Monday, September 22, 2008

j. f. a. k. van benthem (forthcoming)

"A border line is crossed when we allow lying and cheating beyond the expected. But even this seems a crucial skill in our lives: just imagine the violence and bloodshed that would result in academic life if we told our colleagues honestly what we think of the quality of their work. In this connection, parents think that their children are innocent little angels because they speak the truth all the time. But really, that is just a sign of lack of processing power and immaturity: rational agents at full capacity can handle mixtures of lies and truths with elegance and ease."

j. f. a. k. van benthem (forthcoming)

"Monotheism is just a bad idea, also in science."

Monday, September 15, 2008

election choices

So, in a democratic system, one is supposed to be able to choose between different options, one's "vote" supports one option or the other, and the option supported by the majority is then chosen to lead the country.

Now, although there is some concern that the supposed opposing parties are not in fact as representative of distinct alternative views as one would like, in the present circumstances, our considerations must pass beyond the parties to the candidates themselves.

Even if we manage to set aside our prejudices, and refrain from being single issue voters, there nevertheless seem to be two issues which dominate the current worries of the American populace. It would be of interest, then, perhaps, to canvas where the two candidates fall with respect to these two specific issues.

The issues at stake are (unsurprisingly) 1) foreign policy (special case: war in Iraq) and 2) the economy (foremost, really, of all "domestic" issues).

So, how do our options fare with respect to foreign policy? Well, at first, this seemed to be the great distinguishing feature between the two: Obama with an excellent record on opposing the Iraq war, McCain with a long standing record of warmongering. But, remember, the Iraq war is a special case. Really, ending the Iraq war should be a secondary goal to that of preventing future (similar) wars. Similar in what respect? Several points come to mind: 1) unnecessary from the standpoint of homeland security, 2) unethical instances of bullying societies with very different value systems from our own, 3) expensive (both in financial and humanitarian terms), 4) (perhaps most importantly) destructive to our national interests.

For example, how does the Iraq war rate w/r/t these four criteria? 1) debatable, but unlikely. Best evidence is a) no weapons of mass destruction and b) whatever training / financial support of terrorists originated in Iraq, it was minimal in its effect on the US (perhaps greater on countries of the Middle East, though); 2) again, pros and cons. The leadership of Hussein was immoral by any standards - on the other hand, the US is not the appropriate authority to instill the morality preferred by those members of the populace who did oppose Hussein; 3) expensive - unquestionable; 4) destructive to national interests: now this is the kind of subtle issue of international policy one would want a level-headed and well-informed policy maker (rather than a soundbyte-producing talking head) to analyze. On the pro side: conflict in Iraq has drawn the resources of many radical islamic groups into exactly the kind of ground war we actually have the chance of winning (and far away from American soil to boot!) On the anti side: US intervention in Iraq (along with most of the rest of post-9/11 policy) has, if anything, stirred up and encouraged anti-US sentiment in the Middle East: Al Quaeda's biggest recruiter? Us, baby. (Or: US?) Let's face up to facts, start using unbiased level-headed statistical analysis rather than error-prone dogma, and adjust our behavior in a manner that will actually help and protect us rather than simply create more terrorists!

OK, but the Iraq war was a special case. It really doesn't matter what the candidates think about the Iraq war, what matters is their foreign policy knowledge and policy in general. Ending the Iraq war should be a goal secondary to preventing future pointless (nay, damaging) conflicts of the same variety!

Well, luckily enough we witnessed a testing ground recently, the conflict in Georgia. The response of our candidates to the Georgian conflict should be an interesting testing ground for determining their foreign policy acumen. Whoops! Both demonstrated the exact same level of war-mongering idiocy. What do mean? Well, McCain advocated a hard-line anti-Russian stance, and displayed a knowledge of Georgian history disturbingly close in wording to the wikipedia article on same.

OK, but surely Obama came out strong as the voice of peace and reason? Ooops, nope, he advocated NATO membership for Georgia, perhaps failing to note that if Georgia were a member of NATO we would now be engaged in a land war with Russia!

So, both candidates equally inept and warmongering when it comes to the future dangers on the international arena, so let's turn our consideration to (2), the economy.

Unfortunately, with today's sharp downturn in response to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, both candidates showed their true economic stripes. Despite being clothed in the rhetoric of "fundamentals" on the side of McCain and "change" on the side of Obama, the concrete suggestion from both parties was clear: more regulation.

