Monday, January 31, 2011

Iceland spar as "mythical sunstone"?

Via Matt P, Nature News has a story about some Swedish scientists who think the Vikings might have used light-polarizing crystals like Iceland spar to estimate the location of the sun on overcast days. Apparently there's a bit in one of the sagas where a character Olaf "grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible Sun." So maybe Olaf had a block of calcite in his Viking-precursor-forerunner-of-the-pocket:
Scattering by air molecules in the atmosphere causes sunlight to become polarized, with the line of polarization tangential to circles centred on the Sun. So Ramskou argued that by holding a crystal such as calcite up to the sky and rotating it to check the direction of polarization of the light passing through it, the Vikings could have deduced the position of the Sun, even when it was hidden behind clouds or fog, or was just beneath the horizon.
The obvious -- and probably fatal -- objection is that there's no real evidence the Vikings actually had sunstones; the sagas are not reliable on this sort of issue. But this story sounds pretty plausible to me; looking at the sky through bits of transparent stuff is the sort of thing one would do.

Peregrine pickles, comic crits, Johnsoniana

1. Charmingly my trip to Virginia this Wed. will coincide with the tail end of an area-wide two-day snowstorm. I'm flying out of O'Hare which can only make things worse... though getting to O'Hare might in fact be the greater challenge. In a sensible world, one might expect the trains to be less affected than the buses, but Amtrak in the Midwest is always unreliable.

1'. At least the "wintry mix," which started about half an hour ago, has been snow rather than ice so far. Update Nope it's ice pellets now.

2. Via Mary Roach on twitter, a new blog of note: Comic Crits does comic-strip book reviews that are -- so far at least -- quite good.

2'. John Bonner, the Comic Critic, is from Marblehead, MA. This place name is, I suspect, associated with why I always misremember a line from Lowell's "Quaker Graveyard" poem as "light / flashed from his marble head and matted feet."

3. In the early days of The Economist's language blog, Johnson, the founding members realized that there was, well, an ambiguity in the title. The blog has tended to live up to its ambiguous title, with "deniable" dick jokes being a recurring theme that you have to be a regular reader to pick up on. Often they're pretty sly; for instance, you might not have realized that today's post titled "astronomically inadequate" was one of these if you hadn't been paying attention.

4. There is a literary device, which I associate with "Arrested Development" and Gail Collins's columns, in which a detail that had seemed accidental, or a throwaway joke, is suddenly revealed to be an essential part of the plot. Buster getting maimed by a loose seal is I think the defining example of this genre, which for want of a better term I call the "loose seal." With Kenner's monograph on rhyme at the back of one's mind, one is tempted to think of this as being analogous to a comic rhyme of the "vacancy/they can see" kind, but this analogy breaks down because you know exactly when the rhyme is going to happen with its attendant satisfying click. In the loose seal, something that you didn't expect to click into place suddenly does so. I believe this is a comic analogue of a Virgilian/Proustian effect that Kenner discusses:

Virgil’s little local intricacies of sound seem akin to rhymes the moment after we have heard them. Having had no reason to expect a consonance, we notice it just when it has gone by. This effect […] is used so discreetly it whets no special appetite for itself; in our experience of the Aeneid it lies always in the immediate past, as indeed for Virgil all good things tend to do.
There is something Proustian in this gratification for which there is no craving, perceived only when it is over. Milton himself when he composed Lycidas meant that we should enjoy the expectation of rhymes without ever knowing when they were going to occur.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

"And one kitchen blender" -- miscellanea

1. Get away from it all at the Wild Ass Homestay in Tibet. If you're lucky your expenses might be paid by the Ass Meat Research Group. (The comments on the latter post are quite good. See also here for an explanation.)

1'. In Wild Ass comments, Victor Mair mentions that "dashlar/tashlar" are Turkic words for "stone." (This looks like a mix-up, I think he meant to comment on this other -- fascinating but less "neat" -- post.) There is an apparent cognate in Beijing dialect, and Mair speculates on possible Turkic influence... but of course what came first to my mind was the English word "ashlar" for paving stones, which -- although its etymology isn't satisfying -- derives from previous English words for "axle" and such and has nothing to do with Turkic.

2. Slate has an interesting and gross article -- the kind that belongs in a Mary Roach book -- about fecal transplants as a cure for recurrent intestinal diseases that arise when antibiotics kill off almost all the bacteria in your intestines and the surviving (mostly evil) ones proliferate in the resulting bacterial vacuum.
And then there's the do-it-yourself crowd. All you need is a bottle of saline, a 2-quart enema bag, and one standard kitchen blender. Mike Silverman, a University of Toronto physician who wrote up a guide to homespun fecal transplants for the journal Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, says it's entirely safe to do the procedure this way

3. Via Jeremy, a clever article in the latest issue of Science explains how one can make "isotopes of hydrogen" that are substantially heavier than tritium. The idea is to replace one of the electrons in helium-4 with a muon, which is basically similar to an electron but much heavier. The muon, being much heavier, orbits much closer to the nucleus than the electron does (it is more "classical" and has less spread), so the electron effectively sees a nucleus that's got one positive charge but the mass of (say) a helium-4 atom.

4. I have been meaning to post/link to this William Dunbar poem for some time now. If you can read Late Middle Scots or tolerate looking at the glossary, it is a wonderful bit of work... it is also notable, among other things, for being (a) the first OED entry for "fuck" and (b) the only poem that had to be expurgated from library editions of Auden's Book of Light Verse. Though technically in Scots dialect it's mostly in baby-talk and onomatopoeia:
Quod he: "My kid, my capirculyoun,
My bony baib with the ruch brylyoun,
My tendir gyrle, my wallie gowdye,
My tyrlie myrlie, my crowdie mowdie,
Quhone that oure mouthis dois meit at ane,
My stang dois storkyn with your towdie:
Ye brek my hairt, my bony ane."

