Friday, December 31, 2010

The plant list

I suppose Achillea ambigua wasn't clear enough (I assume the multiplicity of names has to do with that of naming organizations?):
Recent work by Kew Gardens and the Missouri Botanical Garden, with numerous collaborators, has revealed that [the Latin names of plants are horribly nonunique]: of 1.04 million species-level names, they classified only about 300,00 (29%) as accepted names. They classified 480,000 names (46%) as synonyms for accepted names and 260,000 (25%) as unresolved, meaning that the available data is not sufficient to determine whether or not they designate distinct species. By way of example, a query for Achillea millefolium reveals that it has synonyms such as Achillea ambigua, Achillea angustissima, Achillea borealis, and even some in other genera, such as Chamaemelum tanacetifolium. You can look things up yourself at The Plant List.
No word yet on beetles.
 (via Language Log)

China scenes and Cockney rhyming slang

Something that should have been noted but wasn't in yesterday's post on David Jones was the practice he quotes of referring to one's comrades as "china" -- apparently because "china plate" is rhyming slang for "mate." Though marvelous on its own terms in the context of a World War I book -- the fragility of china mirroring that of life etc. -- my enjoyment of it was somewhat heightened by association with the other "china plate / mate" scene in literature, viz. the bit in Wycherley's Country Wife where Horner mates with Lady Fidget while her husband is in the next room, under the pretext of showing her his collection of china.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Fantastic troll-steppers"

I've been reading David Jones's In Parenthesis, which has resisted my attempts to warm to it, despite the obvious merit of passages like this (describing a company marching in France during WW1):
Sometimes his bobbing shape showed clearly; stiff marionette jerking on the uneven path; at rare intervals he saw the whole platoon, with Mr. Jenkins leading.
Wired dolls sideway inclining, up and down nodding, fantastic troll-steppers in and out the uncertain cool radiance, amazed crook-back miming, where sudden chemical flare, low-flashed between the crazy flats, floodlit their sack-bodies, hung with rigid properties--
the drop falls,
you can only hear their stumbling off, across the dark proscenium.

I think it's all the damn participles, on page after page up piling, each other following, that constitute the most substantial challenge to reading this book. I frankly have no idea why Jones wrote it like that -- was he going for the Anglo-Saxon line, or some analogous Welsh effect? It must also be said that Jones offers less instant gratification than Eliot or Joyce, and is more often incomprehensible...

Nevertheless there's enough to keep one plodding. Here's another passage I liked:
Machine-gunner in Gretchen trench remembered his night target. Occasionally a rifle-bullet raw snapt like tenuous hide-whip by spiteful ostler handled. On both sides the artillery was altogether dumb.
Appear more Lazarus figures, where water gleamed between dilapidated breastworks, blue slime coated, ladling with wooden ladles; rising, bending, at their trench dredging. They speak low. Cold gurgling followed their labors. They lift things, and a bundle-thing out; its shapelessness sags. From this muck-raking are singular stenches, long decay leavened; compounding this clay, with that more precious, patient of baptism; chemical-corrupted once-bodies. They've served him barbarously -- poor Johnny -- you wouldn't desire him, you wouldn't know him for any other. Not you who knew him by fire-light nor any of you cold earth-watchers, nor searchers under flares.
Each night freshly degraded like traitor-corpse, where his heavies flog and violate; each day fathoms yesterday unkindness; dung-making Holy Ghost temples.
They bright-whiten all this sepulchre with chloride of lime. It's a perfectly sanitary war.

Where are the snowclones of yesteryear?

Just asking. (And because Google draws a blank on the phrase and I should record it in the unlikely event that I have coined it...) But is anyone familiar with snowclone-like phenomena in pre-1950 literature? By a snowclone I mean -- as usual -- a cliche with free parameters. I can't remember any examples in Fowler -- off the top of my head -- that would work; going back further, I suspect there must have been at least some examples in the poetry of the "heroic-couplet" age between Dryden and Johnson, but I can't think of any concrete examples. And is the hendiadys of Shakespeare -- the recurring "X and Y of Z" form -- a snowclone?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Predicting, fitting, omitting

I've been meaning to blog about three tenuously related topics: (a) the role of predictions in science and popular culture, the difference between saying that "good theories should make predictions" [true-ish] and "the point of good theories is to make predictions" [untrue], and what this has to do with FiveThirtyEight; (b) Karl Popper as interpreted by Peter Godfrey-Smith, Wittgenstein and Dummett as interpreted by Timothy Gowers, and the extent to which "formalism" is a reasonable approach to the philosophy and/or practice of science; and (c) the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, why I've largely given up on it, and a moral that I think one ought to draw from the theory of phase transitions and collective phenomena. This post is a long, chaotic, and very incomplete stab at the first two; I'll come back to (c) anon.

1. The point of scientific theories is not to make predictions; it is to put together stories that explain data. Models with explanatory power usually make predictions. When they do not, it is for one of three reasons: (a) the explanatory power was illusory; (b) all the experiments were done a long time ago and there are several rules-of-thumb describing them that the model finally puts together, but it makes no new predictions; (c) experiments that would test the model are infeasible. (a) is what is usually meant by a theory lacking predictive power but really this almost always means that the theory needed an inordinate number of fit parameters to retrodict anything, i.e., there were a very large number of other theories with the same level of simplicity that would have been equally possible. (This is the case with religious accounts of anything.) As for (b) and (c) they are irrelevant to the goodness of the theory -- though (c) might be a symptom of people trying to shield their theories from experiment, it needn't be. If for political reasons it became impossible to build any further accelerators, that would not reflect on the theories that might have been tested in these putative accelerators.

There are some results approaching the limit of type (b) scattered throughout physics, though I can't think of any pure cases. In general, understanding what the shapes of various graphs have to do with one another tells you something more, at the very least it tells you what features of a given material make it behave a particular way, and suggests what other materials you should be looking at. Nevertheless, in my experience it is not true that models are considered less worthwhile as they approach the limit of type (b) -- though for sociological reasons a model of this kind is less likely to stimulate further activity. (A case in point is Wilson's theory of phase transitions, which was understood to have revolutionized physics although, as far as I know, it made no predictions that were verified before Wilson got his Nobel Prize.)

2. Apart from theories of type (b), one is struck by the differences in attitude between scientists and people who really are interested in making predictions. Andrew Gelman had a sociologically interesting post up in November, arguing that it was sensible for Silver to pour reams of probably trivial factors into his election-forecasting model on the assumption that they might help. (Matt Pasienski had made some very similar points in an IM conversation.) From a scientist's perspective what Silver does is a fairly absurd case of "overfitting" -- one always learns to avoid unnecessary fudge factors but Silver just sort of heaps them on -- but of course his "model" is meant to forecast elections and not to explain them. If elections could be explained this would all be rather silly but the existing models are less than perfect, so arguably it makes sense to hedge one's bets.

3. Which brings us to the question of why overfitting is a bad idea -- and I don't mean egregious overfitting like having as many parameters as data points, but just the vaguely disreputable tendency to introduce random vaguely relevant factors to make your model fit better. I can think of three basic reasons: (i) models with many parameters are hard to use and don't correspond to the kind of simple mental picture that is usually necessary for new creative work, (ii) they leave more stuff unexplained (why are the parameters what they are?), (iii) they are, like the epicycles, increasingly difficult to refute. [One might also mention (iv) they violate Occam's razor, but I don't think it applies here as "necessity" is ill-defined as after all one's curves do get a little closer to one's data.]

4. Which brings us to Popper as interpreted by Godfrey-Smith. I think the best way to understand the rule against over-fitting -- and the related preference for simplicity -- is in these terms:

In this section I will use a distinction between synchronic and diachronic perspectives on evidence. A synchronic theory would describe relations of support within a belief system at a time. A diachronic theory would describe changes over time. It seems reasonable to want to have both kinds of theory. [...] epistemology in the 20th century tended to suppose we could have both kinds of theory, but often with primacy given to the synchronic side. The more novel possibility, which I will discuss in this section, is the primacy of the diachronic side, once we leave the deductive domain. [...] A diachronic view of this kind would describe rational or justified change, or movement, in belief systems. [...]

