Saturday, December 31, 2011

Story of Alan's life

From Alan Bennett's 2011 diary in the LRB (gated, I think; comes with peculiarly robotic-sounding podcast -- or perhaps that is how all podcasts sound, I rarely listen to any):
15 April. Seeing a banana skin on the pavement reminds me how when I first read the Dandy and the Beano the presence of a banana skin meant that inevitably it was going to be slipped on. No matter that at that time, in the early 1940s, few children had seen let alone eaten a banana, the skin was still shorthand for calamity. Other comic clichés were a fish, almost certain to be stolen by a cat and always represented as a perfect skeleton devoid of flesh but still with the head on; a string of sausages, destined to be grabbed by a dog, the sausages trailing from the dog’s mouth like a scarf in the wind; a bull (beware of) in a field, a billy goat similarly, with a ladder another portent of disaster.

21 May. A plumpish young man gets off the train at Leeds just behind me.
‘Aren’t you famous?’
‘Well I can’t be, can I, if you don’t know my name.’
‘It’s Alan something.’
‘From Scarborough?’
‘So which Alan are you?’
‘I’m another Alan.’
‘Are you just a lookalike?’
‘Well, you could say so.’
He pats my arm consolingly.
‘Be happy with that.’

14 October. Were I Adam Werritty and going into lobbying and PR I would have changed my name at the outset. Verity has the literal ring of truth about it, Adam Verity a dauntless fighter for justice, whereas all Werritty suggests is some anxious yapping dog which, whatever his faults, Werritty hardly seems to have been.

"'Tis well an old age is out, / And time to begin a new"

I thought of putting together a year-in-reading post but was confounded by the apparent length of this year, the sense that events in the psychological far past -- acquisition of Kindle, acquaintance with Cobbett -- really took place this March or April (the Kindle came about Apr. 15, I remember this because when I went home to collect it in the afternoon I found my landlady downstairs and said something about having to file my taxes). And it hasn't been a year that's defined by stuff I've read -- if anything, a year with swaths of mental paralysis cut through it, long intervals of staring at books and not registering a word -- although I discovered Thomas Bernhard [just noticed, and was amused by, his initials being TB] and Teju Cole. (Also: Cobbett, Saintsbury on prose rhythm, Flaubert's Parrot, Vertigo, The Ambassadors, two of Gissing's novels.)

Anyhow, it is a good time for a broader retrospective post, esp. because the year-end coincides with a "natural" break: I have just accepted a postdoc at Harvard, which I'll begin in the fall; while the thesis must still be written, I suppose I'm well into the home stretch. On this front at least, "things have turned out better / than I once expected or ever deserved"; I had multiple good options. Nevertheless, when I think back on the past five years or so the chief impression is one of waste, of time that I could have spent on various kinds of growth but did not, the sense that owing to my laziness I've been coming 

                                              to resemble
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted,

and that my immediate recourse to these lines -- which I might also have cited for similar reasons five years ago -- is further depressing evidence that they apply to me. But enough of this, it cannot be helped: one is less impressionable than one used to be -- people are -- and attempts to fight this are inherently limited. (One's memory is also less vivid than it used to be: it is appalling to think how little I remember of Proust. What else have I read as a grad student that really sticks in the memory? Lydia Davis, Thomas Browne, Urquhart's Rabelais, Sabbath's Theater, Hollinghurst. Muldoon's recent poetry -- especially this -- and fragments of Geoffrey Hill and Charles Wright. I went through a phase, in 2008 perhaps, when I bought a large amount of contemporary poetry; seems to me now that I only remember the titles of the books. Reading this list, I suspect that one thing I should definitely have read more of is literary criticism and/or philosophy.)

I am glad on the whole that I went to grad school in physics, and a little surprised that I've enjoyed the "work" aspect of it. (I cannot say much in defense of life in central Illinois, though.) I was fortunate to stumble quite blindly into an area -- in a field that I had been drawn to for its difficulty and lack of obvious correspondence with my strengths -- where taste and wide reading mattered as much as analytical ability, and to have an advisor who let me pick my own problems. I was fortunate to pick up the learning on the cheap, by going to talks rather than reading papers -- UIUC being fairly central in my field -- and especially by getting to spend fall 2010 in Santa Barbara where I was deluged with information at workshops and conferences. And I was fortunate, above all, that innumerable things did not go wrong that anyone acquainted with many grad students knows can easily go wrong. (I suppose some of this text will be reused in thesis acknowledgments.)