5. John Quiggin's musings on the Egypt question are somewhat thought-provoking:
The idea that the US can legitimately use its military power to ensure continued access to oil resources rests, in large measure, on the (not entirely unfounded) assumption that those controlling the resources are a bunch of sheikhs and military adventurers who happened to be in the right place, with guns, at the right time. Without the Arab exception, the idea of oil as a special case, not subject to the ordinary assumption that resources are the property of the people in whose country they are found, will also be hard to sustain.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Rotting oranges, used tissues and odd socks"

Maybe Empson and Auden are my favorite literary personalities because I can "identify" (dread word!) with their lifestyles. For instance, here is Frank Kermode reviewing a biography of Empson:
His victims were usually confident that his habits in controversy were in some measure aspects of a more general eccentricity: the strangled, oddly inflected voice or voices, the peculiar beard, the use of drink to lubricate all argument, to get something started. [...] Money worries in the final years required him to spend time at American universities, teaching, lecturing, and reinforcing his reputation for bizarre or clownish behaviour. A colleague at Penn State notes that ‘he went back at night to a place full of rotting oranges, used tissues and odd socks’, and records that ‘he once, for some minutes, watched my neighbour’s door lamp through my telescope, thinking it Mars.’ Dining with Marshall McLuhan, ‘I thought I had to explain to him that he was worshipping the devil, being a Roman Catholic. It was at his own dinner table, but the ladies had gone for their pee, so it wasn’t really rude.’ On a visit to Harvard he was ‘truculent and contradictory’ towards Richards.

There is something heartening about all the drunkenness and especially the squalor. (Remember the Auden martini?) Both W.E. and W.H.A. had Robert Lowell as a gleeful describer of their living habits; Kermode quotes Lowell on Empson:
Not that conditions in their Hampstead house were very different from those of the Sheffield ‘burrow’ – they were described by Robert Lowell as having ‘a weird, sordid nobility’
And there is a wonderful passage in one of Lowell's letters to Elizabeth Bishop -- collected in Words in Air, which btw is a must-read, but is in storage like most of my other books -- on Auden's Manhattan parties. (I find it interesting how much more natural it seems for nobility to be sordid than to be, say, hygienic: is it that we associate the aristocracy with decline or that we associate it with antiquity, which is automatically dirty [1]?  Empson is very "gentry" -- the legend has pushed this angle, referring to him as a squire etc. And isn't there a thing about bad teeth as well?)

I went back to the Kermode articles because Empson's been "in the news" lately, at least to the extent that my feed represents "the news" -- first of all there was that Michael Wood article on True Grit:
If traditional pastoral often idealises the simple life, it never quite chases the shadows of cruelty and corruption away, and what William Empson called the trick of simplification was always the thing. The mode kept remembering what it was ostensibly getting rid of.

The "trick of simplification" is a notion I'd like to associate with Empson's prehistory as a mathematician though I'm not sure this is right; certainly the Pastoral book is preoccupied with a kind of structural question that lends itself to "modeling," and I have sometimes wondered whether what one does as a theoretical physicist isn't related to pastoral in the sense that, instead of attacking a complex and idiosyncratic problem directly, one takes an entirely different, heavily simplified, and more "conventional" situation, treats it, and points out that the relations between certain entities in the original problem and the (asserted-to-be) analogous ones in the simplified one are -- unexpectedly as it were -- the same [2]. Mathematics is in this telling the individual or collective unconscious; it has many of the right properties for this role, and I suppose one can think of complex things like the weather as perversions of some submerged mathematical inclination. Of course none of this is useful as an account because there is no moral significance to the complexity of nature.

And then there was an article on "six types of clarity" that Marina sent me in response to my saying that something was an ambiguity of the second kind. ("I like it that you clarify which kind of ambiguity you're talking about." Admittedly an odd thing to do, but I do think Empson's types 1, 2, and 4 describe specific effects for which I don't know of any other terminology.) It's a very nice article and has some insightful things to say about an issue I blogged about sometime ago re "primitive" poetry. Of which more later.


[1] One is tempted to assume an association between messiness and vitality, but this falls apart after say the 17th century. The Rochester character in The Man of Mode doesn't use deodorant but is irresistible -- the expected pattern -- but generally the bourgeoisie and esp. the nonconformists are (a) on the rise, (b) not notably filthy, (c) not irresistible, at least qua bourgeoisie, (d) [possibly] breeding like rabbits. (Not sure about (d) in popular perception. Might be projecting backwards from the Mormons. Not sure either how far northern accents would stand in for filthiness -- the Chatterley line of reasoning, though gamekeepers were not bourgeois.) There's something odd about the fact that neatness is perceived as a diminishing virtue, even as far back as Johnson's comparison of Dryden and Pope. I suppose this is all linked in some tenuous way to the dissociation-of-sensibility thesis and the idea that poetry has never come to terms with modern life, has never found the right things poetical, etc.

[2] There are some areas, like string theory, to which this paradigm doesn't evidently apply. One probably wants to think of the Standard Model as the idiosyncratic, complicated system that is being simplified. But there isn't really a notion of "universality" there as there is elsewhere, so this isn't a natural description.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Patti Smith channels Dan Brown

I have never had much time for Patti Smith, my first impression being closely aligned with Jenny Davidson's remark that "Patti Smith seems to me to reside at the horrible intersection of the trajectories of Jim Morrison and Susan Sontag BOTH OF WHOM I LOATHE!" Nevertheless, I initially processed the Guardian headline about her forthcoming detective novel as an Onion spoof. (The beauty of RSS feeds is that all headlines look the same except the ones that are in all caps.) I read the article with a sort of fascinated loathing:
This week, the singer revealed she has completed "68%" of a "detective story" based in England. In a Guardian interview last weekend, Smith hinted at several literary projects to follow her acclaimed memoir, Just Kids. [...] "For the last two years ... I've been working on a detective story that starts at St Giles-in-the-Fields in London," she said. Now, whenever the singer is in the city, she visits the church "where it came to me".

