Friday, November 26, 2010

Steller wind

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

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


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

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Niedecker: Linnaeus in Lapland

Linnaeus in Lapland

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

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


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


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

False friends on the morning after


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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

"The shape of things held by the world"

The frontispiece of Ralegh's History of the World:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 20, 2010


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

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

Saturday, November 6, 2010

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Teapocalypse roundup

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

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

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

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

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

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