Which brings us to 2011, which was a strange year. (As a coherent unit it began Dec 18 2010 when I arrived in Chicago without an overcoat.) I had finished the paper that will presumably be most of my thesis in July 2010, and had spent the fall thinking of other things but mostly going to talks and meeting people; meanwhile the advisor decided to move to Atlanta, so when I came back I was in effect in the position of a postdoc without a group. I couldn't at that point have applied for any of the really nice fellowships -- deadlines tend to be Oct/Nov -- so the choices were (a) get a temporary postdoc and apply for fellowships in a year; (b) move to Atlanta; (c) stay on in Urbana and soldier on. Option (c) was the most appealing as it didn't involve moving, but also the most sensible as it turns out: really the imperative was to position myself optimally for the job market this year, and moving/completing thesis were much less useful than getting as much research done and published as I could. (Did not quite meet expectations but didn't fail completely either.) Esp. with the departure of two good friends in the summer and the encroachment on a third of child-rearing duties, I've had a wealth of solitude that I'm afraid I've mostly spent drifting about the internet, tweeting maniacally, and -- esp. in the fall -- inspecting the publication record of everyone who ever got a postdoc I wanted. I do not know if it was the solitude or the anxiety, but I have never had such an infertile year intellectually -- I cannot think of a single good idea.

But that's all over for now, and I can return, I hope, to attacking various things like a shark. I don't know when I'll be defending/moving yet, but it won't be until the summer: long enough to kippleize my surroundings a little further, write two or three papers, fill out some reimbursement forms, and figure out how to format a thesis according to UIUC registrar's specs. For the moment at least, I vaguely look forward to it.

(Previous, similar posts here and here.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Loose connections (a principled take)

Fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible. -- Virginia Woolf

(This quote occupies a rather prominent place in the chambers of my mind; my interests coincide fairly well with the category of "things that are attached to life at all four corners.")

Michael Dummett has died; I was convinced I had blogged about him but I can't find the post. He was an interesting character -- analytic philosopher, Tarot expert, and more -- but I knew him primarily through a 1975 essay on "The Philosophical Basis of Intuitionistic Logic" that was in a book of philosophy-of-math readings. It appealed very strongly to me because Dummett's views ratified my biased belief that all the interesting problems in analytic philosophy could be restated as problems in the philosophy of mathematics. A few highlights (I realize that this is old hat for a lot of people, but it was my first exposure to late Wittgenstein -- late W. is a difficult writer and I needed someone to Dummett down for me): here he is describing the sort of theory of meaning an intuitionist could hold --

A model of meaning is a model of understanding, i.e. a representation of what it is that is known when an individual knows the meaning. Now knowledge of the meaning of a particular symbol or expression is frequently verbalisable knowledge, that is, knowledge which consists in the ability to state the rules in accordance with which the expression or symbol is used or the way in which it may be replaced by an equivalent expression or sequence of symbols. But to suppose that, in general, a knowledge of meaning consisted in verbalisable knowledge would involve an infinite regress: if a grasp of the meaning of an expression consisted, in general, in the ability to state its meaning, then it would be impossible for anyone to learn a language who was not already equipped with a fairly extensive language. Hence that knowledge which, in general, constitutes the understanding of the language of mathematics must be implicit knowledge. Implicit knowledge cannot, however, meaningfully be ascribed to someone unless it is possible to say in what the manifestation of that knowledge consists: there must be an observable difference between the behaviour or capacities of someone who is said to have that knowledge and someone who is said to lack it. Hence it follows, once more, that a grasp of the meaning of a mathematical statement must, in general, consist of a capacity to use that statement in a certain way, or to respond in a certain way to its use by others.
This essay was the first thing I'd read pointing out the similarity between Quine's philosophy of language and Hilbert's chronologically earlier -- earlier, btw, than Woolf -- philosophy of mathematics (both "holistic" in some sense -- see below -- and both of which must be rejected, as Dummett argues, by the "intuitionist" view).
it is not that a statement or even a theory has, as it were, a primal meaning which then gets modified by the interconnections that are established with other statements and other theories; rather, its meaning simply consists in the place which it occupies in the complicated network which constitutes the totality of our linguistic practices. [...] Frequently such a holistic view. is modified to the extent of admitting a class of observation statements which can be regarded as more or less directly registering our immediate experience, and hence as each carrying a determinate individual content. These observation statements lie, in Quine’s famous image of language, at the periphery of the articulated structure formed by all the sentences of our language, where alone experience impinges. [...]

