Oct 222009

by W. B. Yeats

ALL the words that I utter,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm-darken’d or starry bright.

Oct 212009

Several weeks ago I went on a binge reading about Polywell fusion. The brainchild of Dr. Robert Bussard, Polywell fusion is a variety of inertial electrostatic confinement, a combination of the inertial confine­ment (IFE) and magnetic confine­ment (MFE) ap­proaches to plasma con­tainment. The idea is to use a polyhedron of electromag­netic coils into which electrons are intro­duced. The electrons become concen­trated by the mag­ne­tic and electrical fields at the center of the device, creating a well of electro­static potential that confines the ions for fusion. Advantages claimed for this approach are that it does not release any radioactive byproducts, and that it is highly scalable. One conse­quence of the latter is that the time and expense required for development is considerably less than with, e.g., the Tokamak design. For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on Polywell fusion and the Talk-Polywell discussion forum.

In 2006, Dr. Bussard gave a talk at Google — primarily to solicit funding. This talk is interesting not only as an introduction to the idea of Polywell fusion, but also for Dr. Bussard’s remarks on aspects of the institutional culture of science.

Should Google Go Nuclear?

Low-level funding for Polywell fusion was provided to Dr. Bussard’s company, Energy Matter Conversion Cor­poration, by the Navy from 1992 to 2005. Funding was resumed in 2007, shortly prior to Dr. Bussard’s death. Last month, the Department of Defense announced a contract of $7,855,504 for “validation of basic physics,” to be completed by April, 2011.

We could fund thousands of such ideas for less than the cost of cap and trade.


Oct 162009


My String Octet consists of four movements linked together to form one continuous arc. The piece is, in a sense, an extended cantata without words, and each move­ment but the second alludes, in a different fashion, to the forms of archaic vocal music. The first movement, marked Incipit, is much like the intonation that opens the Catholic liturgy; it begins with a meditation upon a single, elemental sound, which grows from near-silence into an austere, lonely chant.  This simple monody is joined by a second and then a third imitative line; the texture growing, at last, into a five-part motet, a dissonant and anguished shadow of the great sacred vocal works of Josquin and Palestrina. This leads directly into the second movement, marked Sinfonia in the sense that word held during the early Baroque period when it implied an instrumental interlude within a cantata or an oratorio. This sharp, violent music propels the piece toward the apex of the arc, the beginning of the third movement. Marked Recitative, it is a feverish soliloquy for the first cellist, accom­panied lightly by the rest of the ensemble, and ending in catastrophe. The dying sounds of the third movement fade finally into the fourth, a chorale, in which the music comes as if from a great distance, halting and enigmatic, retreating until it vanishes into the elemental sound with which the piece began.


Oct 152009

In the highly charged debate over climate change, overviews that are both balanced and informative can be hard to find.  Chip Knappenberger’s A Cherry-Picker’s Guide to Temper­ature Trends provides just such an overview of recent temperature trends. Knappenberger first charts all five main data sets*:


He then calculates trends from these data sets — using monthly data and going from September of each year through August 2009 — as simple linear least squares fits. He graphs each trend by starting year, with statistically significant trends (p < 0.05) being indicated by filled circles, and juxtaposes them to the average projected trend of the ensem­ble of climate models:


Continue reading »

Oct 012009

Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit seems to have broken the hockey stick for a second time. In Yamal: A “Divergence” Problem, he asks troubling questions about the Briffa tree ring chro­no­logies used in many recent reconstructions of temper­ature history. Here is Briffa’s response to McIntyre and McIntyre’s reply.


* For those new to this story, Bishop Hill’s The Yamal Implosion may be helpful.

Update, 11/09: Here is a Finnish TV program featuring McIntyre:

Sep 262009

We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.  –Leszek Kolakowski, from “The Idolatry of Politics”, 1986

We were saddened to learn this summer of the death of Leszek Kolakowski, the bril­liant Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. As a professor at Warsaw University, Kolakowski’s courageous criticism of Marxism in the 50’s and 60’s resulted in his books being banned and the loss of his job — and led to his emigration to the West in 1968. Kolakowski taught briefly at McGill University and at Berkeley before settling at All Souls College, Oxford. He was also on the Committee for Social Thought, at Chi­cago, and was a reader for Phil’s disserta­tion. Here is the NYT obit­uary.

In 1978, Kolakowski published his monumental Main Currents of Marxism, an ex­haus­tive analysis (beginning with Plotinus) of such notions as the labor theory of value, dialectical materialism, and the concept of class struggle. He claimed that Stalinism was not an aberration, but a natural consequence of Marxist utopian­ism. Kolakowski was an eclectic scholar whose interests were not confined to political philo­sophy; his books included: Positivist Philosophy (1971), The Presence of Myth (1972), Husserl and the Search for Certitude (1975), Bergson (1985), God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (1995), and The Two Eyes of Spinoza (2004). Nathan’s and my initial exposure to Kolakowski was through Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia, satirical fairy-tales written while he was still in Poland. Phil recommends Metaphysical Horror (1978), a collec­tion of essays on the history of philo­sophy, and Nathan recommends Religion: If There is no God… (2001).