Over the last 40 years, Smith has published more than a dozen books of poetry, plus collections of artwork and lyrics. Though her written work has been more Allen Ginsberg than Agatha Christie, Smith said she has "loved detective stories" since she was a child. Her planned novel is inspired by Sherlock Holmes and American crime writer Mickey Spillane.

Smith is also recording a new album, influenced by Saint Francis of Assisi, the home of Dylan Thomas, and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita [Ed. !!] , and plans to tour the UK. On Tuesday, singer-songwriter Patrick Wolf revealed on Twitter that he is joining Smith on her forthcoming dates. "Just tuning up my harp and viola, been asked by patti smith to join her again as part of her backing band," he wrote. Perhaps he can carry her magnifying glass.

Yes, precisely 68%. And isn't St. Giles-in-the-fields precisely the sort of cheaply resonant, tinselly English place name that would appeal to her?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"In eerie female reservoirs of bran"

I found out via Elisa Gabbert about the poet K. Silem Mohammad's "Sonnagrams," which are exact anagrams of Shakespeare sonnets; from the author's note, "The title is composed last, using whatever letters are left over once I’ve assembled a working sonnet." Here are some at Boo magazine; here are some more at Wag's Revue; they're all quite remarkable if you like stunt poems, and some of them are great in a surrealistic way even if you don't. Here's one:

My, You Annoy Me, Funny Daddy Roy: Yes, You of Uneasy Eye (Eye of Yore)

Wise fools who rub the curly heads of state,
Sweet monsters who sell honor out for fun:
Now by my learned counsel be set straight,
And board a flying saucer for the sun.

Lifesaver, doughnut, onion ring, or halo;
Lacuna, vacuum, emptiness, or hole—
The UFOs in Limbo hover way low;
In Purgatory, langue’s denied parole.

I know a word the OED omits:
Its syllables are fatal to be heard.
Whoever says it retches, dies, and shits;
I urge you not to utter such a word.

Although you feel the author’s days are through,
The author in the end erases you.

And here's another (which I hesitated about posting because of possible search-engine repercussions):

WWW (I Heil My, My, My Hitler; I Heel My Whiny Cur; I Wrap My Rueful Vulva in My Limp, Unholy Fur)
You few non-nude and many naked elk,
Who, in your ludic pastures over yon,
Fear not the mad Behemoth’s flailing whelk
That abrogates our fretful Helicon:

You indolent nude teens who always flee
Redactions of a crude antithesis:
The symmetry of progress yet must be
The progress of a symmetry (like this).

 If ponies value nudity, they do
As Puritans do patriotic rap;
You hear this said, and know it to be true,
As if it were a boner in your lap.

For nudity is only true in porn;
For why was Woodrow Wilson ever born?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

T.S. Eliot Prize

You can read poems by all the finalists here, though, having done so, I'd advise against it. It's a dreary selection this year (insert Waste Land joke). Heaney's new book looks forbiddingly bad. I read a good part of Derek Walcott's -- which won -- at a bookshop some time ago; it's what one expects from late Walcott, clever images flabbily drawn. The stuff by Brian Turner, "soldier-poet," is the worst of the lot: there is a poem ending "just to hear another human voice, just to breathe in the dark." I sort of liked Annie Freud's "The Carvery Experience," and Pascale Petit's ekphrastics on Frida Kahlo are also mildly enjoyable. One of these has the lovely couplet "I can hear the bone-saw / of the ocean on the horizon." By far the best single poem, in my opinion, was Robin Robertson's "At Roane Head," which begins like this:

At Roane Head
for John Burnside 

You'd know her house by the drawn blinds –
by the cormorants pitched on the boundary wall,
the black crosses of their wings hung out to dry.
You'd tell it by the quicken and the pine that hid it
from the sea and from the brief light of the sun,
and by Aonghas the collie, lying at the door
where he died: a rack of bones like a sprung trap.

A fork of barnacle geese came over, with that slow
squeak of rusty saws. The bitter sea's complaining pull
and roll; a whicker of pigeons, lifting in the wood.
She'd had four sons, I knew that well enough,
and each one wrong. All born blind, they say,
slack-jawed and simple, web-footed,
rickety as sticks. Beautiful faces, I'm told,
though blank as air.
Someone saw them once, outside, hirpling
down to the shore, chittering like rats,
and said they were fine swimmers,
but I would have guessed at that.

Fake Chinese trains

This is probably not the sort of thing one admits to, but I felt somewhat let down when I read this bit of mythbusting re W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn, one of my favorite books:
"Well," says Gee, whose last film was the award-winning 2007 documentary Joy Division, "I've spoken to Southwold trainspotters and they say the train, which last ran in the late 1920s, wasn't Chinese. It didn't have the imperial dragon motif on it that Sebald claimed. Perhaps he made up that story so he could go off on a meander about China." [...] And anyway, how likely is it that a train designed as a Chinese emperor's plaything would end up in East Anglia?

Of course no one expects Sebald's work to be entirely factual, but to foist a Chinese railway on the East Anglian countryside one needs, I think, to have a better excuse than a set-piece about China that's missing a lead-in. The entire Chinese train passage seems to me to belong to the class "observations that are neat only if true." But this is a first impression (one could argue that this is a dreamlike, "magical-realist" cousin of the other ruins he finds) and maybe I'm just irritated at myself for not having spotted the fabrication...

Incidentally the linked Guardian article is about a movie that's been made based on The Rings of Saturn. I look forward to the movie and the rest of the tenth-anniversary stuff that's probably scheduled for next year.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sir Gawain, possums, hippopotamuses

1. Last night I came up with a new poem project; it's going to be in the Gawain and the Grene Knight form -- which I've always been a fan of -- and will involve possums, the breakup of Gondwanaland, and the Great American Interchange. (A look at the first stanza of Gawain -- the Mod E translation follows the text -- will suggest how these things fit together.) Currently the poem is meant to be a setpiece in the "novel" I'm supposedly writing with Marina Weiss; this bit is titled, for now, "A divagation, concerning possums" (yes there's a dreadful pun in there); but it might not belong in the novel in the end. If the novel ever gets written. And if the poem ever gets written.

