Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Some cemeteries are beefing up patrols"

Follow-up on a couple of recent posts:

1. The WSJ picks up the Tribune story I previously linked to, re the recent urn theft fad.

On a recent day, Mr. Snook showed a visitor what the grave looked like when he discovered the theft this summer—with a gaping hole in the middle of the handsome marker where the vase should have been—and how the replacement vase now fits in.

"I think she'd like that we got a replacement and fixed it up so we can put her flowers in there," he said.
Obligatory Thomas Browne quote:
He that lay in a golden urn eminently above the earth, was not like to find the quiet of his bones. Many of these urns were broke by a vulgar discoverer in hope of enclosed treasure. The ashes of Marcellus were lost above ground, upon the like account. Where profit hath prompted, no age hath wanted such miners. For which the most barbarous expilators found the most civil rhetorick. Gold once out of the earth is no more due unto it; what was unreasonably committed to the ground, is reasonably resumed from it; let monuments and rich fabricks, not riches, adorn men’s ashes. The commerce of the living is not to be transferred unto the dead; it is not injustice to take that which none complains to lose, and no man is wronged where no man is possessor.
2. Having blogged about ASJ Tessimond I have an excuse to quote this letter in the new LRB:
Tessimond’s father died in 1936; it was on the occasion of his mother’s death in 1942 that the poet received the inheritance that he subsequently spent on chorus girls and analysts. I am writing a biography of the poet and have access to his unpublished journal, where he recalls this figure being nearer £7000. It is ironic that the money should have come from his mother: most of the analysts believed she was the cause of his problems.
James Bainbridge
University of Liverpool

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cigarette lighter or squid?

The epigraph of Paul Muldoon's translation of Baudelaire's "Albatross" is from this BBC story:
Nearly two million Laysan albatrosses live [in the Midway Islands] and researchers have come to the staggering conclusion that every single one contains some quantity of plastic. [...] He explained how some chicks never develop the strength to fly off the islands to search for food because their stomachs are filled with plastic. [...] Many albatrosses are found to have swallowed disposable cigarette lighters - which look remarkably similar to their staple food of squid. 
I can't see the resemblance myself, but it is exactly the sort of association that belongs in a Paul Muldoon poem. I've skimmed through the new volume, Maggot; it offers the usual pleasures, but there are perhaps too many stunt poems, e.g., sonnet sequences that exhaust all possible rhymes for a word. (I guess I was also expecting more maggots!) Nevertheless, if you like reading about someone "malformed in his formaldehyde" this is very much the kind of book you should read; the sequence on "The Humors of Hakone" in particular is very good. One of the best poems in the new volume, "Love poem with pig," is here; "Quail" is available here and used to be on Muldoon's website for a long time.

(Needless to say I'd welcome any insight into why/which cigarette lighters look remarkably like squid.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"The psychological or human 'beginning'"

I was strongly influenced (as an undergraduate?) by this remark of Helen Vendler's about Stevens:
I do violence to these lines in detaching them from what precedes and follows them, but I do so for a reason. More often than not, the human pang in Stevens is secreted inconspicuously in the poem, instead of being announced in the title or in the opening lines. It is the usual, if mistaken, way of the commentators to begin at the beginning and take Stevens's metaphysical or epistemological prolegomena as the real subject of the poem, when in fact they are the late plural of the subject, whose early candor of desire reposes further down the page. And so I isolate what I take to be the psychological or human "beginning" of the poem, its point of origin in feeling...

This was extremely useful advice: Stevens was an acquired taste for me, and even now I find that I usually have to rearrange a Stevens poem before I can appreciate it or understand why it is put together the way it is. There is a peculiar similarity here with the business of appreciating mathematical proofs, which I was reminded of by something Gowers said in his recent (and very good) post on proving the unique prime factorization theorem:
I worry sometimes that accounts like this of how a proof might be discovered can be off-puttingly long. So it’s important to stress that the actual proofs are much much shorter. Here’s how the proof that the above thoughts lead to ends up. I’ll just do the uniqueness part, and I’ll write the whole thing in logical order, which is more or less the reverse of the order in which one discovers the steps.
I am sympathetic to the idea that real appreciation is never without an element of reverse engineering, or of hypothetical intellectual history: the completed work in itself might offer some immediate delight, but to go any further you need to have some theory, accurate or not, of how it might have been arrived at, and why it was then organized as it was. (Notable exception here: Milton. But then I think of Paradise Lost as pure verbal texture a la Campion's songs.) I imagine that this is a more tenable procedure with a poem or a proof than it is with, e.g., a novel.

It has always struck me as a regrettable deficiency -- maybe a necessary one -- of education in math and physics that there is very little intellectual history, and I think it is fair to say that many practicing physicists are not connoisseurs by temperament; there is a widespread tendency to regard historical aspects as "impractical" -- which they are, for premeds and engineers -- though I have always found it invaluable to have a sense of how people have gone about doing things. (My views on pedagogy are too uninformed and too reactionary to discuss safely in public.)

