgarisms.  In just 276 well-written pages (not counting source notes and such), it considers all these things with serious historical scholarship and considerable humor (mostly dry; sometimes LOL).

Why a series of posts?  Doing justice to the scope of the book in a single post would be tough unless what I wrote was only a book review, and the single post might still be quite long.  Better to write a separate post of moderate length on each of several themes in the book, adding something worthwhile to each.  In between posts in this Writing Well series, I can post on other topics.  If I think of yet another way that the sane and decent people in the USA might resist the Age of Trumpery, I want to interrupt the series rather than interrupt work on a single humongous draft.

Can a noncontiguous series work?  Across the Room and Into the Fire is working quite well for Óglach, with Part 6 (out of a projected 7) posted as of this writing.

Example 1.1: Recency of “Proper” English

Example numbers in this series have the form (part number).(number within the part), just in case I want to refer to an example in one part when writing up another part.

The following quote from page 10 of the book poses a conundrum that cries out for the kind of historical investigation exemplified by the book.

For just one third of 1 percent of the history of language in general, and for just 20 percent of the history of our own language, have we had to go to school to study the language we already speak.

When something is that strange, asking how the Hell it happened is not just idle curiosity.  It might lead to major insights.  Here is something similarly strange in physics.

For every chunk of matter in the entire universe (no matter what it is made of), the gravitational mass is exactly the same as the inertial mass.

For everything we can get our hands on, the equality of the 2 kinds of mass has been verified to more decimal places than I can count on my fingers.  Why is gravity like this?  Isaac Newton had no idea at all.  His theory of gravity could use this fact but could not explain it.  Early in the previous century, many physicists were uneasy about this apparent cosmic coincidence.  They were also uneasy about a piddling tiny difference between how Mercury orbited the sun and how Newton’s theory predicted it would orbit the sun.

One of the uneasy physicists was Albert Einstein, whose more elaborate theory of gravity gave an elegant explanation of the equality of the 2 kinds of mass and yielded predictions that were slightly different from Newton’s.  When Einstein published his theory in 1916, the only known differences were just barely measurable by those who cared about nerdy stuff like the perihelion of Mercury’s orbit.  Today, we know of many other differences.  Thanks to our knowledge of some of them, your GPS is more than just an expensive paperweight.


Jack Lynch wrote the book that anchors this series.  The historical perspective helped me refine my own views.  Want to see many examples of clear writing that is balanced and nuanced w/o being wishy-washy?  Read the book.

Óglach is among the bloggers who demonstrate that good writing can thrive in the blogosphere.   Thanking all those I know would take up too much space and omit those I do not know, but I must thank him for the inspiration to try a noncontiguous series.

Miriam Sargon taught the AP English class that I took in my senior year of high school.  (My post on lexicography will say a little more about that class.)  Back in the 1962/1963 academic year, well-informed people could still believe that Enlightenment values were winning (albeit slowly and with many setbacks).  She did not preach those values; she exemplified them.

grammar, humor, language, science, STEM

Narrative Starkness and Word of the Year

Kurt Brindley advocates “narrative starkness” that omits extraneous details about the characters in his fiction.  Apart from applauding Kurt’s starkness (and his ability to write humorous introductions for serious issues), the purpose of this post is to remark on a major difficulty with starkness and how the Word of the Year for 2015 may help.
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For reasons explained in the post excerpted below, Kurt Brindley advocates “narrative starkness” that omits extraneous details about the characters in his fiction.  Unless a character’s appearance (or gender or sexual orientation or …) matters to the plot, readers can imagine whatever they like.  Readers may later get a jolt if some details become relevant later and are different from their imaginings.  Maybe such a jolt will loosen the grip of a stereotype.

Apart from applauding Kurt’s starkness (and his ability to write humorous introductions for serious issues), the purpose of this post is to remark on a major difficulty with starkness and how the Word of the Year for 2015 may help.

My Uncolorful* Character(s)
Originally posted on
Kurt Brindley:

I don’t know about you, but as for me – unless it is absolutely critical to the movement of a story – I don’t need to always know every item in each room, or the style and brand of every shoe in the protagonist’s closet.

