The Aleph, by Jorges Luis Borges (full text)

Here’s the original.

O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space…
Hamlet, II, 2But they will teach us that Eternity is the Standing still of the Present Time, a Nunc-stans (as the schools call it); which neither they, nor any else understand, no more than they would a Hic-stans for an Infinite greatness of Place.
Leviathan, IV, 46

On the burning February morning Beatriz Viterbo died, after braving an agony that never for a single moment gave way to self-pity or fear, I noticed that the sidewalk billboards around Constitution Plaza were advertising some new brand or other of American cigarettes. The fact pained me, for I realised that the wide and ceaseless universe was already slipping away from her and that this slight change was the first of an endless series. The universe may change but not me, I thought with a certain sad vanity. I knew that at times my fruitless devotion had annoyed her; now that she was dead, I could devote myself to her memory, without hope but also without humiliation. I recalled that the thirtieth of April was her birthday; on that day to visit her house on Garay Street and pay my respects to her father and to Carlos Argentino Daneri, her first cousin, would be an irreproachable and perhaps unavoidable act of politeness. Once again I would wait in the twilight of the small, cluttered drawing room, once again I would study the details of her many photographs: Beatriz Viterbo in profile and in full colour; Beatriz wearing a mask, during the Carnival of 1921; Beatriz at her First Communion; Beatriz on the day of her wedding to Roberto Alessandri; Beatriz soon after her divorce, at a luncheon at the Turf Club; Beatriz at a seaside resort in Quilmes with Delia San Marco Porcel and Carlos Argentino; Beatriz with the Pekingese lapdog given her by Villegas Haedo; Beatriz, front and three-quarter views, smiling, hand on her chin… I would not be forced, as in the past, to justify my presence with modest offerings of books — books whose pages I finally learned to cut beforehand, so as not to find out, months later, that they lay around unopened.

Beatriz Viterbo died in 1929. From that time on, I never let a thirtieth of April go by without a visit to her house. I used to make my appearance at seven-fifteen sharp and stay on for some twenty-five minutes. Each year, I arrived a little later and stay a little longer. In 1933, a torrential downpour coming to my aid, they were obliged to ask me for dinner. Naturally, I took advantage of that lucky precedent. In 1934, I arrived, just after eight, with one of those large Santa Fe sugared cakes, and quite matter-of-factly I stayed to dinner. It was in this way, on these melancholy and vainly erotic anniversaries, that I came into the gradual confidences of Carlos Argentino Daneri.

Beatriz had been tall, frail, slightly stooped; in her walk there was (if the oxymoron may be allowed) a kind of uncertain grace, a hint of expectancy. Carlos Argentino was pink-faced, overweight, gray-haired, fine-featured. He held a minor position in an unreadable library out on the edge of the Southside of Buenos Aires. He was authoritarian but also unimpressive. Until only recently, he took advantage of his nights and holidays to stay at home. At a remove of two generations, the Italian “S” and demonstrative Italian gestures still survived in him. His mental activity was continuous, deeply felt, far-ranging, and — all in all — meaningless. He dealt in pointless analogies and in trivial scruples. He had (as did Beatriz) large, beautiful, finely shaped hands. For several months he seemed to be obsessed with Paul Fort — less with his ballads than with the idea of a towering reputation. “He is the Prince of poets,” Daneri would repeat fatuously. “You will belittle him in vain — but no, not even the most venomous of your shafts will graze him.”

On the thirtieth of April, 1941, along with the sugared cake I allowed myself to add a bottle of Argentine cognac. Carlos Argentino tasted it, pronounced it “interesting,” and, after a few drinks, launched into a glorification of modern man.

“I view him,” he said with a certain unaccountable excitement, “in his inner sanctum, as though in his castle tower, supplied with telephones, telegraphs, phonographs, wireless sets, motion-picture screens, slide projectors, glossaries, timetables, handbooks, bulletins…”

He remarked that for a man so equipped, actual travel was superfluous. Our twentieth century had inverted the story of Mohammed and the mountain; nowadays, the mountain came to the modern Mohammed.

So foolish did his ideas seem to me, so pompous and so drawn out his exposition, that I linked them at once to literature and asked him why he didn’t write them down. As might be foreseen, he answered that he had already done so — that these ideas, and others no less striking, had found their place in the Proem, or Augural Canto, or, more simply, the Prologue Canto of the poem on which he hd been working for many years now, alone, without publicity, with fanfare, supported only by those twin staffs universally known as work and solitude. First, he said, he opened the floodgates of his fancy; then, taking up hand tools, he resorted to the file. The poem was entitled The Earth; it consisted of a description of the planet, and, of course, lacked no amount of picturesque digressions and bold apostrophes.

I asked him to read me a passage, if only a short one. He opened a drawer of his writing table, drew out a thick stack of papers — sheets of a large pad imprinted with the letterhead of the Juan Crisóstomo Lafinur Library — and, with ringing satisfaction, declaimed:

Mine eyes, as did the Greek’s, have known men’s
towns and fame,
The works, the days in light that fades to amber;
I do not change a fact or falsify a name —
The voyage I set down is… autour de ma chambre.

“From any angle, a greatly interesting stanza,” he said, giving his verdict. “The opening line wins the applause of the professor, the academician, and the Hellenist — to say nothing of the would-be scholar, a considerable sector of the public. The second flows from Homer to Hesiod (generous homage, at the very outset, to the father of didactic poetry), not without rejuvenating a process whose roots go back to Scripture — enumeration, congeries, conglomeration. The third — baroque? decadent? example of the cult of pure form? — consists of two equal hemistichs. The fourth, frankly bilingual, assures me the unstinted backing of all minds sensitive to the pleasures of sheer fun. I should, in all fairness, speak of the novel rhyme in lines two and four, and of the erudition that allows me — without a hint of pedantry! — to cram into four lines three learned allusions covering thirty centuries packed with literature — first to the Odyssey, second to Works and Days, and third to the immortal bagatelle bequathed us by the frolicking pen of the Savoyard, Xavier de Maistre. Once more I’ve come to realise that modern art demands the balm of laughter, the scherzo. Decidedly, Goldoni holds the stage!”

He read me many other stanzas, each of which also won his own approval and elicited his lengthy explications. There was nothing remarkable about them. I did not even find them any worse than the first one. Application, resignation, and chance had gone into the writing; I saw, however, that Daneri’s real work lay not in the poetry but in his invention of reasons why the poetry should be admired. Of course, this second phase of his effort modified the writing in his eyes, though not in the eyes of others. Daneri’s style of delivery was extravagant, but the deadly drone of his metric regularity tended to tone down and to dull that extravagance.

[Among my memories are also some lines of a satire in which he lashed out unsparingly at bad poets. After accusing them of dressing their poems in the warlike armour of erudition, and of flapping in vain their unavailing wings, he concluded with this verse:

But they forget, alas, one foremost fact — BEAUTY!

Only the fear of creating an army of implacable and powerful enemies dissuaded him (he told me) from fearlessly publishing this poem.]