In this section I suppose that we do not, at present, have the right framework for developing such a view. But we can trace a tradition of sketches, inklings, and glimpses of such a view in a minority tradition within late 19th and 20th century epistemology. The main figures I have in mind here are Peirce (1878), Reichenbach (1938), and Popper. This feature of Popper's view is visible especially in a context where he gets into apparent trouble. This is the question of the epistemic status of well-tested scientific theories that have survived many attempts to refute them. Philosophers usually want to say, in these cases, that the theory has not been proven, but it has been shown to have some other desirable epistemic property. The theory has been confirmed; it is well-supported; we would be justified in having a reasonably high degree of confidence in its truth.

In situations like this, Popper always seemed to be saying something inadequate. For Popper, we cannot regard the theory as confirmed or justified. It has survived testing to date, but it remains provisional. The right thing to do is test it further. So when Popper is asked a question about the present snapshot, about where we are now, he answers in terms of how we got to our present location and how we should move on from there in the future. The only thing Popper will say about the snapshot is that our present theoretical conjectures are not inconsistent with some accepted piece of data. That is saying something, but it is very weak. So in Popper we have a weak synchronic constraint, and a richer and more specific theory of movements. What we can say about our current conjecture is that it is embedded in a good process.

Occamism has been very hard to justify on epistemological grounds. Why should we think that the a simpler theory is more likely to be true? Once again there can be an appeal to pragmatic considerations, but again they seem very unhelpful with the epistemological questions.

From a diachronic point of view, simplicity preferences take on a quite different role. Simplicity does not give us reason to believe a theory is true, but a simplicity preference is part of a good rule of motion. Our rule is to start simple and expect to get pushed elsewhere. Suppose instead we began with a more complex theory. It is no less likely to be true than the simple one, but the process of being pushed from old to new views by incoming data is less straightforward. Simple theories are good places from which to initiate the dynamic process that is characteristic of theory development in science.

5. Which, finally, brings us to Gowers --
I would like to advance a rather cheeky thesis: that modern mathematicians are formalists, even if they profess otherwise, and that it is good that they are. [...] When mathematicians discuss unsolved problems, what they are doing is not so much trying to uncover the truth as trying to find proofs. Suppose somebody suggests an approach to an unsolved problem that involves proving an intermediate lemma. It is common to hear assessments such as, "Well, your lemma certainly looks true, but it is very similar to the following unsolved problem that is known to be hard," or, "What makes you think that the lemma isn't more or less equivalent to the whole problem?" The probable truth and apparent relevance of the lemma are basic minimal requirements, but what matters more is whether it forms part of a realistic-looking research strategy, and what that means is that one should be able to imagine, however dimly, an argument that involves it. 

This resonates with me because I've always had a strong formalist streak; it goes with the Godfrey-Smith quote because formalism in mathematics is a diachronic perspective -- it says, "mathematics is a set of rules for replacing certain strings of symbols with others" -- and I think a diachronic philosophy of physics would have some appealing resemblances to formalism. I was going to explain how I think a diachronic perspective and the effective field theory program might affect how one thinks about, say, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but this post is already far too long.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"The aristocrat of middlebrows, Dr Johnson"

Auden's nonfiction is all a little "jumbled in the common box / of my dark stupidity," from which bits unpredictably pop out; earlier today, while reading this Andrew Gelman post on "brow inflation" (i.e., the lowering of middlebrow), I was reminded of  Auden's quip about Johnson being the aristocrat of middlebrows. It took me a while to find the quote, which is from a (slightly self-congratulatory) ramble about "late works" in his lecture on Cymbeline -- especially revealing if you consider that the lectures were roughly contemporaneous with The Sea and the Mirror. Here's some of the relevant passage:
Somewhere or other Aldous Huxley makes the interesting suggestion of an anthology of last works, or better, late works: Samson Agonistes of Milton, for example, Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, the last quartets of Beethoven, Verdi's Falstaff, the late paintings and etchings of Goya. [...] The characteristics of such late works include, first, a certain indifference to their effect either on the general reading public or on critics [...] There is an enormous interest in particular kinds of artistic problems lovingly worked out for themselves, regardless of the interest of the whole work. [...]

In the late work of Shakespeare, there is no real resemblance to the real world of time and place. The recognition scenes are fantastic. There are repeated shipwrecks in Pericles and repeated disguises in Cymbeline. Shakespeare is taking up an entirely primitive form-with choruses, dumb shows, and masques. One might think of a modern writer who, after mastering complex forms, takes up the Wild West. The plays show a conscious exploitation of tricks: asides, etc. Late works appeal to lowbrows and very sophisticated highbrows, but not to middlebrows, even to the aristocrat of middlebrows, Dr. Johnson. Critics do not appreciate the pleasure a writer has in consciously writing a simple form-like the masque in Cymbeline.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday reading [non-cloth-bound!]

Just read the NYT profile of Jaimy Gordon, which has this horribly enticing bit:
Her first novel, “Shamp of the City-Solo,” set in a parallel universe and written in an exuberant prose style that owes as much to the 17th century as to the 20th, is about a young man who so hungers for fame that he travels to a metropolis known as Big Yolk to take part in a great rhetorical contest.

Even though Gordon -- who doesn't sound likable, even if one sympathizes with her desire to see her books in an airport -- herself describes it as "an underground classic," and the title does nothing for me, I'm fond enough of Rabelais and The Unfortunate Traveller and their kin to have bumped Shamp to the top of my reading list. Fortunately UIC has a copy...

[While on books I should pass on two recommendations -- Devin Johnston's Creaturely (via seventydys on twitter) and Peter Hessler's Country Driving (via Yglesias). They're about animals and China respectively; I haven't read either but am a fan of Johnston's poems.]

I was also reminded of some ways in which I'm a philistine:
Mr. McPherson [is] the kind of publisher who sometimes seems more concerned with how his books look than how they sell. “Lord of Misrule,” for example, has a full cloth cover and a stitched binding, which is practically unheard of these days. 

This bores and annoys me; in fact I wish someone would issue the sorts of books I read as mass-market paperbacks; I have very mixed feelings about this brand of "authentic" retro hand-crafted crap. There's art and then there's prettiness and I'd rather have the one without the other. Cloth bindings remind me of Pope's Timon -- "His study: with what authors is it stored? / In books, not authors, curious is my Lord."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Loose carollaries

Googling "finnegans wok" -- which I decided last night would be a good name for a fusion Mongolian bbq place -- brings one, by a commodious vicus of link-following, to Wake in Progress, an attempt to illustrate all of the Wake. (While on this topic don't forget to read Michael Wood's LRB essay on the Wake.) Highly recommended:

This one, which for some reason I can't link to, is also pretty awesome.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Your disposable correspondent

Red-eye-induced sleeplessness* having overcome my feeble stock of good sense I'm going to rant about The Economist's latest formulaic anti-PhD screed; or rather, I'm going to pick out some bits that I find particularly clueless or disingenuous or both.
business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things

Well maybe people don't want to do the things "business leaders" want them to do! Maybe if "business leaders" offered people higher starting pay then they'd lure people away from PhDs! Maybe "right things" implies a value judgment that it is at best intellectually lazy to outsource "business leaders."
Brilliant, well-trained minds can go to waste when fashions change. The post-Sputnik era drove the rapid growth in PhD physicists that came to an abrupt halt as the Vietnam war drained the science budget. Brian Schwartz, a professor of physics at the City University of New York, says that in the 1970s as many as 5,000 physicists had to find jobs in other areas.

Well and were they able to find them? (Yes iirc.) If so were they high-paying? (Ditto) Isn't that relevant?
Not every student embarks on a PhD wanting a university career and many move successfully into private-sector jobs in, for instance, industrial research. That is true; but drop-out rates suggest that many students become dispirited.
No they don't! It all depends on why they drop out. If people drop out to find higher-paying jobs that does not suggest that they become dispirited. Maybe, at best, it suggests that when PhD students (say) start having kids the bargain of crummy-pay-now-secure-job-later begins to look less attractive.
Research at one American university found that those who finish are no cleverer than those who do not. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam.

I have no idea of what this assertion actually means; it's the worst kind of "studies show" claptrap.
In Germany 13% of all PhD graduates end up in lowly occupations. In the Netherlands the proportion is 21%.