Well, but wait a minute? Warmongering and economic regulation no matter whom we pick? Is this a real choice? If this is democracy, then democracy can go fuck itself.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

david foster wallace, rip

2008 seems like an especially bad year for the untimely death of great artists - or is it just that I'm getting old?

The death of Isaac Hayes was certainly unexpected, and untimely, but at least he made it into his 60s. (And, at least it was an apparent accident . . .) David Foster Wallace, though, died on Friday at only 46, and by his own hand.

I discovered Wallace during my dark work-as-a-secretary-while-I-get-my-shit-together days in the late 90s. As with many, my introduction came through Infinite Jest, the sprawling and encyclopedic novel that explored the many facets of addiction as an allegory for contemporary American society. Wheelchair-ridden Quebecois separatists, a woman too beautiful to be seen (and a crack addict to boot), and a film so addictive watching it once, you were doomed to watch it repeatedly until you died of starvation, were only some of the themes percolating through an "alternate universe" US, too close for comfort, too accurate to reject. After Infinite Jest, Wallace produced a number of short stories (which I haven't read) and a number of essays (which I have, and which are on the whole brilliant, funny, insightful, and, perhaps most pleasurable for one like myself, who has spent too much of his literary experience reading works in translation, delivered with a delightful and creative command of the English language. This last itself the subject of Authority and American Usage an ostensive book review cum meditation on the norms of language (and the politics of those who dictate such)).

Despite the brilliant essays and the well-received short stories, it's difficult not to notice the absence of a follow-up to Infinite Jest in Wallace's oeuvre. He had been teaching at Pomona College since 2002, and had certainly continued to write (producing said stories and essays), but no novel, no work on the same grand scale, had appeared since Jest. Speaking for myself, Wallace was on that ever so short list of writers for whom once a year or so, I wander to their spot in the alphabet at a local book store in the hope that I've somehow missed news of the publication of their grand new novel. In the case of Wallace, I was always disappointed; and now, I'll have to stay disappointed forever.

The point is not to belittle Wallace's post-Jest output, but it's simply difficult to think of writer suicides and not think of writer's block (several scenes from a TV doc on Hemingway are burned indelibly into my memory, here). And with writer's block, the question is never one of actual output, but of perceived output. Was Wallace attempting a second grand novel? Was his apparent inability to produce such the source of depression and, eventually, suicide?

Obviously, these are purely conjectures, a bit of fantasy to make sense of a tragedy. Wallace himself was a bit of a recluse, rarely interviewed, rarely exposing his life, thoughts, or goals to the public except through the filter of a witty (and, clearly, guarded) essay. Perhaps his wife knows his motives, but quite likely, we never will.

Hearing this news, it's difficult for me not to think of several I have known personally, possessed of great artistic talent, but, for various personal reasons, frustrated in the attempts to realize those talents. If their earlier output had managed to find an audience, would they have ended up like Wallace anyhow? Is it perhaps even easier on them that their work never was popular, freeing them from some of the creative pressure Wallace himself surely felt?

Perhaps, most importantly, is there hope for the blocked, those who have run out of ideas, or creative energy, to return from that abyss and produce? Call it optimism, or fantasy, but personally I like to think so. I wish Wallace himself had thought so as well. For now we have been robbed of the opportunity to see what might have been, and Wallace, in bereaving his loved ones, has bereaved those who loved his prose, both present and future, as well.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Is patriotism love of one's country no matter what, or is patriotism love of an abstract ideal, historically associated with one's country?

More importantly, if patriotism is the latter, how can the ideal be held constant in the face of changing policies and character?

"Patriotism" has become the rallying cry of those who want to promote and perpetuate current US policy, no matter what that may be. This is not a right / left issue. The left is every bit as guilty of perpetuating policies which violate the ideals of the historic US as the right. Those who argue against the use of military force against petty dictatorships who represent no threat to the US populace are ostracized as outsiders no less than those who argue for the rights of consenting adults in the privacy of their home to behave however they please.

