Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Linguistics Debate: What Colors are Your Rainbow?

We too easily assume that our Paleolithic ancestors perceived the natural world of trees and sky the same way that we do. However, sensation is not perception. They may well have had the same physiological sensations, but their perceptions were necessarily different because language tells a person what they perceive. Between sensation and perception, the percept is an integration of two or more sensations. That integration is automatic. Percepts are self-evident. They are the basis of knowledge. However, concept-formation is volitional; it is not automatic. (See Introduction Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand.)

“In Japan, people often refer to traffic lights as being blue in color. And this is a bit odd, because the traffic signal indicating ‘go’ in Japan is just as green as it is anywhere else in the world. So why is the color getting lost in translation? This visual conundrum has its roots in the history of language.

Blue and green are similar in hue. They sit next to each other in a rainbow, which means that, to our eyes, light can blend smoothly from blue to green or vice-versa, without going past any other color in between. Before the modern period, Japanese had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. The wall that divides these colors hadn’t been erected as yet. As the language evolved, in the Heian period around the year 1000, something interesting happened. A new word popped into being – midori – and it described a sort of greenish end of blue. Midori was a shade of ao, it wasn’t really a new color in its own right.” (From The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains (part I) here.) 
“The color debate was made popular in large part due to Brent Berlin and Paul Kay’s famous 1969 study and their subsequent publishing of Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay, Berkeley: University of California Press: 1969. Berlin and Kay also found that, in languages with fewer than the maximum eleven color categories, the colors followed a specific evolutionary pattern. This pattern is as follows:

  • All languages contain terms for black and white.
  • If a language contains three terms, then it contains a term for red.
  • If a language contains four terms, then it contains a term for either green or yellow (but not both).
  • If a language contains five terms, then it contains terms for both green and yellow.
  • If a language contains six terms, then it contains a term for blue.
  • If a language contains seven terms, then it contains a term for brown.
  • If a language contains eight or more terms, then it contains terms for purple, pink, orange, and/or gray.”
(See "Linguistic relativity and the color naming debate" in Wikipedia here.)
Those "rules" are debated.  One problem that Berlin and Kay faced was borrowing. People learn new ideas from their neighbors. To take a case in point, consider Hungarian.  Magyar has three native terms for color, but none of them is "red."
borrowed from “rosa”
borrowed from “aurum”
native (sar is “mud, mire, dirt’ sarj is “shoot, sprout, or bud”)
bor is wine; sör is beer

The problem of black and white speaks to growth in vocabularies by differentiation: hyper, hypo; super, sub; friend, fiend; divine, devil. Black and white in Hungarian are fekete and fehér. They are at root the same word, but changed slightly for meaning. We still have vestiges of that specifically with blank (Spanish blanco=white) and black.


Friday, July 24, 2015


As a philosophical objectivist, I am an admirer of the fiction works of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. I participate in three discussion boards, Rebirth of Reason, Objectivist Living, and Galt’s Gulch Online. The producers of the Atlas Shrugged movies created Galt’s Gulch to promote the films. With the release of Part 3, the site had over 20,000 subscribers and hundreds of active writers and commenters. Of necessity, many of them are political conservatives, which Ayn Rand was not (here). They tend to receive Atlas Shrugged as a political novel condemning the Obama Administration, and to have less interest in formal philosophy.  

Preparing to evaluate a TXSG dive team
at the TMAR annual drill
April 11, 2015.
Not prior military when I volunteered
on November 22, 2014,
I was enlisted as a Petty Officer Third Class.
Today, contributor Inpuco, a 30-year USMC veteran posted a discussion topic linking to an American Legion article about saving the cross at Mt. Soledad Memorial. A Congressional bill authorized the sale of the federal site to a private association. That shunted aside an on-going lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Jewish War Veterans. In my reply there, I granted that a privately-owned memorial for Christian soldiers could have a cross if they wanted.

The problem is that Jewish veterans also are buried there. Searching for the string “stein” revealed Col. David G. Epstein (plaque hereSgt. William Rothstein (plaque hereand Navy Radioman Third Class Herbert A. Steinert (plaque here). Their memorial plaques all display the Magen David. It is easy to find other common Jewish family names. You can see why the Jewish War Veterans called on the ACLU to help remove the cross. It is the only religious symbol, and it dominates the landscape.