Like some of Kolakowski’s other recent writing, Modernity on Endless Trial (1990) is concerned with the direction of our intellectual culture. The preface illustrates his sure­ness of touch and self-effacing sense of humor:

The essays selected for this book were written on various occasions and in various languages between 1973 and 1986.  They do not purport to offer any ‘philosophy.’  They are, rather, semiphilosophical sermons in which I was trying to point out a number of unpleasant and insoluble dilemmas that loom up every time we attempt to be perfectly consistent when we think about our culture, our politics, and our religious life.  More often than not we want to have the best from incompatible worlds and, as a result, we get nothing; when we instead pawn our mental resources on one side, we cannot buy them out again and we are trapped in a kind of dogmatic immobility.  We might imagine our­selves to be treasure hunters in a forest, but we spend our effort on evading ambushes.  This is a net gain, of course, but not the one we were after.

Therefore these essays are not edifying.  They are rather appeals for moderation in consistency — a topic which I have been trying to look at from various angles for many years.

Since these texts were written separately and without any idea of them appearing together in one volume, some remarks might be repeated here and there.  This does not worry me much, for who — apart from myself, under duress — would be persistent enough to wade through the whole thing, anyway?  3/3/1990 [Modernity, preface]

Later in the book, Kolakowski talks about the significance of Kant:

I am not a Kant expert and no Kantian but, I should say, a Kant sympathizer — espe­cially where conflicts between Kantian and so-called historicist thinking are concerned, both in epistemology and in ethics.

…being human is not a zoological, but a moral concept.

The belief that good and evil are not determined in the context by historic accidents but precede all contingent facts is a precondition of any living culture.

[“Why Do We Need Kant”, Modernity, pp. 45-48]

It was characteristic of Kolakowski to acknowledge the legitimacy of a philo­sophical impulse or motif, but resist the tendency to hypostasize and mold it into an ideology. He advocated intellectual moderation. Phil tells the story of how Kolakowski once suggested that newly minted philosophy Ph.D.’s should immediately be made full professors and gradually work their way down — with a dock in pay for every book they publish.

There is not a lot of Kolakowski on-line. As an example of his polemical writing, you might be interested in his rejoinder to Edward Thompson from The Socialist Register in 1974:  My Correct Views on Everything. His more ruminative The Death of Utopia Recon­sidered, was delivered at The Australian National University in 1982, and con­tains the following:

The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth but to build the spirit of truth and this means: never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop ques­tioning what appears to be obvious and definitive. . .

Finally, there is available electronically an extract from The Alienation of Reason on The Culture of Logical Empiricism.

Kolakowski has become a national hero in Poland, celebrated as a spiritual father of the Solidarity movement. In the US, he was awarded the highest federal honor in the humanities, the Jefferson Lecture, by the NEH and in 2003 the Library of Congress named him the first recipient of the John W. Klug prize for lifetime achieve­ment in the humanities. He was a MacArthur award winner in 1982.

Sep 062009

Here are Shelley’s photos of our trip out west this summer. We were gone nearly ten weeks and travelled about 18,000 miles. The photos are arranged in albums. Click on an album cover to view the corresponding album. The right and left arrows on either side of the photos will let you step through the album.

The first album covers from near Gananoque, ON on the St. Lawrence River to Jackson Hole, WY. Our circuitous route took us through northern Ontario, crossing back into the U.S. at Sault Ste. Marie, down through Michigan into Indiana, and back up into Wisconsin where we picked up I-90 going west. We took a side trip down to Aspen, CO and then we headed north through the mountains.

Gananoque –> Tetons

The second album covers from the Tetons in Wyoming to Vancouver Island. We crossed the Teton range into Idaho, and drove up through Montana into the Idaho panhandle. We zig-zagged across British Columbia, with a small detour into Oroville, WA and a stay in Whistler, and then took a series of ferries to Vancouver Island.

