W. S. Camp

I’ve just come across some memorabilia from my great-grandfather, William Sterling Camp.

I never met him and don’t know much about him, except that he was born in Walnut Grove, Illinois in the middle of the Civil War and died in San Antonio in the middle of World War II.

One item is a book of poetry. He modestly presents it thusly,

Take this bouquet of vagrant weeds,
A plenitude of naught,
Grown from the zephyr-carried seeds
Of idleness of thought;
Pray ponder well the printed page,
Then say if the relator
Should not in haste seek to engage
A mental conservator.

Picardy countryside

There are no dates on the poems, but I can guess the years from the content. The poems inadvertently tell the story and prejudices of his times. They also talk of death. The most charming ones, such as “A Luscious Bit of Erin,” speak of lifelong love.

One may have been inspired by the popular song, “Roses of Picardy.” That song reflected the bitter fighting in Picardy during World War I, but expressed it as a melancholy love ballad (“Roses are shining in Picardy / In the hush of the silver dew / Roses are flow’ring in Picardy / But there’s never a rose like you!”).

In Bill Camp’s version, we have

Picardy Roses

When fair Picardy fields are free
From with’ring blight of war’s debris,
O’er clefted stones that fashioned hedge
For winding lanes ere Prussian wedge
Was driven deep in Freedom’s heart
And rapine came, a German art,
Will clamber roses as before
Fair Picardy was rent by war –
But ev’rywhere that Virtue bled
Picardy roses will bloom red.

I not only never met Bill Camp; I never heard (or remember) any stories about him. Looking back it amazes me how oblivious I must have been to the lives of those around me. My grandmother, for example. She was his daughter. I wish now that I had asked her more about him and his wife, Jennie.


I’m not sure what I was doing in 2009 when Logicomix came out. I missed its arrival then.

Perhaps that’s a good thing; it probably means more to me now. Fate saved me from reading it before I was ready.

The Novel

Logicomix is a graphic novel by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, with art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna.

On first look, it appears similar to the For Beginners series of graphic documentary comic books, which introduces topics such as Nietzsche, Marx, capitalism, psychiatry, and Foucault.

But Logicomix is better done, with a more compelling story, a cleverer conceit about self reference, topped off by deluxe printing and stunning, full color images. In its own way it belongs among classics such as Maus and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

The Quest

Logicomix recounts the spiritual quest of Bertrand Russell for secure logical foundations for mathematics and philosophy. His quest crosses paths with Gottlob Frege, David Hilbert, Alfred Whitehead, Kurt Gödel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Readers looking for a straightforward introduction to the mathematics may be disappointed and there won’t be any surprises for the philosopher or mathematician. But the novel does an excellent job of conveying why Russell took on this quest. It also shows, with some literary license, the character of the people in his world, their passions, and the political tensions of the time.

In a self-referential way, the writers and artists become characters in the novel. They debate the purpose of the book, with Christos the computer scientist arguing for fuller explanation of the mathematics and for more on how the early work in formal logic set the stage for Turing, Von Neumann, and the programmable computer revolution.

Apostolos describes Russell’s foundational quest as a “spiritual tragedy.” He denies that it’s meant to be an introduction to Russell’s mathematics (even though it succeeds at that). Emphasizing that the story is “100% character,” he argues that the actions and ideas derive from that. Christos asks

Russell with his new student, Wittgenstein, discussing reactions to Principia Mathematica

you mean, if they weren’t neurotic, or whatever, they wouldn’t have the necessary passion and persistence to create logic? … Or the ideas themselves were inspired by neurosis?

In an interaction with Alfred Whitehead’s son, Eric, Russell admits that Principia Mathematica used 362 pages to show that “1+1=2.” He goes on to say that this was the price for “absolute certainty.” Apostolos tells Christos that “less tortured characters would not have found this price worth paying!”

There is no absolute certainty at the end of Russell’s quest. There were multiple blows, among them, his own discovery of paradoxes in set theory, Gödel’s proof that any consistent axiomatic system for arithmetic must of necessity be incomplete, and Wittgenstein’s argument that logic is vacuous and cannot tell us anything about reality.

Impact on Russell

This impasse deterred Russell from foundational work and led to his many contributions to education, politics, and ethics.

