Tuesday, 27 December 2011

String Theory and the demise of Civilization

I have a book written by one of the scientific minds I admire, Lee Smolin, called, The Trouble with Physics (2006). In it, he speaks of the long lull in which particle physics slumbers, that not much novel thought has been advanced since the 1930's. He is critical of string theory in that it has no real experimentally-verifiable claims, nor does it offer any suggestions of its emperical veracity. And yet string theory has been able to assert an unhealthy monopoly over the theoretical discourse (which bases our modern technological advances) - "unhealthy" because it is like that proverbial pied piper which drowns out almost all voices of dissension/reason with its ghostly tune of hidden dimensions and multifarious modes of M.

I've been reading Confidence Men by Ron Suskind (2011) who talks about the rise of "financial engineers" in almost direct proportion to the demise of the manufacturing sector of North America, the demise of the "prudent man". -the "prudent man" is actually a US legal standard from a 1800's landmark decision called Harvard College v. Armory from a case in which a money manager squandered a widow's inheritance. The "prudent man" established that a fiduciary duty applies to investors who must invest assets of a trust as a "prudent man" might his own money (Suskind, p. 539).

Suskind, like Smolin, paints a picture of hyper-abstraction and overly complicated math and logic overtaking and overwhelming hard-won results of knowledge and plunder of its wealth and prudence (ie, not ideological conservatism because neither science nor economics is defined by dogmatic thinking but both are, in fact, fed by the ineffable human spirit of discovery).

Smolin's criticisms of string theories (for there are at least five under the rubric of M-theory (what it is no one really knows)), like Suskind's telling of Capitalism's sad narrative of wandering in the wilderness and losing its way in pursuit of mirages points to something of a collapse of systems of thought under the weight of mindless pursuit of vain-glory (dilettantism, really) and demogoguery, of swine's ears' transmutation into silk purses, of magical thinking trumping rationality and hard work.

The time scales differ but in the nights of book burning Goebbels is said to have made speeches about burning the past and of a "new" culture arising like a phoenix from the ashes, which is much like the greed of Wall Street wanting deregulation and repealing of financial safe-guards; much like the jealousy and mysticism of string theories over "old school" particle physics, that which likes to portray itself as a 24th century framework in the 20th century. At any rate, both views seem very much averse to verification, and, in fact, see such things as hampering their flights of fancy.

Quoting Suskind:

"What was happening was that Volcker was struggling to overlook the demonstrable facts: that by passing over him and his like-minded kindred for top Treasury and White House posts, Obama had shown his preference, one quite different from Volcker's, on almost all these issues. The president's preference, Volker felt, was 'first, do no harm' - a phrase he'd heard often in 1980, when he began to pinch off the money supply. The 'do no harm' school, he said, 'always sounds reasonable' in that it calls for delay, until matters worsen to the point 'where there'll be consensus that we need to act in a forceful way. But you never get that consensus, because many of the actors, the institutions and so forth, will follow their own self-interests right off the cliff.' Every policy of consequence, meanwhile, is going to 'do some harm, short term - something government, mind you, can and should help cushion.' But there's no other way 'to create the larger good, something you look back on with pride.'

That idea of accomplishment, something you could be proud of, reminded him of a breakfast he'd gone to a few months before that had helped him 'see things more clearly, even at my age.' It was a breakfast of 'right-thinking citizens' who were worried about the crumbling infrastructure in the country.

'At the end of the breakfast, this old gray-haired old man says, 'I know something about this. I'm a professor of civil engineering at Princeton. And I was up at Yale the other day and they've given up teaching civil engineering. There are just two old geezers like me up at Harvard, and once they're gone that'll be it. There's hardly an elite university in the United States that pays attention to civil engineering. What's the result? We hardly know how to build bridges; they tend to fall down. It's cost twice as much to build that new bridge across the Potomac as it would cost if it was built in Europe...I assure you, I know...and besides our bridges are ugly and theirs are beautiful.'" (pp. 535-356)

I knew a person who was really into Peter Drucker and the notions of the "new" information age and the shift from manufacturing and real assets to "services industry" and the "knowledge worker". What always struck me as so much "building bridges in the air" about Drucker, and, in fact, the whole ISO Standards movement for that matter, is the cult of the consultant much like the cult of the pop psychologists who sell snake oil and psuedo-Freudian psychology to the gullible and novelty seeker, the unsatisfied with self and reality. I just didn't have the language or framework for my initial impressions, though I've been reading about it in various sources like Hermann Hesse's Magister Ludi and Max Weber's works.

