Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Verb Parts

On the subject of Chomsky and universal grammar, one of the parameters that is used to classify languages by their basic features, along with the order of subject, object and verb, the existence or otherwise of a nominative/accusative or ergative/absolutive, whether it is synthetic/agglutinating/inflected/analytic etc, is whether it is or is not pro-drop. This inelegant term refers to the possibility of not using an explicit subject with the verb, and sometimes includes ellipsis of the object as well. Neither Latin, nor Greek nor Sanskrit required a subject where it could be identified from the context, the deixis or the termination. Modern Spanish and Italian do the same thing, but English and French do require it in almost all circumstances.

Not only is the term inelegant but I wonder how much significant information it really gives about a language. The use of pronouns seems to be required, broadly speaking, only when the subject would otherwise be unclear, either because the verb morphology does not discriminate sufficiently, or, especially, in the third person, where the range of possible subjects is very large and identification must take place somehow. It should be borne in mind, however, that this can be done non-verbal deixis, and in any case need not be repeated once the subject is known. In languages such as English, where it is very common to have to identify a subject explicitly, the convention has arisen that it always be done, but this does not seem a normal feature of languages.

A more important point than exactly how a language chooses to identify a subject is that it always does. I cannot state that it is a general property of language, or a feature of universal grammar, but I would hazard a guess that it is so. It is certainly present in all the languages of which I have enough knowledge to judge (which, admittedly, include only one non-IE language, Basque).

The verb gives four essential pieces of information. It tells us what action was performed (the main verb), who did it (the subject), when it occurred with respect to the speaker’s present (the tense) and its relation to a second time reference (the aspect). This information may be encoded in different ways, in a single root with morphological variations for each combination, in a variety of different roots, with one or more words for each point, as in the isolating languages, or some combination of these options. English almost invariably uses at least three different words, with the aspect encoded between the choice of tense indicator and morphology on the main verb. Many languages encode the subject into the morphology of the main verb, and so often need no separate marker for it. But it is there, and can be identified.

The first time reference is always the speaker’s present. The second is redefined constantly by the speaker, using verbs in the ‘simple’ tenses, or by an adverbial phrase or clause, or by an external reference, explicit or implicit. The aspect, broadly speaking may be simple, which indicates that the action of the verb coincides with (and as mentioned above, actually defines) the second time reference; it may be continuous, in that the action takes place across the time reference; it may be perfect, in that the action takes place before the time reference. Not all languages have forms for all these, and some doubtless have more, but they are the basic ones and the differences can always be expressed somehow. Subjunctives, optatives, conditionals and so on are deliberately outside the real time system, because that it is what they are intended to express.

In case this is all far too tedious (or just wrong), I offer you the picture of subject, action, tense and aspect.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Noam Chomsky, How to be Wrong and not Give a Damn

Noam Chomsky is a man who has made himself heard for decades, denouncing almost everything good about the world, everything that frees satisfies and elevates the human body, mind and spirit, while, of course, living comfortably and freely among the people he despises, because the places he considers models of social rectitude are invariably places where nobody who has any choice would want to live. The people who do live in such places have no choice, of course, but they don’t matter, because they are not Noam Chomsky.

I have linked above to his Wikipedia page, as well as his own site, in case anyone needs an introduction, but don’t take any of it too seriously, as his own remarks about his childhood, earlier actions and beliefs are notoriously unreliable. And it is worth remembering that Edward Said was a communist and PLO collaborator, whose books did not seek truth of any kind, but only justification.

Chomsky is a classic example of pathological self-loathing. An American Jew who hates America, Judaism and Israel (to the extreme of doing a good line in Holocaust denial at times) a product of the freedom and prosperity that America’s people have repeatedly made for themselves, but to which he does not contribute, he has spend his life leaching off the country he despises, using that prosperity and freedom to do nothing of value, but rather to attack everything which has allowed him such a free and comfortable life, defending terrorists, tyrants and murderers, glorifying the imposition of slavery, poverty, repression, disease and despair, often with remarkably twisted logic and moral judgement, often with outright lies. (He is a full professor at MIT, and has said that he earns more from the Defense Department than he does from the University. Make of that what you will, but it is clear that he has never lost anything by speaking his mind, other than his grasp on the truth.)

Western Universities are still full of Communist stooges, most of them unread and unlistened to. Most have to limit themselves to trying to have people who believe in freedom, rigour and truth sacked or marginalised. But Chomsky has a voice which is still heard in

Even his contributions to linguistics are not what they are made out to be. His books show all the signs of idle speculation, and few of any real research. Transformational generative grammar is, in the end, no more than a name, given arbitrarily to his endless witterings about what Saussure and Bloomfield and Skinner did and did not say. It’s like listening to Jaques Derrida trying to explain what a cockroach is.

Universal grammar is a concept that he genuinely tries to defend, and to find examples of, but most of the real work has been done by others. His most recognised conceptual creation, the Language Acquisition Device, is explained by a great deal of flim-flam with no foundation in real research, let alone any attempt to provide a real physiological, genetic or psychological foundation for it. It is no more than a name for the trite observation that young children learn language with remarkable ease.