The voices who accuse the US of irresponsibly perpetrating violence against foreign powers, of devaluing the dollar, of weakening US industry precisely through bailout policies, of perverting the concept of liberty through systematic spying on unaccused and uncharged citizens and the systematic imprisonment of citizens without trial, are accused of being "unpatriotic." What the fuck, then, is this amnesiac "patriotism," this cognitive-dissonance, this fools-elevated-to-kings as wise policy, blind eye, rampant assumption that no-human-other-than-those-agreeing-with-my-ideology are rational, this batshit-stupid and close-minded destruction of rationality "patriotism" - this believe-the-TV-not-the-constitution "patriotism," this thought as defecation, wisdom as disease, ignorance as virtue "patriotism"? This pro-torture, pro-theft, pro-persecution and profiling, pro-overspending and devaluing currency, pro-secrecy fascism patriotism? Really, you donkey-fucking, lie-between-your-teeth, fake-hair, private-school, secret-society, fake-ass war hero, imam-loving bible-eating-shitting-breathing-but-disbelieving dipshit? Really? Read the constitution you motherfucking illiterate asshole!

Why does "change" mean taking all the current anti-constitution, self-defeating crap policies and doing them more? Is it not just "patriotism," but "new," "change," and "different" that are in danger of being rewritten, replaced, 1984-style, in the dictionary?

And how the royal fuck is it that a supposedly "free" system of political change, supposedly exhibiting the virtue of "choice," offers as alternatives an inexperienced dipshit who claims "new blood" and "change" while picking the most establishment, old-blooded running mate he can find and a wishy-washy idiot, riding on the well-worn wave of past glory, and willing to put the nation in the hands of the inexperienced and close-minded just to score vapid political points. And how different are their policies? Supposedly one is the candidate of peace, the other of the hardline, yet when a true international crisis emerged (Georgia!) - both demonstrated the exact same idiotic cowboy mentality and, in particular, the hypocritical, fuckface "patriotism" which dictates "staying the course" rather than reevaluating policy in the light of ideals!

Ideas are dead. Or, at least, the object of systematic genocide. Repeating, thoughtlessly, uncritically, slogans and soundbytes - this is not thought, these are not ideas, this is not new, this will not make the US great, this will not restore the dignity of the US in the eyes of the world, this will not induce change.

Why not read a book you ignorant shit? or two, or ten? and not some comedian-as-political-commentator, written-by-a-ghostwriter-in-the-last-3-years whaleshit propaganda toilet-paper-printed-with-platitudes, a real fucking book written by a freethinking human being.

Maybe if more people did it, this hypocritical, shit-hole-of-an-excuse-for-a-free-political-system would actually produce a candidate worthy to lead the free world, someone who is informed, can think for themselves, and protect the ideals which produced this great nation, not simply mouth the petty slogans of his speechwriters and protect the jobs of the limp-dicked bureaucrats who surround his worthless carcass and defend it from justly-deserved ********.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008


At a conference, I meet an old friend. (Or do I? Perhaps there is only just me all along . . . ) We reminisce over beers, but he seems different. We're joined by a rather large and gregarious woman who seems to know who we are. Once in our company and trust, she metamorphoses into a slim and beautiful seductress. My friend (myself?) is enthralled. Although her initial purpose seemed to be as welcoming committee, her continued presence smacks of hidden agenda.

I get separated from my friend on a quest for a beer. I find the sponsor of the conference, an asian dentist, weeping in a parlor room. He had secured too little Fat Tire for the event, it seems. I am lost for several tense hours, wandering room to room. I acquire a beer (alternate brands seem plentiful at the bar), but now have lost my friend. We were supposed to meet in the garden, but when I stumble upon the hotel's lavish front entrance, I see the previously sunny day has turned to harsh snow and blistering hail in later afternoon. All outside festivities curtailed.

Finally, I stumble upon my friend during my next circuit of the dining room. He is still accompanied by the mysterious seductress. She invites herself up to our rooms on pretense.

In the morning, I find my friend shooting up. It is unclear whether he brought his own supply, or our female visitor supplied it. In this mood, we join a morning picnic on the lawns, now returned to bright sunshine. My friend looks me in the eye, I see that his right eye has changed color: now it is a deep blue lacerated with strands of gold, green, and red. It looks penetrating, artificial, magical. He seems less my friend than ever.

