Sunday, 26 January 2014

Canada's Rube Goldberg

If you google "Rube Goldberg" it'll call up something delightful. Whoever started this tradition and when (there is a British version in W Heath Robinson and even a Danish version, Storm P), it is a hilarious jab at human beings' fascination with machines. These aren't just machines but overly complicated contraptions designed to do something simple like (Robinson's) wart chair - "A simple apparatus for removing a wart from the top of the head".

Harper's government may likewise be presented. It is a costly, overtly complex machine intended for only one thing: to put Harper in the Langevin Block.

The most merciful thing about Rube Goldberg machines is that (when they actually work) they only work the one time, much like muskets. It should also be abundantly clear (and if it is not abundantly clear to the conservatives of Canada, they deserve the wilderness) that Harper has never intended the Conservative Party of Canada to be a real and viable political movement without him at the helm.

The "Harper Government", indeed.


Sunday, 19 January 2014

[-vunga] vs [-junga]

In linguistic analysis of the Inuit language there are quite a few unresolved issues such as the distribution of the verbal mood ending: [-vunga] and [-junga] – for simplicity's sake I'll just use the first person, singular pronominal ending because the only relevant segment in this allomorphy is the /v/ vs /j/ distribution.

For those who read this blog, you may be aware that I've written about this issue before. But, first, a few definitions:

(mutually exclusive) distribution: in linguistic analysis, the occurrence of one segment over another variant as determined by some phonological and/or morphological condition or rule;

first person, singular: in English this pronoun is "I";

mood ending: a grammatical function that specifies a quality and/or state of being (in this case, the distinction between a simple declarative "I see him" and subjunctive "I will see him")

allomorphy: in the Inuit language, only the first consonant of a morpheme (usually) changes to account for some phonological rule (isiqtunga "I enter"; anijunga "I exit") or – in the case of [-vunga] vs [-junga] – to denote a difference in grammatical mood.

In my various writings on this subject, I've claimed that the [-vunga] vs [-junga] has to do with "informal" and "formal" voice (most questions in Inuktitut begin with the segment /v/: [p], as in isiqpiit? "did you (just) come in?"; aniviit "did you (just) exit?") or in reporting an event that the listener has not experienced (asuillaak anivuq "and, as it happened, he came out"). These are all true (as far as I can determine).

But the conceptual commonality of these different grammatical functions is a distinction of what is technically called realis and irrealis moods.

The concept of the "irrealis" voice is defined in Wikipedia as: "...typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred – the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language..."

-here, I'd include the notion of an "action that has already occurred but was not personally witnessed by either the speaker and/or listener".

I once predicted that reading through the Nunavut Legislature hansards (transcripts of the proceedings) would tend to favour the [-vunga] variants over the [-junga] variants for the simple fact that the setting is not only "formal" but also that the inquiries that are "taken as notice" are promises to look into an issue, and/or the members' statements are reporting something either the speaker and/or the listener did not personally witnessed but whose truth of it is taken as factual.

The [-vunga] variation is, in other words, a "subjunctive" mood that differs grammatically from the declarative/indicative mood [-junga]. To drive the difference further between subjunctive and indicative moods, again from Wikipedia:

While most of the signs of the subjunctive suffix have been removed in Modern English, the change from was to were in the modern English subjunctive of to be also marks addition of a vowel sound to the subjunctive form, and as such represents an echo of the Indo-European optative marker of five thousand years ago. (

This wonderful ability to adapt language in order to retain subtle distinctions follows a principle of linguistics that all human languages are "equal" – ie, there is no such demonstrable notion that there are "unsophisticated" and "sophisticated" languages. In fact, any language – whether constructed or natural – will eventually find a way to communicate/convey the interior realities of the speaker to the listener – all with very high fidelity (ie, with equal "sophistication").

I had the honour of working with someone who had constructed with her friend a "secret" language. I never figured out (nor did I try – out of respect for her) what the speech actually meant, but the many examples I overheard suggested to me that these utterances actually held deeper meaning between the two friends.


Sunday, 12 January 2014

What's wrong with this picture?

I think I admitted here on this blog that I became addicted to posting comments on Huffington Post Canada. Since they now insist that people who can post comments also have to be facebook users I've stopped posting. I think I'm better for it.

Most of the posted comments on media websites give a very wrong impression that people are basically idiotic, vitriolic and uninformed right-wing Limbaughians. Balance, for me, is an elusive homeostatic condition at the best of times, and participating in such activity as posting comments on media websites does not help. I know most people are nice, thoughtful, intelligent and caring.