Tetons –> Vancouver Island

Continue reading »

Jun 132009

It seems to me that cap and trade, as it is currently formulated, is probably a bad idea. Here are some of my concerns:

1) The benefit, as measured by the extent of the decrease in global warming, seems to be negli­gible. According to a recent analysis by Chip Knappenberger, reduction of U.S. CO2 emissions to 83% below 2005 levels by 2050 — which is the goal of the Waxman-Markey bill — would only reduce global temperature by 0.05° C. Even in the highly unlikely event that the entire world were to follow suit and reduce CO2 emissions by the same amount, the resulting reduction in global temper­ature by 2050 would still be less than 0.5° C. — see here. This analysis assumes the IPCC mid-range or high-range emis­sions scenarios; for low-range scenarios the temper­ature change would be even less. Knappenberger uses the so-called MAGICC simulator (the Model for the Assess­ment of Green­house-gas Induced Climate Change) which you can down­load in order to run the calculations for yourself.

Continue reading »

May 152009
God created the integers; the rest is the work of man.
Leopold Kronecker


What are we saying when we talk about music?

This question captures the paradox that lies at the heart of musical theory. Put in its most basic form, the problem that has dogged musical theory since Boethius has to do with the relationship between reason and the esthetic sense. The earliest theories show that the coexistence between the two was never an entirely easy one:

In the final analysis, it was to this that the Pythagoreans’ harmonic analysis of the universe led: the discovery of incommensurables. And no matter how they might juxtapose the numbers, no matter to what lengths they might extend their mathematical circumlocutions, one fact remained, a fact that has ever since proved resistant to mathematical rationalization: there is no fraction m/n that will divide the whole-tone into two equal parts.[1]

The Pythagorean construction of music was an attempt at reconciling the rational and the beautiful — at showing that they are, indeed, one and the same. In this sense it was a corollary to the impulse behind the Parthenon: the Athenians believed that the golden ratio, applied to every dimension of a structure, would create something that was beautiful precisely because of its mathematical perfection.

In music, as mentioned in the previous quote, this dream was quickly shown to be illusory. While the Parthenon was constructed ex nihilo, and could perfectly mirror the rational dreams of its designers, the Pythagorean theorists of music were con­fronted from the beginning with a stubborn fact: there were pre-existing and deeply engrained notions of what constituted the proper and beautiful in music — the whole tone, the semi-tone, the modes, the tuning of the lyre — and, although they hovered tantalizingly close to the realm of reason, they ultimately eluded its grasp.

Continue reading »

May 132009

It is important to have heroes.  When I was young Van Cliburn was one of my heroes. This performance, with Kirill Kondrashin in Moscow in 1962, came four years after his victory in the Tchaikovsky Competition — an event that precipitated a cultural thaw in the cold war.  Notice Nikita Khrushchev applauding at the end.

The thirteenth Van Cliburn Competition is May 22 to June 7 in Fort Worth — with live webcasts here.

May 092009

from the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke

Who, if I shouted, among the hierarchy of angels
would hear me? And supposing one of them
took me suddenly to his heart, I would perish
before his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure,
and we admire it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
And so I restrain myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobbing. Ah, whom can we use then?
Not angels, not men, and the shrewd animals
notice that we’re not very much at home
in the world we’ve expounded. Maybe on the hill-slope
some tree or other remains for us, so that
we see it every day; yesterday’s street is left for us,
and the gnarled fidelity of an old habit
that was comfortable with us and never wanted to leave.
Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind full of space
feeds on our faces — for whom wouldn’t it stay,
yearned for, gently disappointing night
that wearily confronts the solitary heart.
Is night more easy on lovers? Ah, they only
hide their fate from themselves by using each other,
Don’t you know that yet? Throw the emptiness
from your arms into the spaces we breathe, so maybe the birds
can feel the expanded air, more ardently flying.

Continue reading »

Apr 092009

The exciting archaeological discoveries at Gobekli Tepe, a mega­lithic site in southern Turkey that predates Stonehenge by about 6000 years, are reported on the Smithsonian website.  Gobekli Tepe consisted of multiple T-shaped stone pillars, up to 16 feet tall and weighing 7 to 10 tons each, arranged in circular patterns on a hill­top. The location was apparently used for religious purposes and probably preceded the advent of agri­culture in the region.

The link is from Jebadiah Moore’s excellent The Jeblog, where he remarks:

I really like the theory that the desire to create this place led to the devel­opment of agri­culture rather than the other way around. Perhaps I’m just romantic, but I like the idea that humanity only wrested itself into a single place in order to fulfill a higher goal.

In a similar context, speaking of the Hopewell mounds at the High Bank site in Ohio, I can remember Bob Horn observing that the gods can be useful to humans.


Mar 292009

An article on Freeman Dyson in The New York Times Magazine this week — The Civil Heretic by Nicholas Dawidoff — prominently featured Dyson’s skepticism about global warming:

IT WAS FOUR YEARS AGO that Dyson … announced that “all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated.” Since then he has only heated up his misgivings, declaring in a 2007 interview with Salon.com that “the fact that the climate is getting warmer doesn’t scare me at all” and writing in an essay for The New York Review of Books … that climate change has be­come an “obsession” — the primary article of faith for “a worldwide secular religion” known as environmentalism. Among those he considers true be­lievers, Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore … and James Hansen … Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models that foresee a Grand Guignol of imminent world devastation as icecaps melt, oceans rise and storms and plagues sweep the earth, and he blames the pair’s “lousy science” for “distracting public attention” from “more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet.”