1'. The next few weeks are going to be horribly busy; I have to give a seminar at UVA in a week, and finish up two papers by the APS meeting in Dallas in late March. Blogging will (hopefully) be sporadic. Unfortunately I tend to be a self-starting worker; times when I'm getting work done are also times when I just really want to blog and tweet and write and do other stuff, and fallow spells tend to be fallow on all fronts. But we'll see how this goes.

1''. On the topic of Gawain, Michael Berube (via Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blog) has posted my favorite passage in the poem. My favorite lines are not the same as his, though.

2. Perhaps relatedly, I was plagued last night by dreams -- "dreams" is perhaps the wrong word -- involving hippopotamuses, their classification, etc.; I seemed to think I'd made some deep connection between the taxonomy and the etymology... Anyway I cleared it all up on Wikipedia just now, I was getting hippos mixed up with rhinoceroses, the point is that rhinoceroses and horses are both odd-toed ungulates (unlike, say, antelope) whereas hippos are even-toed ungulates.

2'. Naturally this post wouldn't be complete without drawing out the "muses" in hippopotamuses, and linking to the three obvious poems: Lewis Carroll's "Mad Gardener's Song," T.S. Eliot's "Hippopotamus" and the neat little four-liner by Hilaire Belloc.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"Remote," by Rae Armantrout

I've been trying to get people to read her work for a while. Next Life is a consistently enjoyable book and is where I'd start (at least it's where I started). I once flippantly described her work as a salad bowl rather than a melting pot of words; this interview gives you a sense of what her approach is. The poem below is, like, her most coherent; but it's a little uncharacteristic and she doesn't seem to know what to do with the ending.

Rae Armantrout

The breath coming
to rest

like a small frog
at the bottom of a fish tank,

then darting up to surface

is mine?


Remote and, by now, automated
distress calls fill the air.


Do you believe this?

shifts a small weight
there and back.

My self-reflection shames God
into watching

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Anticipatory or reflective aberrations"

Ray Davis on the fugue as literary metaphor:
Written language, like a violin but more so, is not a polyphonic instrument, and therefore it can only imply complex harmonies and simultaneous lines through anticipatory or reflective aberrations which the mind weaves across paragraphs and pages, as when weaving the implied melodies of Bach's works for solo strings. The term "fugue" appeals by emphasizing the mental effort without which intended polyphony remains apparent disorder. 

It's a nice idea and I am drawn to the word "aberrations" in this context, because it reminds me of Frost holding a pane of ice against "the world of hoary grass." But I wonder if it isn't an overly modernist term for what's meant here. One thinks of Keats's odes as having complex harmonies but it's not clear that "aberrations" are involved; Keats is definitely not doing the police in different voices. Maybe the premise is fundamentally wrong. The relationship between written language and time is not straightforward; verse moves differently depending on whether you read it silently or aloud; there are poems, like the Nightingale ode, that have a propulsive force to them, and others, like the Grecian Urn and Melancholy odes, for which "motion" is not the right word at all. Few of the modernists in English were at all painterly -- there's David Jones, and one should read Wyndham Lewis but hasn't -- but I feel like it wouldn't be too hard to come up with earlier examples in which the "movement" is slow enough that there are a lot of parts, say the entire content of a Spenserian stanza in the Faerie Queene, moving together, in which case polyphony is a relatively natural effect.

One should distinguish between descriptive passages, like the temple of Mars in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, in which the description is "temporal" and you're hurried from one sight to another as at the Met, and those like Keats's Autumn ode, where it seems more natural to keep the whole picture in your mind at once.

"The poor breast was no where discoloured"

I just came upon Fanny Burney's account of her mastectomy -- without anesthetics -- in a very peculiar letter to her sister. (The Wikipedia page on Burney has a section titled "Life in France: revolution and mastectomy" so apparently this is a pretty well-known document.) I can't find the full letter online anywhere, but Google books has a reasonably generous preview. Apparently Burney spent a while putting off surgery and being treated by other means -- it's not clear what these were except that they were meant to "dissolve" the tumor -- and was eventually told she'd have to be operated on, whereat
[she] was as much astonished as disappointed -- for the poor breast was no where discoloured, and not much larger than its healthy neighbour. 

Hrm! Well, fortunately the doctors went ahead and performed the operation and Burney lived another 30 years or so. Her account of the operation itself rings true and is mildly disturbing:
When the wound was made, & the instrument was withdrawn, the pain seemed undiminished, for the air that suddenly rushed into those delicate parts felt like a mass of minute but sharp & forked poniards, that were tearing the edges of the wound - but when again I felt the instrument - describing a curve - cutting against the grain, if I may so say, while the flesh resisted in a manner so forcible as to oppose & tire the hand of the operator, who was forced to change from the right to the left - then, indeed, I thought I must have expired.