His contempt for the truth is beautifully demonstrated here, in an authoritative, carefully annotated and measured article by Paul Bogdanor. You get the impression that Chomsky just makes things up whenever he needs a new fact to support him, and then decrees that whatever he says must be true.

‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ is possibly the truest, most meaningful thing he ever said.

Oh, and talking of Marxists and Linguistics, have another look at this, in which one of Chomsky's many bloodstained heroes gives an idealogically pure explanation of some abstruse points of language theory.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bagoas, Kingmaker

Today I give you a eunuch* who killed two Emperors, virtually ruled the entire Empire, became immensely wealthy by stealing private property and selling it back to its owners at inflated prices, subdued Egypt, but was responsible for the collapse of Persian control there, and ultimately of the Achaemenid Empire, which was conquered by Philip of Macedon, giving Alexander the Great a hand up which he probably didn't need, and died when the third Emperor, who he had also got tired of, was warned in advance and switched the wine glasses.

Bagoas poisoned Artaxerxes and his older sons so he could put the youngest, more easily controlled, on the Imperial throne of Persia. Diodorus** of Sicily says that this was because of the harsh treatment of his subjects by the Emperor, though one is forced to speculate how the possibility of almost limitless power influenced his judgement of Artaxerxes personal failings.

After only a couple of years he tired of the new Emperor, Arses, who ruled as Artaxerxes IV, and poisoned him as well. The new man, Darius III, doubtless a bit suspicious by this time, invited Bagoas to toast himself with the Emperor's own goblet***, and that was that.

A fullish life, open to criticism on some points, but he made the most of his time.

*There was another eunuch of the same name, but younger, who was a lover of Darius, and possibly of Alexander, and was suspected of murdering Philip.

**The only important source and not necessarily a reliable one.

***I must get a Gentleman's Goblet to keep behind the bar at the local. "Landlord, a goblet of your finest ale, if you please," sounds so much better than "Pint of best, guvnr."

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

It is often said that we live in a selfish, indolent age. It is, to a certain extent, true, in Britian and the wealthier countries of the world. But the only thing that has really changed is precisely that we are wealthy. People from Mr Ugg the Austropithecine onwards have always preferred lying on whatever was comfortable, scratching their armpits and watching the neighbours shout at each other to thinking, working and helping their fellows. It is the extraordinary increase in wealth of the last decades that have allowed large numbers of people to actively indulge this desire. The great majority of people now either do no work at all, or are paid to do wholly unnecessary things, or things which make no contribution whatsoever to the wealth which we all enjoy the benefits of.

One of the things, the main thing, I wanted to look at when I started this little exercise in talking to myself (and half a dozen others) was the ways in which we are wrong. Belief is much easier than truth, remarkably easy, in fact, and the desire to feel good about oneself is psychologically a very powerful influence on our character and behaviour, including the way we choose beliefs and turn them in our minds into something we call truth.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta was a woman of such supreme goodness, of such extraordinary character, so far beyond what most of us can imagine being, that she was always going to be misunderstood. There are those who have made a nice little living criticising her. This is typical of those so small and mean that they cannot accept or understand the greatness of others, and, ignoring everything else she did, become obsessed with some little detail that can be construed negatively- she asked for money from unfashionable sources, she worked her volunteers very hard, hygiene and treatment were not always of a high standard in her centres- to satisfy their own need to see themselves as better than she was.

There are not a handful of people in this world who have done a hundredth of the good that she did, and she will not easily be forgiven for it. This is not about her, but about how people understand her, but it is worth looking briefly at those criticisms:

She arrived in Calcutta and saw that there was work to do. She was moved by love of her fellow man, a love that oozed from every pore and every fibre, and which she expressed by working twenty hours a day for sixty years, unremittingly, to ease the suffering of the people around her. Not by hectoring others, writing articles in the Guardian or throwing stones on the streets of some european capital, but by getting her hands dirty every hour of every day, and persuading others to do the same. She needed money to do it, and she didn't care where it came from.
The love she felt derived directly from her love of God, another thing some people cannot accept. For these people, nothing she did counts because she did it in the name of God, rather than of social justice, post-colonial reparation, or some such empty label. She loved people, not words, and she did her work because it needed to be done, not to be thought nice, or clever or progressive, or culturally aware. (It still need to be done, by the way. But I don't see Tariq Ali doing it.)

She founded her order because she needed other people to help with and continue her work, and she persuaded volunteers to her centres because there were never enough to do what had to be done, and she made them work hard because that was what they were for. It was not so that gap-year arts students could have a chance to feel good about themselves. Nor did she turn anyone away. She cared for anyone, and most of them literally did not have a place to drop dead. This meant distributing medicines with care, not telling them to come back in January and blaming someone else.

Some criticisms are quite possibly valid, but no one who did not actively try to improve the deficiencies they draw attention to has any moral authority to pontificate.