THIS IS INFURIATINGLY VAGUE. WHAT THE HELL IS A LOWLY OCCUPATION? (NB also that these are countries with low income inequality...)
In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education.
 Yes because some PhDs in engineering become professors and earn less than people with masters' degrees.
Dr Schwartz, the New York physicist, says the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses. Thirty years ago, he says, Wall Street firms realised that some physicists could work out differential equations and recruited them to become “quants”, analysts and traders. Today several short courses offer the advanced maths useful for finance. “A PhD physicist with one course on differential equations is not competitive,” says Dr Schwartz.

Yes and you can learn everything you need to know about anything from a book. The notion that the "skills acquired" depend entirely on the nominal course content is risible. Also, it's pretty obvious that the basic reason quants are picked from the math-PhD pool is that employers think (probably incorrectly) that a math degree is an IQ filter. 

* I was supposed to fly back from Santa Barbara yesterday morning around 8am and get in in the evening. After being rerouted three times and finally outsourced to a different airline, I left SB at 7pm, and fetched up in Chicago around 5am today. The baggage carousel took half an hour to get started (though amazingly my bags made it through), Amtrak had computer problems, wouldn't issue new tickets, and wouldn't let you board if you didn't have a printed-out reservation -- which I didn't because this train is never full -- and I'd naturally forgotten to pack a coat when I left in August.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Discontent, winter of

Just in time for my return to Champaign after an on-the-whole delightful semester in Santa Barbara, the Times offers this delightful map (of the % of people with graduate degrees):

The census data toy is pretty addictive, btw.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"That anagram boggled my mind," he blogged

This chief purpose of this post is to disseminate this marvelously opaque Tom Swifty that my friend Kit Wallach came up with last night:
"Well, my iPhone can tell me the atomic weight of tin," Tom snapped.
We'd been trading these for a while; here are some of mine:
  • "I feel like I'm losing it," said Schindler listlessly.
  • "Depends on what you mean by Belgian," he waffled.
  • "I must admit I'm hiding something," said Anne frankly.
  • "I'm sinking into the bog again," Tom repeated.
  • "He stabbed himself with a rusty iron nail," Holmes inferred.
  • "He was always a little eccentric," Wright sighed.
Speaking of which, Carrie Meldgin points out an (apparently) famous crash blossom, "British left waffles on Falklands." (And also points out that some of these are considered "croakers" rather than true swifties by Wikipedia b'se they lack adverbs and are more like "Tom croaked." I don't like this nomenclature as it sounds vaguely derogatory and the adverbless ones are actually harder to come up with.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Via Elizabeth McCracken's twitter feed, the appalling donut taco. Such innovations are perhaps defensible on Aldous Huxley's principle that a dark Satanic mill ought to look like a dark Satanic mill: doughnuts are intrinsically gross; as Wikipedia explains, in the 19th century, doughnuts were sometimes referred to as one kind of olykoek (a Dutch word literally meaning "oil cake"), a "sweetened cake fried in fat."[2]

Friday, December 3, 2010

"Every woman wants to play Hamlet, just as every man wants to play Lady Bracknell."

Via Light reading, another literary-list game. List fifteen memorable fictional characters in less than fifteen minutes. My list is quite narrow in scope and consists mostly of grotesque and/or blinded people:
  1. Lady Bracknell [The Importance of Being Earnest]
  2. Micawber [David Copperfield]
  3. Lord Emsworth [P.G. Wodehouse's Blandings books]
  4. Falstaff [Henry IV]
  5. Leopold Bloom [Ulysses]
  6. Hamlet [Hamlet]
  7. Lucia Lucas [E.F. Benson's Lucia books]
  8. Anton Chigurh [No Country for Old Men -- the movie!]
  9. Pandarus [Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde]
  10. Astrov [Uncle Vanya]
  11. Isabel Archer [Portrait of a Lady]
  12. Mrs. Bennet [Pride and Prejudice]
  13. Mrs. Millamant [The Way of the World]
  14. Mickey Sabbath [Sabbath's Theater]
  15. Panurge [Rabelais]
I suspect that one is rather at the mercy of one's stream-of-consciousness, which in this case was seeded by Micawber, but I would probably have ended up with a list somewhat like this no matter what. If I had had to go up to 20 or more I'd probably have added more medieval types like the Wife of Bath and their descendants like Don Quixote and Squire Western. Charlus probably belongs on the list too. As do the Walrus and the Carpenter, though they're not viable as separate characters.

An umbrella

Via the letters in the latest NYRB, a clever version of Catullus 101 (multas per gentes etc.) by Donald Hope:

I’ve come through many countries and across many seas,
my brother, to do these sad obsequies,
to bring you posthumous presents and hopeless wishes
and make a useless speech to your dumb ashes;
My poor brother, since fate has callously
taken you, and cheated me of your company
here are these merely conventional things,
traditional sad funeral offerings:
take them—all wet with your brother’s tears—and my
last greeting and everlasting goodbye.

It doesn't have anything like the weight of the original -- perhaps the rhymes were a mistake? perhaps the medial caesura in the pentameter line of the elegiac stanza should have been reproduced or adapted? -- but one can ask only so much of poetic translations. (Here is an old post expressing my views on the matter.)

Friday, November 26, 2010

Steller wind

Thinking about Linnaeus yesterday reminded me of Steller (born in Windsheim!) and his expedition to the Bering sea, which W.G. Sebald wrote about in After Nature. Compared with Sebald's novels, these poems have received relatively little attention, though they translate well into English and are often very pretty. Take this one, for instance:

from And if I remained by the outermost sea
W.G. Sebald [tr. Michael Hamburger, Threepenny Review 91, 10 (2002)]


Visions of this voyage of discovery,
Steller later recorded, had so seized
his imagination that he, the son
of a cantor, gifted with a
fine tenor voice and furnished
with a bursary for true Christians,
having abandoned Wittenberg and
theology for natural science,
could now, during his doctoral
disputations, which he passed
with the highest distinction,
think of nothing other than
the shapes of the fauna and
flora of that distant region
where East and West and North
converge, and of the art and skill
required for their description.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Niedecker: Linnaeus in Lapland

Linnaeus in Lapland

Nothing worth noting
except an Andromeda
with quadrangular shoots—
            the boots
of the people

wet inside: they must swim
to church thru the floods
or be taxed—the blossoms
            from the bosoms
of the leaves


Fog-thick morning—
I see only
where I now walk. I carry
            my clarity
with me.


where her snow-grave is
the You
            ah you
of mourning doves

False friends on the morning after


In Polish, hair of the dog is called "a wedgie" (klin), mirroring the concept of dislodging a stuck wedge with another one. Similarly, other Slavic languages, such as Russian, Bosnian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Serbian and Slovene, use the phrase "a wedge dislodges a wedge" (klin se klinom izbija), although it is not normally connected to the alleged hangover medicine.

(An atomic wedgie, presumably, will obliterate your hangover goes directly to your head.) In fairness to the Poles, I must say that the efficacy of wedgies as hangover remedies has not, to my knowledge, been studied with any level of scientific rigor.

Update. Definitely fake, alas. The real term is "wedge." Still...

Monday, November 22, 2010

"The shape of things held by the world"

The frontispiece of Ralegh's History of the World:

Jonson wrote a peculiarly direct ekphrastic explaining how all the Latin tags (barely legible in this image but I couldn't find a better one) fit together:

From death and dark oblivion (near the same)
    The mistress of man’s life, grave History,
Raising the world to good and evil fame,
    Doth vindicate it to eternity.
Wise Providence would so : that nor the good
    Might be defrauded, nor the great secured,
But both might know their ways were understood,
    When vice alike in time with virtue dured :
Which makes that, lighted by the beamy hand
Of Truth, that searcheth the most hidden springs,
And guided by Experience, whose straight wand
    Doth mete, whose line doth sound the depth of things ;
She cheerfully supporteth what she rears,
    Assisted by no strengths but are her own,
Some note of which each varied pillar bears,
    By which, as proper titles, she is known
Time's witness, herald of Antiquity,
The light of Truth, and life of Memory.


