Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Applied Philosophy

If you took philosophy classes in college as I did, you will be familiar with Zeno's Paradoxes. (Zeno was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, and a pretty sharp cookie.)
Among the most famous of Zeno's "paradoxes" involves Achilles and the tortoise, who are going to run a race. Achilles, being confident of victory, gives the tortoise a head start. Zeno supposedly proves that Achilles can never overtake the tortoise. Here, I paraphrase Zeno's argument:

Before Achilles can overtake the tortoise, he must first run to point A, where the tortoise started. But then the tortoise has crawled to point B. Now Achilles must run to point B. But the tortoise has gone to point C, etc. Achilles is stuck in a situation in which he gets closer and closer to the tortoise, but never catches him.

What Zeno is doing here, and in one of his other paradoxes, is to divide Achilles' journey into an infinite number of pieces. This is certainly permissible, as any line segment can be divided into an infinite number of points or line segments. This, in effect, divides Achilles' run into an infinite number of tasks. He must pass point A, then B, then C, etc. And what Zeno is arguing is that you can't do an infinite number of tasks in a finite amount of time.
Now if you are thinking, "well yes, Your Blueness, that is dazzling erudition, but what the hell does it have to do with contemporary politics?" Lots, young Grasshopper.

Here's one Seantor who sure acts as if he is thoroughly familiar with Zeno's Achilles Paradox:

Sen. Roberts seeks delay of Intel probe
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he wants to divide his panel’s inquiry into the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq-related intelligence into two parts, a move that would push off its most politically controversial elements to a later time.

The inquiry has dragged on for more than two years, a slow pace that prompted Democrats to force the Senate into an extraordinary closed-door session in November. Republicans then promised to speed up the probe.
An aide to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, said that Democrats are aware Roberts is mulling a decision on whether to divide the inquiry and that Rockefeller is unlikely to oppose such a move if Roberts goes through with it. But one Democrat who has followed the probe said separating the controversial elements would relieve pressure on Roberts to complete the entire inquiry soon.

Sentient readers will recall that Roberts already divided this job into two once before, in order to ensure that the really damaging stuff did not come up until after the 2004 election. Now he is going to trot out the same schtick just in tome to push the real thing past November 2006.

Senator Rockefeller must not have learned philosophy. Indeed, given his consistently spineless acquiesence to Roberts, and his willingness to fall for the same patently obvious trick over and over again, it seems increasingly likely that he is incapable of learning, period. You can hardly criticize the Republicans for using the same lame-ass tactics when the Democrats keep falling for them.

He's fooled you once, Senator. Don't get fooled again. Zeno would be so disappointed.

(Oh, and here's an erudution super-double bonus at no extra charge: One of my all time favorite short stories, "Playing Trombone" by Nicholson Baker (Atlantic Monthly, 1982), is about a trombonist appropriately named Zeno. As far as I can tell, it is not available online.)


Blogger nocasa said...

First time as tragedy, second time as farce? I think there is an epidemic


4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your point is well taken.

There is one example you may be aware of, which does a fine job of dividing a given "time-line" into a billion pieces, in order to accomplish many things in a finite amount of time.

The computer processor has a cycle time which is now roughly a billionth of a second. During this time it verifies with the operating system, application software etc. that it is on task, or as appropriate branches or loops to other tasks. But always allows for the interrupt. We call this parallel processing. Which is realy just time slicing.

It works!

9:19 AM  

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