This piece is actually not about Mother Theresa, but Irena Sendler, who I was reminded of by this article. She also recognised, in the ghetto of Warsaw, that there was work to be done, and she set about doing it. Risking her own life daily, she devoted years, again every hour of every day, to saving the children of Warsaw from death at the hands of the Nazis. She was eventually captured, tortured and sentenced to death, but was rescued and continued her work in hiding in Berlin. After the war she tried to reunite the children with their familes, but most of their parents had been killed. The communists jailed her and stripped her and her family of even those rights which other Poles were officially supposed to possees, but she lived to be honoured by the Pope, the Israeli Government and her native Poland, and by much of the world. I haven't heard her villified yet, but I'm sure it will happen.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Hampstead Flat-Earthers

More from the occasional series of bits of my own scribblings; today, excerpts from an allegedly humorous story that I must get round to finishing one day.

"Founded in the year 1977 the aim of the Hampstead Flat-Earth Society was never spelled out exactly. I intended it to be an exercise in competitive erudition of the highest standard, in an atmosphere that was unremittingly enjoyable, socially, gastronomically, intellectually, aesthetically, and in any other ways that might come to my notice. In this also I intended to exact the highest standards and always did so. Any lapse from rigour or conviviality, however small, was severely reprimanded, in the friendliest way, of course, and greater lapses could, and sometimes did, result in summary expulsion..."

"It became a very exclusive Club. Famous for its atmosphere, for its erudition and for its sometimes riotous behaviour. The night Peter Berkeley was threatened with expulsion for quoting the Poetic Edda in modern Norwegian it took three waiters and a couple of passing policeman to restore a form of order. We made the papers that night, too, but the press failed to understand the origin of the discussion. They said we had all drunk too much, but we did not need to be fuelled with drink to become heated about matters such as these. They are important..."

"Such discussions were not uncommon, and were an essential part of the club. How could we maintain the highest standards if we did not care passionately about error and weak thinking? Points of information or challenges to the speaker were regularly made by the throwing of bread rolls or the knocking over of furniture. Grant Lewis once questioned a member’s data on the transmission patterns of scrapie in New Zealand sheep by means of a frozen chicken. The subsequent debate was quite riveting, involving as it did, stuffed olives, chewing tobacco, an occasional table, three volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a long phone call to the Biology department of Auckland University. I could not follow all the details but the speaker turned out to have been absolutely right and the frozen chicken was withdrawn in a manner befitting a gentleman, as were the olives and other technical interventions..."

"John Keates was elected to membership one particularly lively evening. To the objection that he was dead his proposer pointed out that what the mind seizes as beautiful must be true, and the idea of Keates’ still living is unquestionably a beautiful one.

Protagoras the Sophist should never really have been permitted to join, having no obvious merits, but the argument his proposer submitted was so convincingly tortuous that we had little choice but to admit him. His membership was subsequently revoked, however, when it was discovered he had made comments about the sun crossing the sky in a four-horse chariot for which he made no attempt to provide any empirical evidence.

Groucho Marx was also proposed at one time, but it was felt that he was certain to decline membership if offered it..."

Constructive abuse is welcome, as ever.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

More Bolivian Frolics

Back in Bolivia, which is a lot more fun than Britain (especially if you don't have to live there) Evo Morales has decided to stop pretending to be on hunger strike, and is now pretending that there was a plot to kill him, bizarrely involving a Hungarian novelist, who looks like quite a character, a young Irish fantasist and a Bolivian soldier, all of whom 'died in a shootout with police,' which they apparently took part in while unarmed and in their underwear.

The vice-President, Álvaro García Linera, has said they are the leaders of an international far-right fascist gang (i.e. they disagree with Evo Morales) and have also been blamed for attacking the Cardinal's residence last Wednesday. Oh and he also says they were planning to assassinate the de facto leader of the opposition, Rubén Costas. Costas himself dismisses the whole thing as a Government propaganda show, and he is very probably right. The bodies are real, though. Morales lost his battle with Parliament, though he says he didn't, and is now deep in conversation with Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, learning how to avoid irritating matters like elections and keeping his country fit to live in, so he can concentrate on the more important business of getting immensely rich, playing God and hating anyone he can't bring to the edge of starvation.

The new electoral roll is being compiled with the help of the Organization of American States, so he may have to find another way to fiddle the election. I am not at all sure he will succeed. He is not Fidel Castro. He is not even Hugo Chávez. So there is still hope for Bolivia, but it will take a while.

Yesterday in Review

Quote of the day- From 'Chris', commenting on this post at Language Log:

"If you factor out the conversion from miles to km (1.6 km/mi), you can work out that they were assuming a liter is equivalent to about 16 minutes. Easy conversion between time and volume is one often overlooked advantage to the metric system.

Presumably this is an empirical physical relationship, and there is a Standard Liter of Beer and a Standard Graduate student in a glass case in France somewhere, who can drink that beer in 16 minutes, whenever calibration is needed."

The whole thread is a good laugh.