I attempted no more to open my Eyes, - they felt as if hermetically shut, & so firmly closed, that the Eyelids seemed indented into the Cheeks. The instrument this second time withdrawn, I concluded the operation over - Oh no! presently the terrible cutting was renewed - & worse than ever, to separate the bottom, the foundation of this dreadful gland from the parts to which it adhered - Again all description would be baffled - yet again all was not over, - Dr Larry rested but his own hand, & - Oh Heaven! - I then felt the Knife tackling against the breast bone - scraping it! - This performed, while I yet remained in utterly speechless torture, I heard the Voice of Mr Larry, - (all others guarded a dead silence) in a tone nearly tragic, desire everyone present to pronounce if anything more remained to be done; The general voice was Yes, - but the finger of Mr Dubois - which I literally felt elevated over the wound, though I saw nothing, & though he touched nothing, so indescribably sensitive was the spot - pointed to some further requisition - & again began the scraping! - and, after this, Dr Moreau thought he discerned a peccant attom - and still, & still, M. Dubois demanded attom after atom.
Also Burney-related: (1) Ray Davis at the wonderful pseudopodium has an e-text of Burney's play The Witlings, which I've just started reading. (2) For my unenthusiastic response to her best-known novel Evelina see here. That post is annoyingly written even by my standards but I agree with the bits that are actually about the novel.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The quills of love; fletchery

The current issue of Nature has this pretty awesome picture of the various kinds of sperm:

Here's what the intricacies are for:

Lukas Schärer at the University of Basel in Switzerland and his colleagues watched 16 species of promiscuous hermaphroditic flatworm (Macrostomum), which have a variety of sperm shapes (pictured), mating under a microscope. After sex, some species suck out the ejaculate, possibly as a way of selecting which sperm are ultimately accepted.

The researchers found that those species that exhibit this sucking behaviour have ornate sperm with features such as a pair of long bristles emerging at the mid-point and a tail resembling a paint brush. These appendages can become lodged in the female orifice after copulation, preventing the sperm from being sucked out. Species that don't remove sperm have evolved simpler sperm that tend to be smaller and lack hairs or bristles.

I seem to remember that certain types of porcupines have barbed quills that are meant to cause additional damage when pulled out, but I can't find a reference for this. Looking this up -- and trying to find the term for arrows/darts that are meant to be hard to pull out -- took me on a ramble through Wikipedia that introduced me to the concept of "fletching" on arrows. Which, strangely enough, appears to be a common-ish variant of the Urbandictionary term "felching." Language prefigures science as it were.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Surround-Drowned Sound of Pound

Every so often I read a piece by an admirer of Pound's, like D.S. Carne-Ross or Hugh Kenner, and they quote a line or two and leave me momentarily convinced that Pound is a very great poet. For instance, Kenner quotes -- in Rhyme: An Unfinished Monograph, which I've been tumbling passages from all day -- the remarkable line
quick eyes gone under earth’s lid

And Carne-Ross quotes this even better bit from a translation of Horace --
Land where Liris crumbles her bank in silence
Though the water seems not to move.

(The first line is a lovely sapphic.) But when I go back and read the passages these lines come from, they're invariably spoiled by their settings; the first is part of a tiresome rant in Mauberley and the second is from this:
thick Sardinian corn-yield nor pleasant
ox-herds under the summer sun in Calabria, nor
ivory nor gold out of India, nor
land where Liris crumbles her bank in silence
though the water seems not to move. 

Somehow it's much easier to see how good the last two lines are without the rest of this otherwise pedestrian passage. I don't have a very satisfactory explanation for this, but a tentative hypothesis is that the problem has to do with pacing. All the best Pound passages are slow -- in particular they have a higher fraction of stressed and/or long syllables than most verse, they're often spondee-heavy -- but this is not true of Pound's writing in general. For instance in the passage above, here are my counts of actually stressed {total} syllables per line:

1{1}, 4{10}, 4{13}, 3{11}, 5{11}, 3{9}

If you started at "land" you would simply assume this was a slow deliberate passage and appreciate it accordingly, but the previous two lines are very light on actual stresses, so you enter the payoff lines moving at altogether the wrong speed, and barrel through them without noticing how good they are. (Though obviously this doesn't happen to Kenner.) Something else that's wrong with Pound's poems is that the voices are never compelling, the diction never quite comes together. Put this together with the structural deficiencies and I think one can begin to understand why Pound's poems are usually less than the sum of their parts.

Pound's insanity probably helped his later writing. The more disjointed a poem is, the more closely it approaches the sum of its parts. Usually this is a bad thing but in Pound's case I think it helped.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tumbling towards Bedlam; "30 Prufrock"

"With the inevitability of discoveries made late at night," I realized that I should start a blog of some kind called 30 Prufrock. An obvious obstacle was that I already have a blog, but then I read this article about the history and future of blogs and realized that I hadn't yet started a tumblr. Which I then proceeded to do. I discovered with some amusement that (a) line 30 of Prufrock could easily be adapted into a tagline, (b) one of Tumblr's free styles is called "inkhorn," which is appropriate on many different levels -- though I'm not particularly fond of the style itself. I haven't figured out what -- if anything -- I'm going to do with the tumblr yet, but its present format seems much better suited to a scrapbook than a blog. Maybe I'll use it for quotes or pictures I don't have much to say about...

I would treat the "blogs in 2011" article with some skepticism. At the top of the food chain, linkblogs are not dying at all -- Marginal Revolution and Andrew Sullivan are chiefly linkblogs -- and Yglesias's posts are as short and frequent as ever, though more often headed with pictures than they used to be. If it has become less sensible to maintain a link-blog for an audience of friends -- to my mind it clearly has -- this is due less to twitter than to Google Reader and Buzz. For me the decisive moment was when I realized I could pull out a paragraph from a magazine article and share it just by selecting it and clicking on the "note in reader" button on my toolbar.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Quivering blobs, "captured newtons"

This is a remarkably ignorant video; as Flowing Data diplomatically puts it, "I suspect the creators behind the video [G.E.] didn't have a complete understanding behind the math and mechanics." It's not just the obvious howlers -- the nonsensical talk about "total captured newtons," as if forces were additive scalar things you could store -- but the fact that the video seems quite unrelated to its ostensible topic of "dynamic braking." But it's pretty:

For the record, dynamic braking (see Wikipedia) is when the inertial rolling of a train's wheels is used to generate electricity -- analogous to the motion of turbines. [Recall: a motor run backwards is a generator.] Because electrical energy is generated, the kinetic energy of the moving train must decrease and the train must slow down; however, the electrical energy can be stored or dissipated as heat in some other part of the train, whereas a straightforward frictional mechanism would turn most of the original kinetic energy to heat in the wheels and braking system. A mechanical analogy would be a "one-way" bowstring or trampoline that'd stay stretched until you pushed a button to release it... the blobs in these videos aren't anything of the sort, they're merely shock absorbers.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The limited relevance of "bad writing"

(I know, this post is a little self-serving.)

