A Benedictine Joke

How can you tell the difference between a Benedictine and a Dominican?  A Dominican thinks the Latin word conversatio means “conversation” [insert sarcastic guffaw].

In a Benedictine author like St. Anselm, if you see conversatio it should almost certainly be translated in light of the Benedictine promise of conversatio morum, or “daily conversion of one’s life.”  This is made a little trickier by the fact that St. Benedict’s use of the word would be something of an archaism by the time of St. Anselm, but we are going to trust his grounding in the Rule.

So when a Dominican author copies a Benedictine author’s use of conversatio, now how should we translate it?  The standard use of the word by the time of Aquinas is simply “conversation” as we would use the term.  See opening joke of this post: my English translation of St. Thomas’s prayer gives “discourse” where the saint has conversatio.  He’s only a Dominican, right?

But he is lifting directly from St. Anselm’s prayer, another way in which the Abbot of Bec exerted enormous influence over the scholastic era.  Here’s the side-by-side: Continue reading A Benedictine Joke

Vergil to Augustine: Inanitas

My friend Adam has hit upon a quite nice little idea in his translating of the Aeneid.  The general idea is that Vergil is a cynic who ends all his most epic scenes by throwing shade on them.  I’ll let Adam speak for himself on the details, but I was pleased to play a small auxiliary role in the hashing out of the idea.

Initially I resisted his take on the pictura inani, or empty picture, that Aeneas used to feed his soul.  Why not instead stay local and contrast Aeneas feeding his soul (animus) with a soulless (inane) picture?  But once we got talking, his cynical read started to grow really nicely.

While Adam ran off to do some real work (prep for a class), I played the role of research assistant gunning down every use of the adjective inanis in the Aeneid.  Again, God bless the internet.  And indeed, it is quite remarkable how often inanis shows up just in an amateur little word search, and what it ends up modifying (hope, rage, tears, etc.).

It was also fun because our discussion of Vergil’s agenda–pro Augustan or not?–sparked an idea about another field full of expert scholarship: the writings of St. Augustine. Continue reading Vergil to Augustine: Inanitas

Is Math Persuasive?

Continuing my flogging of the issue: is it the essence of a mathematical proof to be persuasive, such that someone who fails to persuade has failed to engage in “mathing?”

I ran across this fun little Numberphile video which raises in passing an interesting and important point.  Fermat came up with an idea (not his super-famous one) about some primes being the sum of two squares (like 17=16+1).  What the video goes on to mention is that many mathematicians after Fermat–the super-heavyweights like Euler and Gauss and Dedekind and Co.–all came up with proofs of this idea.

Each of those proofs is different.  Very different.  If the goal of mathematical proof were simply to persuade, the proofs would be valued for getting different “mathematical demographics” to agree to the truth of the conclusion.  Or perhaps, even more simply, one could insist that everyone should agree to the conclusion of the first, rational proof and then get on with life.

But this is not the role of mathematical proofs, any more than it is the role of the scientific method or logical argumentation.  The various proofs are valued because each of them illuminates different aspects of the problem as well as different areas of the wide world of mathematics. Continue reading Is Math Persuasive?


Why should I think artificial intelligence is on the near horizon when we can’t even make artificial animals?

Teaching is not like astronomy.  It’s like saddle-making.  You know, except with living beings instead of leather.

(Almost?) every child I’ve ever taught has or will turn out just fine.  Not all of them will do it at my school though.

Teaching grammar functionally is one of the most colossal mistakes American “grammarians” could have made.  It’s like teaching algebra before arithmetic.  Actually, now that I think of it, we have some pretty bad ideas about basic maths too.

Learning Latin would be a lot easier if my students knew English.

Justice is the state of affairs where I get my way vs. Justice is the habit by which I happily give others what is theirs.

Pokemon Go is going to be the downfall of human civilization.  Pure, unadulterated cupidity unchained.  At least we have the solar flares to save us some day.

One day I will have all the time in the world to develop notes into topics and write on them at length.


Math Heresy

Irrational numbers can never be real magnitudes.

There, I said it.  Irrational numbers cannot exist as magnitudes of length or weight or whatever in the world of mobile substance.  My stock example: you can never forge a sword with a blade whose length is √2 feet.

(Aside: that’s a gimmick in a to-be-written short story of mine–a magical Sword of Impossibility whose blade really is √2 feet in length and instantly annihilates whatever it cuts.)

Back to my math heresy.  Why do I think this?

Well, here’s one intuitive appeal: Continue reading Math Heresy

Prime Movers

Brandon roused me from my mathematical slumber with a post on one of my hobby-horses, prime numbers.  Just enough impetus to put down a thought I was mulling over last week.

Primes are the delightful irreducibles of the number world.  As a kid I thought of them as weird exceptions to good, common-sense mathematics–the kind of things you memorized and played goofy games with.  But that has things almost backwards.

The Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic says that any integer can be expressed as a unique prime factorization (this is what Brandon was posting about, so I shan’t repeat him).  Said in reverse, primes are the building blocks of the number world.  Everything traces back to them.  That got me thinking about primes as an example of first movers like one would use to explain the First Way or STA’s explanation of the act of the will.   Continue reading Prime Movers

Is Science Persuasive?

More clearly: is the scientific method essentially persuasive in nature?

Hold your horses; this isn’t a conspiracy theory/Scientology/anti-immunization blog.  I just mean: has a scientist who fails to persuade people actually failed to use the scientific method?