Only once in my life have I had occasion to look into the fifteen thousand alexandrines of the Polyolbion, that topographical epic in which Michael Drayton recorded the flora, fauna, hydrography, orography, military and monastic history of England. I am sure, however, that this limited but bulky production is less boring than Carlos Argentino’s similar vast undertaking. Daneri had in mind to set to verse the entire face of the planet, and, by 1941, had already dispatched a number of acres of the State of Queensland, nearly a mile of the course run by the River Ob, a gasworks to the north of Veracruz, the leading shops in the Buenos Aires parish of Concepción, the villa of Mariana Cambaceres de Alvear in the Belgrano section of the Argentine capital, and a Turkish baths establishment not far from the well-known Brighton Aquarium. He read me certain long-winded passages from his Australian section, and at one point praised a word of his own coining, the colour “celestewhite,” which he felt “actually suggests the sky, an element of utmost importance in the landscape of the Down Under.” But these sprawling, lifeless hexameters lacked even the relative excitement of the so-called Augural Canto. Along about midnight, I left.

Two Sundays later, Daneri rang me up — perhaps for the first time in his life. He suggested we get together at four o’clock “for cocktails in the salon-bar next door, which the forward-looking Zunino and Zungri — my landlords, as you doubtless recall — are throwing open to the public. It’s a place you’ll really want to get to know.”

More in resignation than in pleasure, I accepted. Once there, it was hard to find a table. The “salon-bar,” ruthlessly modern, was only barely less ugly than what I had excepted; at the nearby tables, the excited customers spoke breathlessly of the sums Zunino and Zungri had invested in furnishings without a second thought to cost. Carlos Argentino pretended to be astonished by some feature or other of the lighting arrangement (with which, I felt, he was already familiar), and he said to me with a certain severity, “Grudgingly, you’ll have to admit to the fact that these premises hold their own with many others far more in the public eye.”

He then reread me four or five different fragments of the poem. He had revised them following his pet principle of verbal ostentation: where at first “blue” had been good enough, he now wallowed in “azures,” “ceruleans,” and “ultramarines.” The word “milky” was too easy for him; in the course of an impassioned description of a shed where wool was washed, he chose such words as “lacteal,” “lactescent,” and even made one up — “lactinacious.” After that, straight out, he condemned our modern mania for having books prefaced, “a practice already held up to scorn by the Prince of Wits in his own grafeful preface to the Quixote.” He admitted, however, that for the opening of his new work an attention-getting foreword might prove valuable — “an accolade signed by a literary hand of renown.” He next went on to say that he considered publishing the initial cantos of his poem. I then began to understand the unexpected telephone call; Daneri was going to ask me to contribute a foreword to his pedantic hodgepodge. My fear turned out unfounded; Carlos Argentino remarked, with admiration and envy, that surely he could not be far wrong in qualifying with the ephitet “solid” the prestige enjoyed in every circle by Álvaro Melián Lafinur, a man of letters, who would, if I insisted on it, be only too glad to dash off some charming opening words to the poem. In order to avoid ignominy and failure, he suggested I make myself spokesman for two of the book’s undeniable virtues — formal perfection and scientific rigour — “inasmuch as this wide garden of metaphors, of figures of speech, of elegances, is inhospitable to the least detail not strictly upholding of truth.” He added that Beatriz had always been taken with Álvaro.

I agreed — agreed profusely — and explained for the sake of credibility that I would not speak to Álvaro the next day, Monday, but would wait until Thursday, when we got together for the informal dinner that follows every meeting of the Writers’ Club. (No such dinners are ever held, but it is an established fact that the meetings do take place on Thursdays, a point which Carlos Argentino Daneri could verify in the daily papers, and which lent a certain reality to my promise.) Half in prophecy, half in cunning, I said that before taking up the question of a preface I would outline the unusual plan of the work. We then said goodbye.

Turning the corner of Bernardo de Irigoyen, I reviewed as impartially as possible the alternatives before me. They were: a) to speak to Álvaro, telling him the first cousin of Beatriz’ (the explanatory euphemism would allow me to mention her name) had concocted a poem that seemed to draw out into infinity the possibilities of cacophony and chaos: b) not to say a word to Álvaro. I clearly foresaw that my indolence would opt for b.

But first thing Friday morning, I began worrying about the telephone. It offended me that that device, which had once produced the irrecoverable voice of Beatriz, could now sink so low as to become a mere receptacle for the futile and perhaps angry remonstrances of that deluded Carlos Argentino Daneri. Luckily, nothing happened — except the inevitable spite touched off in me by this man, who had asked me to fulfill a delicate mission for him and then had let me drop.

Gradually, the phone came to lose its terrors, but one day toward the end of October it rang, and Carlos Argentino was on the line. He was deeply disturbed, so much so that at the outset I did not recognise his voice. Sadly but angrily he stammered that the now unrestrainable Zunino and Zungri, under the pretext of enlarging their already outsized “salon-bar,” were about to take over and tear down this house.

“My home, my ancestral home, my old and inveterate Garay Street home!” he kept repeating, seeming to forget his woe in the music of his words.

It was not hard for me to share his distress. After the age of fifty, all change becomes a hateful symbol of the passing of time. Besides, the scheme concerned a house that for me would always stand for Beatriz. I tried explaining this delicate scruple of regret, but Daneri seemed not to hear me. He said that if Zunino and Zungri persisted in this outrage, Doctor Zunni, his lawyer, would sue ipso facto and make them pay some fifty thousand dollars in damages.

Zunni’s name impressed me; his firm, although at the unlikely address of Caseros and Tacuarí, was nonetheless known as an old and reliable one. I asked him whether Zunni had already been hired for the case. Daneri said he would phone him that very afternoon. He hesitated, then with that level, impersonal voice we reserve for confiding something intimate, he said that to finish the poem he could not get along without the house because down in the cellar there was an Aleph. He explained that an Aleph is one of the points in space that contains all other points.

“It’s in the cellar under the dining room,” he went on, so overcome by his worries now that he forgot to be pompous. “It’s mine — mine. I discovered it when I was a child, all by myself. The cellar stairway is so steep that my aunt and uncle forbade my using it, but I’d heard someone say there was a world down there. I found out later they meant an old-fashioned globe of the world, but at the time I thought they were referring to the world itself. One day when no one was home I started down in secret, but I stumbled and fell. When I opened my eyes, I saw the Aleph.”

“The Aleph?” I repeated.

“Yes, the only place on earth where all places are — seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending. I kept the discovery to myself and went back every chance I got. As a child, I did not foresee that this privilege was granted me so that later I could write the poem. Zunino and Zungri will not strip me of what’s mine — no, and a thousand times no! Legal code in hand, Doctor Zunni will prove that my Aleph is inalienable.”

I tried to reason with him. “But isn’t the cellar very dark?” I said.

“Truth cannot penetrate a closed mind. If all places in the universe are in the Aleph, then all stars, all lamps, all sources of light are in it, too.”

“You wait there. I’ll be right over to see it.”

