Monday, 30 December 2013

Ancient Aliens

I love watching Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. The producers and the regular commentators featured in the show can and do connect everything with the "ancient astronaut theory" - nazis, 2012, medical knowledge of the ancients, Einstein, the mummy found in the Alps, etc. etc. - everything under the sun, really, and do it with all earnestness and straight-face. Irregardless that the world didn't end on December 21, 2012 as they claimed it would, they just soldier on like real troopers connecting gaudiness with historical facts. - what do you do for a living?; oh, I dabble in this and that...

Some of the commentators like peppering their statements with scientific-sounding words like "vortex", "inter-dimensional", "inter-dimensional vortices", "stars", "star-gates", "inter-dimensional star-gates". There was a commercial campaign recently featuring a travel-booking app that claimed once the data is entered an "auto-magical" process whirls and dings, and out comes an answer. Yeah, right...

I found this website recently that sort of deflated my enthusiasm for Ancient Aliens:

Killjoys. Buzzkills. Now I can't enjoy replying "yes" to the narrations of Ancient Aliens which consist of almost purely rhetorical, leading questions without feeling a bit cruel. Like Harper's cpc, the Ford nation, creationists, we shouldn't let real and hard-won conventional wisdom and science get in the way of self-indulgent fantasies and lies if it allows us to shirk rationality and responsibilities to self and good society.


Saturday, 28 December 2013

Contrasting Russellian ethics with Aristotlian ethics

I think the human brain is hard-wired to mathematical structures. I don't mean that human beings are natural mathematicians as most of the structuring is infrastructural (ie, subconscious). In fact, most people seem averse to maths of any kind. As a linguist, I'm constantly blown away by the mathematical structures that determine and inform not only the grammars of language but also the phonology and allomorphy in ways that are at once systematic and utterly subconscious.

There are mathematical prodigies to be sure, and Bertrand Russell was certainly one of them. But there is something of a tragic figure in Russell. He and Whitehead had published the Principia Mathematica - a three-volume work on the foundations of mathematics recast in set-theoretic language - when an upstart by the name of Gödel came along about twenty years later with a devastating proof called Gödel's incompleteness theorem. But, like all mathematics deemed great, the Russell-Whitehead project was far from being a waste of time and treasure. Besides inspiring maths that came after it, it defined in modern terms much of the working language (axioms) of maths.

I'm a fan of Russell. But that doesn't preclude a critical treatment of his work because even the stuff (from 20-20 hindsight) that he clearly got wrong is worth examining because even errors of a brilliant mind such as his give birth to insights worth keeping in the corpus of human achievement. I think this is perfectly acceptable in a fallibilistic worldview which treats human knowledge not as absolute but as an evolutionary process.

I mentioned Russellian ethics earlier in this blog and tried to forward an argument why normative ethics wouldn't work because of the legalistic-algorithmic frameworks in which they're couched. This is a very mathematical way of treating ethical questions (not surprising coming from a mathematically-trained mind par excellence) but when it comes to wishes and expectations of human beings and the human condition the variables and boundaries are not as clear-cut as solving for x and/or y.

Aristotle distinguished two types of knowledge: sophia and phronesis. He said that sophia (where we get our "philosophy") is a field in which the young excel because techne (mechanical and intellectual skill) does not require experience but mastery in logic and allowable forms of reasoning; whereas phronesis is a field that only maturity can master because prudentia (prudence) requires experience and knowledge and awareness of human nature. Phronesis is often translated as "practical knowledge" to distinguish it from "technical knowledge".

To quote Aristotle: "...although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics and similar branches of knowledge [sophoi], we do not consider that a young man can have Prudence [phronimos]. The reason is that Prudence [phronesis] includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not a possess; for experience is the fruit of years." (Nicomachean Ethics 1142a, Rackham translation)

The notion of phronesis is again evoked if not explicitly stated here (the author of the entry is talking about motivations of desire as per Aristotle's metaphysics):

...continent people [ie, persons having the capacity for self-restraint], unlike those who are completely and virtuously moderate, have depraved desires but do not, precisely because they are continent, ever act upon them (De Anima iii 9 433a6–8; cf. Nicomachean Ethics i 13, 1102b26). So their desires are insufficient for action. Consequently, he concludes, desire alone, considered as a single faculty, cannot explain purposive action, at least not completely. (

further down (given that not all people are virtuous and moderate):

In some way, he concludes, practical reason and imagination have indispensable roles to play as well. (ibid)

Aristotle's notions of sophia and phronesis are closer to Inuit Qaujimaningit (IQ or Inuit Knowledge) distinction between skill and wisdom - though they are never explicitly stated as such being as they are regarded as different (perhaps even unrelated) forms of human skill/capacity given that IQ bothers little with "metaphysics" as such - than Russell's decidedly "scientific" ethics.