Image of the day- From the Telegraph, probably photoshopped and probably an old joke, but I liked it:

(click to enlarge, I think)

Achievement of the day- From the Central Veterinary Resarch Centre and the Camel Reproduction Centre of Dubai:

The cloning of a racing camel. No small feat. They also do paternity tests on camels, artificially inseminate them, and sex birds, all of which must make for an interesting day's work. They take the sport of Sheikhs very seriously over there.


Joke of the day- From NickM at Counting Cats in Zanzibar: f(x) walks into a pub and asks for a pint. The barman says, “Sorry mate, we don’t cater for functions”.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Few Loosely Connected Memories

I was reflecting this morning on the way that the world has changed. During my lifetime, many areas of human activity have changed almost beyond recognition, at least in the wealthy countries of the world.

Communications are the most obvious of these changes, of course. Only twenty-odd years ago I did my entire Mathematics degree without even seeing a computer, let alone owning one.

We can keep in touch with old friends around the world with a minumum of effort and in real time, even speaking to them on live video, free. Our concept of society itself must necessarily be expanded and altered by this circumstance alone.

We no longer have to rely on journalists- who are motivated by money and self-importance, not truth- to tell us what is happening and what opinion we should have of it. We can go straight to the sources, watch the event, read the words of the same press release the paper has copied, and often the original document. We can check almost instantly any fact we are presented with, and uncover easily the background which they may be trying to hide, or have not bothered to mention. We may not do this ourselves, we may be too lazy, or lack the knowledge, or not be interested, but we could do it if we chose, and we can be sure that someone will.

Wealth is the reason for it, naturally; even in the last forty years, we lucky ones in the West have become enormously wealthier and if we go back a little further we see that those who have least in Britain today live with more comfort and security than any inhabitant of the Victorian world. This has happened because we did not have people in power actively conspirinng to stop it happeneing; some countries, that had the resources to join us, were not so lucky. Large numbers of us live without working, eating all they need, entertained all day by a variety of apparatus, running cars to travel where they will, their houses warmed and defended, their health looked after at all times, with armies of bureaucrats inventing new needs which they are then entitled to have satisfied. It is true that they may look with envy on the greater wealth of others, but their position is a dream of heaven to people from many parts of the world, and any previous period of history.

My generation, or the previous one, was possibly the first to grow up never expecting to have to go to war, never expecting to lose a child or a wife in childbirth, without fear of disease, never expecting to go hungry, expecting to be active into our seventies, and believing that all our problems should be solved by somebody else. It is wealth, collective wealth that allows this to happen, of course, and along with it comes decadence, laziness, a collective ennui, and the indulgence of types of people, activity and thought that would have been dangerous in a less priviledged age.

Communism and its children were originally conceived and executed by tyrants, bloodthirsty egomaniacs who cared nothing for the people they conquered, and whose lives they destroyed. in many unhappy parts of the world, this is still true, but in Western Europe and America their followers are mostly well-meaning people incapable of seeing beyond a few phrases of an ill-constructed theory. Our Universities are filled with lecturers and professors in invented disciplines, that are not really academic at all, but whose purpose is to allow a certain type of fool to think they are middle class and to talk ideological claptrap in the knowledge that it will never be put to the test here. Fifty years ago these cosy little clubs for worthless progressives would have been an unaffordable luxury. Now, our nations are so wealthy that not even socialism can destroy them, only inflict temporary damage.

'The world', by which we pampered ones mean that little bit of it that we know and live in, has been changed by wealth, and thank God for it. But we have lost things too; comfort is bad in general for the sense of ambition, of enterprise, of enquiry, of critical interest, of adventure, and even of the value of our own existence. A deal worth making, I think. Increased prosperity is unreservedly good; it means we can all live longer, healthier, more comfortable, freer, and happier lives. Whether we, individually, choose to do so, is up to us.

When did you last see a knife-grinder, passing through on his bike, on the way from one village to the next, or a rag-and-bone man with a horse and cart, or a peddler with a rucksack knocking at the door, or a brush salesman, or a corporate alms house, or a cobbler's shop, or a horsedrawn brewer's dray, or a fishmonger's barrow on the street. I remember all of these things from the 1970's, and they are gone for ever, like Afro haircuts, bellbottomed trousers and the Hilman Imp.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How Can We Have Fun, Let Me Count the Ways

The Holy Week processions of Spanish cities and towns are quite well known around the world- capes and pointed hats, dozens of strong men moving great platforms with statues on, step by step, drumbeats, brass bands, chains clanking, crowds falling silent, ‘saetas’ sung to the Virgin from the roadside or from balconies- the details are not so familiar, perhaps, but the idea is not new to anyone who has travelled or read a little.

There are other festival activities which are known anecdotally- in Buñol, in Valencia, the people throw hundreds of tons of tomatoes at each other every August. Others are barely known outside the areas where they happen- in Bilbao rotting geese are strung across the river and competitors in boats try to leap up and pull their heads off as they pass, sometimes being pulled into the air by and dropped into the water by the tension in the rope.