Truly, this is the "age of feuilleton"*, a secular gematria of pop cultural icons by corporatist consent.


*In Hesse's novel, viewed retrospectively from a future scholarly society (Castalia) this age, so called, is generally but not simply portrayed as having an overweening, trivializing, or obfuscating character associated with the arbitrary and primitive nature of social production prior to the historical denouement which resulted in the creation of Castalia. The bourgeois Feuilleton of the Belle Epoque, particularly France of the Dreyfus Affair period, and those of Fascist Germany, characteristic of the genre, served to effect Kulturpolitik and above all to establish norms, tastes, and form effective social identity, in particular expressing a underlying antisemitism. Glasperlenspiel was written during WWII and Hesse would have been reacting in part to these real historical developments. (Wikipedia entry)

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Literacy, Translation and Technical Issues to Consider to promote literacy in Nunavut

I've always been fascinated - nay, mesmerized - by patterns in language and expression of beautiful thoughts and ideas made possible by the human language. I don't remember exactly when and how I learned how to read but everyday of my life involves some reading (whether for work or for pleasure or both) and I feel incomplete without words to read. I love reading, and I love creative and technical writing.

When I taught adult students recently an English Writing Lab, I tried to impart some techniques for reading and writing: to find and imagine a voice when you read (for example, for Plato's Apology, I imagine Anthony Hopkins' voice when reading Socrates' words); when I write I do the same and imagine - lately - Glen Gould's voice when I write for pleasure. Finding and imagining a voice purposefully makes the process of reading and writing much easier (and pleasurable).

The best way to contrast well- and poorly- written and delivered text (for those who watch and listen to CBC) is to analyse and contrast Rex Murphy's blunt force pedantry with Glen Gould's surgical-precision pedantry (I love Gould). Murphy writes overwhelmingly large words for the simple sake of showing-off and he apparently gives no thought to how he sounds to his audience, while Gould crafted his writing like he practiced his piano - with mathematic precision and elegance where every note and cadence is placed deliberately within the context of the architectured whole. -In fact, Gould experimented with the spoken voice as a musical composition (which I found a bit cacophonic, but I digress).

As a translator and thinker on education and language, I've experimented with the notion of translating classical literature into Inuktitut, and actually have made more than a few attempts with Shakespeare, Orwell, St. Exupery, etc. but not only that; I've also experimented with mathematical concepts and physics and chemistry (most scientific concepts are beautiful and their basic principles simple enough for children of 7 years to grasp, if not actually solve).

My aippakuluk, Danielle, brought home recently a book that I'm enjoying immensely. It is called, Will in the World: how Shakespeare became Shakespeare, by Stephen Greenblatt. While reading it I began going back to my contemplations on Inuktitut translation of the classics and the technical issues that one should consider in such an exercise.

Consider freeform verse:

Herein lies the path thru Orchard
A walk that requires no action
A thought that needs no thinker

Herein lies the path to illumine
A path to edify:
Seek ye me
And you’ll see only a simple man

How can I put this:
It’s my never-ending trek thru Hell
I realize I’m walking 'round in circles
And that is my curse:
My awareness and freewill

This type of poetry is the easiest form to write in and the lyrical form of popular music tends to follow this loose, easy-going structure (though I've never been able to master the lyric form, I love and enjoy well-written songs). The music and lyrics of Sume (a Greenlandic rock band from the 1970s) are examples of Inuit masters of the lyric form.

Now consider the Shakespearean sonnet form (that I composed for my aippakuluk, D):

if I were master of space and time between us
I would not change the place nor the second when we met
like notes in measured music on the clef in sequence
I would mark the beat with my heart and bated breath
if I should touch one strand of hair and leave the rest untouched
our lives would change but play their fugue most sad
the snow beneath our feet would then not squish and crunch
and we would be but ghostly memories our love ne’er had
I would not tempt my God nor fate the hour
should He or She or It forget a beat
and I should end my days insane and cower
in darkness with only a candle for warmth and heat
a thousand lifetimes I will endure and live
in hope that my heart your love will give

The English sonnet form (there are other sonnet forms, like Italian) is more rigidly structured than freeform, and requires a bit more thought to compose. It has this basic structure: abab cdcd efef gg. Shakespeare's sonnets are beautiful not only in imagery and notion but in its basic form as well, which provides its structural beauty.

