Nov 302008

by W. B. Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Nov 082008

Taken from in front of our house about 3 weeks ago — at the height of the fall colors.


–photographs by Shelley

Nov 012008

I am not much interested in the hidden intentions Shakespeare had in writing Macbeth, whether he was striving to portray the immortal torment of the human soul or merely to flatter the self-importance of an English King. I’ll leave that to the scholars and hecklers of the human spirit who can find nothing better to do than to dig around in the dust-bins of history. I am interested in the play as it stands. In particular, I am interested in the “weird sisters.” I think we should take the damn witches seriously.

Readers have scoffed for centuries at the three witches in Macbeth. But nowadays we are not satisfied with scoffing at witches, and we seek to go further. Nowadays our literary critics herald “the death of the author” as Nietzsche once spoke of “the death of God.” There is only the text, they say, and the doer behind the deed is a metaphysical fiction. But if skepticism is our value we should also show skepticism about our skepticism. We should be suspicious of the grandiose claims of Nietzsche and our contemporary literary critics and suspect, in the spirit of Mark Twain, that reports of the death of God and of authorship are greatly exaggerated. Authors and gods are tough things to kill. As Shakespeare wove the witches into Macbeth in diverse and subtle ways, gods and authors weave themselves into the fabric of our world. Perhaps in time we could “kill them,” but should we? Would life be better, more worth living, in a disenchanted world?

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Oct 272008

My first interview with the College of Santa Fe was a conference call with the Dean and maybe five or six faculty and staff.  One of the questions I remember being asked was whether I knew anything about that part of the country. I replied that all I knew was what I had learned from reading Tony Hillerman novels. Apparently this was a satisfactory answer, since I got the job.

Here is a brief obituary, and a nice tribute.

Tony Hillerman


Oct 162008

Philosophers have never felt comfortable speaking about silence. Why should they? At best such efforts are ironic; undertaking them literally is generally thought to involve performative contradictions, since the content of what we are trying to say contradicts the fact that we are saying it. When mystics claim to have an ineffable, or inexpressible, knowledge of ultimate realities, philosophers are naturally curious to hear more about it, but of course anything intelligible the mystics may say, including the very idea of the ineffable, is by definition not ineffable but expressed, and hence self-refuting. It seems that the best solution is for mystics to maintain total silence. But even then Hegel does not leave the mystics alone. He dismisses their silent knowledge as “the night in which all cows are black” – in other words, as a pre­sumptuous and ultimately empty achievement.

Trying to speak about silence is akin to the ontological task of trying to get something from nothing. Maybe God can create ex nihilo, but the rest of us find this hard to understand, and doing it is totally beyond us. Most philosophers cannot even bake a cake. Even ordinary people find it hard to argue with the principle ex nihilo, nihil fit (from nothing, nothing comes) — and when philo­sophers are asked to make something of nothing, they seem compelled to employ humor to effect their escape. For example, in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy P. L. Heath writes:

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Sep 272008

by Rudyard Kipling

I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “Stick to the Devil you know.”

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wobbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.

Aug 152008

Raymond Smullyan is 89 years old, and lives across the Hudson in the Catskill mountains. A distinguished mathematician, logician, and philosopher, he has written over 20 books which have been translated into more than 17 languages. Smullyan is the Oscar Ewing Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Indiana University and played a prominent role in the history of modern logic. In 1957 he wrote an influential paper for the Journal of Symbolic Logic, called “Languages in Which Self-Reference is Possible,” showing that Gödel incom­pleteness holds for many formal systems more elementary than those considered by Gödel. Georg Kreisel described Smullyan’s Theory of Formal Systems as “the most elegant exposition of the theory of recursively enumerable (r.e.) sets in existence.” Smullyan is probably best-known, though, for his popular collections of logic puzzles. When my children were growing up, they spent many hours with The Lady or the Tiger. My own favorite is To Mock a Mockingbird, which is about combinatory logic and the lambda calculus, one of the foundations of computer science.

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Aug 122008

A recent paper in climate science that has excited comment is D. Koutsoyiannis, A. Efstratiadis, N. Mamassis and A Christofides, On the Credibility of Climate Predic­tions, Hydrological Sciences Journal, 53 (2008). It is available in .pdf format here. The abstract reads:

Geographically distributed predictions of future climate, obtained through climate models, are widely used in hydrology and many other disciplines, typically without assessing their reliability. Here we compare the output of various models to temper­ature and precipi­tation observations from eight stations with long (over 100 years) records from around the globe. The results show that models perform poorly, even at a climatic (30-year) scale. Thus local model projections cannot be credible, whereas a common argument that models can perform better at larger spatial scales is unsupported.

The paper argues that Global Climate Models have underestimated the observed varia­bility of both temper­ature and precipi­tation for these particular stations. The authors acknowledge the limitation of having analysed records from only eight stations: “Whether or not this conclusion extends to other locations requires expansion of the study, which we have planned.” But they contend that the poor performance in the examined locations “allows little hope.” It is interesting that one of these stations is just down the road in Albany, NY, where the change in the 30-year moving average for temperature over the 20th century is roughly -1.5°(C), compared to model predictions of roughly +0.5°(C).

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Aug 082008

There is a story behind the title of this blog.  In 1897, Charles Peirce was invited by his friend William James to give a series of philosophy lectures in Cambridge, MA. Peirce prepared a daunting set of lectures on formal logic and, in December of 1897, sent an outline of these lectures to James. But James, sensing a mis­match between Peirce’s outline and the prospective audience, wrote back to Peirce begging him to reconsider the topic. “There are only three men,” James wrote, “who could possibly follow your graphs and relatives.” James implored Peirce to “be a good boy” and to think out a more popular plan; and James went on to make the rather unfortunate suggestion that “separate topics of a vitally important character would do perfectly well.”

Peirce was annoyed by this response (although it would have taken more than this to diminish his affection for James). He imme­diately set about revising his lectures, bestowing upon them the new title: Detached Ideas On Topics of Vital Importance. There was consider­able irony in this title, since Peirce thought there was little to be gained from either “detached ideas” or reasoning about “topics of vital impor­tance”. The latter was held up to particular ridicule in the draft of a new opening lecture that Peirce called “On Detached Ideas in General and on Vitally Important Topics” [1.649-677]. This draft is not available electron­ically, as far as I know, but it has influenced twentieth century Peirce scholarship through its inclusion in The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce. [Hartshorne and Weiss, 1931] What follows is my own gloss on this text — with extended quotations to help convey the flavor of Peirce’s writing.

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