Here in Ciudad Real we celebrate the Pandorga at the end of each July. The Pandorgo is a jolly, fat chap who represents the spirit of fun, and a local character, known for being jolly and fat, is chosen to play the role every year. The central part of the festival consists of a competition between groups to make the best ‘zurra’, an individualist take on the theme of wine with cordials. This happens in the gardens in front of the cathedral. The idea is that the best ‘zurra’ is offered to the Pandorgo when he turns up. In practice it is an excuse to get the youth of the town together to drink cheap wine and throw the rest of it over each other. It is utter chaos, the result is several thousand drunk, purple people crushed together, passing out in the afternoon sun. The town centre stinks for days, even though they hose it all down (it seeps into the earth of the gardens).

Nearby, in Almagro, at this time of year the Council gets a piglet which lives in the town for a month being fed by the townspeople. Then it is raffled off and becomes bacon, I imagine. This year's pig is called Obama. I can’t vouch for any of this, I speak from hearsay.

In Calzada, also nearby, people come from all over the province on Good Friday to play ‘cruces’, a simple coin-tossing game on which enormous sums are staked. It becomes, for one day, the biggest casino in Spain. Thousands of pounds are staked on a single toss. Last Friday, they tell me, one man bet his lorry, and another his house, and a pro who tried to milk the bank with a system was run out of town.

Monday, April 13, 2009

More News from Bolivia

Note: All links are in Spanish

Evo Morales is still on hunger strike, allegedly. According to El País he celebrated the Day of the Child yesterday, and he looks fit enough there. He has used hunger strike before as a form of protest, especially during his time as the Trotskyist leader of the coca producers' union. He has said he (he actually said 'we', I wonder who he refers to) is willing to die to uphold the rights of the indigenous people of Bolivia. This is an admirable sentiment, but it is hard to see how rigging an election is going to help them; they are the rural poor, and they have the least to gain from economic and social breakdown, as usual. In any case, to judge by the photograph, I don't think we need fear such a tragic outcome. But someone, some supporter who doesn't understand politics and thinks it's real, probably will starve himself to death before this is over.

He has now agreed to a new census (one of the main complaints of the opposition was that the electoral roll was largely a work of fiction), though it remains to be seen how it will be carried out. He has said that if anything happens to him it will be the fault of America and the opposition, who he calls fascists, for no very obvious reason. He has the vociferous support of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro- who have done so much themselves for democracy and the poor- which plays well with the populist movements and the extreme left. It's all for the television, of course, and in the end it will work. The law will be passed and he will probably win the election in the same way he won the last one. How this will benefit the Bolivian poor (many of whom are very poor indeed, without education or healthcare) is still unclear.

His idea of Socialism, like that of Chávez, is to tax the successful until they cease to be, or until they leave the country, and to nationalize everything in sight, destroying its value at a stroke. Then, when there is no money to give to the poor, he will blame America and the opposition.

Elsewhere in South America, Fernando Lugo, the President of Paraguay, has acknowledged a child he fathered back when he was a bishop, before entering politics. No one seems too bothered about it; in fact the general impression (from a quick look at the Paraguayan press) is that he has acted responsibly but it doesn't matter much. Gordon Brown would kill to be able to manage such effortless mystery and charisma.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Christ is Risen

Right on cue here in the deepish South of this fine, warm, sunny country, Christ has risen from the dead. A true professional, He never fails. Having been paraded through the streets in various forms of glorious and sorrowful depictions of the final days of his life, often accompanied by his Mother in various guises, today He is alive and among us once again. It represents the joy of hope. Yes, it really does, I'm not making it up, you can feel it. As at Christmas people actually seem to like each other for a while, at Easter, where Easter matters, people start to think that maybe things aren't so bad after all. The good guy winning, wiping out the bad guys, with a spectacular last-second move that no one could have seen coming, is what feeling good is all about.
So here you have the image of the risen Christ that is paraded here, accompanied by all the 'cofrades' of all the brotherhoods (sorry I couldn't get a better picture). Holy Week here isn't like Seville or Málaga or Murcia, but it is big and old and well done and taken very seriously.

Meanwhile, up in the Basque Country, ETA have chosen this moment to threaten the new coalition government between the Socialist and Popular Parties. The terrorists have been used to dealing with the Nationalist government of JuanJo Ibarretxe for the last ten years, and he was, at the very least, an incompetent and a coward. Now they have no voice in the Parliament, and they do not have the ear of the Government either, we can expect the bombs to increase.

So there we have it, a mixed morning, as ever.

Guido Raises a Well-Earned Glass

The British media is having a terrific time biting itself in the armpits over the rights and wrongs of what Derek Draper did or didn't do or know of those plans to spread lies about Conservative MP's; the blogosphere congratulates Guido, quite rightly, on his coup, and the Labour party tries to blame it all on Margaret Thatcher (it's hard to be sure, but I think anyone who disagrees with Gordon Brown now becomes Margaret Thatcher); there is talk of going after the man at the top, who, they say, is likely to have known something about all of this plotting. I have bad news.