Now, consider this excerpt from Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine:

Nature that framed us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds
Our souls whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world
And measure every wand'ring planet's course
Still climbing after knowledge infinite
And always moving as the restless spheres
Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all
That perfect bliss and sole felicity
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown (Tamburlaine: 2.7.18-29)

Here the words do not rhyme but there is still a structure. Spoken, there is something aesthetically pleasing about it even if we do not know what and how the structure is affected. Here I imagine the voice of one of my good friends, Kalman, whose voice I love hearing as he reads poetry for his friends. I've asked him many times to read one of the poems I love the most: "Kubla Khan, or, A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment" by Coleridge.

Anyhoo, here is what Stephen Greenblatt writes of the excerpt above:

"The actor in Shakespeare would have perceived what was powerful in [Edward] Alleyn's interpretation of Tamburlaine, but the poet in him understood something else: the magic that was drawing audiences did not reside entirely in the actor's fine voice, nor even in the hero's daring vision of the blissful object at which he lunges, the earthly crown. The hushed crowd was already tasting Tamburlaine's power in the unprecedented energy and commanding eloquence of the play's blank verse - the dynamic flow of unrhymed five-stress, ten syllable lines - that the author, Christopher Marlowe, had mastered for the stage. This verse, like the dream of what ordinary speech would be like were human beings something greater than they are, was by no means only bombast and bragging. Its appeal lay in its own 'wondrous architecture': its subtle rhythmes, the way in which a succession of monosyllables suddenly flowers into the word 'aspiring,' the pleasure of hearing 'fruit' become 'fruition.'"

As a linguist, translator and connoisseur of well-expressed language, I find and appreciate that tension between form and content when I read, write or translate (interestingly, there is an additional tension in translation not only between form and content but also conceptual meaning). Inuktitut, like all human languages, has this great creativity and flexibility that is not immediately obvious (and, therefore, under-appreciated by most) but whose key to unlock that great creativity and flexibility lies in understanding its underlying form. Marlowe's discoveries in Elizabethan England showed us the possibilities, that vista of infinite possibilities that should not be denied Inuit children for the simple fact of ignorance and prejudice.

Gould appreciated this fact in ways that Rex Murphy apparently does not. Gould's pedantry was simply beautiful the way Murphy's is not. Having and deliberately cultivating this mastery of underlying forms of the human language has unimaginable power and grace, and makes that small but significant difference between Murphy on the one hand and Gould on the other.


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Some suggested Inuktitut terms for math concepts

I'm a translator/linguist/student of Inuktitut. I was assigned translation work recently on documents that have to do with math curriculum. Below are a list of terms that I started doing up that I wanted to share with my readers and hopefully initiate discussion on what the Inuit Language Authority should be doing to create lexicons and technical glossary of terms that are structured in such a way as to be grammatically productive (ie, phrases that aren't just constructs that try and describe something, but start with noun and verb stems that can attach morphemes, and case/mood endings without losing their grammatical/conceptual integrity such as what proper Inuktitut phrases do naturally).

Fractions = ᐃᓗᐃᑦᑐᒥᑦ ᐊᒡᒍᖅᓯᒪᔪᑦ = divided from a whole

Trigonometry = ᑲᐃᕙᓪᓛᔪᓕᕆᓂᖅ = (measurement/science of) rotation*

hypotenuse = ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ (slope)

adjacent = ᑐᓐᖓᕕᖓ (base)

opposite = ᐳᖅᑐᓂᖓ (height)

*I try and make the term as general/analytical as possible – at least, more general than the “science of triangles” – at the first instance because it goes beyond “triangles”, and has deep connections to other math concepts. To quote a Wikipedia entry: “Sumerian astronomers introduced angle measure, using a division of circles into 360 degrees. They and their successors the Babylonians studied the ratios of the sides of similar triangles and discovered some properties of these ratios, but did not turn that into a systematic method for finding sides and angles of triangles. The ancient Nubians used a similar methodology. The ancient Greeks transformed trigonometry into an ordered science. Classical Greek mathematicians (such as Euclid and Archimedes) studied the properties of chords and inscribed angles in circles, and proved theorems that are equivalent to modern trigonometric formulae, although they presented them geometrically rather than algebraically.”