I hung before he could say no. The full knowledge of a fact sometimes enables you to see all at once many supporting but previously unsuspected things. It amazed me not to have suspected until that moment that Carlos Argentino was a madman. As were all the Viterbos, when you came down to it. Beatriz (I myself often say it) was a woman, a child, with almost uncanny powers of clairvoyance, but forgetfulness, distractions, contempt, and a streak of cruelty were also in her, and perhaps these called for a pathological explanation. Carlos Argentino’s madness filled me with spiteful elation. Deep down, we had always detested each other.

On Garay Street, the maid asked me kindly to wait. The master was, as usual, in the cellar developing pictures. On the unplayed piano, beside a large vase that held no flowers, smiled (more timeless than belonging to the past) the large photograph of Beatriz, in gaudy colours. Nobody could see us; in a seizure of tenderness, I drew close to the portrait and said to it, “Beatriz, Beatriz Elena, Beatriz Elena Viterbo, darling Beatriz, Beatriz now gone forever, it’s me, it’s Borges.”

Moments later, Carlos came in. He spoke dryly. I could see he was thinking of nothing else but the loss of the Aleph.

“First a glass of pseudo-cognac,” he ordered, “and then down you dive into the cellar. Let me warn you, you’ll have to lie flat on your back. Total darkness, total immobility, and a certain ocular adjustment will also be necessary. From the floor, you must focus your eyes on the nineteenth step. Once I leave you, I’ll lower the trapdoor and you’ll be quite alone. You needn’t fear the rodents very much — though I know you will. In a minute or two, you’ll see the Aleph — the microcosm of the alchemists and Kabbalists, our true proverbial friend, the multum in parvo!

Once we were in the dining room, he added, “Of course, if you don’t see it, your incapacity will not invalidate what I have experienced. Now, down you go. In a short while you can babble withall of Beatriz’ images.”

Tired of his inane words, I quickly made my way. The cellar, barely wider than the stairway itself, was something of a pit. My eyes searched the dark, looking in vain for the globe Carlos Argentino had spoken of. Some cases of empty bottles and some canvas sacks cluttered one corner. Carlos picked up a sack, folded it in two, and at a fixed spot spread it out.

“As a pillow,” he said, “this is quite threadbare, but if it’s padded even a half-inch higher, you won’t see a thing, and there you’ll lie, feeling ashamed and ridiculous. All right now, sprawl that hulk of yours there on the floor and count off nineteen steps.”

I went through with his absurd requirements, and at last he went away. The trapdoor was carefully shut. The blackness, in spite of a chink that I later made out, seemed to me absolute. For the first time, I realised the danger I was in: I’d let myself be locked in a cellar by a lunatic, after gulping down a glassful of poison! I knew that back of Carlos’ transparent boasting lay a deep fear that I might not see the promised wonder. To keep his madness undetected, to keep from admitting he was mad, Carlos had to kill me. I felt a shock of panic, which I tried to pin to my uncomfortable position and not to the effect of a drug. I shut my eyes — I opened them. Then I saw the Aleph.

I arrive now at the ineffable core of my story. And here begins my despair as a writer. All language is a set of symbols whose use among its speakers assumes a shared past. How, then, can I translate into words the limitless Aleph, which my floundering mind can scarcely encompass? Mystics, faced with the same problem, fall back on symbols: to signify the godhead, one Persian speaks of a bird that somehow is all birds; Alanus de Insulis, of a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere; Ezekiel, of a four-faced angel who at one and the same time moves east and west, north and south. (Not in vain do I recall these inconceivable analogies; they bear some relation to the Aleph.) Perhaps the gods might grant me a similar metaphor, but then this account would become contaminated by literature, by fiction. Really, what I want to do is impossible, for any listing of an endless series is doomed to be infinitesimal. In that single gigantic instant I saw millions of acts both delightful and awful; not one of them occupied the same point in space, without overlapping or transparency. What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write down will be successive, because language is successive. Nonetheless, I’ll try to recollect what I can.

On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny — Philemon Holland’s — and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe.

I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity.

“Feeling pretty cockeyed, are you, after so much spying into places where you have no business?” said a hated and jovial voice. “Even if you were to rack your brains, you couldn’t pay me back in a hundred years for this revelation. One hell of an observatory, eh, Borges?”

Carlos Argentino’s feet were planted on the topmost step. In the sudden dim light, I managed to pick myself up and utter, “One hell of a — yes, one hell of a.”

The matter-of-factness of my voice surprised me. Anxiously, Carlos Argentino went on.

“Did you see everything — really clear, in colours?”

At that moment I found my revenge. Kindly, openly pitying him, distraught, evasive, I thanked Carlos Argentino Daneri for the hospitality of his cellar and urged him to make the most of the demolition to get away from the pernicious metropolis, which spares no one — believe me, I told him, no one! Quietly and forcefully, I refused to discuss the Aleph. On saying goodbye, I embraced him and repeated that the country, that fresh air and quiet were the great physicians.

Out on the street, going down the stairways inside Constitution Station, riding the subway, every one of the faces seemed familiar to me. I was afraid that not a single thing on earth would ever again surprise me; I was afraid I would never again be free of all I had seen. Happily, after a few sleepless nights, I was visited once more by oblivion.

Postscript of March first, 1943 — Some six months after the pulling down of a certain building on Garay Street, Procrustes & Co., the publishers, not put off by the considerable length of Daneri’s poem, brought out a selection of its “Argentine sections”. It is redundant now to repeat what happened. Carlos Argentino Daneri won the Second National Prize for Literature. [“I received your pained congratulations,” he wrote me. “You rage, my poor friend, with envy, but you must confess — even if it chokes you! — that this time I have crowned my cap with the reddest of feathers; my turban with the most caliph of rubies.”] First Prize went to Dr. Aita; Third Prize, to Dr. Mario Bonfanti. Unbelievably, my own book The Sharper’s Cards did not get a single vote. Once again dullness and envy had their triumph! It’s been some time now that I’ve been trying to see Daneri; the gossip is that a second selection of the poem is about to be published. His felicitous pen (no longer cluttered by the Aleph) has now set itself the task of writing an epic on our national hero, General San Martín.

I want to add two final observations: one, on the nature of the Aleph; the other, on its name. As is well known, the Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Its use for the strange sphere in my story may not be accidental. For the Kabbala, the letter stands for the En Soph, the pure and boundless godhead; it is also said that it takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher; for Cantor’s Mengenlehre, it is the symbol of transfinite numbers, of which any part is as great as the whole. I would like to know whether Carlos Argentino chose that name or whether he read it — applied to another point where all points converge – – in one of the numberless texts that the Aleph in his cellar revealed to him. Incredible as it may seem, I believe that the Aleph of Garay Street was a false Aleph.

