What's wrong with the world?

In 1910, G.K. Chesterton (one of my favorite authors -- I highly recommend The Man Who Was Thursday and the Father Brown mysteries) diagnosed all the world's problems.  You can read his famous diagnosis, What's Wrong With the World, at Project Gutenberg.  And if you do so, you'll find that Chesterton was a bit of a monster.


If you don't want to read the whole thing, you can read Scott Alexander's excellent review.  Chesterton's ideas are wildly conservative, but they are beautifully written:

What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right.
Now (to reiterate my title) this is what is wrong. This is the huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul. If soap boiling is really inconsistent with brotherhood, so much the worst for soap-boiling, not for brotherhood. If civilization really cannot get on with democracy, so much the worse for civilization, not for democracy. Certainly, it would be far better to go back to village communes, if they really are communes. Certainly, it would be better to do without soap rather than to do without society. Certainly, we would sacrifice all our wires, wheels, systems, specialties, physical science and frenzied finance for one half-hour of happiness such as has often come to us with comrades in a common tavern. I do not say the sacrifice will be necessary; I only say it will be easy.

Chesterton goes on to explain why modern (liberal) values are wrongheaded; he is against feminism, he opposes educating the masses, he is appalled by socialism and against industry.  His opposition is rooted in appeals to what he believes are universal values: the desire for order and prosperity, for equality, for each child to have a chance at happiness.  Of course he twists these values in the service of (what I believe to be) awful ends.

It is heartening, though, to see how thoroughly his brand of conservatism has lost.  Chesterton concludes his essay with a description of contemporary technocratic attempts to reduce the prevalence of lice among poor children:

A little while ago certain doctors and other persons permitted by modern law to dictate to their shabbier fellow-citizens, sent out an order that all little girls should have their hair cut short. I mean, of course, all little girls whose parents were poor. Many very unhealthy habits are common among rich little girls, but it will be long before any doctors interfere forcibly with them. Now, the case for this particular interference was this, that the poor are pressed down from above into such stinking and suffocating underworlds of squalor, that poor people must not be allowed to have hair, because in their case it must mean lice in the hair. Therefore, the doctors propose to abolish the hair. It never seems to have occurred to them to abolish the lice. Yet it could be done.

He ends with a beautiful appeal to what he believes must be a universal value, desired by all:

Now the whole parable and purpose of these last pages, and indeed of all these pages, is this: to assert that we must instantly begin all over again, and begin at the other end. I begin with a little girl’s hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict’s; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

That is, he believes it incontrovertible that little girls should have beautiful long hair!  If you ever doubt that we've come a long way in the last century, remember: the last, unquestionable value, the denominator of Chesterton's thought, is just unimportant today.  That red-heard she-urchin should be able to cut her hair however she damn well pleases.

Rationalia, USA

In June 2016, Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed (not entirely seriously, as this series of tweets should make obvious) the creation of a new country:  Rationalia, governed by the dictum "All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence."  To Tyson and the other citizens of Rationalia (including physicist Brian Greene, whose office I briefly occupied while mine was under construction this summer), this was obviously a good idea...

Read More


A dilemma is a difficult choice between two alternatives.  I recently learned that there is a word for a choice between three alternatives:  trilemma.  But what if I have a hard choice between four options?  

I was curious, so I did some googling.  It turns out that there's some disagreement as to what a choice between four options should be called -- is it a quadrilemma or a tetralemma?  (The Greek and Latin prefixes for "three" are both "tri-," so there's no conflict in that case.)  I'd argue for the Greek tetralemma, as the suffix -lemma comes from the Greek word for premise, and Google seems to agree:  there are 25,100 hits for tetralemma and only 6,940 for quadrilemma.  

Here's a dilemma: should I be spending my time on this or on something more important?

I was curious as to how this played out for more -lemmas; the Greek "tetralemma" and "pentalemma" dominate the Latin "quadrilemma" and "quintilemma," respectively.  However, the internet seems to have found the Latin-Greek mix "sexalemma" irresistible, for obvious reasons, and the Latin "septalemma" easily won out over the Greek "heptalemma."  There are a huge number of "nonalemmas," apparently, and almost no "ennealemmas." And apparently people with 100 choices prefer the Latin-Greek creole "centilemma" to the pure Greek "hectalemma."  I was unable to find either the Latin or the Greek prefix for 99, but I'm sure that for those linguists with 99 problems, this ain't one.

Some interesting multilemmas:

  • The Lewis Trilemma:  the argument that Jesus was either "Lunatic, Liar, or Lord."  The eponymous Lewis is C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame, who was also a famous Christian apologist.
  • The Charleston Mercury argued, reported the New York Times in 1861, that the Confederate States were caught on the horns of a quadrilemma:  their options were to negotiate, engage in privateering, fight on the sea, or use the economic power provided by the cotton trade to forward their interests.

  • On the other hand, the "non-classical logic of India" preferred the tetralemma, or catuskoti, which was the claim that a statement could be either true, false, neither, or both(!).  This seems to be an originally Buddhist idea which has made its way into other parts of Indian philosophy.

  • Perhaps following Lewis, contemporary Christian apologists have come up with quintilemmas and other myrialemmas.  The pentalemma seems to be largely of interest to online dictionaries.

  • Please don't google "sexalemma."  On the other hand, there are several interesting hexalemmas -- for example, this paper by Campbell Brown argues that it is better to exist than not, rebutting previous depressing work of Benatar (David, unfortunately, not Pat). Brown postulates the existence of a person, named Jemima, who exists in many worlds, and compares those worlds to one in which she does not exists.  He extracts six alternatives from this comparison -- if you are interested despite my description, feel free to read more.

  • The Buddhist tetralemma above has been extended to a septalemma by the Jains.  Other literature refers to it as a heptalemma.

  • Apparently the problem of time in quantum gravity leads to an octalemma.

  • And most of the hits for "decalemma" are the result of Google generously interpreting my search as an interest in "decal Emma." 

The Typographical Equivalent of a Knife Fight

I've been thinking recently about typefaces -- the four to eight readers of this blog may have noticed that the font used in the body text of these posts has changed.  I've also been thinking about best practices for mathematical typesetting, for my next paper.  I might write a more serious post on this topic another time.

While researching the topic, I ran into a few interesting articles:

  • Adam Townsend has written a nice article about choosing a font for mathematics writing at Chalkdust Magazine.
  • Dan Rhatigan wrote an interesting master's thesis about mathematical typesetting -- one of the pleasures of reading these sorts of documents is that they are almost invariably beautifully typeset -- Dan's thesis is no exception.
  • In sadder news, I just found out that the venerable type foundry Hoefler & Frere-Jones (now Hoefler & Co.) has split up in what this article refers to as "the legal equivalent of a knife fight in the street."  My CV is typeset in Hoefler Text; the Rhatigan thesis above is typeset in Whitney, also created by the firm.  Frere-Jones alleged that Hoefler promised him a 50-50 partnership and then delayed giving him equity for 13 years, even after Frere-Jones transferred ownership of valuable typefaces to the firm for a nominal sum of $10.  You can see Hoefler and Frere-Jones, enjoying happier times, in the clip below (from the hit documentary Helvetica).

Hoefler and Frere-Jones in the film Helvetica. Credit: Helvetica (documentary) Directed by Gary Hustwit.