We have no easy way to know how many of the others interred were non-believers, freethinkers, agnostics, or atheists. Easily, the US military reflects the general population, with some skews. For instance, southerners are over-represented, and women are far less common. About 21% of the current military force self-identifies as “atheist or no religion.” In the general population, the number is 19%.  (Population Reference Bureau, 2004, Table 5.   cited in Wikipedia “There are no atheists in foxholes” here)

On the Rebirth of Reason website, Byron E. Garcia, posted an essay in 2005, "Atheists in a Foxhole" about his interactions and observations as a hospital corpsman in the US Navy. 

The Military Atheists and Freethinkers is an active association of over 200. Their website provides a wealth of statistical information and reporting.  
“Besides the MAAF members below, keep in mind atheists in foxholes whose stories have been in feature stories and documentaries: Pat Tillman, Afghanistan war Army Ranger and football player, Hans Kasten, WWII POW leader, Phil Paulson, Vietnam Veteran and activist, Kurt Vonnegut, WWII POW and author, Ted Williams, WWII Veteran and baseball player, Ernest Hemingway, WWI Vet and author, Sherwin Wine, Founder of Humanistic Judaism, Major Sidney Excell, who arrested Heinrich Himmler, Bob Kerrey, former Governor and Senator, Navy Seal, and Medal of Honor recipient.” See more at: http://militaryatheists.org.
In response to "there are no atheists in foxholes," Ayn Rand asked: "Who created the foxholes?" Wars are caused by political collectivism, which rests on moral altruism, which is derived from epistemological and metaphysical mysticism. It was the Age of Reason that led to the Enlightenment and capitalism and 100 years (1814-1914) of surprisingly low-level conflicts. It was not perfect, because the capitalism was not firmly grounded, but it indicated a truth we all know: when people can obtain what they want by production and trade, they have no need for war.

Christopher Hitchens is famous for his debates on atheism and his book god is not Great. Significantly, Hitchens also abandoned his former secular religion, Marxism. Ayn Rand, of course, often equated communism and Christianity for their identical moral codes. Rand did claim that Christianity was the first religion to center on the individual. I think that Buddhism was first, but the point remains that loving yourself is antecedent to loving your neighbor.

Also on Necessary Facts

Friday, July 17, 2015

Engineers and Jihadi

Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, who killed a sailor and four Marines at a supply depot in Chattanooga, after opening fire on a recruiting office in a strip mall, was different from most other American jihadi. However, he was typical of the terrorists within the Arab/Islamic cultures of the old world: he was an engineer. 
  • “Engineers of Jihad” by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog. Sociology Working Papers, Paper Number 2007-10, Department of Sociology, University of Oxford , Manor Road, Oxford OX1 3UQ www.sociology.ox.ac.uk/swp.html available online here
  • “Engineers of Jihad” by Steffen Hertog, and Marc Sagemen; Christopher Boucek (Moderator), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Tuesday, September 1, 2009, Transcript by Federal News Service Washington, D.C. here
"In early September 2007 Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – one of the country’s most radical politicians with a PhD in transport engineering from Teheran’s Science and Technology University and the author several of scientific papers –delivered a speech to Iranian academics, which exudes those features to such an extent that we cannot resist quoting him at length:

In some discussions I told them [those inside Iran pressing for compromise over fears the United States could launch a military strike because of the nuclear standoff with the West]: “I am an engineer and I am examining the issue. They do not dare wage war against us and I base this on a double proof’” […] [First] I tell them: “I am an engineer and I am a master in calculation and tabulation. I draw up tables. For hours, I write out different hypotheses. I reject, I reason. I reason with planning and I make a conclusion. They cannot make problems for Iran.” [Second] “I believe in what God says. God says that those who walk in the path of righteousness will be victorious. What reason can you have for believing God will not keep this promise?” (AFP, 3 September 2007)." (Gambetta and Hertog, note 52, page 49.)
"Whether American, Canadian or Islamic, and whether due to selection or field socialisation, a disproportionate share of engineers seems to have a mindset that inclines them to entertain the quintessential right-wing features of “monism” – ‘why argue when there is one best solution’ – and of “simplism” – ‘if only people were rational, remedies would be simple’. "(Gambetta and Hertog page 50)