I'm a political junkie (actually a news junkie). But there is a difference between credible journalists and columnists like John Ivison, Chantal Hubert, Bill Moyers, etc. or serious political talk shows like CTV's Question Period and CBC's Power&Politics, and pundits and hacks whose only credentials seem to be that they hold a semblance of a political view (actually these types are the neo version of the famous feuilleton writers so beautifully satired by Hermann Hesse in his novel, Magister Ludi or The Glass Bead Game).

There is a novel by Umberto Eco called, Foucault's Pendulum (1989 for the English translation), about three employees in a self-publishers' publishing house (Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon) who decide on a whim to create their own conspiracy to mock the clientele of the publishing house who are mainly into occult conspiracies (hollow earth-, ancient astronaut-,  Opus Dei-, holy grail- theorists - you know the type). They call this constructed conspiracy "The Plan". But like all conspiracy theories, this game takes a disturbing turn in that the clientele of the publishing house (and secret societies) take the whole thing seriously. Actually, the three characters themselves get caught up in the game...

There is something of "getting caught up" in regularly reading and posting comments on media websites that I think is made very easy by this "tribal sympathies" gene hard-wired in our brains (if such a thing exists). At the very least, our need for a sense of belonging to a group is exploited and indulged to the hilt by such websites as the Huffington Post because such a users' list makes money; linking it to data-mining websites as facebook was just too much for me.


Saturday, 11 January 2014

The arithmetic of infinity

One of the most bizarre and wondrous concepts of maths is the arithmetic of infinity (or Cantorian set theory). It was developed by Georg Cantor and Richard Dedekind in the late 19th century with Cantor at the helm.

It seems absurd on the surface that one can do arithmetical operations on infinities but it is a rigorous enterprise (ie, set theory) that discovered that there are different sizes/types of infinities, that, in fact, without these notions/perspectives of set theory it would be pretty difficult (if not impossible) to define what an irrational number is (what "number" is for that matter - at least, axiomatically), what a transcendental number is, whether infinitesimals and limits are reliable concepts in calculus...

There is a wonderful book called, A Tour of the Calculus by David Berlinski (A Tour of the Calculus (Vintage, 1996) ISBN 0-679-42645-0), that describes some of the evolution of calculus from the set theoretical perspective. The incomparable Berlinski presents a vignette of Dedekind as he defines what an irrational number is that is most memorable. I highly recommend Berlinski to anyone interested in the foundational concepts of mathematics as he is an undeniable master of historical pedagogy on the subject.

Now, I'm going to make a conceptual leap that reeks of Cantor's descent into madness in appealing to the more "theological" aspects of the arithmetic of the infinity. I've always been struck by the lengths in which fundamentalists are willing to take to do a literal interpretation of the creation stories of the bible, and have never been able to rationally accept the magical thinking that goes on in the minds of the so-called creationist "theorists", and am put off much by the blazon anti-intellectualism thereof.

I'm a believer in Christ; let me be clear from the onset of this strand of reasoning. I see no irreconcilable differences between the findings of science and the tenets of Judeo-Christian belief systems. In fact, I'm informed by Aristotle's notions of "sophia" and "phrenosis" and consider human knowledge incomplete with one without the other.

My line of reasoning stems from the fact that I can distinguish between the "orthographical" conventions of language and the (almost) Platonic reality of "number". In Peano's axioms of what a "number" is, he starts out by stating that zero is a number and from that all other numbers may be generated. Here is the rub: there is a difference between the place-holder function of zero in the Hindu-Arabic numeric system (the orthographical conventions) and zero as a true number in its own right.

I have found that infinity divided by half is exactly zero (the number) if we cancel out every positive number with its negative counterpart on the other side of zero. This odd result is a concrete example of why Peano's axioms would work (though I've never been able to find anywhere in Peano's writings how he's generated the number zero). Excuse the apparent tautological aspects of the definition for the moment...

Cantor also found that there are infinities embedded within infinities all along the real number line; that the space between zero and one is as "everywhere dense" as say the space between zero and two, three...and so on to infinity...and there will always be a one-to-one correspondence between these different "lengths". In fact, the center point of a circle generates the circle itself and can be made to correspond one-to-one thusly. Freaky but true: a line of whatever length is equal to all the infinite points in a plane as even unto n-dimensional spatially extended structures. There is a thing called the Riemann sphere that captures this notion beautifully, and, in fact, extends the real line to the imaginary plane.