Nixon moments are very few. Even Clinton survived, despite everything that was known and much more that was suspected. Of course Brown depends on his Parliamentary party, but if they haven't taken him up a back alley yet then they're not going to before the election. It's very hard to get at the top man. In the 1980's the Socialist government of Felipe González formed a gang of thugs, known as GAL, within the Ministry of the Interior to attack ETA with its own methods, kidnapping, torturing, bombing and shooting known terrorist leaders who, for whatever reason, couldn't be reached by the law. This would have been an excellent idea. and nobody would have cared very much, if they hadn't made a monumental mess of it; most of their victims were not connected to ETA. In the end the Home Secretary, José Barrionuevo; the Security Minister, Rafel Vera; the Police Chief of Bilbao, Miguel Planchuelo; the Governor of Vizcaya, Julián Sancristobal; the General of the Guardia Civil, Enrigue Rodríguez Galindo and a few more were jailed, but the President himself wasn't touched. He was shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover what his ministers and other appointees had been doing behind his back, and still appears from time to time to play the elder statesman. Few democratic governments have been more corrupt than Tony Blair's, which hasn't stopped him telling us all what to do, either.

Next year Gordon Brown will be lucky to be a quiz question, but not because of this; the achievement of Guido has been to frighten the life out of those who are trying to control us, as they realize that we (enough of us, anyway) not only refuse to listen but can answer them back. In the end politics is all about personalities, and if you bruise the ones who matter, the ones who most want to feel important, you can, up to a point, control them.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

So What Is It That's Missing, Then?

This is about Kurt Gödel, and what he did and did not prove back in the '30's. He is one of the names in mathematics or mathematical physics that is most regularly abused by those who do not understand what the Incompleteness Theorems mean. Words like Incompleteness, Relativity, Uncertainty, Chaos, Entropy and Evolution are bandied about, not just by blokes in bars who think that they give a sense of authority to their arguments, but by politicians, journalists and academics who have made no real attempt to understand these concepts, but for some reason assume they just do.

Now this makes a certain amount of sense, knowing what we do of the human mind's attitude to itself- when I was 15 I knew everything; at 25 I was confident of filling in the gaps by the time I was 30; now in my 40's I often despair at the extent of my ignorance; when I am 60 I shall scarcely dare to open my mouth; similarly, in normal circumstances I can manage to make general remarks about a number of subjects, speculate about others, and perhaps raise what may or may not be pertinent questions about a few more, but around the fourth pint of Abbot's I percieve and express the great questions and answers of the moment and of all time with a clarity and lucidy that Einstein himself surely never experienced.

In other words, there is nothing like learning a little about something to appreciate your ignorance of it. Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem is not something most people bother to understand, because oddly enough, many of them think they already do. It is an assumption of breathtaking arrogance, in fact, to imagine you not only understand the theorem just from having heard a couple of third-hand references to it, but that you can also discern previously unnoticed applications of it to other fields that you don't know anything about either.

It is often said that Gödel's theorem is simple to understand. This is not true. It is not so hard to express in simple terms what it proves about mathematical systems, and it is not hard to give an idea of the approach that Gödel used (in terms of the Liar Paradox, or something similar), but in order to prove it true, rather than to engage in anecdotal discussion about the limits of self-referential sentences, it must be expressed in purely mathematical terms, and that is not at all easy to understand. That is, it is not hard to get a grasp of what the Incompleteness Theorem says (though most people fail to do so) but to know that it is true is a very different matter.

Gödel's first incompleteness theorem proved (in the mathematical sense) that in any sufficiently complex axiomatic system there must exist true statements which are not provable within the system. This does not mean that no result of the system is provable (most are, and all true statements can be proven true by expanding the system), or that there is no such thing as truth.

It does have some interesting consequences for mathematics, but none whatsoever for other types of systems, or collections of statements, nor for philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, or the humanities/waffle-blathery crowd in general. This is because it is a statement about a particular type of entity in mathematics, and must be understood in those terms before any possible relevance to anything else can be derived. It is also true (in the mathematical sense), not just a theory, an idea, or a set of general remarks. This is why, I think, those without a science background think they can play with a few of the words used to decribe the theorem, and expect to arrive at something useful- because their very notion of what truth is is completely different.

Looking for specific, significant examples of misuse of the name of Gödel or of incompleteness, I found this page, maintained by Torkel Franzen of Lulea University (that's his story, anyway). He tabulates and discusses the common misuses, saving me the trouble of doing it, and causing me the kind of intellectual envy I didn't have to experience when I was 20. So I shall let him do the rest of the work. I also found this, by Rebecca Goldstein, a philosopher who actually does seem to understand both the relevant mathematics and the limits of its applicability to other fields.

In other news, Johann Hari discusses a common type of fallacious argumentative gambit, a form of false relevance, or misdirection. Hardly new, and it is mostly a self-centred and self-justifying piece, but this blog is interested in the search for truth, and here it is discussed in a national newspaper.