For Hilbert, a definite individual content, according to which they may be individually judged as correct or incorrect, may legitimately be ascribed only to a very narrow range of statements of elementary number theory [sg. Hilbert was talking about operations like addition of integers etc. which one can "verify" with reference to collections of carrots, sticks, and the like]:  these correspond to the observation statements of the holistic conception of language. All other statements of mathematics are devoid of such a content, and serve only as auxiliaries, though psychologically indispensable auxiliaries, to the recognition as correct of the finitistic statements which alone are individually meaningful.
(The connection with Virginia Woolf should be obvious.) Dummett goes on to suggest that if one rejects this sort of holistic view -- for which there are various reasons, Godel's incompleteness theorems not least among them -- one might find a path to a revisionist theory of meaning. I'm not going to bother with the argument here, interesting as it is (some of it also amusingly echoes his prescriptivist views on grammar in Grammar and Style (1993)); just one more amusing snippet:
The [conventional notion of mathematical truth] does not provide for inflections of tense or mood of the predicate ‘is true’: it has been introduced only as a predicate as devoid of tense as are all ordinary mathematical predicates; but its role in our language does not reveal why such inflections of tense or even of mood should be forbidden.
Finally I should mention that the Hilbert-Woolf-Quine metaphor comes up rather widely in discussions of mathematics; not just its validity but its value, as in this remark of Michael Atiyah's (quoted by Gowers, who is explicitly a Hilbertian formalist, though Atiyah probably isn't):
the ultimate justi cation for doing mathematics is intimately related with its overall unity. If we grant that, on purely utilitarian grounds, mathematics justi es itself by some of its applications, then the whole of mathematics acquires a rationale provided it remains a connected whole. 
(I have always tended to hold something approaching this view about physics, but it is far less popular in the physics community -- partly because the appeal to direct applications is easier, partly because a fair number of physicists believe it is obvious that new theories supersede old ones rather than adding to them, a view that I have never been in complete sympathy with.)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Interesting Guardian article about CasaPound, an Italian fascist group named after the Pound:

[Pound's] daughter is now taking action to defend his reputation after an Italian fascist organisation named itself after the poet.
Mary de Rachewiltz, 86, has launched a lawsuit to force the far-right group CasaPound, which has about 5,000 members, to change its name.
"A politically compromised organisation like this has no business using the name Pound," said De Rachewiltz, who lives in a hilltop castle in northern Italy where she reads The Cantos to students.
Taking a lead from Pound's fascist ideals and denouncement of usury, CasaPound campaigns for cheap public housing but has been accused of attracting violent supporters. A Rome member was arrested last month on suspicion of assaulting leftwing activists.
[...]De Rachewiltz responded: "Pound was not leftwing or rightwing and you have to understand The Cantos to understand that. It is also a question of style. I have seen pictures of their shaven-headed leader and it does not impress me."

"The gray world of adulthood"

From Amy Clampitt, "Black buttercups":
under the same roof the memory of
a legendary comfort had endowed
with what in retrospect would seem
like safety, did the rumor
of unhappiness arrive? I remember waking,
a February morning leprous with frost
above the dregs of a halfhearted snowfall,
to find the gray world of adulthood
everywhere, as though there never
had been any other, in that same house
I could not bear to leave, where even now
the child who wept to leave still sits
weeping at the thought of exile.
(Vaguely topical as we had our first appreciable snowfall of the year this morning.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The arbitrariness of the sign made flesh

Two passages I'm fond of that remind me very much of each other (both are about growing up in small island countries; I do not know if there is an Anthology of Island Writing out there (or a Treatise on the Insular Bildungsroman), but it seems to me that someone should put one together) --

V.S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival:
We lived, in Trinidad, among advertisements for things that were no longer made or, because of the war and the difficulties of transport, had ceased to be available. [...] Many of the advertisements in Trinidad were for old-fashioned remedies and "tonics." They were on tin, these advertisements, and enameled. They were used as decorations in shops and, having no relation to the goods offered for sale, they grew to be regarded as emblems of the shopkeeper's trade. Later, during the war, when the shanty settlement began to grow in the swampland to the east of Port of Spain, these enameled tin advertisements were used sometimes as building material.

So I was used to living in a world where the signs were without meaning, or without the meaning intended by their makers. It was of a piece with the abstract, arbitrary nature of my education, like my ability to "study" French or Russian cinema without seeing a film, an ability which was, as I have said, like a man trying to get to know a city from its street map alone.