I came upon this while trying to decrypt Geoffrey Hill's "Masques" poem but it sort of merits a post of its own, as I've never seen anything quite like it. It's obviously very much an exercise-poem -- Jonson would have had no say in the cover design; note too how direct the correspondences are with the illegible tags --  but it's so well put together that you might not even notice what it was for. (The irrelevant pun in "beamy" is perhaps a blemish. Also, I think "which" in line 9 refers back to "providence" although one can parse "which makes that" as "so.") What one particularly admires in these prosy poems of Jonson's is the combination of intricacy and directness -- the word-order here is almost exactly what it would have been in prose, the sentences are draped comfortably over the pentameter framework like a baggy overcoat -- that was so alien to the practice and the taste of Dryden. (This is a story for another time, but I've always felt that this point is related to the aspect of Jonson's practice that Dryden was grousing about when he invented that infamous preposition rule. If you want to spruce up and tighten the poetic line, Jonson's poems are the worst sort of precedent.)

"What one needs is to see over and under one's furniture"

The NYT obituary for Robin Day -- who invented stacking plastic chairs -- has a jarring and somewhat tasteless irony:

The cause of death was colon cancer, said his daughter, Paula Day.
Rare is the human backside that hasn’t found solace and support in Mr. Day’s most famous creation, a molded polypropylene shell fastened to an enameled bent tubular steel base that has become familiar seating in schools, churches, offices, auditoriums, home patios, kitchens, dens, bedrooms and basements around the world.
And solace and support?!

But I was mildly amused by the article's list of British design triumphs: in addition to the Day chair, "the miniskirt, the red phone kiosk, the Concorde supersonic jet and the Mini automobile."

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I hadn't realized that a porpoise was a "porcopiscis, lit. ‘hog-fish’ or ‘fish-hog’" as per the OED. This association of porpoises with pigs is not a one-off either, as the Scots word "mereswine" also refers to porpoises. (There's also a more up-to-date and explicit Scots word "sea-swine," which can refer either to porpoises or to wrasses.) There are also other examples of this like the boar-fish (It. "pesce porco") -- what they all share is snoutedness, or at least the presence of protuberances in the vicinity of the mouth

[This came up in an IM conversation with Marina -- fittingly, there's an obscure classical Latin phrase porcus marinus -- who objected that the front end of a porpoise's face isn't technically a snout as it doesn't have nostrils. I don't know if this is right on the merits; it turns out, however, that "snout" is a ridiculously flexible term, which at various times has meant an elephant's trunk, the prow of a ship, the "front portion or termination of a glacier," and "one or other of various species of moths characterized by having abnormally long palpi projecting in front of the head; esp. the snout-moth, Hypena proboscidalis."]

Saturday, November 6, 2010

"Light, I salute thee, but with wounded nerves"

I expect this picture to become iconic. Certainly the breakthrough it represents is important enough: biologists can now activate individual neurons in a rat's brain with a laser pulse and show that this causes the rat to do something (in this case, get scared and freeze). [The writeup is lucid enough that I won't bother to paraphrase it.] The significance of these techniques is that they could potentially turn neuroscience into a discipline like physics in which one can measure responses to well-defined stimuli: the earlier fMRI work, I think one could fairly say, was more like astronomy in the sense that one mostly looked at correlations between events. The basic advantage of this is that one gets around causation-correlation problems because the causal structure of responses to, e.g., a light pulse is unambiguous. A sort-of-corollary is that data interpretation becomes much less dependent on statistics. Boris Altshuler is reported to have said that if you need statistics to understand your experiment you should make a better experiment; this is hopefully what optogenetics will do for neuroscience.

It is, of course, unlikely that these experiments can or will be performed on humans any time soon; from a scientific point of view, however, this is not an important loss. Humans are pointlessly messy subjects for almost all questions about how the brain works.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Teapocalypse roundup

The election was rather disappointing for obvious reasons. A few more specific thoughts:

1. 538's senate forecasts were not very good. By my count they missed the overall margin by over 6 points in at least 7 of the senate contests and over 8 points in at least six ("at least" b'se I wasn't counting very carefully), which crudely implies they were wrong about a fifth of the time. Alternatively, as many of the states were not toss-ups, one could ask how they did on the tossups: they got Nevada and Alaska completely wrong, Colorado probably wrong, were overconfident about Pennsylvania, and substantially underestimated the winners' margins in California and West Virginia. Their performance looks better if all you consider is the top-line how-many-wins-did-we-get-right number, but this is a stupid figure of merit to look at because most Senate races are practically uncontested. I've never been a fan of Silver's approach -- he tweaks his model far too much, it's too ad hoc and there's tons of overfitting -- and it only seems to work because of (a) the law of large numbers and (b) the fact that most contests are trivial to predict.

1a. However, Silver might be onto something when he observes that the polling in Nevada was way off, and GOP-biased, both last night and in 2008. It is a little appalling that many (most?) reputable pollsters only call landlines; nobody I know has a landline.

2. The Economist's Democracy in America blog is full of truly awful election coverage that exemplifies every pundit mistake political scientists like to mock. I used to sort of enjoy their stuff but "M.S." and "W.W." (i.e., Will Wilkinson) and "E.G." are all pretty worthless.

3. The dumbest California ballot initiatives -- prop. 22, which in effect prevents the state from cutting spending on transportation; and 26, which imposes yet another supermajority requirement for tax hikes -- both passed. These initiatives will evidently help the state balance its budget. (I feel like there was another recent ballot initiative requiring that the state not run deficits, but I might be making this up.) I wonder how openly contradictory these things have to be before they're ruled invalid. [Memo to self: try to avoid working for the UC system.]

4. Brendan Nyhan points to this graph comparing the demographics of the 2006 and 2010 electorates. Apart from the slight uptick in over-65s (due to population aging?) these were quite similar to each other, but noticeably different from the leap-year electorates.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Someone is right on the internet

Deep in the comments thread of this LL post about "untranslatable" words (Schadenfreude, litost, and the like), John Cowan said:
No, none of these are untranslatable. The real untranslatable words are things like hottentottententententoonstelling 'Hottentot tent exhibition'. I mean, you can't just replace that word with its English gloss. You'd have to find something in English with similar impact, and where can you find that? Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and ultramicroscopicosilicovolcanoconiosis just don't cut it.

Or you could go with hard, which cannot be translated into German because in a given context you need one of about 40 German adjectives, of which the only one I remember offhand is alkoholisch.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Read: Atmospheric disturbances, Everyman

I highly recommend Rivka Galchen's novel Atmospheric Disturbances; it falls off near the end as the plot veers into implausibility but the first two-thirds of it is quite compelling. (Hm. Independently, it turns out the Economist also liked the first two-thirds...) It's also beautifully written. The story is about a therapist -- the narrator -- who is convinced that his wife has been replaced by an exact replica of herself; he soon ends up in Argentina exchanging emails with a dead meteorologist and signing up to do a poorly-defined mission for a nonexistent agency in Patagonia. The basic charm of the thing is that it's a horribly sad book but the narrator usually doesn't register the sadnesses -- he's interested mostly in the detective-story end of things, trying to find out where his real wife went, etc. -- and the fact that it's so deadpan saves it from sentimentality and whininess.

I'm ambivalent about Roth's Everyman. It has much of the tediousness of American Pastoral but little of the energy; the writing is limpid but unmemorable, none of the characters really come to life, and a great deal of the novel was evidently written on autopilot if one knows one's Roth. I get that the novel is supposed to be skeletal and schematic like the play, but it just comes off as diluted Roth. Perhaps it is one of those books that you won't like if you have the wrong politics -- a lot of it is a tedious paean to the bourgeoisie that only comes to life at a couple of points, the best of which is the peculiarly resonant scene near the end in which a gravedigger explains the mechanics of grave-digging to Everyman shortly before he dies. There are also a couple of other arresting moments here and there, but not very many.

Friday, October 22, 2010

After the Cleveland School

Lord, thou hast made this world below the shadow of a dream,
An taught by time I tak' it so--exceptin' always steam.
From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see thy hand O God -
Predestination in the stride o' yon connecting rod.

 (Kipling, "M'Andrew's Hymn")

Zach Sachs shared T.J. Clark's essay about "modernism, postmodernism, and steam," which is built around the same ambiguous symbol that Kipling is using here: steam, as an emblem both of evanescence and of machinery, represents the basic tension of modernism, which is between the anarchic individualistic tendency of modern (pre-1945) thought and the contrary, regimenting tendency of industrial life. It is surprising how close the parallels between literature and art are -- when Clark says,
You could say of the purest products of modernism [...] that in them an excess of order interacts with an excess of contingency.

he might as well be talking about Ulysses. (By the way, a point this essay brings home is that WW1 was a very minor part of the story, as most of the currents of modernism had been around for years.) Of course it's much wider than that: earlier this afternoon I was leafing through Russell's History of Western Philosophy at a Borders, looking for a passage about Locke, when I found a very close echo of Clark's thesis in Russell's remarks about how the English empiricists were driven by their arguments, against their natural temperament, to a position of extreme subjectivism that was at odds with the Zeitgeist. 

