Monday, June 13, 2011


Strange how natural it is to lower one's expectations, to the point that even a late and disappointing end to a project counts as an "accomplishment," at least the mind insists on treating it as such; even successful damage control occasions a degree of self-congratulation. Perhaps basking is just an excuse for laziness. Anyway, a paper that I should have completed two months ago will finally be sent out today (at 3:01 pm, re  which see here); and I've put together a talk for DAMOP, though not the accompanying paper. I'll be in Atlanta tomorrow through Friday and don't expect to blog much. (Email access might also be limited, not sure about this.) A few miscellaneous notes for the time being:

1. I recently discovered the enormous utility of the term "account" in technical physics writing. Unlike most of its synonyms ("description," "explanation," "theory," "claim") it is not standard physics jargon, so has no connotations whatsoever and can be used to refer to other people's work without implying anything at all about it. It is even better than treatment, the only real competitor, which implies that the cited work did something more than (e.g.) hand-waving/speculation. "Account" is especially good when you're citing papers you haven't read beyond the abstract and conclusions. (Physics has accelerated the "deterioration process" of my writing; at this rate I'll soon become entirely unable to start a sentence without "hence" and/or "furthermore.")

2. Speaking of physics jargon I am a big fan of this abstract ("away from the decoupling limit the Hamiltonian constraint is maintained at least up to and including quartic order in nonlinearities, hence excluding the possibility of the Boulware-Deser ghost up to this order").

3. Calista has been doing Spenser, which is great because it means I don't have to. The best find so far is the etymology of the word "blatant," which was apparently a Spenserian coinage. There is a "blatant beast" in the Faerie Queene, a many-tongued monster, which later came to mean babbling (re a person), then clamorous (re a person), and then finally clamorous (re a fact). OED sensibly dismisses the suggestion that "blatant" comes from the Scots for "bleating" (this is Spenser after all) and notes that as it was originally often written "blattant" the a would have been short at first. I assume that there is some connection here with the "couchant lions" etc. in heraldry...

4. Finally a note re Chomskygate and associated matters. (This should be a long post on its own but I don't feel like writing it.) What Chomsky supposedly said:
derided researchers in machine learning who use purely statistical methods to produce behavior that mimics something in the world, but who don't try to understand the meaning of that behavior. Chomsky compared such researchers to scientists who might study the dance made by a bee returning to the hive, and who could produce a statistically based simulation of such a dance without attempting to understand why the bee behaved that way. "That's a notion of [scientific] success that's very novel. I don't know of anything like it in the history of science," said Chomsky. 

See also Language Log. I think there are three issues here that are at least partly separable. (1) Computers and their role in "understanding," e.g., does having a computer-generated "proof" of a theorem in mathematics imply that the theorem is "understood"? (See, e.g., Doron Zeilberger. I don't know these proofs well enough to have an opinion.) (2) Phenomenology and "microfoundations" -- is it OK to base a model on phenomenological observations or should all true explanations be reductions to first principles? Chomsky seems to hold the latter view; I disagree, at least partly on the grounds that there are typically a lot of "first-principles" models that agree on large-scale properties, so that it is misleading at best to say that a first principles model explains patterns seen in large-scale data. It is worth noting, though, that if you hold Chomsky's view on reduction, then it is true that most work in the field is irrelevant: if one wanted to understand underlying principles one would want to construct experiments (or at least clever natural experiments) that isolated certain aspects of linguistic behavior, not try to model the entire thing. (3) "What is science?" This is one of those bad questions like "what is poetry?" A discipline is either a defensible expenditure of intellect and resources or not, just as a piece of writing is either rewarding to read or not. The trouble with a question like "is this science/poetry?" is that it inevitably conflates the Q. of worthwhileness with the unrelated Q. of whether X resembles the members of some predefined set.

5. Andrew O'Hagan, Seamus Heaney, and Karl Miller tour Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. (Why didn't they do Cornwall?) I was amused to learn from the article that Lesmahagow is an actual place in Scotland (cf.) and also by Hugh MacDiarmid's sheep-inspired terms for Scottish weather:
Hugh MacDiarmid had a feeling for the freezing lives of sheep, and he resurrected, or to some extent invented, the words that would capture the rude nature of the Scottish snowstorm, calling it the ‘yowdendrift’, when snow is blown across the fields at speed, or the ‘yow-trummle’, the ewe-tremble, when the shorn animals are seen to shiver and quake as they catch their death.


Calista said...

The flourishing of "blatant" seems especially satisfying since the B.B. himself is said to be threatening the poem at the end of Book VI (I guess this happens all over the place -- in At Swim-Two-Birds, for instance -- but it never fails to please).

Also memorable: the bit in VI about Serena and the cannibals, which I lack corage to post; and the attempt in IV to finish the Squire's Tale (do you think he has a thing for Chaucer's unfinished tales?).

Sarang said...

Wasn't Spenser's use of anachronistic diction meant as a deliberate homage to the medievals? (Which would explain the desire to finish the undone Tales. But I'm rusty on this and might be completely off base.) Btw "blattant" is not that far from "blottant," so maybe that's what S. meant...?

(Ellipses + question mark = interrowhimper)