What was true of Trinidad seemed to be true of other places as well. In the book sections of some of the colonial emporia of Port of Spain there would be a shelf or two of the cheap wartime Penguin paperbacks [...] It never struck me as odd that at the back of these wartime Penguins there should sometimes be advertisements for certain British things -- chocolates, shoes, shaving cream -- that had never been available in Trinidad and were now (because of the war, as the advertisements said) no longer being made; such advertisements were being put in by the former manufacturers only to keep their brand names alive during the war, and in the hope that the war would turn out well.

Now here's Halldor Laxness, in The Fish Can Sing:
This was about the time, not long after the Boer War, when the Barbed-wire Age was beginning in Iceland. This special commodity, which is banned by law in most countries except for military purposes and was indeed said to have been invented during the Boer War, has pacified the Icelanders more than any other foreign product one could name; and whereas in other countries there are severe penalties for putting this wretched stuff up in the open in peacetime, in Iceland barbed wire became the most desirable luxury commodity in the land for a while, next only to alcohol and cement. There are few things over which the nation has united so wholeheartedly as stringing this glorious material round every part of the land, over hill and dale, heath and moor, right up to the mountaintops and out to the farthest sea-cliffs. At first, many people behaved as the Boers had done towards the English, and simply climbed over the barbed wire whenever they came to it, but then the Althing passed a law declaring barbed wire to be inviolate in Iceland. [...]

After great detours and many digressions and the usual boys' dawdling for much of the day, we eventually reached some hillocks to the southeast of the horse-moors. There were a few scattered farms around, some up on the hills and others in the grassy hollows or dales, and the lands belonging to these farms were festooned with barbed wire for their full length and breadth.

One of the farms there was called Hvammskot. We halted on the bank of a stream just outside the home-field, where a strong barbed-wire fence had been erected -- quite at random, as far as one could see. And as we were standing there, out of sight behind a knoll, one of us volunteered the information that anyone who crossed a fence of this kind would be fined ten kronur.

We quickly agreed that it would be fun to risk a death-leap which was valued at such a high price. And because this crime had all the fascination that any kind of gambling has when there is money involved, we all set to and began jumping over the barbed wire. I will not say that the deed was done entirely without palpitations, and indeed we had a lookout posted to see if there were any spies about; but as we had really suspected all along, no one noticed the outrage we were committing, and no fines were imposed on us. [...] It was still not nearly suppertime when each and all of us had become prosperous from unclaimed ten-kronur fines.
[On this topic cf. Michael Wood on Joyce and Carroll:
But Carroll has a taste for sheer absurdity, the collapse or travesty of plausible meaning, whereas Joyce, as far as I can tell, wants only to multiply meanings [...] the famous arbitrariness of the sign: ‘a “borogove” is a thin shabby-looking bird with its feathers sticking out all round – something like a live mop.’ Try working that out from the name. Compared with these astonishing jinks Joyce’s antics can look almost reasonable. In relation to ‘jabberwocky’, say, a ‘jibberweek’ seems quite familiar – we’ve all had one of those. And when Joyce recites the names of days, they too sound like many days we’ve known: ‘moanday, tearsday, wailsday, thumpsday, frightday, shatterday’. Sunday is safe for the moment; safe because unmentioned.]

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The poor, the sleepless, the wet, and the cramped

1. A Thomas Bernhard story, "Two Tutors" -- as good a place to start reading Bernhard as any, though of course there is no excuse for not reading Wittgenstein's Nephew, which is short -- with some instantly recognizable Bernhard touches:
“If you can imagine,” he said,  “that already as a child I had to lie in bed awake for ten, twelve nights in a row, dead tired, without being able to sleep. An adult,” he said,  “can, thanks to his intelligence, control his sleeplessness, make it ridiculous. Not a child. A child is at the mercy of sleeplessness.” Above the New Gate, without as usual looking down vertically on the town, we turned, as every day, to the right, not to the left: he wants to turn right, turns right, so I also turn right, because at this point above the New Gate he has always turned right, he now no longer dares turn left, I think . . . It is up to me, one day to turn left, then he too will turn left, follow me, because he is the weaker of the two of us. . . For the same reason I have now for weeks been following him to the right . . . Why? The next time I’ll simply turn left, then he too will turn left . . . The time when I can be useful to him when as usual I allow him to turn right, follow him to the right, is over, I think, now I only harm him, when I let him turn right and follow him . . . He no longer has the strength all at once to turn left . . . Shortly after the fork he said:  “What I said to you regarding my sleeplessness is related to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment, in which, as you know, I was employed until the beginning of the holidays.” He said,  “All my life I have led only an awful life, and it is my right to lead an awful life, and this awful life is my sleeplessness . . . But now, the story which led to my discharge from the Innsbruck establishment. Like all my stories it begins with my inability to sleep. I was unable to fall asleep. I take many drugs, but no drug helps me any more. I had,” he said,  “walked for hours along the north bank with my students. We were all tired. My eyes open, incapable of distracting myself by reading, at the mercy of my lifelong sleeplessness, I was gripped by the most despicable thoughts and said to myself again and again: they sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep, I don’t sleep, they sleep, I don’t sleep . . . This boarding school silence, this dreadful silence emanating from the dormitories . . .
 2. A Christmas tree made of pencils; other things similarly constructed but merely rectangular:

3. Epic floods in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. (I'll put up a link to a relief/donations page when I can find one.)

4. Mike Konczal quotes T.M. Scanlon on the non-transferability of social obligations:
The strength of a stranger’s claim on us for aid in the fulfillment of some interest depends upon what that interest is and need not be proportional to the importance he attaches to it. The fact that someone would be willing to forgo a decent diet in order to build a monument to his god does not mean that his claim for aid in his project has the same strength as a claim for aid in obtaining enough to eat (even assuming that the sacrifices required on others would be the same). Perhaps a person does have some claim on others for assistance in a project to which he attaches such great importance. All I need maintain is that it does not have the weight of a claim to aid in the satisfaction of a truly urgent interest even if the person in question assigns these interests equal weight.
This makes sense at first glance but I am not sure I want to agree with it; as a descriptive statement it comes down to the observation that people are "paternalistic" towards other people (they're willing to "help" but only in matters in which they can imagine themselves wanting to be helped -- i.e., a typical limits-of-empathy problem). So the distinction most people would make between helping with the food and the monument is a moral failing in my book. Speaking of food, I recently came upon this Economist blog post:
as [Duflo and Banerjee] remark, “things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor”. They tell the story of meeting a Moroccan farmer, Oucha Mbarbk. They ask him what would he do if he had a bit more money. Buy some more food, came the reply. What would he do if he had even more money? Buy better, tastier food. “We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna and a DVD player.” Why had he bought all this if he didn’t have enough money for food? “He laughed and said ‘Oh, but television is more important than food.’”
As Sarah Duff recently said, Orwell has been here:
The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread…? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food.  … When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! ... Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman’s opium.
Scanlon would say, I suppose, that there's no obligation to let the poor buy the food they want. In a sense this is true: redistribution followed by frivolous use makes for bad politics; even non-fungible transfers to the poor are better than no transfers, and have the advantage of being politically (somewhat) safe. As a point of morality, however, I disagree, for reasons prev. discussed. (One could make a non-utilitarian argument for Scanlonian redistribution on the grounds that it reinforces civic participation or whatnot but I'm not interested in this line of thought.) The apparent broader lesson is that although redistribution and nannying are different issues in principle, they are largely the same issue in practice because people suck and are censorious/nosy. It is not clear what one can do about this: to the extent that morals are immutable, one either has to make pre-transfer outcomes much more equal (presumably by cleverly redefining the concept of transfers, or by intervening in economic activity) or give up on the issue.

(Perhaps because I have never attempted to run a business and have no interest in doing so, I'm not bothered by the idea of heavy economic regulations on corporations if the ultimate result is to give poor people more freedom to eat unhealthy food. I fear that this will always be a minority view.)

Friday, December 23, 2011


Recent reading has thrown up a cluster of bilaterally related stuff that more thought could perhaps assemble into a complete picture. For now I'll just provide the list.

First, Michael Wood, writing about the future of universities in the LRB:
If we can’t speak the language of our enemies, not only will they not listen to us – they might not listen to us anyway – but they can’t. We need to be saying things they could hear if they would listen. ‘They’, by the way, includes all kinds of people within universities as well as outside them. But what if we can’t speak that language without losing the battle? What if the very language wins the battle by definition? What if we can’t speak of cost-effectiveness because we don’t understand either cost or effect in the way our enemies do?
Amusingly, an article about Michael Polanyi in the same issue suggests what the right language might be:
Michael thought, with few exceptions, that political meddling with a self-organising economy was wrong and destructive. (Nye notes that Michael Polanyi, Hayek and von Mises were all using the notion of ‘spontaneous order’ at that time, and while it has been claimed that Polanyi’s scientifically derived concept had priority, the usage was common in 19th-century European liberal thought.) [...] Scientific research, in its essential nature, is spontaneous, self-directing and self-organising, driven on only by its ‘internal necessities’ [...] Bernal talked of the freedom of necessity, while Polanyi asserted the necessity of freedom. Scientific autonomy had historically been a substantial fact and it had proved its rightness.

