Dried Roses

If wishes were horses…

Warning: Acronym-laden techno-jargon ahead.
Ever since Adobe killed Framemaker, I’ve been adrift. No word processor does what I want. For my class notes, I use an XML editor (Tag, buggy but straightforward; the developer has been very good in responding to inquiries) and import the files into InDesign for page layout. This is workable but it doesn’t take advantage of the XML structure. When I switch from writing this weblog, whose styles are specified in CSS, to using a wordprocessor—InDesign or Mellel or Nisus—I feel as if I’m moving from the 21st century back into the 20th.
Added 4 Mar: see the remarks on TeX at the end of this entry, written on the basis of a helpful note from Richard Zach.


LinkMarch 2, 2005 in Web/Tech

How philosophy gets done

Brian Weatherson, responding to a query from Matthew Yglesias (the link to his query no longer works), writes on doing philosophy, and in particular on applying “old ideas to new fields”. Yglesias had written:
One of the things that’s dawned on me as I approach graduation is that for all the hours I’ve put into listening to lectures and participating in seminars on philosophy, I’ve never really had anyone speak to me on the topic of how, in practice, philosophy is done.
I’m generally of the opinion that expecting students to just “pick things up” is a bad idea; it tends to perpetuate the inequalities already existing among them when they enter graduate school. In order to pick something up, you have to know first of all that there is something you ought to pick up, and then figure out, from the data available to you, what that thing is. Some people are very good at picking up, for example, social norms; others are indifferent, by temperament or by class origin, to bourgeois niceties, but will have, if gently advised, no difficulty in becoming observant (in both senses).
The same goes for style in writing: some people are capable of figuring out how to write academic prose just by reading a lot of it; others, equally capable of writing decently, respond readily to advice but are not, at least initially, very good at the induction of norms just by exposure. It just may never have dawned on you, for example, that there is such a thing as a standard bibliographic style, not because you’re too dense to notice or too inept to reproduce it, but because you have never learned that such matters are to be attended to.
So I agree that making explicit our tacit knowledge in such matters is a service to the community. Weatherson shows very nicely how to do the kind of philosophy that consists in Problems, Arguments, and Examples (some of which are Puzzles).
  • A Problem is a standard question for which Arguments supply putative answers. Answers to Problems are called Positions.
  • Arguments are bits of reasoning. Some arguments have had proper names given to them: the Causal Exclusion Argument, the Third Man.
  • Examples are situations which one can describe in a few sentences and offer up to intuition as illustrations of or counterexamples to the Arguments. Puzzles are examples that produce conflicting intuitions among philosophers, thereby creating new Problems and Positions for which new Arguments will be invented.
Doing philosophy, or some part of doing philosophy, consists in having ready to hand a stock of Problems, Positions, Arguments, and Examples, and in developing a knack for
  • (i) varying the Arguments slightly so as to apply them to new cases, and
  • (ii) generating new Examples from everyday experience or (in “philosophies of”) the discourse of some other discipline.
A competent philosopher is one who is well primed to pick out relevant analogies on the basis of which Arguments can be transferred from one domain to another, and to notice Puzzles that hook up with current Problems.
This is, mutatis mutandis, a decent description of “normal science” or its equivalent in any discipline—or, for that matter, almost any productive activity. Weatherson gives some examples.


LinkMarch 2, 2005 in History of Philosophy · Philosophy of Philosophy

Sunday cat pix

LG past and present.


LinkMarch 6, 2005 in Cats

The “Philosopher” and the “Sentimentalist”