[As an admin note I'll be traveling the two weeks after Thanksgiving: Boston Nov. 26-30, New Jersey Nov. 30-Dec 2, New York that Friday night and part/all of Saturday, San Francisco Dec. 6-8. It is only mildly indiscreet to note that this is all job-quest-related to some extent; the old talk has been revised and will have to be practiced and touched up repeatedly; it is against the culture of physics to read out any part of a talk, so that, in practice, one has to memorize the first three or four agonizing minutes until one hits one's stride.]

Thursday, November 17, 2011

1Q66 and All That

Charles Baxter reviews Murakami's 1Q84 (NYRB):
the locale also includes two moons, miniature angels or demons (it is hard to tell which they are) referred to as “Little People,” ghosts knocking on the door demanding payment, insemination-by-proxy, and air chrysalises: cocoons created by the Little People in which pod-like human replicas, referred to as dohta, are hatched. 1Q84 is a marathon novel. (Murakami himself is a marathon runner and has said that “most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.”)
But the Little People are "absolutely mystifying. It is as if the Seven Dwarfs had gradually made their presence known and their powers understood in a novel by James T. Farrell." I'm not sure I want to read this novel. (I've read very little Murakami, but have a vaguely favorable impression of what I've read -- read 2.2 novels in succession in 2009, then forgot my copy of Norwegian Wood between the sheets in a hotel room in Vannes, and never returned to his work.)

In other news, the Lethem-Wood plot has thickened, with James Wood responding to comments at the Millions -- I recommend Ctrl-F -- disconcertingly, Wood refers to himself in the third person and then seems surprised when other commenters refer to him as "'James Wood'". (Back-story: Lethem recently wrote a content-free whinge at the LARB (naturally) about a supposedly dishonest/elitist review by Wood ca. 2003; this got more coverage than it deserved because everyone likes to bait Wood.) I haven't read the comments, there are too many of them, but I am indebted to the (as-of-now) very last one, by "Edmond Caldwell," for a phrase -- revanchist domestication -- that accurately if uncharitably describes my approach to the more experimental stuff I like.

(Re post title see here.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"Not all good poetry is also 'important poetry'"

Mark Ford has a good article in the new LRB (gated) on A.S.J. Tessimond and Bernard Spencer, two largely forgotten English poets of the Auden generation; on the strength of the quotations, Tessimond seems reasonably worthwhile, Spencer less so. (Ford's remarks on Spencer seem muddled to me. Not only is all the quoted verse bristling with Audenesque phrases -- "a word or a lock which gunfire may not break, / Or a love whose range it may not take" -- but surely the idea that one couldn't write tentatively while under Auden's influence is refuted by the example of Louis MacNeice.) Anyway, here is Ford on Tessimond:
Tessimond can’t be said to have developed as a poet in any clearly discernible way, and it’s not easy when reading his posthumously published poems to decide which is early, which middle and which late. All seem buoyed up by his wit and curiosity and compassion; this is especially surprising given that in middle age he developed severe manic depression and underwent extensive electric shock therapy.

And here are two Tessimond poems quoted in the article, both of which I like:
Letter from Luton

Dear Hubert,
                  Bored, malevolent and mute on
A wet park seat, I look at life and Luton
And think of spittle, slaughterhouses, double
Pneumonia, schizophrenia, kidney trouble,
Piles, paranoia, gallstones in the bladder,
Manic depressive madness growing madder,
Cretins with hideous tropical diseases
And red-eyed necrophiles – while on the breezes
From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes
Like a damp frigid hand on my neuroses,
And Time (arthritic deaf-mute) stumbles on
And on and on and on.
                      Yours glumly,

In that cold land

Ghosts do not kiss, or, if they kiss, they feel
   Ice touching ice, and turn away, and shiver;
But there as here, perhaps, we still can steal
   Quietly off, and talk and talk for ever.

Friday, November 11, 2011

"The ambiguity of the apple"

Alan Garner remembers Alan Turing (Guardian):

He was stocky, barrel-chested, with a high-pitched, donnish voice and the aerodynamics of a brick. He was funny and witty and he talked endlessly, but I understood very little of what he was saying, and it became clear that he ran in order to think. He seemed to be obsessed by mathematics and biology. That much I could work out.