In other words, the argument against planning science -- either central or corporate -- is formally the same invisible-hand argument that the right uses to argue against planning the economy, and that "Burkeans" have used for various purposes. (It is trivial to generalize this argument to some aspects of the humanities, certainly the creative arts.) Of course, it would be silly for me to expect anyone on the contemporary right to find this persuasive, but that simply indicates the extent to which ideology is subservient to class warfare in politics (and probably has always been).

The article goes on to describe Polanyi's irrationalist defense of science:
The notion of ‘connoisseurship’ hasn’t often been attached to scientific judgment, but Polanyi repeatedly did just that: ‘Connoisseurship, like skill, can be communicated only by example, not by precept. To become an expert wine-taster, to acquire a knowledge of innumerable different blends of tea or to be trained as a medical diagnostician, you must go through a long course of experience under the guidance of a master.’ And so too to become a scientist.

Science is a vast fiduciary system. Scientists know what they do by finding trustworthy sources and then trusting them. It is also what Polanyi called a polycentric system, in which autonomous and only loosely co-ordinated groups of specialists – mildly sceptical and mainly trusting – periodically keep an eye out for what is going on next door. The coherence and integrity of the body of scientific knowledge arise through these processes of mutual adjustment. Finally, the bases of scientific judgment cannot be completely articulated because the ‘tacit dimension’ is ineliminable. It is not a fly in the formal ointment; it is what makes science science. You would understand that, Polanyi suggested, if you knew what it was to be ‘confronted with the anxious dilemma of a live scientific issue’. The further away you are from the quotidian life of scientific practice, the more you tend to be infatuated with myths of method.

Nye convincingly argues that the major purpose of Polanyi’s anti-rationalist philosophy of science was political and, specifically, that it was meant to counter Communist visions of hierarchical control. The political machinery of Communist planning proceeded through rational and formal method and it presumed rational and formal method in the object of planning. Conceptions of effective method had been devised to celebrate science, but in the middle of the 20th century they were having the unintended consequence of making people think they could command and control scientific inquiry in whatever direction they thought society needed. But you cannot plan and co-ordinate practices that are in their nature self-organising and whose most basic judgments are not formally specifiable. It was not just that a proper understanding of the nature of science was necessary to defend it; a proper understanding of science could contribute to the defence of liberal society as a whole: ‘The world needs science today above all as an example of the good life. Spread out over the planet scientists form even today, though submerged by disaster, the body of a great and good society.’ The fabric of science was political.
(When I hear "the fabric of science" I inevitably think of nylon.)

The bit in bold reminded me instantly of Michael Wood summarizing Auden:
Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters.
And thence, by a relatively short step, to Auden, in "Streams," writing about the innocent anarchic nature of water, which
    tells of a sort of world, quite other,
  altogether different from this one

with its envies and passports, a polis like that
to which, in the same of scholars everywhere,
   Gaston Paris pledged his allegiance
  as Bismarck's siege-guns came within earshot.

(There is an interesting tension here between the idea of art or science as romantic, spontaneous effusion that is implicit in this line of "spontaneous order" thinking, and the more common idea in Auden that the redemption is hard work, that it is something arrived at by a painful process of discipline. It is hard to think of redemption in non-Arcadian terms. The art/nature contrast and the planning/spontaneity contrast are not quite the same because traditional ways of life or scientific practice, which are spontaneously ordered, quite seamlessly include many very artificially organized activities. Conservatism is on this reading chiefly opposed to glibness -- David Brooks often says or implies this, but of course it is nothing if not glib to conflate this kind of view with the politics of the contemporary right.)

But to return to Polanyi. Shapin doesn't say this but his views on science are reasonably common among theoretical physicists; a good example is Steven Weinberg on scientific beauty in Dreams of a Final Theory:
A physicist who says that a theory is beautiful does not mean quite the same thing that would be meant in saying that a particular painting or a piece of music or poetry is beautiful. It is not merely a personal expression of aesthetic pleasure; it is much closer to what a horse trainer means when he looks at a racehorse and says that it is a beautiful horse. The horse trainer is of course expressing a personal opinion, but it is an opinion about an objective fact [...] that this is the kind of horse that wins races.