Here are my reasons. Around 1867, Captain Burton held the post of British Consul in Brazil. In July, 1942, Pedro Henríquez Ureña came across a manuscript of Burton’s, in a library at Santos, dealing with the mirror which the Oriental world attributes to Iskander Zu al-Karnayn, or Alexander Bicornis of Macedonia. In its crystal the whole world was reflected. Burton mentions other similar devices — the sevenfold cup of Kai Kosru; the mirror that Tariq ibn-Ziyad found in a tower (Thousand and One Nights, 272); the mirror that Lucian of Samosata examined on the moon (True History, I, 26); the mirrorlike spear that the first book of Capella’s Satyricon attributes; Merlin’s universal mirror, which was “round and hollow… and seem’d a world of glas” (The Faerie Queene, III, 2, 19) — and adds this curious statement: “But the aforesaid objects (besides the disadvantage of not existing) are mere optical instruments. The Faithful who gather at the mosque of Amr, in Cairo, are acquainted with the fact that the entire universe lies inside one of the stone pillars that ring its central court… No one, of course, can actually see it, but those who lay an ear against the surface tell that after some short while they perceive its busy hum… The mosque dates from the seventh century; the pillars come from other temples of pre-Islamic religions, since, as ibn-Khaldun has written: ‘In nations founded by nomads, the aid of foreigners is essential in all concerning masonry.'”

Does this Aleph exist in the heart of a stone? Did I see it there in the cellar when I saw all things, and have I now forgotten it? Our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in; I myself am distorting and losing, under the wearing away of the years, the face of Beatriz.


Is German the closest language to English?

Joshua Engel has a good answer on this topic in a Quora reply to the question posed above:

It kinda depends on what you call a “language”. There are a lot of creoles and pidgins that are close enough to English as to be mutually intelligible. They’re descendants of English, rather than siblings.

For siblings, English is classed as a member of the West Germanic family. The family tree is usually given as something like this:

The nearest sibling is Frisian, a Germanic language. Both languages have evolved a very, very long way from the common root, English by French, and Frisian by Dutch. Frisian is actually a collection of dialects, and all told it’s really hard to see any family resemblance between modern Frisian and Old English, even if you speak Old English.

For comparison, here’s the first lines of the Lord’s Prayer in Frisian:

Us Heit, dy’t yn de himelen is, jins namme wurde hillige.

and old English:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum; Si þin nama gehalgod

and modern German:

Vater unser im Himmel, geheiligt werde dein Name;

At a casual inspection none of these look much like “Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” The roots are actually all there: none of these words come to English via French. But to see it you’d really need to look into history rather than spelling: the Anglo-Saxon tribes that came to the island that became England also ended up in Frisia.

These words actually show more of the Norse Viking influence on spelling:

Faðer uor som ast i himlüm, halgað warðe þit nama.

Which became modern Norwegian:

Vår Far i himmelen! La navnet ditt helliges.

The Old Norse looks considerably more like the Old English than modern Norse does.

So the answer is usually given that Frisian is the closest, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to have an easy time learning Frisian. And in fact I found it far easier to learn French (and other Romance languages) from English than I did German, whose syntactic structure is now very different from English.

Layperson explanation of the Higgs mechanism

Barak Shoshany, a graduate tudent at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, wrote this answer that I think comes as close as you possibly can to an explanation with no recourse to math, which

  1. shows you the expressive power of math
  2. provides a good example of my growing disinterest in layperson explanations of ideas that necessitate actually delving into the math for a true understanding of the subject matter – anything less is not worth being called understanding proper. Armchair “understanding” unrefined by the unromantic drudgery of countless problems solved, by actual math and hard thinking, is the cauldron from which the brunt of crackpot pseudoscientific ideas arise.

Because as a complete newbie to theoretical physics who happens to be a skeptic on the order of these theorists themselves, it’s perfectly legitimate to gun down explanations like this unless you go through the actual math, all the context, the meat of the physics. Think good defensive attorney incentivized with proving a Quora answer wrong, r something.

Anyway, he tried his best, and it’s good for whoever has at least a correct understanding of the main terms he uses e.g. fields, potentials, as well as the analogies he uses (don’t overinterpret what potential wells mean!). It’s better by far than anything I could have come up with, clearly, because I don’t know what the Higgs mechanism is and I’m not going to pretend I understand it just by reading a couple of lay articles on the subject.

And of course Barak himself is very aware of these issues, hence the disclaimer prefacing his answer:

I’ll try my best to explain the Higgs mechanism without any math. It goes very roughly like this:

1. All elementary particles are merely excited states (or quanta) of some field. This includes the Higgs boson, which is the quanta of the Higgs field, the photon, which is the quanta of the electromagnetic field, the electron, which is the quanta of the electron field, and so on. All fields exist at all points in time and space.

2. Fields may couple to other fields, and in this case the fields are said to be interacting with one another.

3. Some fields couple to the Higgs field. After a process calledspontaneous symmetry breaking, the Higgs field is separated into two parts. The first part remains a dynamic field, and its quanta are the Higgs bosons. The second part is a constant (called the vacuum expectation value), and the equations that describe the coupling of the Higgs field to other fields become equations that describe the other fields coupling (quadratically) to themselves, which in quantum field theory is interpreted as giving mass to a field. The vacuum expectation value of the Higgs field is therefore proportional to the mass of each field. (See further explanation below.)

4. The equations that are interpreted as giving mass to certain fields do not exist before the spontaneous symmetry breaking of the Higgs field occurs. Actually, they cannot exist, due to symmetry considerations (and this is why it’s called “symmetry breaking”!). So this is how the Higgs field gives masses to the elementary particles: any field that couples (or interacts) with the Higgs field acquires a mass term that would otherwise would not have existed.

5. Going back to item (1), since all elementary particles are quanta of their corresponding fields, the particles that are the quanta of fields that couple to the Higgs field acquire mass due to spontaneous symmetry breaking, which is the essence of the Higgs mechanism. This includes all known particles (or fields) except the photon, the gluon, and (possibly) the 3 generations of neutrinos.

EDIT: As requested in the comments, I will attempt to explain a few things.

Regarding item (3) above, what exactly is the vacuum expectation value?

(Note: I took the illustrations from a post on the blog Quantum Diaries, which you are encouraged to read.)

The vacuum expectation value of the Higgs field is just the value that we would “expect” it to have when it is in its vacuum state, which is the state of lowest energy. It turns out that it is a general law of nature that physical systems always “want” to be in the state of lowest possible energy. The allowed values for the energy are determined by the system’s potential energy function. In the case of the Higgs field, the potential function looks (more or less) like this:

This is called the “mexican hat” potential for obvious reasons. It’s a 3-dimensional graph. The two horizontal axes are the values that the field can take. The vertical axis, labeled V(\phi), is the value of the potential energythat corresponds to each specific value of the field \phi. It’s kind of like a geographic terrain, where the values of the field are the longitude and latitude, and the value of the potential is the height.

So we have a large valley, with a small hill at the center, on which the Higgs field is currently “sitting” in the image. However, the Higgs looks around and notices that there are lower energy states all around him, at the bottom of the valley. It “wants” to roll down the hill into a state of lower energy.