So, at a minimum, the tension that Clark associates with modernism is at least as old as Hume and Blake. One is tempted to write a long essay about this but it would never actually get written -- I'm too lazy to finish anything -- and the point of this blog is to record my half-digested impressions without worrying about structure etc. So I'm just going to assemble a few notes.

1. Modernism is, of course, one of two successful responses to modernity, the other being Romanticism. Romanticism wasn't a formalist movement in any deep sense; its basic tendency (seen from the modernist end of the telescope) is escapist; still, escapism might be fruitful under some conditions, and it might be that current conditions are better suited to good escapist art than to good formalist art.

2. Related to this, High Modernism was perhaps a decadent movement in Empson's sense that it depended on a tradition that its example was destroying. The best modernist art and literature works largely through unexplained and jarring juxtapositions. The idea always seems to be to force a new emotion into existence by making you think in multiple registers, each with a certain level of vividness, at once. A lot of the juxtapositions only worked while they remained unexpected, i.e., before the first-wave modernists were assimilated. Much of the later work maintains the unexpectedness by stylizing to a degree that makes the tension unimmediate and therefore ineffective. A lot of Pound is no longer readable: the Pound of flesh is now a Pound of maggots. Looking at the pictures that accompany Clark's text, one is tempted to say that something like this must also have happened in the visual arts beginning around Picasso.

3. An excess of contingency is implicit in an excess of form: why that pattern, one could ask, rather than any other? (The number of possibilities grows with the complexity of the pattern.) Had Keats's odes been identical except for being acrostics, we might think them less inevitable. In Clark's terms, Through the Looking Glass is a deeply modernist work, being schematic in the same way as Ulysses and some of the paintings Clark discusses. Victorian writing differs from Modernist writing in lacking the element of direct shock. My sense is that the shock value was primarily about forcing people to look at the work rather than through it, by frustrating their expectations. I don't think this is feasible or interesting at present because the better sort of readers have no expectations at all.  

4. To oversimplify somewhat, the internet has resolved the central tension of modernism; the dominant tendency is currently toward solipsism, and the basic tension is between the world of windowless monads and human nature, which is reluctant to adapt to this world. (The "objective" tendency is represented by neuroscience, which "tells us" that the mind is maladaptive.) So the natural theme of fiction is psychosis, and the struggle to reimagine a reality that is perfectly intelligible on its own terms -- which are Leibniz's -- in ways the mind is at home with. There have, for instance, been several novels lately -- Tom McCarthy's Remainder, Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances (very good!), Richard Powers's Echo Maker (juvenile and lame), etc. -- about characters who are obsessed with the fogeyish notions of authenticity and identity. (The latter two are about people with Capgras syndrome, which (for novelists) is a disorder that leaves you convinced that your family and friends are actually exact replicas of your family and friends.) I wonder if Clark has read these books and what he makes of them.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death and whistles

I. from Xenia, I.
Eugenio Montale

We had planned a whistle
for the hereafter, a sign of recognition.
I try it out in the hope
that we are all dead already without knowing it.

II. Widgeon
Seamus Heaney

It had been badly shot.
While he was plucking it
he found, he says, the voice box--

like a flute stop
in the broken windpipe--

and blew upon it
his own small widgeon cries.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Dotterel, whimbrel, kestrel, scoundrel

The suffix these words share is of such antiquity that the OED is rather tentative in deriving it from the French suffix -eau/elle, an analogous wide-ranging diminutive. The problem is that, whereas some examples like kestrel are straightforward borrowings from Old French, others are not:
Further formations within English on bases not of Romance origin appear in Middle English (e.g. GANGREL n., DOGGEREL adj., DOTTEREL n., MONGREL n., SUCKEREL n.); also, in some cases where the base is of Romance origin, it is uncertain whether the suffixed word was borrowed or formed independently in English (compare COCKEREL n., the equivalent of which is apparently rare in Anglo-Norman and Middle French (Normandy) and not otherwise attested in continental French).

(In many of these cases, even "kestrel," no one knows quite what the current form is a diminutive of.) What the surviving words of this class -- except mongrel -- seem to share is a quaint prettiness, no doubt due to their antiquity, that's nevertheless very disproportionate to what they mean. For instance "whimbrel" meant "little whimperer," and "dotterel" -- the prettiest of the lot -- meant "little dotard," a puzzling name for a bird until you learn that it was "A species of plover (Eudromias morinellus): so called from the apparent simplicity with which it allows itself to be approached and taken." Beyond this it gets messier: e.g., "mackerel" does not have anything to do with "a popular tradition that the mackerel assisted in the sexual activity of the herring" (?!), nor is a scoundrel a little trouble("scunner")-maker. 

By the way, a "ketterel" -- an obscure Scots word meaning "wretch" -- is not to be confused with the eminent physicist, one of many reasons why I'm grateful that my spell-checker does not use the OED.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Drably lyrical realism

James Lever on Franzen (LRB):
the book is, among other things, possibly the most lachrymose novel of modern times. There are, in its 560 pages, 26 separate instances of weeping, not counting the many blinked-back tears or suppressed sobs or ‘Tiny pearls of tear … clinging to her eyelashes’ (a formulation so heartfelt it is recycled from page 421 of The Corrections). Meanwhile the final results for our ensemble have come in: Republican go-getter Joey has seen the error of his ways and become an importer of ethically grown coffee. Jessica is a junior editor at a literary publishing house in Manhattan, excited to be publishing ‘an earnest young novelist’. Patty’s rotten sister Abigail has become a successful art-clown in Italy. Patty’s less rotten sister Veronica is an unappreciated but possibly genius-level painter. Patty works with kids; Walter, one supposes, with birds. Richard, ‘busy and successful’, has just completed ‘one of those avant-garde orchestral thingies for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’ and is currently working on scores for art-house movies. And pretty much everyone lives in New York. Now, that’s how life oughta be! At last the question ‘How to live?’, posed throughout the novel, has been answered: we should live like they do in Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s around now that it may dawn on the reader that Freedom has more in common with Richard’s country-tinged, Grammy-nominated middlebrow hit record than Franzen might have intended. This book is ‘Nameless Lake’.

Freedom, like Netherland, is a book I would presumably finish but that I cannot get excited about. Zadie Smith, writing about Netherland and Remainder a year or two ago, got at part of the drabness of "lyrical realism" of the McEwanesque sort, but, if the passages she quoted (or that Lever quotes from Franzen) really are the purplest at hand, what is surprising is how unlyrical, how lacking in "sharp tender shocks," the writing is, despite its elegance. Perhaps the problem with all these books is their quest for "relevance"; I wish there were more of "the sluggish cream wound curdling spirals through her tea" or at least far less of "I was seized for the first time by a nauseating sense of America, my gleaming adopted country, under the secret actuation of unjust, indifferent powers." Or perhaps the reviewers are doing the book an injustice by picking out those bits.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The necessary angle

There is an obvious joke, which I've never actually heard anyone make, re Schrodinger's cat, the measurement process, and "curiosity killing the cat." (This joke would be vaguely appealing because of the role reversal -- it's the scientist's curiosity that kills the cat -- and would fit very naturally in an elementary discussion of quantum mechanics.)

Tangentially, I wonder what it says about my intellectual seriousness that I sometimes get interested in a problem purely because I can think of an amusing title for a talk about it. I started working on (what I thought were) macroscopic tunneling phenomena in superconducting whiskers because I wanted to give a talk titled "Schrodinger's whiskers." (This has the additional advantage of providing a segue into trapped flux in SQUID-like rings, which of course one can call "quantum handcuffs." In the event, the program sort of petered out.) Recently I've been finding it hard to get interested in problems that would not lead to a talk titled "Fear and loathing in the electron gas."