And elsewhere, flogging the horse metaphor on PBS:
The horse breeder has seen lots of horses and from experience with horses knows that that's the kind of horse that wins races. [...] So it's an aesthetic sense that's been beaten into us by centuries of interaction with nature.
(Weinberg's thoughts on this topic are stimulating but I disagree with them -- I think a majority of theoretical physicists nowadays would dispute the plausibility of "rigidity" as a criterion -- and I fear that it is ultimately just another example of the depressing trend where very successful people over-generalize from their success.)

I'm not sure how much weight any of these ideas individually bears, but I think they form an interesting strand in the history of 20th century liberalism.

Streaked and rayed

Gavin Ewart, "Little girl writes a sonnet about her dead cat" (link asks for password, I recommend not following it -- poem is via Calista, who also offered a culinary interpretation of Lowell's "cured, I am frizzled, stale and small"):
That there's Cat Heaven, kitten-having-fun,
I don't believe---where any cat can lie
stretched out like streaky bacon, always fed,
happy and purring in perpetual sun.
(Arrgh purr-petual!)

Wallace Stevens, "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle":
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruits thereof.
 Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
 Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
 Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
 We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
 The laughing sky will see the two of us
 Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Porcine, peregrine, passerine

(Further adventures in naming and necessity)

1. From the Times archive (1828), a story about "Mr Hogsflesh, the Sapient Pig":
One day last week a man of the name of Hogsflesh, a vender of fish about the streets of Lewes, who, from the singular coincidence of his name and disposition, has obtained the nickname of the Sapient Pig, undertook for a trifling wager to eat a raw rabbit, which he devoured as hungrily as a ploughman would a beef-steak pudding, picking the head and legs in clever style. He is in a short time to eat a cat in the same raw state, for which purpose he has had a tooth drawn, which troubled him when tearing to pieces his raw meal.

2. I was delighted by this term in a PRL that came out today [Bailung et al., PRL 107, 255005 (2011); for solitons see here; cf. peregrine falcons, Peregrine Pickle...]
Peregrine analyzed the [non-linear Schrodinger equation] ... It has been suggested that rogue waves in the ocean are related to what are now called Peregrine solitons. Peregrine solitons have been observed in nonlinear fiber optics experiments [8]. They have also recently been observed in deep water wave experiments performed in a water tank.

3. I was also instantly reminded of Passerine's tanager (more commonly Passerini's but never mind that), a name that borders on tautology (tanagers being by definition passerines). (HT Jenny Davidson.)

4. The Philip Larkin toads trail in Hull (via Calista). It seems to me that there's a crude chiasmus in the fact that Larkin had a toad squatting on him, while Toad of Toad Hall was on a perpetual lark.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


From the bear section of "Flaubert's Bestiary," in F's Parrot by Julian Barnes:
From the chef to Their Majesties of Prussia Dumas obtained a recipe for bear's paws, Moscow style. Buy the paws skinned. Wash, salt, and marinade for three days. Casserole with bacon and vegetables for seven or eight hours; drain, wipe, sprinkle with pepper, and turn in melted lard. Roll in breadcrumbs and grill for half an hour. Serve with a piquant sauce and two spoonfuls of redcurrant jelly.

It is not known whether Flaubear ever ate his namesake. He ate dromedary in Damascus in 1850. It seems a reasonable guess that if he had eaten bear he would have commented on such ipsophagy. 
From a fascinating LRB piece (prob. gated) on the medicinal properties attributed to human remains:
[Richard Sugg] makes disturbing revelations about the eagerness of the English to see the numerous bodies littering the war-torn countryside of Stuart Ireland as ‘a reservoir of profitable corpse materials’ – especially the usnea moss that grew on unburied skulls. As his account of the popularity of skull moss indicates, Sugg’s interest in corpse medicine reaches well beyond mumia to inspect all those strange concoctions of human tissue and waste favoured by early modern pharmacology: blood, ground skulls, crushed brains and human fat, not to mention ‘hair, nails, lice, sperm, saliva, milk, sweat, tapeworms, stones, urine and excrement’, ingredients which suggest that the potions contrived by the Earl of Rochester in his notorious impersonation of a quack – as Dr Bendo – may not have had the purely satiric intention usually attributed to them. By the same token, Sugg’s vivid accounts of epilepsy sufferers rushing to consume the blood gushing from the bodies of executed felons gives an unexpectedly literal twist to Hamlet’s ‘now could I drink hot blood.’