Notice that when it’s at the top of the hill, the system is completely symmetric; you can rotate the potential around the vertical axis as much as you want, and it’ll still look exactly the same. But after the Higgs rolls down into a particular spot, the potential is no longer symmetric. We call this processspontaneous symmetry breaking, because the Higgs “broke” the symmetry spontaneously when it chose a specific point on the circle to roll down into. Here is an illustration of what happens:

The Higgs chose a particular point to roll down into, on the right of the hill, and if we now rotate the potential function in the direction of the blue arrow, it will no longer be at the same point. So the symmetry was broken.

When the Higgs rolled down into a point of lower energy (“height”), we say that it acquired a vacuum expectation value (VEV). Note that the VEV is the value of the field, not of the energy. Previously, when it was at the top of the hill, the field’s VEV was zero; this can be easily seen from the fact that it was at the origin (center) of the horizontal plane, where the field equals zero. Now the field has a non-zero value, the VEV, but it has lower energy than it had before.

Ok, those are nice pictures and all, but how does this process actually give mass to particles? Well, it’s almost impossible to explain without using the mathematics of quantum field theory, but I assume most readers are not familiar with it, so I’ll have to simplify it. You’ll have to endure a little bit of mathematics, but I promise it’ll be really simple.

As I explained in point (3) above, some other fields couple to the Higgs field. This means that, in the equations that describe all the fields, there are someinteraction terms that look (very roughly) like this:


Here’s what each symbol means:

  • \phi is the Higgs field.
  • \psi and \overline{\psi} are the fields of some particle and its antiparticle. For example, an electron and a positron.
  • g is just a number, called the coupling constant, which determines how strong the interaction is between the three fields (electron, positron and Higgs).

Now, as described above, the Higgs field obtains a VEV. This is just some number. Let’s call that number v. So we can separate \phi into v, which is just a number, and H, which is a new field:


Let’s put this into the expression above and see what we get:

g\overline{\psi}\psi\phi=g\overline{\psi}\psi v+g\overline{\psi}\psi H

The expression on the right is still an interaction term, since it still has three fields. We just replaced \phi with another field, H. This new field, and not \phi, isthe Higgs boson. So we got a term that describes how the electron and positron interact with the Higgs boson. But that’s not relevant right now.

The expression on the left is where the mass comes from. First, let’s combine vand g together, since they are both just numbers. And let’s call that combination m. So we have m=gv, and the expression becomes:
This is an “interaction term” between a particle and its antiparticle, and there isno third field. Such an interaction is called (drumroll…) a mass term! So, according to quantum field theory, this term says that the electron and positron both have mass m. They didn’t have it before; there was no mass term before. But with the help of the Higgs field’s VEV, we’ve managed tocreate a mass term “out of nothing”. This is how the Higgs field gives mass to particles.

What about particles, like protons, that do not acquire mass through the Higgs mechanism?

The Higgs mechanism can only give mass to elementary particles. The number of elementary particles is actually quite small. Here is a table of all the elementary particles and their properties:

There are 17 particles in this table, including the Higgs boson itself. Out of them, only 12 particles get masses from the Higgs mechanism. These are the 6 quarks u, d, c, s, t, b, the 3 leptons e, μ, τ, the 2 gauge bosons Z, W, and the Higgs boson itself, H. (It’s possible that the neutrinos also get their masses from the Higgs mechanism, but we’re not sure yet.)

However, there are many other particles that are not elementary; they are called composite particles. These particles are made from elementary particles and/or from other composite particles. For example, the proton is made from two u quarks and one d quark:

However, the proton’s mass is around 940 MeV, which, as you can see from the table above, is a lot more than the sum of the masses of two u quarks and one dquark, which is around 9.4 MeV – only 1% of the proton’s total mass! How is this possible? Well, we all know that E=mc^2; energy is equivalent to mass, and vice versa. So the rest of the proton’s mass must come from the energy stored within it.

Indeed, there are two sources of energy inside the proton. The quarks always move around inside, so they have kinetic energy. And the quarks also interact with each other (as illustrated by the squiggly lines connecting them); this interaction is what binds the quarks together, and it also has energy. So boththe kinetic energy and the binding energy of the quarks contribute to the overall mass of the proton. The same goes for all other composite particles.

Gary Drescher’s Good and Real: Demistifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics

I first came across a throwaway reference to Gary Drescher’s Good and Real while going through the long series of Less Wrong posts by Eliezer Yudkowsky collectively called “the Sequence” a few years back, which I thought at the time was the most eye-opening thing I’d ever read, so the fact that Yudkowsky mentioned it as providing him with the impetus to finish writing the quantum physics sequence as quickly as possible so as to not be influenced by Drescher’s arguments (which apparently ran along very similar lines) was to me a positively glowing review, albeit something of a sidetrack. I told myself I’d look into Drescher’s book when I got the chance, but forgot about it.

Just now I saw it get a mention again deep within the comments section of Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex, in a post called Proving Too Much (which itself deserves a read). The idea behind the fallacy of an argument “proving too much” is that it doesn’t just prove your conclusion, it proves something else that we can agree is patently false (or absurd, or untenable, etc – which leaves open the possibility that our personal absurdity heuristics are just poorly calibrated, among other things, but I digress). The argument that we can’t reject the existence of a supernatural power on the grounds that we haven’t definitively established proof of nonexistence, for instance, shouldn’t be used to imply that said power might exist (and running away with it, that it has a high probability of existing, that we should act and live our lives as if it exists, etc): replace “supernatural power” with Bigfoot and notice that the exact same conclusion holds.

(This isn’t arguing for disbelievers of supernatural powers either: I’m just saying this particular argument is a poor one, and we should look for others if we’re honest about wanting to go down to the bottom of things instead of just raising or lowering the bar for evidence according to whether we lean towards or away from the conclusions.)

In any case I’ve digressed again, so let’s get back to Drescher’s Good and Real.

One thing that struck me when reading the reviews section for the book on was that Danny Hillis gave it a glowing review. Danny Hillis isn’t a philosopher, I’ll grant you that, but he’s one of the most original thinkers around. I first came across him in a profile for a Reader’s Digest article when I was probably twelve or whereabouts; the fact that I still remember him speaks a lot of how much the description of him made an impression on me, though the details are lost to time – Disney Imagineer; co-founder of Applied Minds, Inc; co-founder of the Long Now Foundation (yes, that Long Now Foundation); inventor, thinker, all-around awesome guy. Here’s his review:

I am proud to write a review for this book, because I am convinced that philosophers of the future will look back on it as being ahead of its time.

Drescher establishes a comprehensive framework for studying some of the most difficult problems in philosophy, starting with a mechanistic view of the mind. With these tools, he dissects some of the most perplexing philosophical problems, questions about mind and body, consciousness, cause and effect, and moral choice. Drescher demonstrates convincingly that many of our intuitions about free will and moral choice are not only not contradicted by a mechanistic view, but can be supported by it.

Last emphasis mine, because it’s the one thing I (as someone who intuitively espouses a reductionistic, mechanistic view of the world) have yet to be able to understand. Where, paraphrasing Death in a Discworld novel of Terry Pratchett’s, are the atoms of morality to be found? And hasn’t Sam Harris already shown in his book Free Will (convincingly enough to me) that, rehashing standard arguments to be found in the literature, free will and determinism are incompatible, that the compatibilist view is either unsound or baits-and-switches by redefining “free will” to mean something else? Free will and ethics in a deterministic universe has always been a topic of personal interest to me, so I found this review particularly attractive.