ᐃᓚᒋᐊᕈᑎ = addition

ᐃᓚᓐᖓᐃᔾᔪᑎ = subtraction

ᐱᕈᕆᐊᕈᑎ = multiplication

ᐊᒡᒍᐃᔾᔪᑎ = division

ᓈᓴᐅᑏᑦ ᓈᓴᐃᔾᔪᑏᑦ = integers = counting numbers

ᓈᓴᐅᑏᑦ ᓴᓂᒧᑦ ᐃᓚᒋᐊᕈᑎᓖᑦ = decimals = numbers whose parts are represented horizontally

ᓈᓴᐃᑏᑦ ᖁᕝᕙᕆᐊᕈᑎᖏᑦ = exponents = raising numbers

ᖁᐊᔾᔪᓕᒃ = triangle

ᓈᓴᐃᓂᕐᒧᑦ ᐃᓕᐅᖅᑲᐃᔾᔪᑏ = equations = places to input numbers

ᓴᓂᒧᑦ ᐊᒻᒪ ᑐᑭᒧᑦ ᓈᓴᐅᑎᓕᖅᓯᒪᔪᓂᒃ ᑭᑉᐹᕆᒃᑐᖅ = Cartesian plane

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓᑕ ᐳᖅᑐᓂᖓ = sine

ᑐᓐᖓᕕᖓᑕ ᑕᑭᓂᖓ = cosine

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓᑕ ᓄᕗᖓ = tangent

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ ᑐᖔᓃᑦᑐᖅ = acute angle = the hypotenuse below the right angle

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ ᑐᑭᒨᖓᓪᓗᐊᖅᑐᖅ = right angle = the hypotenuse at exact right angle

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ ᐅᖓᑖᓃᑦᑐᖅ = obtuse angle = the hypotenuse over the right angle

ᐅᕕᖓᓂᖓ ᑲᐃᕙᓪᓚᐃᓐᖏᑐᐃᓐᓇᖅᑐᖅ = reflex angle = the hypotenuse that doesn’t quite rotate the whole 360º

I hope the Inuktitut syllabics show... The point here is not to create unilaterally but to initiate a starting point for serious discussions on terms/concepts to agree upon (ie, "standardize") and strike conventions for nomenclature in a logically productive way. -you'll notice that most of these terms have to do with "trigonometry"...


Thursday, 1 December 2011

Harper's government sings on the small needle

David Hilbert, one of the original and colourful minds of higher Maths, (1862-1943), is said to have loved music (like most mathematically inclined minds) and would always play his phonographs as loud as possible by choosing the largest needle. Upon hearing Caruso, an Italian tenor, sing live the disappointed Hilbert is said to remark that: "Caruso sings on the small needle."

Since coming into power upon promises of "fixing" government, Harper and his minions when confronted by difficult and controversial issues seem more intent upon pointing out the the previous governments (ie, the Liberals and, more quietly, the Tories) did the exact same thing rather than displaying political acumen and smarts (originality) that Harper's even sometimes dullardly predecessors were known to have flashes of in the most trying of times.

To quote Chretien: "If military action [in Iraq] is launched without a new [UN] resolution, Canada will not participate." and rather than overtly shutting things out on the issue of, again, Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction: "I don't know... A proof is a proof. What kind of a proof? It's a proof. A proof is a proof, and when you have a good proof, it's because it's proven."

John A MacDonald: "Let us be English or let us be French . . . and above all let us be Canadians."

John Diefenbaker: "Freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong... Freedom includes the right to say what others may object to and resent... The essence of citizenship is to be tolerant of strong and provocative words."

The underlying stream in all of these disparate sources have something of self-respect and extending the reality of differences and debate as a means of negotiating political living arrangements for people of differing opinions rather than declaring open war. There is a certain level of decorum, an appeal to "tradition" and "conventional wisdom", a certain authenicity and empathy for freedoms and rights of all, a certain level of mature sanity and thoughtful cautious regard for our political traditions. (as an aboriginal, I truly believe in the Westminster model and regard our present circumstances as rather more reflective of Canada's level of evolution than the mechanism's short-coming)

With Harper and the neo-cons there is little or no regard for liberal tolerations that has been Canada's political climate since its inception, imperfect as it is and was, with its suggested and practical promises to become better and more humane, to develop and evolve into higher forms.

Harper and his minions are baser forms of consciousness - anti-intellectual, easily made defensive and vitriolic - completely taken in by their own disguises. There is an immaturity and narcissism of Shakespeare's Count Malvolio in Harper: "O peace! Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him: how he jets under his advanced plumes!" (II, 5, 1059) "O peace! Now he's deeply in. Look how imagination blows him." (II, 5, 1070) - Twelfth Night