The health-giving virtues widely attributed to such sanguinary draughts suggest, he writes, ‘an uncertain but intriguing link with the most successful demon of postmodern culture, the vampire’. This is a connection Sugg follows through the prescriptions of the 18th-century Irish clergyman and amateur physician John Keogh, whom he calls ‘the cannibal priest’, to Bram Stoker. As well as mummy for green wounds, distillation of brains for epilepsy, and pulverised heart for apoplexy, Keogh recommended warm blood as a tonic for the falling sickness. In folk-belief Keogh’s prowess seems to have endowed the blood of all his descendants with mysterious properties, so that in 1883 William George Black recorded that Dubliners regarded Keogh blood as a proven remedy for the toothache, while an acquaintance claimed to know of a Belfast Keogh ‘whose flesh had actually been punctured scores of times to procure his blood’. Black does not explain to what use the dour bloodsuckers of Ulster might have put his vital fluid, but such rumours may have provided additional inspiration for the Dublin-born Bram Stoker.
Flaubert, of course, was epileptic, and is also reported to have said that "People are like food."

Two recent poems that are worth reading but have nothing to do with ipsophagy: "The World's Arm" by Brenda Shaughnessy and "Not Beyond All Conjecture" by John Ashbery.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Grief-bacon, contentment-bacon

Dept. of stuff Germans have words for:

1. The German for living the good life is "to live like a maggot in bacon." (Hanging Noodles)

2. The German word "kummerspeck" means "excess weight gained by emotional over-eating" and translates literally as "grief bacon." (Nick Confessore, twitter)

3. From a W.G. Sebald poem that appeared in the New Yorker sometime this year:

A young woman
came up to me
& said that al-
though on vacation
she had spent
all day at
the office
which unlike

her apartment was
air-conditioned &
as cold as the
morgue. There,
she said, I am
happy like an
opened up oyster
on a bed of ice.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


0. As a programming note, regular programming is back, as there's no imminent travel and won't be for a month or two.

1. Frances Cornford, "The Visit":
There is a bed-time sadness in this place
That seemed ahead so promising and sweet,
Almost like music calling us from home;

But now the staircase does not need our feet,
The drawer is ignorant of my brush and comb
The mirror quite indifferent to your face.
(I have always been vaguely fond of Cornford and of good Edwardian writing more generally -- Edward Thomas for example. Fleur Adcock brilliantly characterizes Cornford and her ilk as the "more ladylike" poets of the period; it is worth realizing that this description is not in itself an insult.)

2. from Yves Bonnefoy, "The Tomb of Paul Verlaine":
Humble, out of simple pride, he agreed
To be for others just a mirror
Whose tarnished silver would filter the sky.

Let them see that the sky was in him
At its reddest through the evening leaves
As the pigeons’ cooing darkens. 
Via the indispensable seventydys on twitter.

3. Yet another argument in favor of booze (MetaFilter, via D. Avid):
More commonly known as rat lungworm, Angiostrongylus cantonensis is widespread in Southeast Asia and Africa. A growing problem is the spread of this parasite by the giant African land snail. Rat lungworm is known to cause disease in humans, but previously was confined mostly to those who had consumed a Thai dish called koi-hoi containing raw snail meat. Lovers of raw snails need not despair however, a study shows that ingesting alcohol along with your snails lowers the number of viable parasites.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Rewrite man"

Christopher Logue has died. I was never an unconditional admirer of War Music but have always sort of seen what others like about it; and some bits of description have stuck with me:
Achilles saw his armor in that instant
And its ominous radiance flooded his heart.
  Bright pads with toggles crossed behind the knees,
Bodice of fitted tungsten, pliable straps;
His shield as round and rich as moons in spring;
His sword's haft parked between sheaves of gray obsidian
From which a lucid blade stood out, leaf-shaped, adorned
With running spirals.
  And for his head a welded cortex; yes,
Though it is noon, the helmet screams against the light;
Scratches the eye; so violent it can be seen
Across three thousand years.
Apparently Logue was a colorful character:

In the 1940s he even penned a pornographic novel, entitled Lust, under the nom de plume Count Palmiro Vicarion.

His poems were set to music by both jazz musicians and in ballads by Donovan and Joan Baez.