I recently read Adam Gopnik's NY'er piece on Churchill via Alan's feed; I enjoyed it, as I enjoy all of Gopnik's articles, but was occasionally tripped up by how awful the writing was, and was surprised in the end by how little it hurt the piece.

Exhibit A: About a speech by Stanley Baldwin,
This has Orwellian virtues. It is lucid, clear, intelligent, and even subtle. It is also flat, fatuous, and commonplace, three things Churchill never is.

What could it possibly mean for something to be cleverly fatuous, or subtly commonplace, or fatuously subtle, or lucidly unclear?

Exhibit B: About Churchill's fondness for military stunts:
Hastings ascribes Churchill’s military preferences to his temperament—“He wanted war, like life, to be fun”—but surely the mystic chords of national memory played as large a role. British military history between Waterloo and the Great War was mostly peripheral, in the sense that relatively few pitched battles and lots and lots of opportunistic skirmishes, raids, and bluffs had made an empire. On the other hand, the strategy that the Americans believed in rhymed and chimed with the strategies of Sherman and Grant: find the enemy, attack him as directly, and stupidly, as necessary, lose men, make the enemy lose more, and then try to do it again the next day. Neither army was eager to waste lives. But the American theory of keeping men alive meant not throwing them away in sideshows; the British, not inserting them in meat grinders.

In the second sentence, "peripheral" is entirely the wrong word and what follows is clunky; you don't really have any idea of what the sentence is doing until you've read it over twice. In the sentence after that, "rhymed and chimed" is gratuitous and grating. But then everything comes together again with the delightful antithesis that ends the paragraph. "On average" this paragraph is badly written, but this doesn't matter at all because it's only the good bits you remember.

Exhibit C:
Barbara Leaming, in her new biography of the older Churchill, “Churchill Defiant: Fighting On, 1945-1955” (HarperCollins; $26.99), italicizes what Lukacs has already established: that, in the early fifties, Churchill was desperate to make a “supreme effort to bridge the gulf between the two worlds” and seek some kind of European understanding with Stalin and then with his successors.

This is a dreadful metaphor. While there is some precedent for "italicize" in a figurative sense, it certainly isn't a dead metaphor; to "italicize" an establishment means nothing literally (unless it refers to the leaning tower of Pisa, which also happens to be Italian); "emphasize" or "underline" would have been entirely adequate.

And yet how little it all matters... The moral I'd draw from this is the same as that I'd draw from Gopnik's discussion of Churchill's style -- a few resonant and/or clever lines make up for a lot of missteps; very few essays with quotable aphorisms are considered "bad writing."

Diachronicity and "grue"

I wonder if the diachronic perspective on induction mitigates the grue/bleen paradox. Remember: the predicate "grue" means "green if looked at before future time t, blue after." (Vice versa for bleen.) The paradox is that the usual account of induction doesn't explain why we infer that things are green rather than grue (or any of an infinite number of variants of grue), because all past observations are equally consistent with grue and green.

Now there is a symmetry between grue and green: something is "green" if it's grue before time t and bleen after. This symmetry means that the best one can do is say "all reasonable agents should have consistent relative inductive biases." As Tarun pointed out in comments a long time ago, natural selection could not, in any obvious way, have made us prefer blue/green to grue/bleen because natural selection can't see into the future.

On a synchronic theory of induction this is a serious problem: there is nothing in the past to tell green and grue apart. But suppose one has a diachronic theory: in that case, the relevant question becomes, "is it possible for two inductive agents, starting with (possibly different) simple theories about the world and developing these theories according to a good rule of motion -- good enough to have survived natural selection -- to have inconsistent green/grue preferences?" The answer to this question is not obvious, but it's clearly not obviously yes, which is what you'd need for the paradox; and it seems at least plausible that the answer is no. In particular, in the case where all creatures have a common ancestor, the initial simple theory is the same, and the question is whether isolated populations could have developed different rules of motion that were (a) good and (b) led to discontinuous relative inductive biases. It would be very odd if the answer to this question were yes.

"Ubi cunt?"

Ray Girvan pointed out in Light reading comments that a lot of the early n-grams for obscenities were artifacts of bad OCR. A little digging confirms this theory; there is a lot of (Latin) "eunt" and "sunt" and the like that Google scans in as "cunt" -- and this is so even in the 18th century. Then there are cases where a word like "mitescunt" -- written with the long s -- gets scanned in as "mite/cunt." More egregiously a lot of Latin words like "ducunt" and "dicunt" are broken up by the OCR for no reason. And then there is considerable misreading of italicized and Gothic lettering, so for instance, "Divers Presbyterian divines came also" is scanned in as "...d'vinu cunt alfi." While much of this is inevitable I don't understand why Google can't do a better job of classifying Latin texts as Latin rather than English.

Note that this is unrelated to the noise issue, which only affects pre-1650 texts

The thing is that with a lot of these words, the story that the graphs tell -- of a freewheeling past followed by Victorian repression followed by the 20th century -- is broadly consistent with what the usual picture of English literary history. But (a) how often does one really see "cunt" in 17th century writing? (b) in the age of the poem and pamphlet, literary writing perhaps constituted a smaller part by volume of the total output than it did in the age of the novel. Anyway, we report, you decide.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

"Food chain gentrification"

Dept of "what oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed" --
[E]ating meat is an extremely inefficient way of turning vegetation into food. If everyone gave up meat—or even just ate pork instead of beef—we’d have a big grain glut. The issue, of course, is that people don’t want to give up meat. On the contrary, as the world gets richer people are shifting toward incorporating more meat into their diets. That, in turn, creates a kind of food chain gentrification problem for those individuals who aren’t, personally, getting richer since it pushes up the price of grain.

