Friday, December 31, 2010

The plant list

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

China scenes and Cockney rhyming slang

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

Thursday, December 30, 2010

"Fantastic troll-steppers"

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

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

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

Where are the snowclones of yesteryear?

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

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Predicting, fitting, omitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"The aristocrat of middlebrows, Dr Johnson"

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

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

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday reading [non-cloth-bound!]

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Loose carollaries

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

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

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Your disposable correspondent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Discontent, winter of

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

The census data toy is pretty addictive, btw.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"That anagram boggled my mind," he blogged

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

Saturday, December 4, 2010


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

Friday, December 3, 2010

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

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

An umbrella

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

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

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