We had one thing in common: a fascination with Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, especially the transformation of the Wicked Queen into the Witch. He used to go over the scene in detail, dwelling on the ambiguity of the apple, red on one side, green on the other, one of which gave death. We had both been traumatised by Walt.
Also an appealing piece in Nature News, casting doubt on the claim (which I missed at the time) that cows are magnetic:
Three years ago, Hynek Burda, a zoologist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, and his colleagues added cattle to the magnetic family with a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team used data from Google Earth to show that domestic cattle seem to prefer to align their bodies along Earth’s magnetic field lines1, and showed a similar phenomenon in field observations of deer. [...] Burda and his colleagues reanalysed the replication attempt by Jelinek and his colleagues4. Burda says that half of the Jelinek team's data should be excluded because some of the pastures are on slopes or near high-voltage power lines, for example, or because the images are too poor to make out cattle, or appear to contain hay bales or sheep instead. “One half of their data is just noise,” says Burda.
I wonder if Lydia Davis reads Nature News.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Death to me subscribes"

Thanks to my favorite twitter bot Willy Shakes, I discovered this Shakespeare sonnet, which I don't even remember having read before (though I must have) but now like very much indeed:


 Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes:
   And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
   When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.

The last line is uncharacteristically good for a Shakespeare sonnet. I like the messing around with choriambs in the first two lines -- a stretch to call it a conscious rhythmical echo of "Exegi monumentum aere perennius," which the sonnet generally evokes, but it's very effective on its own terms. The second quatrain definitely refers -- to my mind -- to James I's peace with Spain ca. 1604, but there's some controversy about when exactly the poem was written. NB there is a very closely parallel passage by Drayton, who is more explicit about the events (Idea, LI):
Lastly mine eyes amazedly have seen
Essex's great fall, Tyrone his peace to gain;
The quiet end of that long-living Queen;
This King's fair entrance; and our peace with Spain,
We and the Dutch at length ourselves to sever.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Quite useful"

New issue of Science has a fascinating profile of the (depressive, hand-waving, enormously influential) evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers [Science 334, 589 (2011)]:
Stories of his reckless and aggressive side abound. He loves to use the words “fuck” and “motherfucker,” calling them quite useful, and he has gotten into public spats with many people over the years. Trivers can be brutally honest and plain rude, as many letters he has written to colleagues over the years testify.[...] Asked whether his discussion of Middle East politics might not turn off some people whom he might otherwise convince of his ideas, he just says, “Well, fuck 'em."

 Trivers has accused Brown, who he says was in charge of the statistics, of preselecting the dancers and changing the values on some of the dancers' measures of symmetry to get that result. Trivers has even written a short book about it that he sends to whoever cites the paper. Brown will only say that Rutgers is investigating the matter, and Nature has no comment.
A potentially useful aphorism:
“Did you know that the enjoyment of sex is actually correlated with sperm count in the ejaculate?” he asks. “So it is true that in old age you appreciate the smaller things more. There are no big things to enjoy anymore.”
According to the profile, "Most biologists spend their lives studying ants, geese, or other animals and then extend their conclusions to humans later in life. Trivers tended to start with humans." The profile in general reminds me of something I've always disliked about the human-and-mammal end of evolutionary biology, which is that people's scientific opinions are really worldviews -- and usually the worldviews that you would expect them to hold given their temperament and background. (Not surprising: as Lewontin remarked in an article -- NYRB? -- I cannot find, if your motives were scientific in the conventional sense you'd probably be studying plants.) Now there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, and you could even argue that the community picks out people whose worldviews happen to be good biology, but at a minimum it tends to blur the line between simplifying-one's-research and mouthing-off-in-general.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


From today's Chicago Tribune:
A routine burglary call at a South Side apartment building early Monday led police to an unusual find: 89 funeral vases and a metal plaque, allegedly stolen from area cemeteries. [...]

"I remember a while back … it hit the news that it was a big theft problem because of the value of the metal and the scrap prices," Malecki said.

Of mice and shoes

1. from Marianne Moore, "Silence":
Self reliant like the cat 
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth --
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
2. "Mice" in A.J. Snijders's Very Short Animal Stories (trans. Lydia Davis, in Asymptote):
A mouse inside a shoe is not a primal fear, not a trauma, but I do pay attention, all the same. It's because of the open roofs. I have a house with three tile roofs. They used to be haylofts, they were not timbered, the wind had to be allowed to blow through freely, against the heat and damp. Time and objectives change, I timbered one roof, gas was installed, the electricity went underground, drainage pipes were laid, but the mice stayed. The house is in the fields, there are mice everywhere. [...] Yesterday in a forgotten cupboard I found two pairs of shoes. I recognized them, old, but still useable. First I hold them by the tips, and I shake them—to be absolutely sure, I even poke them with a little piece of wood. Then I put them on; once my feet are inside them, I feel ten years younger, but that doesn't help, I'm still thinking about the oil, the energy, the mice, the people and the water.

I have a Google-reader-shaped hole in my heart, now that their latest shitty "update" has excised not only the social features but the "share with note" feature I used to make clippings. For now I've made a new tumblr that should serve some of the same purposes (via GReader's "send to" feature), but it is more work and doesn't work nearly as well. The malign Google+, which is cannibalizing all of Google's other "social" features in a futile attempt to compete with Facebook, is apparently to blame... I fear for the future of Google chat.