(Matt Yglesias.) Which reminds me: when we colonize the rest of the known universe, will it tend to consist of desolate central planets surrounded by affluent satellites?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Melancholy noise; swiving; middlebrows

Jenny Diski writes about Google n-grams:
Melancholy is virtually non-existent before 1570, but begins to rise and then falls until it drops off completely around 1625, about the time of the death of Dowland. It builds again to a great surge in 1650 (when, it says in Wikipedia, ‘the Age of Discovery ends’: reason enough), falls and then picks up, growing nicely and rising with the Romantics in 1800, and then declines gently before starting to increase again after 2000. Sting recorded a very terrible version of Dowland’s songs in 2006. [Ed. !!]  Fuck is quite absent from books until about 1590 when it jolts up the chart for about eight years and then plummets, before returning in the 1630s...

To see what's really going on one should run the search without smoothing:

So it's mostly just a signal-to-noise artifact that's due to small corpora. (Here's the post-1750 part expanded.) It is not credible that "fuck" was absent until the 1590s; late medievals and especially Scots -- Dunbar, Lyndsay, etc. -- were fond of the word, which for some reason was preferred in the north to "swive."

By the way, the gem-studded OED entry for "fuck" has this beautiful inadvertent alexandrine by Florio, defining "fottere" in World of Words:
to iape, to sard, to fucke, to swive, to occupy.

(Note to self/others: use in parody of Tennyson's "Ulysses.")

Another n-gram I wanted to post, although I don't have the time to discuss it in detail, is the "brow" words:

As you can see they're all recent, not just middlebrow. All of them are coeval -- middlebrow perhaps exactly contemporary -- with T.S. Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility" thesis. I suspect that the dissociation of brows had something to do with this. In particular there's a Church of Latter-Day Middlebrows that the modernists came up with, beginning with Dryden (I remember J.D. McClatchy actually calling Dryden a middlebrow) and running through Addison, Richardson, Johnson (but not Pope or Swift, who were playful and mad respectively), and Walter Scott, to the high Victorian period when the distinction between middlebrows and highbrows becomes imperceptible. This lines up nicely with Eliot's history of English poetry, in which all poetry after Milton and Dryden (until Eliot, of course) was either ethereal and goofy or businesslike and drab.

Update Jenny Davidson asks in comments about the "standard" history of highbrow, which is presumably a phrenology thing although I can't locate any reliable early sources of an explicitly phrenological character. Assuming that this is so, it's interesting that even highbrow dates from the later days of phrenology. Perhaps this is because the terms had no real, non-jocular application before the era of Bloomsbury and Eliot.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


1/11/11 seems like a good time to start enforcing one's New Year's resolutions; my blog-related resolution is to start tagging my posts. I don't know why I haven't been doing this -- everyone else does it! -- maybe I just never expected the thing to live so long. Also, I've made my Google feed public; it was private for a while -- I'd protected it out of paranoia about Buzz -- for no good reason.

I wanted to post a Seamus Heaney poem from the sequence "Settings," but annoyingly can't find one online, and my copy of Opened Ground is still in Jeremy's possum-infested basement. Instead, here's an Auden poem -- Auden having been much-mentioned lately -- that is vaguely on topic, and is not especially smug nor self-congratulatory.

Song of the Master and Boatswain 
from The Sea and the Mirror

At Dirty Dick’s and Sloppy Joe’s
We drank our liquor straight,
Some went upstairs with Margery,
And some, alas, with Kate;
And two by two like cat and mouse,
The homeless played at keeping house.

There Wealthy Meg, the Sailor’s Friend,
And Marion, cow-eyed,
Opened their arms to me, but I
Refused to step inside;
I was not looking for a cage
In which to mope in my old age.

The nightingales are sobbing in
The orchards of our mothers,
And hearts that we broke long ago
Have long been breaking others;
Tears are round, the sea is deep:
Roll them overboard and sleep.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Banality of Sauron, etc.

Auden reviewing part III of Lord of the Rings:
To present the conflict between Good and Evil as a war in which the good side is ultimately victorious is a ticklish business. Our historical experience tells us that physical power and, to a large extent, mental power are morally neutral and effectively real: wars are won by the stronger side, just or unjust. At the same time most of us believe that the essence of the Good is love and freedom so that Good cannot impose itself by force without ceasing to be good. 
The battles in the Apocalypse and "Paradise Lost," for example, are hard to stomach because of the conjunction of two incompatible notions of Deity, of a God of Love who creates free beings who can reject his love and of a God of absolute Power whom none can withstand. Mr. Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter he has succeeded where Milton failed. As readers of the preceding volumes will remember, the situation n the War of the Ring is as follows: Chance, or Providence, has put the Ring in the hands of the representatives of Good, Elrond, Gandalf, Aragorn. By using it they could destroy Sauron, the incarnation of evil, but at the cost of becoming his successor. If Sauron recovers the Ring, his victory will be immediate and complete, but even without it his power is greater than any his enemies can bring against him, so that, unless Frodo succeeds in destroying the Ring, Sauron must win.
Evil, that is, has every advantage but one-it is inferior in imagination. Good can imagine the possibility of becoming evil-hence the refusal of Gandalf and Aragorn to use the Ring-but Evil, defiantly chosen, can no longer imagine anything but itself.

This idea appears repackaged in a much later poem on the Soviet invasion of Prague:
August 1968

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech:
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips. 

I doubt that Auden meant the analogy between Sauron and Brezhnev seriously; this is just an example of his inveterate recycling habit -- lines in the early verse, as someone said, lived a migratory existence, and similarly with ideas in the later work. And while it is smug to think of one's opponents as morons, I think the connection here is interesting because it draws what was -- to me -- an unexpected parallel between LOTR and, say, The Good Soldier Svejk, in this notion that the hero of a quest is a middling, perhaps even a picaresque, character (picaro meaning rogue) flitting between the ogre's blind spots. And there are connections with fairy tales as well, esp. the notion of the "third son" (another Auden obsession) who is not outwardly promising but is fated to win the princess.