The frame story within the novel has Russell relating his life experiences, including his certainty of opposition to the first World War. But in dialogue with pacifists before the second World War, and referring to Leibniz, he says, “I, too, dreamed this man’s dream: To find the perfect logical method for solving all problems, from logic, all the way up to Human Life!” He concedes that logic, and more broadly, reason, is not enough:

Orestes in Delphi

take my story as a cautionary tale, a narrative argument against ready-made solutions. It tells you that applying formulas is not good enough – not, that is, when you’re faced with really hard problems!

The answer is in the story. Russell’s life as presented here is tragic, with losses including unresolved quests and failed marriages. He finds wisdom through these travails, but not through the means he had imagined.


The Finale of Logicomix is another story, a performance of Aeschylus’s Oresteia: Orestes kills his mother, Clytemnestra, who had killed her husband, Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter, Iphigenia, etc. More had occurred earlier to make all of this inevitable.

Athena offers no easy solution for the Athenians. Instead she chooses forgiveness:

Furies, respect persuasion and the sacred power of reason, embodied in justice! Stay in my city! Do good, and in return, receive good!

The creators of Logicomix are in the audience.

Athena’s trick is to give the other half a voice. She says that “to achieve wisdom… you must also allow for a lot that’s usually left out as un-wise.” In other words, there are times when it’s best to embrace contradictions, something Russell spent his early years fighting against.

With “modern” people having absolute certainty that they are right, finding ever more effective ways to kill, and refusing even to listen to one another, the story of Russell’s quest and the tragedy of Oresteia could never be more relevant.

Has stretchtext arrived?

In the 1960s, Ted Nelson coined terms such as hypertext and hypermedia. Much less known is his coinage of the term, stretchtext.

Stretchtext is similar to zooming in for more detail or out for a summary. It never took off the way that hypertext did through the World Wide Web. (Note: HTML supports one-way links, not the superior two-way links that Nelson proposed, in which each node knows what other nodes are linked to it.)

The current “AI” chat systems offer a possible means to accomplish Nelson’s stretchtext.

Can ChatGPT do stretchtext?

I just presented ChatGPT with a paraphrase of some text at the end of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “The answer to the riddle of life is that there is no riddle.” It responded this way:

As an AI language model, I don’t have a personal belief or opinion, but I can tell you that the idea of there being no riddle to life is one philosophical perspective. Some people believe that life simply exists and that there is no inherent meaning or purpose to it. From this perspective, there is no riddle or puzzle to solve; life just is. Others may argue that there is a meaning to life, but it is subjective and varies from person to person. Ultimately, what the answer to the riddle of life is, if there is one, remains a matter of debate and personal interpretation.

This missed Wittgenstein’s entire point that one can’t properly formulate a question about life’s meaning, but as an elaboration of what I gave it, CharGPT’s response isn’t bad.

I then asked “Can you say more about that?” thinking of Nelson’s stretching of a text. It said “Certainly!” and then proceeded to expand its original 100 word response to 300 words. It brought in existentialist philosophy, the individual’s freedom and responsibility in creating meaning, humanistic and spiritual traditions.

Could I have continued to get it to write a book on the topic?

I decided not to pursue that but to ask, “Could you say it more succinctly?” It came back with 76 words.

I pushed on:

Please summarize that in fewer words.

The meaning of life is a complex and subjective question. Some believe life has no inherent meaning, while others see it as subjective or objective. Ultimately, it depends on an individual’s beliefs and experiences.

Can you state that more briefly?

The meaning of life is subjective and varies among individuals.

Even shorter?

Meaning of life varies individually.

Shorter still?

Life’s meaning is subjective.


Life’s meaning subjective.

Finally, it emphatically gave up:

Say it with fewer words.

Life’s meaning subjective!


My little experiment says that ChatGPT does a reasonable job on what Ted Nelson imagined. I’d now like to say things like “expand this chapter into a book” or “condense it into an abstract, a title, or even one word, or three, if it insists.

My musical gifts: Opportunity, teachers, and incompetence

To say that someone has a musical gift, or is gifted, usually means that they have unusual talent or can perform beautifully for others. I mean something quite different here.

When I say “musical gift” in this and the next two posts, I mean a gift to me, one that enhances my enjoyment of music. I was granted these through no effort on my own––no long, arduous hours of practice.