He instructs me to show our female friend a particular item of furniture in one of the hotel's many elaborate staterooms. He tells me she wishes to see something "of value." The word value hangs ominous, laden with implication. But of what?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

truesdell on theory, nature, and mathematics

The revolutions of world war and socialism and quantum mechanics, however right and necessary and fruitful, have clouded the massive solidity, the serene confidence of classical mechanics. Classical mechanics has weathered through, standing fast behind the smoky putrid mists. . . . While "imagination, fancy, and invention" are the soul of mathematical research, in mathematics there has never yet been a revolution.
The ancient Greek philosophers speculated whether matter were an assemply of tiny, invisible, and immutable particles, or a continuous expanse. As the quantitative, mathematical science of the West developed, the debate continued but became more and more definite and detailed. The great theorists proposed specific mathematical theories, restricted to certain specific kinds and circumstances of bodies, for example, to "aeriform fluids" subject to moderate pressures.

Until the first decades of this century it seemed possible that one or another theory would turn out to be the final one, the one that would explain everything about matter and thus be universally accepted as "correct", while all competitors would be defeated. Far from being borne out, this hope now seems childish. Our picture of nature has become less naive. While in the nineteenth century more and more aspects of the sensible world were shown to be mere appearances, mere "applications" of a few fundamental "laws" of physics or biology, the recent enormous production of experimental data has undeceived us of our former simplisms. The line between the living and the inanimate has been blurred if not erased. Within the once indivisible atoms has been found an ever growing host of mysterious "elementary particles" whose nature and function are scarcely clearer than those of dryads and familiar spirits.
Of course these discoveries have brought with them different attitudes toward theories of nature. Those who push forward the frontiers of experiment cannot wait for the thoughtful, critical, and hence cautious and slow analysis that mathematics has always demanded. Mathematicians, for their part, cannot afford to waste their time on physical theories of passing interest.

These contrasting standpoints are reconciled by a keener appraisal of the role a theory is to play. A theory is not a gospel to be believed and sworn upon as an article of faith, nor must two different and seemingly contradictory theories battle each other to the death. A theory is a mathematical model for an aspect of nature. One good theory extracts and exaggerates some facets of the truth. Another good theory may idealize other facets. A theory cannot duplicate nature, for if it did so in all respects, it would be isomorphic to nature itself and hence useless, a mere repetition of all the complexity which nature presents to us, that very complexity we frame theories to penetrate and set aside.
If a theory were not simpler than the phenomena it was designed to model, it would serve no purpose. Like a portrait, it can represent only a part of the subject it pictures. This part it exaggerates, if only because it leaves out the rest. Its simplicity is its virtue, provided the aspect it portrays be that which we wish to study. If, on the other hand, our concern is an aspect of nature which a particular theory leaves out of account, then that theory is for us not wrong but simply irrelevant. . . . With this sober and critical understanding of what a theory is, we need not see any philosophical conflict between two theories, one of which represents a gas as a plenum, the other as a numerous assembly of punctual masses.

Truesdell, Clifford, from An Idiot's Fugitive Essays on Science, largely "Statistical Mechanics and Continuum Mechanics," 1979

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

finite foundations

Can the infinite be physically realized? If matter were infinitely divisible, then the infinite would reveal itself here - but matter is not infinitely divisible. If time were infinitely divisible, then the infinite would reveal itself here. Although our simplest models of time are as a continuum, to actually prove (or conclusively demonstrate) such a claim is difficult (impossible?). If space were infinitely divisible, then the infinite would reveal itself here - but already theories of discrete space have emerged (e.g. doubly special relativity ). If some parameter is continuously variable, does this constitute a (counterfactual?) realization of the infinite?

So, shift the question: if the infinite were realized in nature, could we tell? No - in principle, to distinguish between the infinite and the very very large, but finite, is impossible.

Of course, the mathematics of the infinite and the finite are quite different. In the realm of theory and the a priori, we can easily distinguish between finite and infinite systems. In empirical practice, however, distinguishing between the two is in principle impossible.

Nevertheless, the majority of techniques used in the sciences are continuous (this allows for the use of differentiation and integration), and thus infinite.

The question, then is this: if we wish to provide a foundational theory of, say, physics, should the rational reconstruction of physical theory proceed in a finite or an infinite framework? The principle argument for the infinite is that this would provide continuity with the formalisms used by practicing physicists. Important figures here are Truesdell and Noll. The principle argument for the finite is i) that the finite is in principle physically indistinguishable from the infinite, and thus ii) physcial theory should be reconstructable within a finite framework, and iii) most plausible from an a priori standpoint is that the universe itself is finite. A key figure here is Suppes.