"The Carnegie survey reveals an even more surprising fact, hitherto unnoticed, that strengthens the suspicion that the engineers’ mindset plays a part in their proneness not only to radicalise to the right of the political spectrum but do so with a religious slant: engineers turn out to be by far the most religious group of all academics – 66.5 per cent, followed again by 61.7 in economics, 49.9 in sciences, 48.8 per cent of social scientists, 46.3 of doctors and 44.1 per cent of lawyers, the most sceptical of the lot. Engineers and economists are also those who oppose religion least (3.7% and 3.0%), and, together with the humanities, those who more strongly embrace it (Table 16)." (Gambetta and Hertog page 51)

"So what about the distribution of degrees? I think it’s interesting here: By far, the dominant group is people who have engaged in engineering studies – 78 out of 178 cases whose subject we know. And the runners-up are less surprisingly Islamic studies, and after that, medicine, business, economics, and sciences. And then a number of smaller subjects that are not listed and detailed here."

"So the engineers are more than twice as large as the second-largest group. And interestingly, there are only seven scientists in the sample. And the anecdote that was around was always that people with science and technical education are overrepresented among Islamists, and that doesn’t seem to be true. It’s, in fact, only people with technical education; with applied science education."

"So there’s an interesting presence of scientists among nonmilitant groups and a much stronger presence of engineers among the militant groups." 
(Hertog and Sagemen, pp. 4-5.) 

I note that the lack of engineers in left-wing groups is measurable. The exceptions are always interesting. In Palestine in the 1970s, for example, engineers were more prevalent than now in left-wing extremist groups. Significantly, however, those groups were Marxist, not Islamist. (see, Gambetta and Hertog, page 32)

“In the US extreme right, whose ideology often has a strong religious and millenarian underpinning (Handler 1990) and whose members are generally poorly educated, engineers have played a significant role as leaders of several groups: out of seven individuals for whom we were able to establish the degree, four were engineers. For instance, Dick Butler, the founder of Aryan Nation, was an aeronautical engineer and Wilhelm Schmitt, leader of the “Sheriff's Posse Comitatus” (a militant antigovernment group with an anti-tax agenda and extremist Christian views) before being sentenced to 26 years in prison was an engineer with Lockheed Martin …” (Gambetta and Hertog, page 30).


Monday, July 13, 2015


The weather forecast is for clear again tonight. Finally, I will have three nights in a row outside with my telescope. Although I started when I was nine, I went over 30 years without an instrument of my own. My wife and daughter bought me a 130 mm (5 inch) reflector and a set of oculars and filters for my birthday. Then, it clouded up.  For months. My last cloudy night activity was to haul out my rock collection and take out the meteorites. 

Our fascination with the night sky goes back to the Paleolithic, at least. Certainly, since the invention of arithmetic and writing, we have tallied the objects and events in the sky and told stories to explain them. Some Greek philosophers asserted necessary facts. Ptolemy of Alexandria and Hypatia of Alexandria applied geometry to the problems of prediction. It was not until the European Middle Ages that the problem of Easter brought arithmetic prediction to astronomy. 
The Celestron EQ-130 has some design problems.
Working in the dark, I immediately lost the nuts
from the C-clamp that holds the tube.
It took three tries but I cobbled a solution.
From 1979 to 1981, I completed several short, directed studies in observational astronomy and orbit plotting at New Mexico State University and Lansing Community College. I wrote some programs in Basic by following the algorithms in Mathematical Astronomy for Pocket Calculators by Aubrey Jones (Wiley, 1978). But you cannot do everything all at once.  Computers and family occupied my time and space. 