So it should come as no surprise then when I tell all you other reader dudes*** that I try to write my stories in the way that I prefer to read them: with limited and only absolutely necessary descriptive telling.

While I am very happy that DADT was finally axed and homosexuals are now allowed serve without any restrictions to their being, it was all of that nasty DADT stuff that became the impetus for me writing my novel.

And my goal in writing it was to force the reader to have to apply his or her own values, via perceptions and stereotypes, upon the characters in and events of the story.  Consequently, it was important for me as a writer to not tell the reader what I wanted them to think by way of character description, but to allow them to draw their own conclusions.

This equality stuff sure is a difficult nut to crack – witness the all-white Oscar nominees for this year’s Best and Supporting Actors/Actresses – and I’m not about to attempt to try and crack it here.

Except to say that screenwriters can certainly have a hand in keeping an open playing field for actors of all races and ethnicity by – you guessed it – laying off the descriptive details in their screenplays and leaving it up to the director to cast the best actor for the role based on the story’s content and need and not on the screenwriter’s biases.

*Yeah, I know “uncolorful” is not a real word, whatever a real word may be, but I it sounds less negative to me than “colorless” so, for what it’s worth, I’m going with it.

**gender specific

***non-gender specific

View original

Yes, “uncolorful” is awkward.  The aesthetic that urges omission of extraneous detail is well-established in STEM (as in “abstract algebra” or “Occam’s Razor”), but I cannot think of a good word or short phrase for wider advocacy of specifying only what really matters.  An “abstract” character is no more appealing than an “uncolorful” one.

It gets worse.  Writing smoothly and vividly but abstractly is tough.  George Orwell’s forever relevant 1946 essay Politics and the English Language includes a hilarious comparison between a memorable Bible passage and a translation into flabby blather that tries to make the general point w/o the concrete examples:

… the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, …; but time and chance happeneth to them all.


… success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but … the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

In one way, a recent event may make narrative starkness a little easier.  The American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year award for 2015 went to “they” when used as a 3rd person singular pronoun that is gender-neutral.  I hope this usage sticks.

Suppose I want to write a story whose characters include a Navy sailor and a PhD scientist.  I could call them “Ensign Wood” and “Doctor Stone” to give them names that leave their genders unspecified.  But the old he-she-it gang gives me no appropriate pronoun to use.  Tho adequate in nonfiction writing, the clunky alternatives “he/she” or “(s)he” are hopeless in speech.  For my story, those pronouns may be making a misplaced fuss about being gender-neutral.  I can use “they” instead.  The ADS will have my back if grammar prigs attack.

It is nice to see that a humble pronoun has gotten the WOTY honor and may even help those who are fighting the good fight.  I have no appropriate haiku to end this post, but a limerick I read long ago does come to mind.

The function that’s nowhere defined
is an orange with only a rind.
But it turns up the hero
(like the null set and zero)
in many a proof you will find.


humor, photography, science, seasons, serendipity

Serendipity with Squid

Did I superimpose 2 images to create a (clumsy) visual metaphor about the interconnectedness of life?  Nope.  The story begins millions of miles away.  It ends on a window pane.
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HeronSquid_581x684Hmmm?  A ghostly translucent squid seems to hover in midair between the viewer and nesting herons.  No, I did not combine a heron image with a squid image in my photo editor.

The story begins millions of miles away, where the sun emits photons even more copiously than the pols emit factoids.  Minutes later, a tiny fraction of the photons bounce off a neighbor’s window, pass thru my window, and hit me in the eye.  There are many ways I would love to emulate people like Bach or Galileo; going blind is not one of them.

Yes, I could pull the drapes. But only a small portion of my window needs to be obscured.  Would rather not waste winter sunshine.  Yes, I could buy a window decal.  Most of the decals I have seen are cutesy.  The rest make a statement:

I am as ugly as a warthog with zits,
but the jerk who owns this dump
bought me as a decoration.  Ha!

Of course, I am dissing only the decals I have seen, not any other decal U may have and like.