This was followed by an interesting column in today’s NYT by John Tierney, Tragedy is not Freeman Dyson’s Business, about the contrast between naturalistic and human­istic perspectives on climate change.  Tierney concludes with: “I find Mr. Dyson’s arguments compelling, but I have a feeling some Lab readers will disagree. Fire away.”

I think Freeman Dyson is a good scientist.  Last summer I sent various friends a link to his NYRB essay, The Question of Global Warming.  But I am somewhat surprised — and this may indicate my own bias — to see the doubts of a leading scien­tist displayed so visibly by the New York Times.  Is this perhaps a concession that the science is not yet settled?  Will we next see a discussion in the Times of, say, Roger J. Pielke, Sr. or the scientists at Climate Audit?  


Mar 172009

I am an admirer of Charles Murray, a good man whose extra­ordinary political cour­age captures what is best in the Quaker tradi­tion. His recent essay, The Europe Syn­drome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism, makes a case for American ex­cep­tion­alism based upon the idea that the purpose of government is to faci­litate the pursuit of happiness — as understood in the Aristotelian sense:

My argument is drawn from Federalist Paper No. 62, probably written by James Madison: “A good government implies two things: first, fidelity to the object of government, which is the happiness of the people; secondly, a knowledge of the means by which that object can be best attained.” Note the word: happiness. Not prosperity. Not security. Not equality. Happiness, which the Founders used in its Aristotelian sense of lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole.

Murray observes that there are only four “institutions” in society within which human beings can achieve this kind of deep satisfaction: family, community, vocation, and faith.

The stuff of life — the elemental events surrounding birth, death, raising children, fulfilling one’s personal potential, dealing with adversity, intimate relationships — coping with life as it exists around us in all its richness — occurs within those four institutions.

The goal of social policy, according to Murray, should be to ensure the robustness and vitality of these four institu­tions. He argues that the European model of the state does not do this — that despite its material successes, “it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish — it does not conduce to Aristotelian happi­ness.”  

Murray predicts that science in the 21st century will reinforce these observations.  He cites Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience in support of the idea that “social sciences are increasingly going to be shaped by the findings of biology; specifically, the find­ings of the neuroscientists and the geneticists.” 

Finally, Murray suggests that America needs another political Great Awakening, a re­discovery “in the gut” of what is most valuable in life.

There are some big ideas in this essay.  Read it for yourself.


Feb 282009

I found Steven F. Hayward’s All the Leaves are Brown quite absorbing.  It is a review of recent environ­mental writing, covering both tendencies toward authori­tarianism in the green move­ment and some promising new approaches from the left in the writing of Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Seymour Garte, Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis.


Update, 11/09:  See Nordhaus and Shellenberger at The Breakthrough Institute.

Feb 262009

Peter Smith, of Logic Matters, has noticed a new Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry, Set Theory: Constructive and Intuitionistic ZF.  Constructive and intuitionistic set theories result from the rejection of the law of excluded middle, and effectively restrict set theoretical ontology to poten­tially infinite sets:

The shift from classical to intuitionistic logic, as well as the requirement of predicativity, reflects a conflict between the classical and the constructive view of the universe of sets. This also relates to the time-honoured distinction between actual and potential infinity. According to one view often associated to classical set theory, our mathematical activity can be seen as a gradual disclosure of properties of the universe of sets, whose existence is independent of us. This tenet is bound up with the assumed validity of classical logic on that universe. Brouwer abandoned classical logic and embarked on an ambitious programme to renovate the whole mathematical landscape. He denounced that classical logic had wrongly been extrapolated from the mathematics of finite sets, had been made independent from mathematics, and illicitly applied to infinite totalities.

In a constructive context, where the rejection of classical logic meets the requirement of predicativity, the universe is an open concept, a universe “in fieri”. This coheres with the constructive rejection of actual infinity (Dummett 2000, Fletcher 2007). Intuitionism stressed the dependency of mathematical objects on the thinking subject. Following this line of thought, predicativity appears as a natural and fundamental component of the constructive view. If we construct mathematical objects, then resorting to impredicative definitions would produce an undesirable form of circularity. We can thus view the universe of constructive sets as built up in stages by our own mathematical activity and thus open-ended. [SEP]

This article might interest our BA Seminar students, as well as students in Programming Languages who have recently encountered Curry-Howard Isomorphism — the correspondence between intuitionistic logic and CLK.