And finally, The Times suggests that the only qualifications required for being a newspaper columnist are being blonde and having nothing at all worth saying.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Bolivian Frolics

Evo Morales is on hunger strike.

To my UK readers that may not mean very much, since the British press doesn't seem to have noticed that he exists, but in fact it is a remarkable piece of news. He is the President of Bolivia, and his election was more or less on democratic lines. However, he is extremely interested in winning the next elections in December by any means available, ostensibly because only he can protect the 'indigenous' population (who are a majority and have a vote like everyone else). It might have more to do with the love of power that these people invariably have, and the fact that he is the head of the South American coca growers association (so I am informed).

In any case, he claims to be fasting until Parliament passes the bill that will allow elections to be held in December. Why does the incumbent president want elections, while the opposition try to stop him holding them? Go on, guess. The electoral census is, shall we say, inaccurate, a circumstance recognised by everyone, including Morales' party when he thought it was useful to say so. The opposition want reform of the census before elections, because otherwise they cannot hope to win, and Morales has suddenly decided that democracy in Bolivia requires elections without reform of any sort. (There is a new Constitution; it looks depressingly familiar.)

A prediction: the election bill will be passed, without the reform of the census. A further wild guess: many thousands of peasants, Indians, socialists and party workers will be persuaded to join him on hunger strike, and will risk their health and lose income in support of him, while Morales himself will pose on a mattress for the cameras before going off to dinner.

Still, he's a lot more fun than Gordon Brown, and he believes in his own right to govern, which we used to think was the absolute minimum requirement for a leader.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Not being entirely up to speed with modern trends in youth sub-culture I was rather lost when I heard someone described as 'emo' today. Referring to that indispensable work, the Urban Dictionary (both instructive and hilarious, but you probably knew that) I find my curiosity satisfied in these terms:

Genre of softcore punk music that integrates unenthusiastic melodramatic 17 year olds who don't smile, high pitched overwrought lyrics and inaudible guitar rifts with tight wool sweaters, tighter jeans, itchy scarfs (even in the summer), ripped chucks with favorite band's signature, black square rimmed glasses, and ebony greasy unwashed hair that is required to cover at least 3/5 ths of the face at an angle.

::sniff sniff:: "The Demise of the Siberian Traintracks of Our Rusty Forgotten Unblemished Love" sounds like it would make a great emo band name. ::cry::

Not quite Ambrose Bierce, but a good try, and it actually tells you what you need to know (I think). It made me think of the Human League, who are perhaps a bit dated now.*

Update: I might have known the band name above was real. Researching a bit more deeply I'm starting to like the image thing. I haven't got round to the music yet, and I'm not sure about looking like Harry Potter; I think the days when I could do that and still pull (even hypothetically) are long gone. For more information try this and this.

*Litotes alert.

Return from Ortigosa

The last few days we have been on the farm, which exempts us from life. So I neither know nor care what is happening in the world. In the summer we spent upwards of two months there, during which I neither watch the television nor read a newspaper nor listen to the radio nor have access to the internet (that will have to change this year, because of work), and the world ticks over quite nicely without me telling it what to do, pointing out its more obvious flaws, and generally watching over it. It is quite surprising, and in a way disappointing, to discover in September that everything is still working more or less as it was and that nothing of consequence has happened. When you follow certain areas of news, politics and science obsessively you become like the neurotic passenger in a car; when you nod off or your attention wanders you are jerked back to full awareness by the shock of realizing that the driver hasn't crashed. (Having said that, the Cobbler clearly can't manage without me).

The fields are fairly green, at least from a distance, but sowing was interrupted frequently by rain, so the growth is irregular. Rabbits are everywhere, and eagles circle lazily above the hills. There are lilacs in the garden and the rosemary is in flower all over the mountainsides. This is, of course, just an excuse to publish a couple of photographs, so here you are.


Glossographia is an interesting blog that I discovered a while ago, I forget how. This article discusses the sort of thing I often go on about- people who pretend to be academics while in fact using a series of tricks to fool their readers, and often themselves, into thinking they have proved what their prejudices had already decided must be true. I don't have much to add, since Stephen Chrisomalis does an excellent job of explaining why the arguments are invalid and the conclusions meaningless. David Kelley did important work, decades ago, on the interpretation of the Maya script, but since then has joined the ranks of the intellectual megalomaniacs, who think that their belief in something makes it true, and the evidence they adduce must not be analyzed. For a once accomplished linguist he makes some elementary blunders, by false analogy and wishful thinking, in his desire to prove his thoery. Get over there and read it, it's worth it, but in case you need encouragement, he (Kelley) is a hyperdiffusionist who claims that Meso-America was culturally influenced by the Egyptians. This is highly unlikely to be true, but the point is not the truth or otherwise of the assertion, but the methods he uses to defend them. The defining characteristic of such people is that they are not interested in truth, but in persuading themselves that they are right. He has clearly crossed that line long ago.