On my way to Coleridge the other day I couldn’t help but notice the work whose front cover you see here. Could I resist? Of course not. It was that emdash between ‘love’ and ‘philosopher’. I have a soft spot for eccentric punctuation.
Marie Corelli was a prolific and extremely successful novelist. She combined an unconventional private life, including a female partner, with social conservatism—in her Free opinions, freely expressed, she takes on “unchristian clerics”, the “vulgarity of wealth”, “little poets”, and the declining attention-span of readers (). She published her first novels in 1886, and in all published over 30 volumes, many of them still in print. Love, one of her last anthumous works (), was published in 1923. The title character is an inveterate “sponger”, brilliant but verbally cruel; the “sentimentalist”, his foil, is the daughter of a rich old man who with the Philosopher’s help is completing his lifework, The Deterioration of Language Invariably Perceived as a Precursor to the Decadence of Civilization (). Needless to say, a young, intelligent woman, unmarried, with “such a charming curve to the back! […] and oh, dear me, such a very small hand,—as white as the dove that had settled upon it”, must fall in love with someone: but with whom?
() The detailed bibliography at Violet Books, compiled by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, lists four works dictated by Corelli from beyond the grave. She has been silent, it appears, since 1969. Also by Salmonson: a biography of Corelli at the Victorian Web, a bibliography of works on Corelli, and a filmography. From the latter I learn that D. W. Griffith directed a version of The sorrows of Satan in 1926, starring, among others, the lovely but ill-fated Lya de Putti.
() See p. 70. If this puts you in mind of Casaubon and Middlemarch, you’re right: the characters themselves note the parallel (35). The Deterioration of Language reflects one of Corelli’s own preoccupations: here and elsewhere she inveighs against slang and vulgarity, regarding it as symptom of cultural decline.
() Of the public she writes that “their reading is of a most strange, mixed, and desultory order”. Why?
Simply because even the million do not know “how” to read. Moreover, it is very difficult to make them learn. They have neither the skill nor the patience to study beautiful thoughts expressed in beautiful language. They want to “rush” something through. Whether poem, play or novel, it must be “rushed through” and done with. […] They have time for motoring, cycling, card-playing, racing, betting, hockey and golf,—anything in short which does not directly appeal to the intellectual faculties,—but for real reading, they can neither make leisure, nor acquire aptitude.
This vague, sieve-like quality of brain and general inability to comprehend or retain imprssions of character or events, which is becoming so common among modern so-called “readers” of books, can but make things very difficult for authors who seek to contribute something of their utmost and best to the world of literature.
A hundred years before Coleridge was already lamenting the ill effects of reading the newspapers and reviews (Biographia litteraria, c3, ed. Engell & Bate 1:48). A hundred and fifty years before that, Pascal laid the scalpel to the human thirst for distraction (Pensées ed. Lafuma 1962, nos. 132–137). It’s possible that the public—that beast—has been in continuous decline the last two centuries, and that the laments of Coleridge and Corelli and Alan Bloom have all got something to them. But as Coleridge himself notes, reading novels of the trashy sort found in the circulating libraries of his time is an activity belonging to “that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely: indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy”. If those propensities are innate, then the impression of decline must be a sort of illusion; only the means of indulging them have changed. Pascal would be closer to the truth in treating them as symptoms of original sin, transmitted ex traduce from Adam (or Lucy) onward.

LinkMarch 7, 2005 in Books · Literature

Mathematical tidbits

I’ve been flat on my back with the flu for the last three days, without an original thought in my head. So no philosophy. Instead a few more sites on mathematics:
  • Carrés multimagies
    Christian Boyer. Carrés multimagiques (multimagic squares, multimagischen Quadrate) are magic squares such that if every number in the square is replaced its square (cube, etc.) the result is also a magic square.
    A magic square is an n × n array of natural numbers (in a “normal” magic square, the consecutive numbers from 1 to n2) for which every row, column, and diagonal adds up to the same number. There are also magic cubes, for which every line of numbers between two faces or vertices (and, in a perfect magic cube, every line of numbers between two edges)—every “row, column, pillar, and space diagonal”—adds up to the same number. In 2003 Boyer and Walter Trump discovered a 5×5 perfect magic cube (the smallest possible). There is an animated version of it at Mathworld. Boyer’s site is a labor of love. It belongs to the Anneau des Mathématiques Francophones, which has 87, mostly pedagogical, sites.lnglabfr.pnglnglabeng.pnglnglabdeu.png
  • Mathcurve
    Conoid of Plücker, n=3.
    Source: Mathcurve
    Robert Ferréol. Une “encyclopédie des formes mathématiques remarquables”. All mathematical objects are abstract, I suppose. But some are more abstract than others. (Is there such a thing as a particular abstractum?) The study of curves and surfaces is rich in what a mathematician would call “concrete” examples. The Mathcurve site includes plane curves, space curves, surfaces, fractals, and polyhedra, including some in animation. There is also a fairly extensive bibliography. Philosophers have had almost nothing to say about what you might call the “natural history” side of mathematics: the gathering and classification of examples, some of which may be no more than curiosities (like the bimagic squares above), some of which turn out to be crucial (like Torricelli’s surface, which, though infinite in extent, is finite in volume). A good cheap book on plane curves is J. Dennis Lawrence, A catalog of special plane curves (Dover, 1972) · 0486602885 (find it at ABEBooks).
  • New Proof of the Four-Color Theorem
    Neil Robertson, Daniel P. Sanders, Paul Seymour and Robin Thomas. Twenty years ago, the first proof of the Theorem aroused some interest among philosophers because its proof, part of which was an enormous proof by cases, was carried out on computers. (See Thomas Tymoczko, “The Four-Color Problem and Its Philosophical Significance”, in New directions in the philosophy of mathematics, rev. ed., Princeton, 1998 · 0691034982.) Mathematicians accepted the result, but were, on the whole, disappointed that the proof of what would seem to be a simple property of the plane (“every map can be colored with no more than four colors”) did not have a conceptually more revealing proof. (I seem to remember Jean Dieudonné dismissing it as unfruitful.) You might call it an unwanted particular, a quirky fact that wasn’t supposed to be quirky. Robertson et al. have simplified the proof and produced a faster algorithm for proving that a configuration is four-colorable. They acknowledge that the proof is “not a proof in the traditional sense”, and cannot be made into one:
    We should mention that both our programs use only integer arithmetic, and so we need not be concerned with round-off errors and similar dangers of floating point arithmetic. However, an argument can be made that our ‘proof’ is not a proof in the traditional sense, because it contains steps that can never be verified by humans. In particular, we have not proved the correctness of the compiler we compiled our programs on, nor have we proved the infallibility of the hardware we ran our programs on. These have to be taken on faith, and are conceivably a source of error. However, from a practical point of view, the chance of a computer error that appears consistently in exactly the same way on all runs of our programs on all the compilers under all the operating systems that our programs run on is infinitesimally small compared to the chance of a human error during the same amount of case-checking. Apart from this hypothetical possibility of a computer consistently giving an incorrect answer, the rest of our proof can be verified in the same way as traditional mathematical proofs. We concede, however, that verifying a computer program is much more difficult than checking a mathematical proof of the same length.
    K. Appel and W. Haken, Every planar map is four colorable. Part I. Discharging, Illinois J. Math. 21 (1977), 429–490.
    K. Appel, W. Haken and J. Koch, Every planar map is four colorable. Part II. Reducibility, Illinois J. Math. 21 (1977), 491—567.
    K. Appel and W. Haken, Every planar map is four colorable, Contemporary Math. 98 (1989).
    N. Robertson, D. P. Sanders, P. D. Seymour and R. Thomas, The four colour theorem, J. Combin. Theory Ser. B. 70 (1997), 2–44.
    N. Robertson, D. P. Sanders, P. D. Seymour and R. Thomas, A new proof of the four colour theorem, Electron. Res. Announc. Amer. Math. Soc. 2 (1996), 17–25 (electronic).