In a tone of tongue-in-cheek that only familiarity breeds, an Inuit elder in a documentary interview was recorded to say that Qallunaat were once regarded as "gods" with all their power and technology; another one wondered how can a race of people so knowledgeable in the science of medicine be apparently oblivious to the human need for familial contact - capable as they are to spend years away from home and family with no apparent negative side-effects of emotional duress. There is no naivety here though but an honestly humorous/bemused observation. The subtleties of the IQ-trained mind is as august and real as any philosophy.

Russell was very much a product of his age where the reach of science seemed utterly boundless and the optimism that this apparent fact spawned in the West. But, as the many forays of Russell's polymathy indicate, there is always a danger of illusory power of novelty yet unproven in the social and ecological realms (in their most general sense). This does not take anything away from such people as Russell for without their contributions no human advancement is possible.


Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Einsteinian at heart

I'm a believer in Christ. I'm not a fundamentalist and conservatism of any type is abhorrent to me. I'm painfully aware of my sinful nature so fundamentalism and conservatism are natural enemies of my belief in the grace and mercy that the cross represents for me. G*d is a wonder and mystery.

But I'm also a scientist (a student and lover of language). I guess I'm an Einsteinian. I love not only his scientific works but also his philosophical, pedagogical and political commentaries.

My aippakuluk gave me a book (more a tome, really) today, a biography of Einstein. Einstein once said of Princeton that it is a pipe not yet smoked - this book, this gift is like that. I'm really looking forward to reading it. I've already skimmed through the book.

Walter Isaacson, the writer of the book on Einstein, writes:

A popular feel for scientific endeavours should, if possible, be restored given the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean that every literature major should take watered-down physics course or that a corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, it means that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful asset for a responsible citizenry.[...] In addition, an appreciation for the glories of science is a joyful trait for a good society. It helps us remain in touch with the childlike capacity for wonder, about such things as falling apples and elevators, that characterizes Einstein and other great theoretical physicists.[...] That is why studying Einstein can be worthwhile. Science is inspiring and noble, and its pursuit an enchanting mission, as the sagas of its heroes reminds us. (Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 6)

Being a huge proponent of liberal arts education, I think appreciation of science is a worthy goal, but so is classical literature, and critical analysis of current events. This is why I was a bit taken aback by a quote of Einstein on the same page:

"In teaching history there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character and judgement." (ibid)

I once read an account of the trial of G*d in one of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany which had a real affect on my views of G*d and religion (especially the Jewish faith), and which made me an admirer of Talmud/Torah scholarship. I don't remember much of the details of the arguments forwarded in this trial, but the gist of it was that a human being's capacity for freewill (the image of G*d) and the attendant notion of personal responsibility vindicates G*d and validates faith in Him.

Isaacson goes on to quote Einstein on the next page which again puts me back to homeostasis:

His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marvelling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society. "It is important to foster individuality," he said, "for only the individual can produce the new ideas."[...] This outlook made Einstein a rebel with a reverence for the harmony of nature, one who had just the right blend of imagination and wisdom to transform our understanding of the universe. (ibid, p. 7)

It is not enough just to rebel against and challenge conventional wisdom for audacity's sake; this comes later in an education (and I don't mean here just classroom education but the active seeking of knowledge and reflection on history where attempts at advancements can be analysed). I believe this was also Einstein's philosophy.

It is a rare being that attains immortality by achievement. Einstein was clearly that, not only in science, but what has always been most instructive to me is, that even when he turned down offers for further fame in other areas of human endeavour he lefts us with thoughtful advice and wise and kind admonishment.

I make him out not to be a saint but only point out a coherent philosophical outlook that these rare beings have in common - something divine, something humble.


Saturday, 21 December 2013

Uncritical nationalism is linguistic voodoo

What makes Shakespeare great? What makes Dante great?