Opportunities to learn

My dad at his piano store c. 1954

The first of the three gifts is opportunity. It came in multiple ways.

My father sold pianos through his store. We always had a piano in the house; it was part of the store’s inventory. If anyone wanted that model he could sell it as a lightly used piano. That meant that we might discover that our much loved mahogany spinet might be suddenly hauled away and replaced by a large black upright, or in later years by an electronic keyboard.

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Nuthatch ducks

Our rain chain goes through beautiful transformations as the water freezes or thaws, with differences for flash freezing versus slow, and with varying amounts of snow on the ice.

As the ice melts it makes tinkling sounds like a tiny wind chime.

I just watched a couple of nuthatches swimming in the barrel at the bottom. They took to the (freezing) water like tiny ducks.

Hózhó and the commons

A friend in Wellfleet, Ernie Bauer, makes things of function and beauty, especially in metal. A few years ago he made a sculpture inspired by the Navajo word, Hózhó. It stands near the post office and WHAT, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.

You can see it and its shadow in the photo above.

Hózhó is often translated as ‘balance and beauty’; it can also be seen as harmony, finding peace amidst the jagged ups and downs of life.

Hózhó also emphasizes how ephemeral aspects of the world can be linked into a more significant whole. This shows up in Navajo weaving and other art forms.

Two Grey Hills style rug, at the new Indiana University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The concept of beauty in Hózhó extends beyond what can be perceived directly by the senses.  It implies orderly and harmonious relationships with other people, with the natural world, and with the world of spiritual beings and forces.

The estate of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom donated the rug shown above to the IU museum. It seems quite appropriate. Elinor Ostrom is best known for her work on how we can escape the “tragedy of the commons,” a phrase popularized by Garrett Hardin. For this work she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Ostrom’s work examined how societies have found ways to manage natural resources and avoid ecosystem collapse. Like the rugs she donated, it’s a realization of the Hózhó idea of living in harmony with others and with the natural world.

Too few people notice Ernie’s Hózhó sculpture. It treads softly. It’s in harmony with the semi-natural area where it stands.

In Wellfleet, the post office and the theater serve as a commons without people needing the sculpture to remind them. They visit with friends and enjoy community events.

But in a larger sense, I fear that humanity is playing out the dystopic scenarios of Garrett Hardin. Can we ever find ways to work together as Ostrom showed is possible?

Alien balloon

A balloon of unknown origin appeared in our yard this week. It was first stuck in a maple tree, but later ended up on our woodpile.

On closer examination I determined that it was “Made in China.” Some may want to claim that it’s just a weather balloon, but I’m convinced it had another purpose.

Apparently this kind of thing is happening everywhere––Montana, South Carolina, Columbia, …

DNA ancestry

Like many others I’ve been curious about DNA matching, especially with regards to my own ancestry. Could a simple swab tell me where my ancestors lived?

Where am I from?

Faroe sheep above the town of Sumba, Faroe Islands

I asked this question of FamilyTreeDNA, one of many such services. Using a 12 marker test, it turns out that I’m 4.6% Irish and 2.5% New Zealander. But I’m also 2.4% from Trinidad and Tobago and, surprise… 12.5 % Faroe Islands. All of these numbers are higher than for the US (1.1%), even when including Native American (.6%).

If I wanted to have a simple narrative of my ancestry, these numbers don’t seem to help. I suppose I could say that my main origin is Faroese, with a little Irish, but my ancestors must have cavorted in New Zealand and the Caribbean as well.

The situation worsens when I use a different number of markers, Y-DNA, mitochondrial DNA, haplotrees, or other measures. It’s messy.

The jigsaw puzzle of ancestry

It may be disappointing to hear, but for anyone who has similar questions, the underlying science is deeply flawed. That’s true even for someone whose data seems more definitive than mine.

These tests are interpreted to fill in a jigsaw puzzle of who we are; 12.5 % Faroe Islands would be a big chunk of mine. I’d be a little bit of this and a little bit of that, an admixture. This is a term used to describe the process of gene flow between distinct populations. It can be fun to see the scores, but as applied to human populations, the whole idea is wrong.

It relies on assumptions of homogeneity among people living within national boundaries, mapping of ethnicities onto countries and of races onto continents, and racialist assumptions about pure categories. The idea that we can just fill in the jigsaw puzzle of our ancestry doesn’t work.