The Dec/Jan 2016 issue of National Wildlife magazine has photos from the annual NWF photo contest, including a photo of nesting herons by Mario Labado and a photo of a squid by Jackie Reid.  I read the magazine on paper (yes, I am that old), and it so happens that the photos are on opposite sides of the same thin sheet, w/o much else to clutter what is seen when bright light passes thru.  The fraction of duplex printed sheets that look at all good when both sides are seen at once is like the fraction of photons emitted by the sun that bounce off my neighbor’s window:  tiny.

So I cut out the sheet and taped it to my window.  The image of the squid is actually on the far side; the illusion of being closer than the herons is the same in my house as in my photo.

The composite image is indeed clumsy as a visual metaphor for the interconnectedness of life, but it does tone down the excess sunlight.  It cost nothing beyond what I already spent to help support the NWF, and it looks better than a warthog with zits.

haiku, history, humor, photography, science

Moving the Earth

Sometimes the Earth moves, quite apart from the constant motion in orbit around the Sun.  No, I am not using hyperbole to describe a big, screaming orgasm.  I am considering an even rarer event.
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Sometimes a really big idea challenges and ultimately transforms deeply held beliefs about the fundamental nature of human life.  Centuries ago, the idea that the Earth does indeed move around the Sun was such an idea.  Oh shit, we may not be at the center of the universe!  Astronomical humble pie from Copernicus has been pretty well digested; some people still cannot swallow humble pie that was pulled from the oven in 1858.

Already know what happened in 1858?  Please don’t leave.  I will keep it brief, keep it light, and put my own eccentric spin on the story.  (Honestly now, when was the last time U saw the phrase “big, screaming orgasm” in the 2nd sentence of a note on the history of science?)  Sources are thanked at the end of this post.

Back in 1858, there were no search boxes.  No Google.  No Wikipedia.  No e-mail!  Anything called a “manuscript” really was a collection of sheets of paper on which letters and symbols had been written by hand.  Want to show it to somebody U cannot visit?  Put it in the mail and hope it eventually arrives intact.  Want to have a backup copy in case it gets lost or damaged?  Write it out all over again before mailing.  No scanners.  No soft copy.  Yuck.

I am old enough to have lived and worked in a hard copy world, albeit with gadgets like electric typewriters that made it less painful than in 1858.  Collaborating with somebody several time zones away was agony in my early days and impossible in 1858.  In some important ways, doing science in my early days was more like it was in 1858 than it is now.  So I can imagine how Charles Darwin felt when he read the mail on 1858-06-18.

Correctly anticipating that his concept of evolution by natural selection would ignite a firestorm of controversy when published, Darwin had spent some of his time over the previous 20 years thinking about possible objections or misunderstandings, devising ways to answer or avoid them, and organizing a mountain of evidence.  Already an A-list biologist, Darwin was in no hurry and wanted to dot more i-s and cross more t-s before the firestorm.  Naturally, he wanted to wait a while before publishing his big idea.

The letter and manuscript that Darwin received on 1858-06-18 came from Alfred Wallace, a younger colleague then roughing it somewhere in one of the places that would now be called Indonesia or Malaysia or New Guinea.  Wallace sought advice about how to publish a new idea: evolution by natural selection.  Tho Wallace did not have a mountain of evidence, his pile was plenty high enough to justify publication.

Wallace earned his living by collecting natural history specimens for sale and was being hassled for the amount of time he devoted to nerdy “theorizing” when he should be killing things.  Naturally, he wanted to publish his big idea soon.  Naturally, he sought the opinion of a senior colleague with whom he had already exchanged a few letters on smaller matters.  He did not know (and could not know for months) that he had independently come up with the same big idea that Darwin had been quietly refining and supporting for years.

How could the differing priorities of Darwin and Wallace be reconciled?  How could Darwin respond to Wallace in a way that was fair to both of them and feasible in 1858?  No e-mail.  No conference calls.  Darwin consulted a few friends.  More than a century before the exhortation to

Let it all hang out!

enjoyed a vogue, they decided to do exactly that.  Those who attended the meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 1858-07-01 were treated to an explanation of the unusual situation, a reading of a summary of Darwin’s work, and a reading of Wallace’s paper.  Wallace was still in the boondocks and did not even know that his work (presented for him in his absence by one of Darwin’s friends) was sharing the spotlight on equal terms with Darwin’s.