Here’s another review I found interesting because it basically dismisses Harris’ own attempt at grounding ethics within a naturalistic framework (where ethics isn’t just “built-in”), while supporting Drescher as saying it “goes much further”:

I found Drescher’s arguments sound and consistent, and his assumptions more than reasonable, and thus can agree with his general conclusions for the most part without much reservation. It goes much further than other recent attempts at grounding ethics within a naturalistic framework, such as Sam Harris’ failed attempts in his recent book ‘The Moral Landscape’, but I fear the necessarily more technical style of Drescher’s book will impede it from receiving the popular attention it deserves.

Same review also mentions the is-ought distinction and how Drescher resolves it, which I found really interesting because I had thought the is-ought divide impassable:

Drescher’s title ‘Good and Real’ alludes to the is/ought dichotomy of what there ‘is’ and how moral agents ‘ought’ to act. He presents solutions to both using reasonable assumptions based on modern scientific evidence and then extrapolating those into cleverly simplified toy models.

Underlying all of Drescher’s thinking is a foundational construction of the ‘real’ or what ‘is’ and can be summarized as a deterministic quantum-mechanical configuration space based on Everett’s many-worlds interpretation that sits statically and timelessly representing the possibility space of spacetime. Using this foundation, he offers a theory of the ‘good’ or what ‘ought’ to be done and can be summarized as following the rule of subjunctive reciprocity, which is the use of acausal counterfactual reasoning to justify following Kant’s categorical imperative. In reaching this conclusion, Drescher spends time reconciling notions of free-will with a deterministic universe and puts forth arguments for using acausal counterfactual reasoning as the preferred way of thinking about means-end relations that is more general than causal relationships but also more strict than mere evidential relationships.

And here’s the review that compelled me to write this blog post:

Explain to people that they are fully natural, caused creatures, that they don’t have contra-causal free will, and they often suppose you’re dallying with fatalism. Explain that there is no provable basis for morality outside the natural world, and they often assume you’re a moral relativist or nihilist. How can we construe human choices as anything but illusory if all we do is completely determined? How can we judge behavior right or wrong if there are no supernatural ethical foundations?

In Good and Real, computer scientist and independent scholar Gary Drescher mounts a mind-bending attack on these and other problems that arise when commonsense conflicts with the science-based view that we inhabit a purely physical, mechanistic, deterministic universe. (Please fasten your seatbelts.) Establishing that we are in such a universe is just one of his projects, set forth in a chapter called “Quantum Certainty.” Drescher explains and defends Hugh Everett’s relative-state interpretation of quantum mechanics in which there is no collapse of the waveform and in which the evolution of the (locally branching) universe in configuration space is fully deterministic. This unflinching fidelity to the mathematical quantum formalism is quite the opposite of pop-quantum physics, for instance as popularized by the film What the Bleep Do We Know, which gives the putatively undetermined conscious observer a special role in “creating” reality by collapsing the waveform. Here as elsewhere in the book Drescher draws a tough-minded, unpopular conclusion: sorry, we don’t create our own reality.

Nor is consciousness something that transcends mechanism. Rather, Drescher explains in “Dust to Lust,” it’s what happens when a representational system goes recursive and starts taking its own episodes of representing as objects of further representation. Consciousness isn’t something extra generated by recursion, it is recursion (of a particular type), and so not anything that can’t be instantiated by a sufficiently complex mechanism, for instance, ourselves. Many readers will object to such a characterization: after all, we’re not just machines, are we? Well yes, we’re organic machines, choice machines in fact, Drescher says, whose consciousness and rationality can best be explained as the complex deterministic functionality of achieving goal states that have many sub-goals. Sticking with science, there’s no reason to suppose we’re animated by something non-physical in our goal-seeking behavior, since that assumption does no explanatory work. It’s here that many will likely part company with Drescher, and hold out for extra-scientific claims about our cognitive capacities, for instance that consciousness transcends the brain. Such claims support a more “optimistic” view about human exceptionalism, in which our choices have contra-causal leverage over the world. But this refuses to let empirical findings drive our conclusions about reality – a no-no of the first order for scientific naturalists like Drescher.

The discussions of consciousness and quantum physics are joined by a consideration of time in the chapter “Going Without the Flow.” Drescher reminds us that, according to 100 year-old standard physics, all events are sitting statically in four dimensional space-time. The past, present and future just are – there is no cursor moving forward along the time dimension that temporarily endows each moment with reality. All moments are equally real, which means that the future is there, “waiting” to be discovered by consciousness, not created de novo by human action. Now we start to see the problem for our standard intuition about human efficacy: if the future is inalterable, aren’t choices futile?

Before tackling this problem, Drescher explains how the illusory impression of the flow of time arises, and further, given that basic physical laws don’t specify a temporal direction, why it is we only observe events evolving forward in time, not backwards. As is often the case in this book, readers will find the explanations challenging; not because the writing isn’t lucid (it is, and often entertaining) but simply due to the conceptual complexity and counterintuitiveness of the material, which sometimes translates, inevitably, into what are politely referred to as technicalities. Although the gist of his conclusions can be grasped without tangling with the tough parts, to decide if he’s right requires you grapple with them.

The last third of Good and Real is devoted to the twin problems of choice and ethics in a deterministic universe, and if your mind isn’t already stretched, this will definitely do the trick. If we are choice machines, whose every decision is etched inalterably in the space-time manifold, and whose consciousness isn’t privileged in creating reality, why bother to act for the sake of what already exists? Part of the answer is relatively straightforward: if we didn’t bother to engage in choice making behavior, which ordinarily includes considering alternative possibilities, then we wouldn’t be as likely to achieve our goals. And choices needn’t involve our being causal exceptions to nature:

“Thus choice…is a mechanical process compatible with determinism: choice is a process of examining assertions about what would be the case if this or that action were taken, and then selecting an action according to a preference about what would be the case. The objection *The agent didn’t really make a choice, because the outcome was already predetermined* is as much a non sequitur as the objection *The motor didn’t really exert force, because the outcome was already predetermined.* Both choice making and motor spinning are particular kinds of mechanical processes. In neither case does the predetermination of the outcome imply that the process didn’t really take place.” (p. 192, original emphasis)

But the rest of Drescher’s answer takes us way down the rabbit hole, first by means of the seemingly innocent example of safely crossing the street, followed by his solution to Newcomb’s Problem, a notorious thought experiment about choice and prediction that has divided philosophers for decades. It turns out, says Drescher, that it makes sense to act as if your choice had an effect on conditions preceding the choice, even though there’s no causal link between your choice and those conditions. There exists what he calls a subjunctive means-end relation, a non-causal link between action and desired states of affairs. Therefore, Drescher argues, it can be rational to act for the sake of states of affairs that you know already obtain. If this seems completely counter-intuitive, join the club. Making it intuitive or at least logically transparent is Drescher’s goal, which in my case was not achieved, at least at first pass (which says nothing about whether he’s correct, since it will likely take several passes to fully understand the argument).