I found this post particularly interesting, too. It's something I can imagine doing myself.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

More Tales from the Alhambra

This is going to be much quicker than I intended, as duty calls me to the country. (My duty to myself, that is). Washington Irving spent several months living in the Alhambra of Granada in 1829 and was inspired (possibly by his accountant) to write this. It is immensely detailed, closely observed and a joy to read. Especially if you know the Alhambra, but even if you don't, you will feel you do by the time you've finished.

It's a book I've been intending to read (and pretending that I had read) for years, and I have finally got round to it after returning to the place a few weeks ago. Give it a look over, and then, visit Granada. You will not be disappointed.

Can We Listen to the HDJ?

LFAT tells the story of yet another group in Germany, (the Homeland-Faithful German Youth) who have been legally silenced. (The Nameless One picks up on this, as does DK.) They don’t appear to be people you would particularly care to hear, and I have heard enough. (I can't find their website; can anyone help?) But, as I have said before, I don’t like the idea of forbidding the holding or expressing of ideas. The debate seems to centre on whether they are entitled to state their beliefs, and to attempt to transmit them to children. In answer to the first point, of course they have the right to state their beliefs, policies and so on, and to engage in debate. In answer to the second, they first have to persuade parents to let them talk to their children. And they do have to persuade; that sort of person does not get easy access to children, unlike, for example, religious groups, and especially governments, who tend to think they are entitled to decide what children should be told is right and wrong (Hickory passim).

Those who seek to prevent this are far more dangerous than the HDJ. They don’t have a right of access to any forum they choose. No one does. Your right to free expression ends at my lughole. I don’t have to listen. I certainly don’t have to agree. I can argue with you, call you a fool, warn others against you, all of the things normal people do in situations which no one has told them are matters of universal principle (at least this week).

Freedom of speech is surely not such a difficult concept to understand. I think the problem is that most people think they believe in it, as a general principle, because everyone does, don’t they? But many do not in fact think about what it implies. When they do, they starting butting and unlessing. Most do not believe in it at all; they believe in agreeing with them, and to say certain other things within strictly defined limits. If free speech means anything it means saying things someone else doesn’t want to hear. And believing in free speech involves being grown-up. It does not mean condoning incitement to violence; this is a false argument, once well understood as such, but now being used to gain support for the prohibition of opinion.

Once the principle is established that the state can dictate what you can and cannot say, you can be sure that one day you will be prevented by force from expressing opposition to it. See the EU on xenophobia.

You do not give people the right to say certain things. You forbid them to say things, or to think things, or believe things, you probably don’t appreciate the difference, let alone care about it. And you cannot ban ideas. To ban the expression of them then invites the denouncing of people for their facial expression and body language.

Arantxa Quiroga, of the Popular Party, has been elected president of the Basque parliament. The background to this is very complicated- I shall try to explain it one day- but the point is that the Nationalist Party is no longer in control. Miss Quiroga has said that this is the first fully democratic Basque parliament, because the terrorists have no representation. Herri Batasuna (the Sinn Fein of Spain) and their successor parties, all with the same leaders and members, have been illegalized repeatedly. It is hard to do this, especially in a democracy which still fears its own debility, and it has been done with great care, but it has been done.

I have lived in Bilbao, I have known people threatened and extorted by ETA, I have been threatened myself for going to work when they have called a strike (because they control the trade unions), I have heard bombs go off, and seen the damage they cause, I have argued with supporters of the scum who are trying to destroy the place, and I still do not believe they should be prevented from speaking, or that people should not be allowed to vote for them. They will never have enough support for it to matter. The majority of us are not that stupid.

In the end, it matters far more to us to say what we think than to stop others from saying what they think, and that is a good thing. It means that without force we will tend to let other people do what they want.

(Harold Steptoe dixit: Everyone’s entitled to not like what they don’t like, and I don’t like wogs. Discuss.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Nice Little Earner

If anyone is interested, the Spanish government has just changed the method of calculating land areas. Or rather, of describing them; instead of calling a plot 4.0 hectares, or whatever, they will call it 3.9999 (recurring). This is in keeping with standard statistical practice, and apparently of no importance, but it actually has an interesting consequence: given the (perhaps temporary) margin between the physically measured areas and those registered with the "catastro oficial", there will be slivers of land, of non-negligible width, that will legally have no owner.
It will not be easy, but with a well considered buying plan, based on surrounding areas and carefully calculated shapes, it should be possible to accumulate a quantity of land which is yours because it is nobody's. It has the double advantage that it cannot be taxed, since legally it will belong to the crown (by default in allodial title).

I don't have the money to make anything of this, as it would require a very big investment to make something of it, but I offer the suggestion to anyone, with a good lawyer and a good surveyor, who might be able to use it.

We Are Not Worthy

Your humble blogging hedgehog has been blogrolled by Bruce Prior at Picking Losers, a real blogger, who gets regular readers and everything, and my spines are positively glowing with joy. For once the statmeter has had some work to do. His blog is well worth a look, and I have added it to Hickory's blogroll.

This evening's illustration is brought to you courtesy of Mrs Hickory, who paints a mean picture.