What's different about LOTR, I suppose, is the ethical choice to fight left-handed. It would be wrong to ignore this aspect of the books, but it does seem to me that the basic "solution" to the problem of evil that's suggested here is that good, by choice or necessity, is effectively not omnipotent.

This connection also brings up a question I've never found a satisfactory answer to, which is whether the difference between picaresque and Odyssey-style epic -- which is to say, most epic and quest literature; any long work of fiction in which "unity of action" is impossible and a lot of the events are there to flesh out and diversify the fictional world -- is one of narrative emphasis or of structure/storyline. Could one rewrite LOTR as a picaresque in which Frodo and Sam go into the world looking for adventure and in which the ring business is a pretext for their exploring the world? How much would one have to change the plot? Similarly, how essential a plot device is Odysseus's homesickness or Aeneas's plodding sense of duty? Why can't a picaresque be an epic quest for money and a spouse? (Much of Malory is akin to picaresque in its lack of direction.) Is it that the ending of one is intrinsically more provisional because the wheel of fortune keeps turning but Troy/Sauron won't rise again?

Could one make an RPG based on Candide?

Wolf Woolf (plug)

Friend and ex-poet extraordinaire Kit Wallach -- now a schoolteacher in Rhode Island -- has been generating some wonderful and weird music lately. (Btw this was the latest occasion for the genius-to-maniac diagram.) Her latest, "A lowly thing, a lonely thing," riffs on that Marianne Moore poem "What are years?" -- his mighty singing / says, satisfaction is a lowly / thing -- and was, I should like to think, partly inspired by an old Moore parody I wrote in college titled "What are bears?"

Tangentially, Moore did not like the question mark:
Miss Moore told me that she did not want the question mark after the title. “In my ‘What Are Years’ the printers universally have insisted on putting a question mark after the title: ‘What Are Years?’ It’s not that at all! It’s a meditation: ‘What Are Years. What Are Years.’ You’re thinking about it, not asking anyone to come and answer you. But they won’t have it that way.”

Friday, January 7, 2011

Catastrophe theory; geniuses and maniacs

This post is meant as a (modestly priced) receptacle for a figure that I often find myself referencing from  V.I. Arnold's book on catastrophe theory. Here Arnold is discussing, somewhat sarcastically, a catastrophe-theoretic model of the activity of a creative personality. To quote Arnold on the setup:
We shall characterize a creative personality (e.g., a scientist) by three parameters, called "technical proficiency," "enthusiasm," and "achievement." Clearly these parameters are related. This gives rise to a surface in three-dimensional space with coordinates (T,E,A). Let us project this surface onto the (T,E) plane along the A axis. 

This is the figure:
To paraphrase Arnold, what's going on here is that if you develop your technical skills at low enthusiasm, you move up along the smooth ramp at the "far end" of the figure. If you get enthusiastic once you have the skills, you move outwards along the E axis to point 2 and become a genius. On the other hand if your initial level of enthusiasm is high, you go discontinuously from having no achievements to having a lot, once you've learned a critical amount of background information.

The "catastrophe" is when you follow line 3. Let me return to quoting Arnold:

A growth of enthusiasm not supported by a corresponding growth in technical proficiency leads to a catastrophe (at point 4 of curve 3) where achievement falls by a jump and we refer to the domain denoted in Fig. 6 by the term "maniacs." It is instructive that the jumps from the state of genius to that of maniac take place along different lines, so that for sufficiently great enthusiasm a genius and maniac can possess identical enthusiasm and technical proficiency, differing only in achievement (and previous history).

The deficiencies of this model and many similar speculations in catastrophe theory are too obvious to discuss in detail. I remark only that articles in catastrophe theory are distinguished by a sharp and catastrophic lowering of the level of demands of rigor and also of novelty of published results.

Taken seriously, the catastrophe theory of the '70s and '80s was very much in the same vein as the more recent extravagances of physicists that xkcd was mocking the other day. (Although it did lead to some very beautiful results on swimming-pool patterns.) Fig. 6, however, is an awfully useful caricature of intellectual development, and various things in life keep reminding me of it.

Licensed to kill extra-lite

This is a seriously irrelevant professional milestone:

(This is what the endorsement system is about.) I am very strongly inclined to use my newfound powers for evil purposes... if only I could come up with some evil purposes.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The philology of sleep

I've had a series of dreams lately -- well, not dreams exactly, but liminal events at the moment of waking -- in which I see an OED search results screen (new format) that has a series of entries like "six hours three minutes," "six hours four minutes," etc., and apparently a definition for each, but I'm always fully awake before I can click on any of the definitions. The interpretation is fairly obvious, but I am a little intrigued by the notion of tabulating the precise differences between the various kinds of sleep -- for a borderline insomniac like me, it's rare for two nights' sleep to be identical, but maybe there are only seven kinds rather than infinitely many?

In other sleep-related news, I was reading Jonson's Epicene (which strangely I'd never read before -- I'm a huge Jonson fan -- E is not my favorite Jonson play, but is the one closest to Restoration comedy and I'm not surprised that Dryden chose it as his model for close reading) and was amused by this bit:
MOR: No, I should do well enough, if you could sleep. Have I no
friend that will make her drunk? or give her a little laudanum?
or opium?
TRUE: Why, sir, she talks ten times worse in her sleep.
MOR: How!
CLER: Do you not know that, sir? never ceases all night.
TRUE: And snores like a porpoise.

Why does it make sense to accuse someone of snoring like a porpoise? Snoutedness, of course! The only time people sound dolphin-like in their sleep is when they have a cold and their breathing is a polyphonic whistle.