Consider any school child’s version of the scientific method: something along the lines of observation-hypothesis-experiment-conclusion or however they are teaching the kids these days.  I don’t even remember how many versions of the thing I learned as a child and I’m sure the variations have proliferated in the decades since.

What I am asking is: does “persuade” belong on that list somewhere?  So that after your experiment or conclusion, if you fail at the persuasion stage, you have to go back and rethink the hypothesis or whatever.  “Some people don’t think I’m right.  Guess I have to start again.”

The answer is obviously no, right?  Except I teach kids, and I read things on the internet, and if that has taught me anything it’s that “obviously” ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m sub-tweeting my real topic, by the way.  Give me a minute.

The essence of the scientific method–what it really is, if it has any legitimacy at all–is to explore, uncover, and make plain the causes of observed phenomena.  We could generalize it to just causes and effects, but usually we have in mind chemistry, biology, geology, etc. involving the observable, the in-principle-quantifiable, the material.  In any case, persuasion has nothing to do with it:

  • It is obvious that someone could faithfully execute the scientific method in their backyard and never tell anyone about it.  They have done science.
  • It is obvious that someone could faithfully execute the scientific method and publish a paper that no one can understand.  They have done science.
  • It is obvious that someone could faithfully execute the scientific method and publish a paper that divides the scientific community.  They have done science.
  • It is obvious that someone could faithfully execute the scientific method and publish a paper that persuades everyone except for the world’s leading expert on the topic.  They have done science.

Ok, there’s that word “obvious” again.  I need a macro to kill that every time I use it. Continue reading Is Science Persuasive?

Yearning for Childhood

The fireflies were blinking about when I took out the trash, so I sat down on my stoop and watched them for a while.  It was one of those perfect summer twilights, full of still air and heavy quiet, and the living lamps flitted about their hidden tasks.  They sure don’t seem to do much when they are blinking.

Those evenings make me feel childhood again; since I had a pretty good childhood by most standards that’s a happy thing for me.  And soon this summer we are due for a cicada season, which casts a Jungian spell on me and makes me five years old again.  My clearest and fondest memory of childhood on 33rd St. in Mt. Rainier is collecting the locust shells that covered our yard–psst, and the neighbor’s yard too, don’t tell anyone I hopped the fence!–and listening to the lullaby of the cicadas.

Every time I’m around for a regional cicada season, whether that be in Ohio or Maryland or Virginia, I remember the giant tree in our backyard and the dozens of little alien monsters I collected for play with my toys.  And something just puts me into a cozy, happy fog and time bends back on itself and I’m in two places.  I love cicada song, far more even than I love firefly evenings. Continue reading Yearning for Childhood

Three Lustra Past

Fifteen years ago today was the brightest day I can ever remember (at least in Ijamsville, MD).  Torture for a blue eyed, photosensitive boy like me.  A boy was I, or at least a young man who knew absolutely nothing about life and the world.

In some ways it was yesterday, barely a register on the scales of time.  But compared to the fluxy chaos of the world, it seems the very rock of stability.  Hopefully not the best fifteen years of my life, but hopefully not too bad either.

In some ways, still hard to believe she said, “I do.”  Man, what did we think we were getting into?  Hah!

Happy Anniversary, Dear.

Looking Forward to Trump

Reasons to look forward to a Trump presidency:

Because he’s going to call Hillary a $%*&! on national television.  Not because I’m interested in Hillary being called a $%*&!, but because Trump will sue the networks and the FCC for bleeping his profanity, on the grounds that they are obstructing his Presidential campaign.

Because the nice, vanilla side of America is going to meet the dark heart of the Internet for the first time.  I look forward to explaining memes (Fully Qualified…To Make Me a Sandwich) to my mother.  What percentage of Americans don’t know anything about the savagery of the Internet?  Reddit?

Because we could live in a world where a Republican Congress, with the unanimous support of the Democratic Party, impeaches a Republican President for war crimes.

Because we could live in a world where Rand Paul is Vice President of the United States.  Imagine how many centuries of Libertarian Lore would lionize “Our savior Rand Paul, who stood on principle and resigned the Vice Presidency in protest against a power-mad dictator.”

Because get your shots in now people, before he’s an elected official and owed a measure of public respect.  It’s going to be a logjam in the peloton trying to fit those in at the 11th hour.

Because all possible futures have equal probability with Trump.  He could be the 5th Great President and I wouldn’t be all that surprised.  He could also turn Mt. Rushmore into a quarry for building a wall to keep Canadians out of Toronto.  Coin Toss.

Because he might win the popular election in a 70% landslide.  Would that be shocking at this point?  Looking at you, Nate Silver.

Because who knows what Lindsay Graham will say or do in those dark days.  Keep the cameras rolling, everyone.  Jon Stewart got out of the business at exactly the right/wrong time (take your pick).

Because if he really is terrible, maybe Congress will learn to take back all the power they have obsequiously handed over to the Executive Branch for the last few decades.

Because maybe this is the quasi-mythical “party re-alignment” some of the talking heads seem to think is coming.

Because in a way, the most rational thing of all seems to be taking shape as the general electorate begins to think about Trump: ignore what he says, since he’s a crazy troll who will say absolutely anything, and just look at his record.  He’s “obviously” a social moderate-to-progressive, fiscal conservative, etc.  Vet the candidate?  Don’t listen to the self- and media-aggrandizing (which amount to the same thing)?  Believe in checks and balances?  That’s…that’s…American Democracy???  Trump brought us to this?!

Living in A-mer-i-ca!