Monday, September 27, 2010

Snips of Jellyfish

I was planning to blog about Kay Ryan -- one of the three or four living poets whose work I actually care about -- but Paris Review just interviewed her so I can put this off for a while:


How did you come up with what you’ve called recombinant rhyme?
When I started writing nobody rhymed—it was in utter disrepute. Yet rhyme was a siren to me. I had this condition of things rhyming in my mind without my permission. Still I couldn’t take end-rhyme seriously, which meant I had to find other ways—I stashed my rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middles—the front of one word would rhyme with the back of another one, or one word might be identical to three words. In “Turtle,” for instance, I rhyme “afford” with “a four-oared,” referring to a four-oared helmet: “Who would be a turtle who could help it? / A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet, / she can ill afford the chances she must take / in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.” The rhymes are just jumping all around in there, holding everything together. 
What’s recombinant rhyme? It’s like how they add a snip of the jellyfish’s glow-in-the-dark gene to bunnies and make them glow green; by snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem I found I could get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Local color III: coppery keen slaws

This bit from Humphry Clinker is worth excerpting if only for its concreteness.
I am pent up in frowzy lodgings, where there is not room enough to swing a cat; and I breathe the steams of endless putrefaction; and these would, undoubtedly, produce a pestilence, if they were not qualified by the gross acid of sea-coal, which is itself a pernicious nuisance to lungs of any delicacy of texture: but even this boasted corrector cannot prevent those languid, sallow looks, that distinguish the inhabitants of London from those ruddy swains that lead a country-life — I go to bed after midnight, jaded and restless from the dissipations of the day — I start every hour from my sleep, at the horrid noise of the watchmen bawling the hour through every street, and thundering at every door; a set of useless fellows, who serve no other purpose but that of disturbing the repose of the inhabitants; and by five o'clock I start out of bed, in consequence of the still more dreadful alarm made by the country carts, and noisy rustics bellowing green pease under my window. If I would drink water, I must quaff the maukish contents of an open aqueduct, exposed to all manner of defilement; or swallow that which comes from the river Thames, impregnated with all the filth of London and Westminster — Human excrement is the least offensive part of the concrete, which is composed of all the drugs, minerals, and poisons, used in mechanics and manufacture, enriched with the putrefying carcasses of beasts and men; and mixed with the scourings of all the wash-tubs, kennels, and common sewers, within the bills of mortality.

This is the agreeable potation, extolled by the Londoners, as the finest water in the universe — As to the intoxicating potion, sold for wine, it is a vile, unpalatable, and pernicious sophistication, balderdashed with cyder, corn-spirit, and the juice of sloes. In an action at law, laid against a carman for having staved a cask of port, it appeared from the evidence of the cooper, that there were not above five gallons of real wine in the whole pipe, which held above a hundred, and even that had been brewed and adulterated by the merchant at Oporto. The bread I eat in London, is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum, and bone-ashes; insipid to the taste, and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration — but they prefer it to wholesome bread, because it is whiter than the meal of corn: thus they sacrifice their taste and their health, and the lives of their tender infants, to a most absurd gratification of a mis-judging eye; and the miller, or the baker, is obliged to poison them and their families, in order to live by his profession. The same monstrous depravity appears in their veal, which is bleached by repeated bleedings, and other villainous arts, till there is not a drop of juice left in the body, and the poor animal is paralytic before it dies; so void of all taste, nourishment, and savour, that a man might dine as comfortably on a white fricassee of kid-skin gloves; or chip hats from Leghorn.
As they have discharged the natural colour from their bread, their butchers-meat, and poultry, their cutlets, ragouts, fricassees and sauces of all kinds; so they insist upon having the complexion of their potherbs mended, even at the hazard of their lives. Perhaps, you will hardly believe they can be so mad as to boil their greens with brass halfpence, in order to improve their colour; and yet nothing is more true — Indeed, without this improvement in the colour, they have no personal merit. They are produced in an artificial soil, and taste of nothing but the dunghills, from whence they spring. My cabbage, cauliflower, and 'sparagus in the country, are as much superior in flavour to those that are sold in Covent-garden, as my heath-mutton is to that of St James's-market; which in fact, is neither lamb nor mutton, but something betwixt the two, gorged in the rank fens of Lincoln and Essex, pale, coarse, and frowzy — As for the pork, it is an abominable carnivorous animal, fed with horse-flesh and distillers' grains; and the poultry is all rotten, in consequence of a fever, occasioned by the infamous practice of sewing up the gut, that they may be the sooner fattened in coops, in consequence of this cruel retention.
Of the fish, I need say nothing in this hot weather, but that it comes sixty, seventy, fourscore, and a hundred miles by land-carriage; a circumstance sufficient without any comment, to turn a Dutchman's stomach, even if his nose was not saluted in every alley with the sweet flavour of fresh mackarel, selling by retail. This is not the season for oysters; nevertheless, it may not be amiss to mention, that the right Colchester are kept in slime-pits, occasionally overflowed by the sea; and that the green colour, so much admired by the voluptuaries of this metropolis, is occasioned by the vitriolic scum, which rises on the surface of the stagnant and stinking water — Our rabbits are bred and fed in the poulterer's cellar, where they have neither air nor exercise, consequently they must be firm in flesh, and delicious in flavour; and there is no game to be had for love or money.
It must be owned, the Covent-garden affords some good fruit; which, however, is always engrossed by a few individuals of overgrown fortune, at an exorbitant price; so that little else than the refuse of the market falls to the share of the community; and that is distributed by such filthy hands, as I cannot look at without loathing. It was but yesterday that I saw a dirty barrow-bunter in the street, cleaning her dusty fruit with her own spittle; and, who knows but some fine lady of St James's parish might admit into her delicate mouth those very cherries, which had been rolled and moistened between the filthy, and, perhaps, ulcerated chops of a St Giles's huckster — I need not dwell upon the pallid, contaminated mash, which they call strawberries; soiled and tossed by greasy paws through twenty baskets crusted with dirt; and then presented with the worst milk, thickened with the worst flour, into a bad likeness of cream: but the milk itself should not pass unanalysed, the produce of faded cabbage-leaves and sour draff, lowered with hot water, frothed with bruised snails, carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings, discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco-quids from foot passengers, overflowings from mud carts, spatterings from coach wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys for the joke's sake, the spewings of infants, who have slabbered in the tin-measure, which is thrown back in that condition among the milk, for the benefit of the next customer; and, finally, the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture, under the respectable denomination of milk-maid.
I shall conclude this catalogue of London dainties, with that table-beer, guiltless of hops and malt, vapid and nauseous; much fitter to facilitate the operation of a vomit, than to quench thirst and promote digestion; the tallowy rancid mass, called butter, manufactured with candle grease and kitchen stuff; and their fresh eggs, imported from France and Scotland.

[NB The "bills of mortality" is a wonderful synecdoche metonym for London. Would be curious to know of any equivalent contemporary phrases. "Within the police blotter" is almost apt for Champaign nowadays but seems unlikely to catch on.]

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sheridan; the blush as local color

I read the usual Restoration plays in an edition that introduced them as clever but heartless precursors of Sheridan and Goldsmith, and now I've read Sheridan's plays in an edition that insinuates that they are bowdlerized and insipid descendants of Restoration drama. (Why don't people edit books they like?) I'm more sympathetic to the latter point of view, at least re Sheridan; Goldsmith is a different kettle of fish altogether, and not Restoration-like at all. (Sheridan, it appears, actually bowdlerized Vanbrugh's Relapse to make it acceptable to a 1760s audience.) Both The Rivals and The School for Scandal are comedies of manners; the plots -- e.g., man woos idiosyncratic woman with comic aunt -- are very much in the mold of Congreve and Wycherley. The plots are clever enough, but both plays are short on spirit and edge; the characters are pretty blah, though I imagine a good actor could make them come to life, and the dialogue, despite stunts like Mrs. Malaprop's malapropisms, never gets off the ground. In general these plays are what one would expect of period pieces -- unlike The Country Wife, which is entirely contemporary.

The difference, it seems, lies in the smut. Are plays without explicit sexual references ipso facto quaint? There's something appealingly reductive about this notion, and it certainly is quite hard to find sexually explicit ancient texts that are boring. I'd venture an alternative explanation, though, which is that the basic dramatic tension in the comedy of manners -- the horror of being cast out of the loop -- depends on social existence being a bit of a tightrope-walk, which requires a degree of cruelty and willingness to ostracize on the part of the "men of sense" (as ostracism would otherwise be empty) as well as a degree of objective danger (as the men of sense must appear sensible). Sheridan's tendencies deprecated the former; the age's conventions prevented the latter, and one is left, in the end, with two halfhearted plays that were unable -- unlike She Stoops to Conquer -- to create a genre to match their temperament.