LinkMarch 11, 2005 in Philosophy of Mathematics

Sunday cat pix

LG shows the youngsters that real cats aren’t afraid of heights.


LinkMarch 13, 2005 in Cats

Sunday cat pix

HS secures my notebook.


LinkMarch 20, 2005 in Cats

Preserve your God-given ignorance

This was going into one of my posts on Horowitz and the Academic Bill of Rights (No. 1, No. 2), but since that series is in abeyance, I’m posting it separately. Dr. Theresa Whitehurst recounts a conversation overheard at a Starbucks in Nashville:
“But you do have to be careful about one thing,” he said more quietly, coming closer and speaking in hushed tones, “My professor—I have this great professor—told me that you have to be careful not to get too much education, because you could lose your foundation, your core values.”
The neophyte nodded solemnly, his eyebrows raised with worry.
“If you get a bachelors,” the seasoned student reassured, “you’ll probably be okay. But my professor said that when you get a master’s, and definitely if you go beyond that, you can lose your values. He said that college students have to be watchful because if you get too much education, you could turn LIBERAL. He’s seen it happen to a lot of good Christians.”
In Florida, thank heaven, the hazards of too much education may soon be a thing of the past. As Rep. Dennis Baxley says, “Freedom is a dangerous thing, and you might be exposed to things you don’t want to hear.” Under his sponsorship, a version of the Bill of Rights (H 0837) has been passed by a Florida House subcommittee (on “Choice and Innovation”, of all things). It is now in the hands of the Colleges & Universities Committee. A companion bill (S2126) is under consideration in the Senate ().
Stable-cleaning gets tedious when the horses keep mucking it up. The moral here is that some of them don’t give a damn.
() See James Vanlandingham, “Capitol bill aims to control ‘leftist’ profs”, Alligator Online 23 Mar 2005, also at Access Denied; Scott Jaschik, “Academic Freedom Wars”, Inside Higher Ed News 25 Mar 2005 (via Crooked Timber 25 Mar 2005; see also Ted Barlow, “The war on pointy-headedness”, 23 March, and Pesky Apostrophe). The House sponsor of the bill, Dennis Baxley is profiled in “Man on a mission”, Florida Baptist Witness 24 Mar 2005:
Getting involved is something Baxley encourages all Christians to do. “We’re here in the world to be leaders and influencers,” he said. “We’re here to influence our culture for the cause of Christ. In all we do, we need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this obeying God? Is this God’s will?’ If it is, all the rest is just details.”
Baxley encourages believers to get out of the four walls of the church.
“The battle’s out there,” he said. “People can get so busy inside a church that they forget that the main event is to go out and confront the world with the Gospel. That happens in lots of ways. To the believer, everything needs to be seen as spiritual, and we must ask ourselves, ‘Where are we going to engage?’
“Let’s not stay in a private or country club, fortress mentality. Let’s get out and be agents of change and be grateful we live in a country where we can still do that.”
“Everything needs to be seen as spiritual”. Rightly construed, that is not prima facie irrational. Spinoza teaches us to see God in all things; Malebranche that we see all things in God. Wrongly construed, it leads to theocracy—to a mirror-image of the extreme versions of the shariah state. Will that be what the US has to offer the world in this once-promising millenium?

LinkMarch 27, 2005 in Academic Affairs · Current Affairs · Society

Sunday cat pix

Musa previews the garden.


LinkMarch 27, 2005 in Cats

Sunday cat pix Happy Birthday Musa Edition!


LinkMarch 29, 2005 in Cats