We’re not admixtures

Kostas Kampourakis and Erik Peterson discuss the science of this in a recent article published in Genetics: The racist origins, racialist connotations, and purity assumptions of the concept of ‘admixture’ in human evolutionary genetics (2023).

The article shows how admixture of the kind an ancestry detective would like requires the existence of pure or unadmixed categories. 

There are two big assumptions:

(1) particular populations existed before the colonization era, have not undergone significant admixture, and have maintained their genetic variation.

(2) the people included in the reference datasets have four grandparents all born in the same country, implying they are somehow pure representatives of that country.

But these assumptions are ahistorical and regularly violated. They don’t account for migrations due to colonization, wars, or plagues. And archeological evidence shows that humans were migrating around the globe long before the age of colonization. 

In addition to being a problem in the field of genetics, admixture leads to people saying things like “I just learned that I’m a big part Faroese, with a little Irish and Caribbean thrown in!” which is nonsense scientifically.

Rosenwald schools and libraries

Electric, interurban streetcar, running from Fort Worth to Dallas; Dunbar HS was near the sixth stop.

I grew up in Fort Worth during the time of legalized racial segregation. There were no African Americans in my school. If not for summer and part-time jobs, I would have had little interaction across the racial divide.

This meant that I knew little about the schools for African Americans in Fort Worth. There were even segregated sports leagues. I think I went to just one Black football game and that was because I became friends with a Black fellow orderly when I worked in the local hospital.

Joe was a halfback on the Dunbar High School football team in the Stop Six neighborhood. I believe that the school is still largely segregated, a consequence not of the law anymore, but of residential segregation.

Rosenwald schools

One major gap in my knowledge pertained to the Rosenwald schools. Thanks to Julius Rosenwald, who provided funds for 1/3 of the cost of school buildings, Anna Jeanes, who funded teacher preparation, Booker T. Washington, and others, thousands of schools were born. As important as that external support was, it’s important to note that local Black citizens from a poor, working class, donated cash, labor, and land to make the schools possible.

Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library Special Collection, Julius Rosenwald Fund Archives

These programs provided education for generations of African American students, teachers, and scholars. Maya Angelou and John Lewis were grads from Rosenwald schools. Mamie and Kenneth Clark did their research on Rosenwald fellowships as did Pauli Murphy. Their work was crucial for the decision in Brown v, Board of Education.

The project began in 1915, when Sears and Roebuck President, Julius Rosenwald, established a matching grant fund to construct better quality black schools throughout the South. Between 1917 and 1932, the Fund assisted in the construction of thousands of school buildings This was during a time when public support for educating African American children was shamefully inadequate. Over one-third of black children in the South in the first half of the twentieth century passed through the doors of a Rosenwald school, 

Rosenwald School (Public Domain image from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History

There’s an excellent photography/text book: A Better Life for Their Children: Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the 4,978 Schools that Changed America by photographer and author Andrew Feiler. There are many fascinating photos. Feiler says 4,978 schools, but counting teacher homes and shops there was a total of 5,357 buildings constructed.

Rosenwald libraries

Just this past year I’ve learned about Rosenwald’s program to fund more than 10,000 school, college, and public libraries, and library science programs. The libraries not only provided resources for individuals; they enabled accreditation for programs for African Americans, which would otherwise not be possible. Aisha Johnson has a wonderful new book on these libraries, The African American Struggle for Library Equality.

Why didn’t I know?

I probably heard about Rosenwald schools and libraries, or the Jeanes teachers, during my career, but most of that passed right through my head.

With all the current talk about DEI and social justice, isn’t it a collective failure that the fact of those programs—the very need for them at all, their struggles, and their impact on individuals and society—were so little known by so many of us?

Basal slippage

Water flow under ice on the trail

Yesterday we walked part of the way on the trail around Sutherland Pond in the Ooms Conservation Area in Old Chatham, NY, The path was treacherous because of the melting ice, so we didn’t make it the whole way. But we were mesmerized by the patterns of water flowing under the ice,

I assume this process is similar to the basal slippage seen for glaciers in temperate zones. Because of human-caused global warming, the ice melts underneath. Then the remaining ice slides on the water layer, leading to more rapid loss of the glacier.