The School for Scandal is interesting and flawed in the way that Auden found Twelfth Night interesting and flawed: a few of the characters -- in this case, Sir Peter Teazle; in the other, Viola -- exist at the wrong level of seriousness, and intrude rather damagingly into the fabric of the play. Sir Peter is an old man who has married a young woman who is about to start an affair with his hypocritical ward who's "gulled" Sir Peter; in a Restoration play this would have been a purely comic part, but Sheridan lacks the heartlessness to make it work, and there is an entirely jarring degree of pathos to the scenes in which Sir Peter appears -- jarring because he is so much more "real" than the others; because his presence critiques and undermines the scandalmongers; because it is clear that in Sheridan's view the entire "school for scandal" is at some level out-of-date and irrelevant, like the women in Pope:

As hags hold Sabbaths, less for joy than spite,
So these their merry, miserable night.
Still round and round the ghosts of beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their honor died.

And because these facts let the air out of the main action of the play: if sensible people are indifferent to scandal, the activities of scandalmongers can only be so important; but if so almost everything that happens in the play is insignificant.

I should say that by contrast The Critic is an entirely admirable and very funny play, much better than its Restoration model The Rehearsal.

Flat-nose and Horse-thrift

James Davidson has a delightful article in the LRB about Greek names. You should read the whole thing; I wanted to flag this bit, though:
The most famous account of intentionality in Greek naming comes from Aristophanes’ Clouds; Strepsiades explains how he wanted to call his son Pheidonides (‘Of the Line of Thrift’) but his posh wife wanted a Hippos-name to evoke upper-class horsemanship and chariots. So they ended up with Pheidippides. That name (‘Of the line of Thrifty with Horses’?), shared with the famous long-distance runner of Marathon, shows that although the elements of a name might be transparent they might not necessarily make sense when combined.

Of course, sparing-with-horses was a sensible name, to the point of being bizarrely apt, for the guy who ran the original marathon. It is reminiscent of the kinds of things that pop up in Old English poetry, which consists almost entirely of litotes, kennings, and compound epithets. Or the Icelandic sagas -- cf. the habit of calling blood "dark beer," or saying, e.g.,
"He twisted the tail of his cloak around Thorbjorn's throat and bit through it, then snapped his head back, breaking his neck. With such rough treatment Thorbjorn quietened down considerably."
(Not to mention that the Laxdaela saga begins with a guy called Ketil Flat-nose; the Gk. for flat-nose, "Simon," is cross-culturally popular as a name for upper-class twits.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gerund Zero

My initial reaction to this Language Log post about gerunds/participles was that it was imagining an ambiguity where none actually exists. I can't remember ever having been puzzled about whether a particular -ing construction was a gerund or a participle; it's generally clear, and (as some of the commenters said) it seems useful to have different names for the noun-functions and the adjective-functions of a given -ing construction.

Upon reflection, however, I've come around a little to MYL's point of view -- gerunds are not, as a rule, echt nouns. This becomes clear when you try to modify them: consider, e.g.,
(a) "Drinking continuously is a good idea" vs. (b) "Continuous drinking..."

These are both essentially idiomatic constructions to my ear; however, if drinking really were a noun, (a) should sound ridiculous. In fact there are probably instances, like "Going on endlessly about grammar will lose you friends," where you really need the adverbial form, though on a traditional parse "going" is a noun qua gerund. The fact that adverbs can modify gerunds appears quite general to constructions with gerunds in them; and -- to my mind -- offers very strong evidence that gerunds are not to be treated as true nouns. (Obviously the entire phrase is still functioning as a noun; the ambiguity is about the order of operations, as one can noun the verb either before or after adding the qualifier, and depending on what one does first the qualifier is either an adjective or an adverb.)

Some constructions w/ gerunds are of course a lot more noun-like than others -- definitely a pluralized gerund is an echt noun. But they do seem to occupy a bizarre syntactic middle ground, along with infinitives and other similar beasts.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The wages of rudeness

Google analytics has started collecting site traffic data; I was amused to find that the two leading non-obvious searches (i.e., other than my name, the blog's name, or a specific poem) that lead here are for "malcolm gladwell is an idiot" (which leads here) and "ezra klein is a hack" (which leads to this STOATUSblog post). Not "asshole loser fame" by any means, but this suggests a more replicable approach to picking up readers. Look out for "Dan Brown is an imbecile," "David Foster Wallace is a moron," "David Brooks is a douchebag," and other bouts of biliousness.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Borges and Local Color

What's odd about Borges's Personal Anthology is how boring it is relative to his collected works. Borges explains in a preface that he's left out stories that were "superficial exercises in local color" (or something like that); what remain are bland and repetitive statements of certain metaphysical positions -- about infinity and idealism and such -- that obviously meant a great deal to Borges but are trite as philosophy. A good example of the sort of thing Borges seems to have liked in later life is "The Other Tiger"; for all I know it's a good poem in Spanish but in translation one finds it drab and obvious. A good example of the sort of thing he did not like is "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius."

I wonder if this is due in part to Borges (mistakenly) comparing himself to Kafka. Jonathan Mayhew has a delightful post likening the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare to a story by Borges or James or Kafka. I would be much more specific: such a story would have been at home among Borges's Ficciones but has very little to do with Kafka. I am not sure, either, that a reader who knew Borges exclusively through the Personal Anthology would have perceived the accuracy of this comparison, as none of the "notes on imaginary books" are in it. It seems to me quite inaccurate to bracket Kafka with Borges at all. Kafka's novels can be understood in textbook modernist terms, as being rather like Macbeth -- successful attempts to find objective correlatives for a certain set of feelings, a certain sense the isolated mind has of its relation to the world. This will not work with Borges as the stories aren't mood-driven. A Kafkaesque situation is a nightmare; a Borgesian situation is an artifact.

The Borges stories I like best (other than the enjoyable but silly stuff in A Universal History of Iniquity) are the notes on imaginary books and two later stories, "The South" and "Averroes' Search," which come off for reasons that might be fortuitous. The general problem with writing "philosophical" literature, as Eliot remarks, is that the philosophy has to be realized -- fleshed out, peopled, colonized -- for the enterprise to work. (One should make an exception for purely frivolous uses, like the Hitchhiker's Guide.) A lot of Borges stories, like "The Circular Ruins," are bad b'se insufficiently real. In later work like "The Aleph," concreteness coexists uncomfortably with philosophical notions, but the philosophy comes off as an exotic and unjustified plot device. But in Tlon, "Pierre Menard" etc., idealism finds an odd but satisfying local habitation in names. Like Swinburne's poems (insert more Eliot here) these stories seem to indicate that there are other worlds than the physical one that are rich and irregular enough to "inhabit" or "realize" ideas in: the world of words and literature, in particular. I wonder, though, if the truth isn't simpler: these stories depend for effect largely on the ability of language to refract ordinary objects, say the moon, "into something rich and strange" -- all literature does, I think -- and lose their charm when there aren't any objects to be looked at. I've expressed vaguely similar sentiments about Stevens in the past, the good bits of his poems are the half-distinct, dazzling images seen out of the corner of the eye, while he's going on about something or other. This is probably a somewhat heretical opinion.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Afterthought on emergence and limits

See this post for context.

A "universality class" is a basin of attraction, i.e., it consists of the set of microscopic models that coarse-grain to a particular fixed point. Universality classes are, of course, equivalence classes -- of sequences of models that coarse-grain similarly. This structure is to some extent analogous to the set-theoretic construction of real numbers from rational numbers (i.e., pairs of integers): a real number x "is" an equivalence class of Cauchy sequences of rationals (i.e., all sequences that converge to x). The analogy is admittedly not very good: the reals have binary operations on them, etc., whereas there isn't really anything analogous for models. However, I think it is good enough to get at the main point: viz. that when one talks about the properties of the set of equivalence classes of rational numbers, one is doing a different sort of mathematics from the theory of rational numbers: the theory is defined on a different set, so very different sorts of things are true -- reduction to lowest terms in one case, the extreme value theorem in the other -- and the "reduction" of one theory to the other is a reduction of analysis, not to number theory, but to number theory plus set theory. It is also well-understood in the mathematical case that the reduction is not useful in that it doesn't help you prove theorems about the reals; its only potential use is in consistency proofs (which are anyhow precluded by Godel's theorems).