Going back to the theological aspects that set me off on the tangent: The mind of G*d is utterly inscrutable and infinitely creative. From the one-to-one correspondences we may now say, with all logical/spiritual rigor, that every point is unique and particular no matter its distance from the point zero - the only thing that matters is the spatio-temporally undefined null point (ie, the zero that is often used as the symbol of G*d - ein sof is endless not as a myriad but as a simple root of all things).

This means that a Mind that has the quality and ability to generate these fundamental precepts (that define reality) is not beholden to our notions of time and space, and whether this current year, by human reckoning, is numbered in the billions since the ignition of our sun (in fact, the time-span since the Big Bang), or 5774 according to the Hebrew calendar, or 2014 by the Christian counting of years, makes no iota of difference when human beings actually arrogated themselves or were granted/graced a place of divine privilege in creation.

The point is that everything may and could exist before humanity came along (as science says) but that does not in any way detract from the miracle of conscious awareness and intelligence capable of perceiving the "speech of the heavens" (cf. psalm 19) as well as having the capacity to wreak utter evil and destruction (which, in my mind, necessitates the Lord Saviour most cogently and elegantly).

The infinite mind of G*d that has created such numbers as π which in fact does not settle down to a neat ratio and is in fact the very definition of uniqueness, is said to be holy (holy, holy, holy is the Lord almighty; the heavens and the earth are full of His glory). The number zero holds a truly unique position than every other number in that it is without quantity but like the center point of a circle the origin of every number along the arc.


Friday, 10 January 2014

Aphorisms of Einstein

Of the many things that Einstein was famous for was his penchant for quotable quotes. Walter Isaacson's book describes the Boston leg of Einstein's first tour of America:

While in Boston, Einstein was subjected to a pop quiz known as the Edison test. The inventor Thomas Edison was a practical man, getting crankier with age (he was then 74), who disparaged American colleges as too theoretical and felt the same about Einstein...The Times called it "the ever-present Edison questionnaire controversy," and of course Einstein ran into it. A reporter asked him a question from the test. "What is the speed of sound?" If anyone understood the propagation of sound waves, it was Einstein. But he admitted that he did not "carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books." Then he made a larger point designed to disparage Edison's view of education. "The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think" (Isaacson, p. 299)

"The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think." Like, wow.

When I learned how to read I went through the "learning of facts" phase but I don't think it lasted very long. It certainly laid the ground work (the facts) but the urge to use language creatively quickly overtook my imagination. Reading became the means to appreciating ideas and playing around with ideas. I trained my mind not only to appreciate ideas but more importantly to appreciate abstract structures that allow us to make and/or perceive connections logically, aesthetically, analytically, and genetically.

What I mean when I say "genetically" has less to do with biology (though I guess it also does) but realizing the astounding fact that there is really no "English" this and "Inuit" that; no "French" this and no "German" that: there is only human capacity to comprehend anything human.

To be sure, the different cultures and psychologies (ie, the pathos, ethos and logos that make up the social and technical natures of language) clearly do provide the soil for cultivating certain ideas but once these ideas mature they become open and free to anyone of any language/culture who cares to appreciate them.

I'm reading now the part in the Walter Isaacson book where Einstein is becoming more and more aware of the petty tedium and ugliness of anti-Semitism before it became official policy of the state under Nazi rule where its true destructive force caught fire...

I think I'm an Einsteinian.


Sunday, 5 January 2014

Different types of Englishes

I'm a huge fan of the American tradition of writing - the literary classics; famous political speeches; movie dialogues; etc. There is something lawyerly (but not legalistic and dry...not mechanistic) about the American gothic sensibilities. I strongly suspect it has something to do with its unique pedigree of Greco-Roman, Germanic (including heavy Dutch), and peripheral English (ie, Irish, Ebonese and the like). It is the bastard child of the Judeo-Christian morality story.

It is social commentary that is not preachy but un-self-consciously aware of the "fallen" nature of man and therefore a self-contained and self-consistent art of the narrative of humanity's efforts to redemption and salvation. It deals with archetypes and makes champions (ie, not heroes) who do not always succeed in transcending the pettiness of the human condition but nonetheless inspire the need for human dignity and nobility precisely because it shows how rare and beautiful these characteristics are in this flawed, and often cruel and brutal world in which humanity finds itself. It is the beggar looking enviously at Saint Peter's purse but realizing the significance of the man himself. Whether the beggar chooses self-interest or not is the space in which this narrative takes place.