Wallace did eventually return to England, make further contributions to biology, and enjoy a long friendship with Darwin.  Yes, they disagreed on some points.  Yes, creationists took such disagreements at the frontiers as an excuse to claim that the whole enterprise was “just a theory” with no greater plausibility than an extremely literal reading of Genesis as translated from a translation of the original ancient Hebrew.  But the Earth had begun to move again.  Oh shit, we may not be descendants of a pair of idle nudists who took advice from a snake!

Archimedes in 1858
|Darwin and Wallace
|found a lever long enough
|and a place to stand.

Greater Bird of Paradise
Greater Bird of Paradise


      • The brief biography of Wallace by Andrew Berry in the September 2015 issue of Natural History is very readable and provides some details I had not known.  No access to that issue of the magazine?  Pasting a few phrases into search boxes will compensate nowadays.  I have zoomed in on June/July of 1858 to elaborate on collaboration technologies (then and now), Darwin’s fairness predicament,  and why I applaud the way he resolved it.

    • Tim Laman’s many bird of paradise photos are featured in the September 2015 issue of Natural History.  The photos that appear here have been cropped to fit well on this page.  The originals (and many other splendid photos) can be seen on Tim Laman’s website.  Prints can be bought.

  • The concluding zinger about Adam and Eve is believed to be original; it is inspired by the edgy absurdist humor in Eric Wong’s blog.


haiku, humor, math, philosophy, science

Could a Long Fly Ball Hit a Flying Horse?

This is one of the few times I need to put some fiction into my blog, so I will change font for a little while.


Sometimes it is hard to be fair to Plato.  He is basically a good guy, but his politics are bullshit.  That “philosopher-king” notion is so self-serving.  Then there is that cave shtick.  Most people know that philosophers can be a little klutzy in everyday life.  We give them some slack and don’t make a big deal of it.  But Plato says the wannabe king has been looking at ultimate reality and absolute truth (and maybe a pretty girl sunbathing?) in bright daylight, so he stumbles in the cave that passes for the real world among ordinary Joes.  After his eyes adapt to the dim light, he will govern just fine.  No way.

Feeling mellow enough to ignore Plato’s politics, I invited him over to watch a baseball game on TV.  He was surprised that the pitcher threw a ball rather than a discus or a javelin, and that nobody was naked.  But he is a smart guy and soon understood the duel between the pitcher and the batter.  He noticed the (4 balls or 3 strikes) rule for ending an at-bat and said something about the ratio 4:3 in music by The Pythagoreans.  Are they a band I don’t know about?  He broke into a big grin when a batter sent a long fly ball arcing high above the field.  Tho he knows zip about physics, he hangs out with Euclid and knows a parabola when he sees one.

To Plato, the path of the fly ball in the grungy everyday world is an imperfect realization of the timeless perfection of an ideal parabolic form.  To me, the description of the path as a parabola is a good approximation that ignores air resistance and wind.  Ignoring those things is OK in an introductory physics course.  It is not OK in a baseball game.


Using the parabola to describe the fly ball oversimplifies a staggeringly complex everyday world that emerges from a staggeringly weird tarantella of elementary particles.  Our use of the parabola is fundamentally a story we tell ourselves.  Unlike the story of Pegasus the flying horse, it has been corrected, refined, and integrated with many other stories by scientific processes.  The notion of a flying horse is appealing (to people who have not been hit by a bird splat).  The parabolic story is ultimately more satisfying, as part of something gloriously predictive and useful (despite not being much help to the outfielder running to catch the fly ball).

Pegasus himself is as limited in time and space as the Pegasus story: an idea created by some people at some time and place, elaborated and spread by other people at other times and places.  The Pegasus story will vanish and its starring horse will vanish with it, if we succeed in our current efforts to make the Earth uninhabitable long before we can go elsewhere.  Would the parabolic story vanish also?  That is a question for another time.  The mathematical cast of characters in the parabolic story, on the other hand, is special.  Very special.

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

My snapshots of Plato and of Pegasus could not get thru the time warp, but I did some cropping of public domain images with good likenesses.

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