The capstone of Drescher’s tour de force is to apply the rationality of appreciating subjunctive means-ends relations to the classic problem of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and from that derive an ethics grounded in enlightened self-interest. Agents caught in the dilemma who are smart enough to grasp the reality of subjunctive means-ends links will see that it’s in their best interest to cooperate, not defect. This insight, generalized, becomes the rational basis for Kant’s categorical imperative and the golden rule. Unlike Kant, however, Drescher posits nothing beyond the physical space-time continuum and goal-seeking choice machines (us) to establish this most basic ethical maxim. So, perhaps, he has fully naturalized it.

The scope of Drescher’s ambition in this volume will not have escaped the reader. But he doesn’t come across as ambitious or overbearing, just curious and relentlessly logical, wanting to get to the bottom of the best puzzles that unvarnished reality offers. That he ventures into such diverse territory might make specialists suspicious, but Drescher seems to have done his homework. Deciding whether he’s right in any given instance will, however, require a close reading of his arguments and an evaluation of his evidentiary basis, for instance in consciousness studies, physics, game theory, and behavioral economics. Many of us non-specialists will likely have to reserve judgment, but can we suppose that standard intuitions about choice and reality, comforting though they be, are better than Drescher’s carefully thought out if counterintuitive conclusions? Here are the big questions, addressed by a gifted, independent-minded thinker, made real for us in all their perplexity, and it’s good that we should catch at least a glimpse of well-argued answers that form a satisfying whole. A deterministic, godless universe can, it seems, offer a sufficient basis for human efficacy and ethics.

Now I’m seriously reconsidering getting Good and Real.

What’s the difference between ignition, combustion, burning, explosion and detonation?

Quora answer by Raj Arjit:

These are commonly used terms, but technically speaking these are different.

1. Ignition refers to the process / phenomena of initiating the overall burning (burning used loosely here) process.

2 and 3. Combustion and burning are similar in the respect that both leads to the formation of new species as a result of chemical reaction in a irreversible process.



Combustion and burning are different in the respect that combustion technically refers to a – when the process is being done in “fixed” amount of air/oxygen. Burning refers when the process has access to infinite amount of air/oxygen i.e. done in open.

4. Explosion happens when rapid increase in volume takes place imparting momentum to the reaction particles with a production of a subsonic shock wave.

5. Detonation is similar to explosion with the difference lying in the fact that the rapid increase in volume is so high that production of supersonic shock wave takes place. (See the image carefully, you can see the wave arc in top)

How it was like to be part of the MIT Blackjack Team

George Sawyer, one of the original MIT Blackjack Team founders, writes about his experience in a Quora answer here:

Well, it was completely secret, for years and years and years.   So it was something you were doing where you couldn’t tell anyone. We were totally paranoid about security—it was an all cash business— and the casinos could throw you out at any time – so it was all hush hush. From the beginning in 1979, I never talked about it publicly  until after the movie came out in 2008.

In 1979 I lived in the kind of crummy housing you live in after college when you have your first job but haven’t gotten paid yet. I first heard about card counting when an oddly dressed guy with a backpack showed up at our apartment door looking for someone I’d never heard of.  Turned out the guy at the door used to live in our apartment years ago, and was coming from Las Vegas to meet some MIT people about playing blackjack for money. One of my roommates knew the person he knew, so he got to sleep on the floor in the living room.

I was convinced the whole thing was a fraud and his story of playing with Kenny Uston – who I’d never heard of – and his talk of anarchy and anarchists – it was entertaining in a “you aren’t staying long, are you?” sort of way.  A couple of days later he introduced me to JP, who was ‘the real deal.’ from a mathmatical point of view.  JP had an elegant computer model (which I understood), he had the numbers, he had all the math, he had a copy of Richard Epstein’s The Theory of Gambling and Statistical Knowledge (which became like the bible to us). In a few days he convinced me, he gave the basic strategy and the sheet of numbers and I started memorizing and practicing.

When we actually went to the casinos to play – those first few weeks and months – at first it was very chaotic. We had a $135 per week “hotel” room—technically it was a suite and had 4 or 5 beds?  It was a dump, walk up three or four flights of stairs.  Atlantic City was a real dump at that time: buildings that hadn’t been maintained in decades, so everything outside the casinos was very cheap. We were all broke, so we were trying to live on the $5 a day per diem the team paid—that paid for one meal unless you paid to ride the jitney bus to and from the casinos. There could be 8 to 12 people sleeping in that room on Friday or Saturday night.

At the beginning, our bank was too small for the $25 tables. At that time the casinos were so crowded that the $25 tables were the only ones at which you could – sometimes – get a seat without waiting.  When there were empty seats at a table some of us would stand a few feet from the table and “discretely” keep the count and when the shoe went to +2 or better you would signal, and one of our roaming players would sit down and bet $25 (or more, depending on the count). As we won it got easier, especially when we could finally just sit down at the start of a new shoe and bet $25.

We figured you could play really well for an hour—that was your estimated attention span—so you would go to Resorts (for example), walk around until you found a table that looked good, maybe wait for a positive count, then sit down and play. We were all too young and tried to play inconspicuously, but we were 20-25 year old kids with thousands of dollars, and it stood out. After you had played for about an hour, you cashed out and went to the men’s room where you counted your money and filled in your player sheet, then you walked to the next casino (there were only two or three at the beginning) and did it again. We had check-ins where you’d meet the banker at certain times—usually in a gaming arcade on the boardwalk—and report your cash position, and the banker might adjust our betting using the kelly criteria.   After a year or so we had “big players” so you would sit and flat bet at a table and someone’s uncle would shill for us—a real adult <smile> who knew basic strategy and how to read our signals on betting.  We kept on doubling our bank and eventually accumulated over $100k. At first we would play until we doubled our bank, we’d pay out profits (50% of the profits split among the investors, 50% split among the counters based on hours played) then we’d have a new bank.  When the amounts of money got big ($100k plus) the banks would last 90 days.  Once Bill arrived and we hired him to manage the team, we had serious capital ($500k+) and that made things much easier.

Playing in a casino was a real grind. We all had “real jobs” or were students. You’d get to Atlantic City Friday night at 10 or 11 pm, play about an hour at each casino then go to sleep until the shift changed. That was the rule – one hour of play during a given shift at a casino – you didn’t want to be recognizable – so you would go to the casino once during each of the three daily shifts.  Sunday night at 8 or 9 or 10 pm we’d drive back to Boston ( or New York). It wasn’t glamorous and it wasn’t interesting—just follow the formulas, DON’T make mistakes. And you could play perfectly and lose $3/4/5,000 in a night—that was hard to watch. Since it was statistical the luck and gambling elements seemed minimized – so it quickly became dull. And we were always counting cash—you’d count your cash 7,8,9 times a day, and you’d be walking around slummy Atlantic City with $15k or $20k in cash spread out through your pockets, hanging out playing Galaxians in the video arcade waiting for the banker to arrive for a check in, and worrying about getting your pocket picked or getting mugged. At night in the apartment between shifts, people would sleep or discuss (or argue) in base 13—no personal computers back then so people did real math, or at least talked math. [The real computer models were back in Boston / Cambridge.]