Since last November, I have been getting reacquainted with the sky, viewing at least for a few minutes, naked eye, whenever I could. I have seen Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn in my telescope. The Moon is an easy target and the filters may or may not actually reveal difficult details. I rediscovered the Orion Nebula. Two nights ago, I found M24 in Sagittarius for the first time. Last night, I swept Scorpio and Sagittarius, finding several nebula, but not the big one. Tonight I will go out again. Unfortunately, I have shopping centers on either side and Austin to the north. So, where Hercules should be is a big open space. The night before last, I could see Corona and should have taken the cue. Last night was less productive in that regard.

And, telescope or not, my eyes are older. I first saw Saturn through a 1-1/2 inch bird-watching refractor when I was nine years old, a mile from the steel mills of Cleveland, Ohio. It was stunning. Now, even at 20X or 30X, it just does not jump out as clearly as it did then.  Still, with a filter, and some patience, even the dirty, illuminated skies of Austin can be pierced.

I am a member of the Austin Astronomical Society and in March I was certified to operate the telescopes at Eagle Eye Observatory, about 90 miles outside of town. That’s a bit of a trek, and with the weather and all, we have not been out there since.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Language and Thought: As You Think, So You Speak

The primary purpose of language is thought. Communication is secondary. It is true that language evolved out of animal calls. Ravens have 30 calls in three dialects. Our grunts, coos, and growls are necessarily more complex. The origins of modern language are unclear and the purpose of language is largely misunderstood.

One way to think about this is by analogy to geometry. Practical geometry goes back 3000 years, perhaps. We know of clay tablets with cuneiform tables of Pythagorean triples.  But formal geometry began only about 300 BCE.  So, too, did language originate with animal calls, but now serves a more abstract and sophisticated purpose.

We largely trace our modern speech back to about 10,000 years to 8000 BCE. Nostritic is a  construct that unites all Afro-Asian languages, but is highly putative. Nonetheless, it is suggestive. Proto-Indo-European is on firmer grounds but is only 6000 years old.

In the 18th century, European intellectuals stumbled on the fact that the languages of India share deep roots with the languages of Europe. Words such as mother, father, and brother, the first ten numbers, and other basic vocabulary suggested a common origin. Words for “beech” and other clues indicated the ancestral home of the “Caucasians.”
These languages all evolved from a common ancestral tongue called Proto-Indo-European (PIE), spoken ca. 6,000 years ago by a people living (by "traditional" hypothesis) somewhere in the general vicinity of the Pontic Steppe north of the Black Sea and east to the Caspian -- an area that, perhaps not accidentally, seems to coincide with the land of the ancient Scythians, from the Ukraine across far southwestern Russia to western Kazakhstan – “Indo-European Languages Evolution and Locale Maps,” by Jonathan Slocum here. 
 It is easy to see that modern languages from Greek and Latin to German and English grew by differentiation.  We know the prefixes hyper and hypo, sub and super. They indicate some motion or distance away from you, or by extension some other reference, above or below.  Beer and wine were originally the same thing: fermented liquids, but we differentiated them, by their origins, grain or fruit.

At the same time, long statements commonly understood were compressed by slang.  The word “nest” is a contraction for “nether sitten” because a nest sits down upon the branches. Today, we ask, "Wussup?"

Philologists could not ignore baby talk: we imitate our children, from “moo" for cow to “choo-choo" for train.

We all play with words. British slang calls a girl a “bird” but that is a transposition from “bride” just as the “butterfly” was originally the “flutter by.” 

No woman likes being called a whore. The rules of philology show that “whore” is the Germanic (die Hure) form of the Romance “cara” (dear).  In Italian, you can say “Cara mia” and get a kiss, but “meine Hure” does not work so well in German.  They are the same word at root.  The K in Latin becomes an H in German.  (centum = hundred; cortus = heart) That led some philologists to look for mountain ranges on the theory that those ancient ancestors aspirated their Ks while climbing uphill. The assertion did not stand up, but it does point to the kinds of ways that languages do change.

In our time, it is ROTFL and LOL, and the full range of emoticons from the simple smiley face to the inventory on your smart phone. 

The bottom line is that how you speak (or write) derives from how you think; and, conversely, how you think manifests itself in your speech (or writing). The two are different. I am often embarrassed, if not horrified, by my own vernacular speech. I take more care with my writing. OTOH YMMV.