Now, going back to the "lawyerly" nature of the American literary tradition I point to you a link to Latin phrases that define much of the phraseology of the tradition:

These are the rhetorical/oratory devices par excellence that distinguish, say, American English from the often one-dimensional Canadian English - sans Northrop Frye, of course; but, rather epitomized by the dullards of neo-conservatism of Harper and the Ford brothers who seem intent on the uninformed obvious symbolism (much like the Nintendo's series "Legend of Zelda" whose English leaves one bemused) rather than a reflective take on the rich, and complex milieu of human history. Oh, it's not so bad, if they'd only appreciate the ironies and had an inkling of what they were saying.

In the old film called, The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), the main character says: “[let's hope] our tolerance will never become indifference, and our freedom never become license.  Let’s respect each other’s rights…”

There is a mastery of conceptual grammar that, if translated into any other language than English and over span of time, that would come across because the insights are couched in universal terms: do unto others as you'd have done unto thyself... There is something of wisdom.

One of my old friends made a succinct observation on "mainland" Canada (he's from Newfoundland); he said that he was made to feel unwelcomed and strange by his co-workers because his conversational style is drastically different than theirs. He has the "gift of the gab" (I know this personally), a tradition that has been lost in the vicissitudes of the neo-liberal economics of mainland Canada where fellowship has become a trip to the mall rather than the kitchen table and citizenship confused with how much taxes are due and paid (apparently, the new class system in Canada). Sad, really.


Saturday, 4 January 2014

Einstein's thought experiments

There is a quote attributed to Einstein that one should make scientific concepts as simple as possible but no simpler. His thought experiments are quite famous, especially the general relativity ones that deal with the concepts of uniform motion and simultaneity (ie, the speed of light and inertial frames of reference).

In fact, he uses a beautifully conceived image of a moving train in relation to the embankment: suppose two apparently simultaneous lightning bolts strike the embankment at two distant places, A and B; if you're at the exact halfway point (on the embankment), the two strikes would appear simultaneous for all intents and purposes; but, if you're on the moving train (at or near the speed of light) there'd be a slight difference in the timing of the two strikes (Walter Isaacson, 2007, p. 123).

Then there is that less-intuitive illustration of the "twin paradox" - also dealing with the impossibility of absolutely-defined notion of time: one twin travels into space (again, at or near the speed of light) while the other stays behind. By the time the space-travelling twin returns the other has aged considerably while the space-twin has barely aged at all.

The thing about Einstein's thought experiments like the two examples above is that he never doubted the physical meanings of the constants that define the functional relations of the equations. What is important is not the parochial illustrations but the speed of light in vacuum space (denoted as c) and how that relates to two distinct frames of reference (and why the notion of absolute time is an untenable notion).

Let's say the two points in space are: the sun and the earth. The sun is at least 8 light minutes away from the planet Earth. If, heaven forbid, the sun spontaneously blew out, it would take the stream of photons from that point in space at least eight minutes before we realized on Earth that there was no more sun.

The beauty of Einstein's genius (and Isaacson's book provides great examples of this) is that he never took for granted the physical implications/meanings of the mathematical constants that correct for errors in observed data and he saw these not as mere accounting devices but as having physical significance.

For example, where Planck saw his own famous constant (denoted h, the unit of quantum) as a "mathematical contrivance" (Isaacson, p. 99) Einstein saw it as having a physical reality that explains how photons are emitted and absorbed when interacting with matter (ie, as discreet allowable packets of energy called, quanta, whence "quantum theory" gets its name). -both Planck and Einstein (towards the end of their lives) remind me of F Scott Fitzgerald's aphorism: "show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy" but the story is best told in Isaacson's excellent book that I've been quoting.

The take-away from this entry (I hope) is that the truly scientific pursuit of knowledge has nothing "auto-magical" and/or wishy-washy about it, but is, in fact, built-up from findings before it. It is a rational accounting/explanation of what practitioners find in their explorations that founds the eyes of geniuses like Einstein and Newton.

I don't see these advancements in human knowledge as reasons for abandoning my beliefs in spiritual matters but confirms to me yet again that opening lines of Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

In terms of my own spiritual beliefs I try and take the Einsteinian attitude that there must always be a link between what we believe to be true and our existence within that reality. The true, inscrutable mysteries of G*d as creator and saviour (ie, the justification for our evolutionary process to (spiritual) maturity) is about perspective rather than a thing to be figured out definitively:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

I leave the preaching to others; the essential mitzvot, as commanded by our Lord Saviour, I will meditate upon and try my best to actualize in my remaining life.