There was a certain depressing aspect to it. You’d quickly see that most people had no idea how to play and were just giving money to the casinos. People too drunk to sit on a stool betting $25 or $50 a hand.

During the week in Boston there would be practice sessions. Couple hours of play. You’d practice counting 6 decks, and you’d play a couple of shoes.  If you didn’t play perfectly, you couldn’t “work” that weekend.  Friday was ‘visit the safety deposit box’ day.    JP was always experimenting, running his model. I remember trying to learn to play the ‘non-random shuffle’ – that was a bitch.

Back then you really had to have a computer model to have the correct basic strategy for a given rule set, and to calculate the correct true counts for altering play for each hand combination. How to set up and run a team? How to recruit, train and qualify counters and “Big Players”. Today it’s all been worked out, and it’s all on the net. Bill had experience and common sense – it must have been like herding cats for him some times.

No one talked about this stuff at all until they had been banned so many times and were too famous / too well known to play. We would have preferred that Euston and Revere and etc would have not written their books – we didn’t want publicity.

At first the casinos were new, most of the employees were new, and if you could count, there was more money to be made playing than working for the casinos. I remember when the first ‘counter catchers’ started working for the casinos – we watched the people in the pit, and tried to figure out who the counter catcher was and what they looked like.  After a few years, you really needed a Big Player, we were all still way too young.”

Today the casinos know all of this, and have incredibly sophisticated models, and know the exact bottom line impact of each rule change. Lots and lots of casino employees know how to count, and anyone who counts can quickly spot other counters, so you’ll get spotted and booted quickly. They know everything about using Big Players and shills and signaling.

Since these days you might have a 1% edge – ie for $100 bet you’d make one dollar profit – you need to bet large amounts and because your edge is only probabilistic you need to play lots and lots of hands for “the law of large numbers” to be on your side – you’ll probably play 60 to 80 hands per hour. In the short run, it’s normal to have swings up and down – variance, and you have to ride that out. Because of the likelihood of being barred, and the rule changes and procedure changes ( instant shuffling) you have a smaller and smaller edge and less and less time you can play before being barred. So there just isn’t the opportunity to make serious money anymore.

Mozart was really dirty

Wow, I didn’t know this.

First came across this from a Quora answer by Emma Gat (referencing an article from to the question “what are some interesting facts about Mozart?”:

When Mozart wasn’t writing one of his 600 masterpieces he was writing letters to his female cousin, the contents of which were usually in a basic rhyme scheme and seriously screwed up. There are tons of snippets to choose from out there, but nothing quite sums up Mozart’s dirtiness as well as when he told his cousin that he wanted to “shit on her nose” and watch it “drip down her chin.”

He would also send letters to his own mother, who thought it was great fun and would often write him back in the same vein. Much like the above letter and the one running down a shrimp’s back, this vein contained way more poop than you’d expect. One of his letters to his mom included the passage “Yesterday, though, we heard the king of farts/ It smelled as sweet as honey tarts/ While it wasn’t in the strongest of voice/ It still came on as a powerful noise.” Another ended with “I now wish you goodnight, shit in your bed with all your might, sleep with peace on your mind and try to kiss your own behind. […] Oh my ass burns like fire! What on earth is the meaning of this! —- maybe muck wants to come out? yes, yes, muck…”

The same genius that wrote “Piano Concerto No 24 in C Minor” also wrote a gem called “Lick My Ass,” a classical party ballad meant to be sung by six people at a time, and followed it up with a sequel called “Lick My Ass Nice and Clean,” the lyrics of which we have included below:
Lick my ass nicely,
lick it nice and clean,
nice and clean, lick my ass.
That’s a greasy desire,
nicely buttered,
like the licking of roast meat, my daily activity.
Three will lick more than two,
come on, just try it,
and lick, lick, lick.
Everybody lick his own ass himself.

Here’s more on this topic from the Huffington Post:

….take a look at the mostrecent letter up at the archival blog Letters Of Note, from 21-year-old Mozart to his 19-year-old cousin and probable love interest, Marianne. The lengthy letter shows off the composer’s fondness for wordplay and, yes, poop jokes, with lines like “I now wish you a good night, shit in your bed with all your might.”

From there things only get “muckier” — but don’t put it all on young Amadeus. As it’ssaid in our time, the parents must also be held to blame. In this case, that particular couplet at least seems to be inspired by a rhyme Mozart’s mother Anna Maria used on her husband Leopold, also in correspondence. In “Mysterious Mozart,” biographer Phillippe Sollers (translated by Armine Kotin Mortimer) introduces Anna Maria’s original rhyme with the explanation that “the Mozarts in general write strange things to each other.”

From the book: “Adio ben mio. stay well in body and mind / and try to kiss your own behind. / I wish you a good night / shit in bed with all your might, / it’s already past one, so now you can make your own rhymes” (the reference to the time, Sollers explains, is another off-color joke, referencing the German infinitive “scheissen,” or “to shit”).

The passing on of this unusual bedtime rhyme from mother to son is making us feel like we get the Mozarts somehow. Like if they’d been born today, they’d play sonatas with their armpits on YouTube, and watch a lot of Farrelly brothers movies. And frequent certain online communities.

We’ve posted an excerpt of Mozart’s note to Marianne below — and we highly recommend you head to Letters Of Note to read the whole scheiss-show in full. It’s pointed out that Robert Spaethling’s translation yields several instances of the term “spuni cuni fait.” The meaning of the phrase is unknown, but its existence in many of Mozart’s letters has prompted elaborate attempts to crack the code at the fan site Mozart Forum, only one of which, surprisingly, goes below the waist.

Wouldn’t you like to visit Herr Gold-smith again?—but what for?—what?—nothing!—just to inquire, I guess, about the Spuni Cuni fait, nothing else, nothing else?—well, well, all right. Long live all those who, who—who—who—how does it go on?—I now wish you a good night, shit in your bed with all your might, sleep with peace on your mind, and try to kiss your own behind; I now go off to never-never land and sleep as much as I can stand. Tomorrow we’ll speak freak sensubly with each other. Things I must you tell a lot of, believe it you hardly can, but hear tomorrow it already will you, be well in the meantime. Oh my ass burns like fire! what on earth is the meaning of this!—maybe muck wants to come out? yes, yes, muck, I know you, see you, taste you—and—what’s this—is it possible? Ye Gods!—Oh ear of mine, are you deceiving me?—No, it’s true—what a long and melancholic sound!—today is the write I fifth this letter. Yesterday I talked with the stern Frau Churfustin, and tomorrow, on the 6th, I will give a performance in her chambers, as the Furstin-Chur said to me herself. Now for something real sensuble!

Here’s more.