A similar statement seems to be true in physics -- the theory of fixed points is a theory of equivalence classes of sequences of models; this is not a reduction of many-body physics to particle physics but rather to particle physics plus set theory on renormalization group flows. The clumpy, highly classified, scale-invariant space of macroscopic objects is not like the relatively smooth landscape of parameters allowed by the standard model (or the "landscape" in string theory): the reduction is "useless" in the same sense as above. This is closely connected to the intuitive point that coarse-graining doesn't preserve distances in parameter space (two very similar microscopic theories can have very different macroscopic limits, etc.), which is why microscopic theories do not constitute explanations of macroscopic phenomena. Batterman is, I think, correct to try to find more formal and precise ways of saying this than just saying that it's a "useful idealization" to think of emergent phenomena as existing -- while strictly speaking this is all that one can say, "useful" is an ambiguous word, and it is worth emphasizing, I think, that emergent phenomena are "useful idealizations" in the same way as real numbers are useful idealizations of the way we talk about rational numbers.

Although I don't understand the holographic principle terribly well, I should note John McGreevy's claim that the (d + 1)-dimensional holographic dual of a d-dimensional model can be understood as a stack of d-dimensional slices of the model at various stages under the renormalization group. (The d+1 dimensional universe has two boundaries: a surface corresponding to the original model, and a point corresponding to its fixed point.) I suspect that this only really works for the "AdS"-like models, which don't describe the large-scale structure of our universe, but it would be neat if the renormalization group had a "physical" interpretation.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Emergence and limits

If you haven't read it yet, I recommend Batterman's article on the philosophical connection between emergent phenomena and singularities. It is nice to have philosophers taking the renormalization-group idea seriously, as this idea has had an enormous impact on how physics is done and interpreted by physicists -- at least by theorists -- but hasn't made it to the pop physics books or the undergraduate curriculum. Batterman correctly observes that physicists understand emergent phenomena in terms of the renormalization group, that the renormalization group concept needs limits (like that of infinite system size) to be made precise, and that the limits lead to singularities; he goes on to make what I think are some misleading statements about the interpretation of singularities. In this post I'll try to run through the usual argument and explain how I think the singularities ought to be interpreted.

I understand emergent phenomena in terms of the following analogy. Suppose you drop a ball onto a hilly landscape with friction, and ask where it will end up a very long time later. The answer is evidently one of the equilibrium points, i.e., a summit, a saddle point, or (most likely) a valley. Two further points to be made here: (1) It does not matter where on the hillside the ball started out; it'll roll to the bottom of the hill. In other words, very different initial conditions often lead to the same long-time behavior. (2) It matters very much which side of the summit the ball started out on; small differences in initial conditions can lead to very different long-time behavior. So what constitutes an "explanation" of the properties of the ball (say its response to being poked) a long time after its release? One possible answer is that, because mechanics is deterministic, once you've described the initial position and velocity you've "explained" everything about the long-time behavior. However, this is unsatisfactory because point (1) implies that most of this "explanation" would be irrelevant, and point (2) implies that the inevitable fuzziness of one's knowledge of initial conditions could lead to radically indeterminate answers. A better answer would be that the explanation naturally divides into two parts: (a) a description of the properties (curvature etc.) of the equilibrium points, and (b) the (generally intractable) question of which basin-of-attraction the ball started out in. In particular, part (a) on its own suffices to classify all possible long-time behaviors; it reduces a very large number of questions (what does the ball smell like? at what speed would it oscillate or roll off if gently poked?) to a single question -- approximately where is it? (Approximate position typically implies exact position in the long-time limit, except if there are flat valleys.)

"Emergent" (or "universal") phenomena are descriptions of equilibrium points, i.e., answers to part (a) of the question. The renormalization group concept is the notion that the large-scale behavior of a many-body system is like the long-time behavior of a ball in a frictional landscape, in the sense that it is governed by certain "fixed points," which can be classified, and that theories of these fixed points suffice to describe the large-scale properties of anything. So, for instance, there are three states of matter rather than infinitely many. The analogue of time is the length-scale on which you investigate the properties of the system -- as you go from a description in terms of interacting atoms to one in terms of interacting blobs and so on -- and the analogue of the "loss of information" via friction is the fact that you're averaging over larger and larger agglomerations of stuff. (All of this is quite closely related to the central limit theorem.)

The role of infinite limits in the former case is obvious: if you start the ball very close to the top of the hill (where, let's say, the slope is vanishingly small), it'll take a very long time to roll off. So the fixed-point idea only really works if you wait infinitely long. However, it's also obvious that if you wait a really really long time and the ball hasn't reached its equilibrium, this is because it is near another equilibrium; so the equilibrium description becomes arbitrarily good at arbitrarily long times. (This is of course just the usual real-analysis way of talking about infinities.) The infinite-system-size limit is precisely analogous: while it only strictly works in the infinite-size limit, this "infinity" is not a pathology but is to be interpreted in the usual finitist way -- given epsilon > 0 etc. Epsilon-delta statements are true regardless of how far the series is from convergence, but they grow increasingly vacuous and useless as epsilon increases; something similar is true with dynamical systems and the renormalization group.

I should explain what this has to do with fractals, by the way. In the case of the ball, a fixed point is defined as a configuration that is invariant under the equations of motion; in the case of the many-body system, a fixed point is a configuration that is invariant under a change of scale, i.e., a fractal. A continuum object is, of course, a trivial kind of fractal; you can't see the graininess of it without a microscope, and it doesn't seem to have any other scale than the size of its container. Systems near phase transitions are sometimes nontrivial fractals -- e.g., helium at the superfluid transition is a fractal network of droplets of superfluid in a bath of normal fluid, or vice versa. Phase transition points, btw, correspond to ridges; if you move slightly away from them, you "flow" into one phase or the other. The association between unstable equilibria and nontrivial fractals is not an accident. Any departure from the nontrivial fractal (say in the helium case) leads to either superfluid or normal fluid preponderating at large scales; if you average on a sufficiently large scale the density of droplets of the minority phase goes to zero, and you end up in one trivial phase or the other.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Read: Evelina

I was talking about Trollope with a well-known physicist last year -- he's a fan, I'm not -- when one of his grad students, who didn't speak much English and hadn't been listening, burst in with "What's a trollop?" I explained that a trollop was a prostitute, whereas A. Trollope was a novelist. Said Trollope fan was outraged at my quip that there are no good English novels between Persuasion and Ulysses (qua novels, that is; Dickens has a lot of virtues, but construction is not among them). Having read Middlemarch, I suppose I have to revise this opinion, which is sad because it was snappy and easily stated.

The Trollope fan also claimed that Fanny Burney's Evelina was superior to Tom Jones; I have now dutifully read it, and concluded that my Trollope problem is that I just don't much care for novelists who aren't eyecatching prose stylists. While neither Trollope or Burney would begin a novel with "Ingenuous debutante Evelina Anville crumpled behind a bush, having been bludgeoned by notable libertine Lord Merton," they aren't Joyce, and the temptation to skim is often overwhelming. Evelina has a lot of nice satirical touches -- esp. the heroine's stay with her bourgeois relatives in London, her reactions to their "vulgarity," and her extreme embarrassment whenever she runs into aristocratic acquaintances -- and is also very good, in ways that anticipate Austen, on how class distinctions and crushes interact. On the whole, though, it doesn't come off. One of the problems is that the same three aristocrats keep popping up absolutely everywhere, which gives the aristocracy the sense of a claustrophobic little club, and acts at cross purposes with the rest of the plot (which is about an ingenue in the big world). Another is that the posh people don't talk credibly; only the "broad," dialect-speaking characters do. A third is the role of "Sir Clement Willoughby" (btw, the names are not clever at all, another stylistic limitation) who is a rival suitor, a seducer, and, more often than not, a plot device. Mostly, though, it's the drab functional nature of the prose, which is a far cry from Fielding or Smollett; while this was inevitable to some extent in a novel written as a young woman's letters -- "it would be odd for a six-year-old girl to display the character of Winston Churchill" -- (a) that's arguably a statement that the novel was poorly conceived, (b) an easy fix, in this case, would have been to include letters written by the other characters, a la Smollett.