As my last blog entry suggests, I'm not a huge fan of Mark Abley types - you know the type: they're liable to say something like "this is an untranslatable word" then proceed to translate it. There is something contrived, stiff and Harper-ish about them because the "insight" is amateurishly handled and/or just plain wrong to begin with. Mark Abley would make a perfect writer for the History Channel. But what makes Shakespeare great, or - for that matter - what makes a Newton or a Riemann great?

It is not the creation of something new but a way of seeing something in a novel way. For the master of the sonnet it was the iambic pentameter - a constraint to test the limits of linguistic creativity. I highly doubt many of us could identify the cadence and rhythm of the iambic pentameter in our naïve state though all of us would be able to perceive, if not appreciate, the aesthetic quality of it - there definitely is a style afoot...

It was the same with Newton and his fluxions and fluents* to calculate the tides and orbitals with infinitesimals and limits. Ditto for Riemann: he used an old Euler formula but his innovation was to use the imaginary unit as an exponent to correct the errors in the prime counting function...for all cases, the elements were already there needing only fresh insights to naturally fall into place. Perhaps the semiosis was realized upon later reflection but the coherence and consistency was always there to be discovered.

*ironically, Newton's nemesis, Leibnitz' notations and terminology won out where we now have derivatives and such in calculus...

As a commentator of language and ideas it is my belief that uncritical linguistic voodoo and haphazardly juxtaposed over-romanticization of language (any language) is a killer of languages (at work in both the dominant and colonialized languages). I've always tried to demonstrate, by way of thought experiments mostly, that Inuktitut is just as effective in conveying ideas of the modern world as - say - English.

I know for a fact that the morphological structure of Inuktitut is better than English in many ways though in terms of grammatico-lexical flexibility and adaptability English is pretty fine. This is especially so for non-agglutinated terms (bare, stand-alone terms, that is - paradoxically, the more foreign the origin the better, it seems). I suspect that perfect conditions of linguistic efficacy (for modern English) have to do with both the grammatical structure of the language and the accidental choice of a phonemic writing system (ie, [f] is spelt variously as "ph", "gh", "f" etc.) that allow such adaptability. That English...I'm so jealous.

The symbolic notational systems of science and maths are not language-specific. In fact, the openness to arbitrary labelling of concepts and ideas in science make it not language-specific. What matters is that the taxonomical scheme has internal consistency and logic in order for this to work. The beauty of semiological spaces is that, once perceived, the logic of the terminology systems tend to fall into place regardless of what people like Harper, Abley and the like say.


Friday, 20 December 2013

A ferkakta travelogue

My aippakuluk brought home a book by a Mark Abley called, Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages (2003, Random House Canada). I would not recommend this book to anyone interested in linguistics because it's not about linguistics - it's more an indictment on the pervasiveness of the English language using (ironically) English to belittle English by an English-speaking journalist.

I was looking forward to a good read when I was shown the book. Hmm...the first few pages read like a badly written novel...ok. So, I looked at the back hoping to find an index (there is an index). I looked up Inuit (it's there, along with Eskimos).

The problem as I see it is that the writer assumes there is an objective standard on which different languages (including English) may be measured and judged. There is no such principle in the scientific study of languages which is, in fact, founded upon the principle that any language may be translated into another language (meaning-based translation allows that if only to convey meaning and not the accoutrements - there are minimal levels of conveyance in analysis, after all, that allow us to see something of a coherence in our observations). Not to say that Abley is an analyst.

There is a section on Yiddish (look up "ferkakta" as in Wolowitz' mother say she doesn't want the ferkakta computer giving her a virus) where he just starts peppering the section with Yiddish (he does that). Right...

I've spent a majority of my working career thinking about the nature of language; it is a beautiful mystery to me: something familiar yet mysterious where the consistent nature is adumbrated at its roots but whose rolling out is nonlinear and oftentimes unpredictable but utterly rational if put under close scrutiny. I think this is how mathematical proofs work as well, why they are often considered "beautiful" and "elegant". All languages, including English, have this abstract beauty.

The thing about languages is that grammatical structures are what are called "information-rich" structures - there is always more than is obvious.

There is none of that insight in Abley. In fact, he is so intent on something illusory that he never even finds his voice. His book reads like a cut and paste job and one can tell that he spent his grant/advance on other things and writing up was merely an after-thought.