The fact remains: what is in your head determines who and what you are. Language is the medium and means and mechanism of thought. Alone on an island, you would have no one to speak to, but the content of your mind would determine your outcome.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

Why Democracy is Difficult

If you run the Declaration of Independence through a grammar and style checker, you will find that it takes a modern college education to understand.  I would argue that most of today’s graduates do not understand it, but perhaps that is only from the lack of trying.

The founders of our republic were not average.  They were successful merchants and farmers and craftsmen.  George Washington was a surveyor.  (Quick: what is the square root of three?  A surveyor has memorized that as securely as most literate Americans have memorized the letter after R.)  If you drink beer you know the Sam Adams brand. It seems common enough, until you extrapolate from zymurgy to genetic engineering.
American founding fathers, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others standing at a table on which is the Declaration of Independence
Jonathan Trumbull's
Signing of the Declaration of Independence
from the Library of Congress website

Karl Popper’s ringing plea, The Open Society and Its Enemies, was an appeal to ignorance. We do not know everything. Indeed, we cannot. New discoveries reveal that what we know today might not be true tomorrow.  Against that the fascists and communists of Popper’s time and the jihadi of our own offer intransigent commitment to claims of absolute certainty. Thus, the collapse of Arab Spring led to the rise of ISIS.

But an alternative exists.  Reality, reason, egoism, capitalism, and romanticism comprise the parameters of philosophical objectivism.  Ayn Rand’s capital-O Objectivism is just one expression of that. The broader philosophical objectivism, i.e., rational-empiricism, is the foundation of political freedom and social tolerance. 

But it is not easy, and nothing in the stars says that it must be. When Ptolemy I Soter complained to Euclid that geometry was difficult, the latter said that there is no royal road. In other words, there is no way to make this easier. Thinking is hard work.  It is easy to condemn the physically lazy, but no special sin exists for the intellectually slothful—except, of course, sloth itself.  Among the Texas State Guard, my email sigline is “Sapientia ardua est.”

Widespread intelligence and education are the basis for political freedom.  Of axiomatic necessity, most people are average.  Therefore, it might be argued that it takes a committed engagement by an intellectual elite to bring about a better form of government. However, the Flynn Effect posits that we are all smarter now than our ancestors of 100 or 200 years ago.  Maybe we just are not applying our intelligence to the right problems.
Anonymous and created for Loompanics Unlimited, 1991, for my article, "Did Thomas Jefferson Wear Mirrorshades? - or - Why is the Secret Service Busting Publishers?"  I was inspired by the cyberpunk story, "Mozart in Mirrorshades" by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner (Omni, September 1985). I found this image shrunken to an avatar by a patriot named "Fegeldolfy" on the Ron Paul Forums Liberty Forest.
Created for an article that I wrote:
"Did Thomas Jefferson Wear
(Loompanics, 1991)
On my Macintosh, I have Word 2008, and its Spelling and Grammar checker seems to have a ceiling of 12th grade. Nothing scores more difficult.  So, I ran the Declaration of Independence through several readability engines available on a website created by one Brian Scott. (“ReadabilityFormulas.com is a non-commercial ‘passion project’ created by freelance writer Brian Scott. The website offers free information and tools to understand readability formulas.  Visit Brian's other websites, LousyWriter.com and FreelanceWriting.com.”)
Readability Consensus 
Grade Level: 19
Reading Level: difficult to read.
Reader's Age: College graduate

Readability Consensus
Grade Level: 23
Reading Level: very difficult to read.
Reader's Age: College graduate

Readability Consensus
Grade Level: 16
Reading Level: difficult to read.
Reader's Age: College graduate

Modernizing the presentation does lower the readability to grade 7.8.  Now it resembles Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint presentation of the Gettysburg Address (here).

We hold these truths to be self-evident:
  • All men are created equal.
  • They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.
  • Among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
  • To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.
  • Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
  • Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.
  •  The people may institute new Government.
  • The foundation of the new Government rests on such principles as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
  • The Government should organize its powers in such form.