Monday, December 7, 2009

The Great Panjandrum Himself

You will find the text with illustrations here, thanks to Project Gutenberg.

So she went into the garden
to cut a cabbage-leaf
to make an apple-pie;
and at the same time
a great she-bear, coming down the street,
pops its head into the shop.
What! no soap?
     So he died,
and she very imprudently married the Barber:
and there were present
the Picninnies,
     and the Joblillies,
               and the Garyulies,
and the great Panjandrum himself,
with the little round button at top;
and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can,
till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Changing and crossing

Would you want to read a book endorsed thusly?
"In this dazzling dialogue, Zizek and Milbank change words and cross swords, until the point where both recognize that Christ and Hegel, in their monstrosity, look very much alike. A phenomenal achievement!"
—Catherine Malabou, Maître de Conferences, Philosophy Department, Université Paris-X Nanterre
Of course you wouldn't. My pleasure. Don't mention it (the book, that is).

The book is entitled The Monstrosity of Christ. Paradox or Dialectic?. I don't know what it's called. The caterpillar would.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jung: an analyst's work is never done

From Luciano Mecacci, Freudian Slips. The casualties of psychoanalysis from the Wolf Man to Marilyn Monroe.

Loewenstein: analyst of Sinatra and Lacan

From Luciano Mecacci, Freudian Slips. The casualties of psychoanalysis from the Wolf Man to Marilyn Monroe.

Marily Monroe's shrinks and lovers, and theirs

From Luciano Mecacci, Freudian Slips. The casualties of psychoanalysis from the Wolf Man to Marilyn Monroe. I wonder if disastri in the original Italian title is more drastic than "casualties": Il caso Marilyn M. e altri disastri della psicoanalisí.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I recently discovered the 17th-century English writer and churchman Thomas Fuller (here are some of his witticisms and aphorisms).

The first collection of his sermons was published in 1640 under the title Joseph's Party-Coloured Coat, which I am now reading. In the Wikipedia article (from the EB 1911), the title was given as Joseph's Partly-Coloured Coat. I corrected it there as a "minor change", giving as reason "corrected partly-coloured to party-coloured in title of book by Fuller". Of course before doing this I had checked the title in an edition scanned into Google.

One Adam Bishop (user page) has now reverted my correction. I wonder why? Was it to restore the mistake from the original EB article (assuming it was there)? Was it because his intuitions about the correctness of a bit of old-timey English prevailed over knowledge of it?

An unread speaker of contemporary English might well think: "party-coloured doesn't make sense, a party doesn't have a colour, it must be 'partly-coloured'". This would reveal not only ignorance of the word parti-coloured (in today's spelling), but also of the biblical story of Joseph's coat, which in the KJV is a "coat of many colours". "Partly coloured" doesn't even make much sense, apart from being wrong in the context of Joseph's coat. If anything, the coat was "completely coloured". That would be true even if it had been of only one colour.

I added an external link to Joseph's Party-Coloured Coat in the Wikipedia article, undid Bishop's reversion, and am waiting for the next episode. Is it often this hard to correct such a simple mistake in a Wikipedia article, against the opposition of people who work by intuition? All Bishop would have had to do was to check a library, or find a scanned edition of the book, as I did. If he wasn't working by intuition, what was he working by?

I see that "partly-coloured" has started propagating in search results, sites that apparently contain cut-and-paste sections of the Wikipedia article with the typo. Compare the results of searching for "Thomas Fuller" and "partly-coloured", with those of searching for "Thomas Fuller" and "party-coloured".

One of the biggest problems with the Wikipedia approach is that mistakes spread before they can be corrected, if they ever are corrected.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Exquisite detail

Sometimes I encounter single words that bind an exquisite detail. Decades ago, I read this in a dictionary:
fremitus: a sensation felt by a hand placed on a part of the body (as the chest) that vibrates during speech
A fremitus is not what is felt by the person speaking, in his own chest and by it, but by a hand (his own or someone else's) placed on his chest. In what situation would the need for such a word arise? I think I read it originally in a medical dictionary. Could an absence of fremitus when someone is speaking be a symptom of some malfunction? Or is fremitus just a reality-detail with a name?

The last sentence of Bacon's essay Of Studies is: "So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt". I wondered whether "nostrum" had the same connotations as "receipt" in the 16th century, and what the sense was of nostrum = "our". So I looked it up in the OED:
nostrum: A medicine, or medical application, prepared by the person recommending it; esp. a quack remedy, a patent medicine
The exquisite detail is "prepared by the person recommending it", which explains the "our".

Monday, September 21, 2009

PC and sympathy

At the Kansas State University website I find an astonishing claim that Browning's Johannes Agricola in Meditation is "unsympathetic" to Agricola. The commentator on the poem, which is reproduced there, says it shows how well the technique of dramatic monologue
can be used for effects of humor and purposes of satire. In the speaker of the poem we encounter the poet's unsympathetic imagination of the kind of mentality he believed was fostered by the teachings of the tradition known as Protestant Antinomianism.
It is hard for me to imagine the imaginative machinery of a person who takes this poem to be presenting an unsympathetic picture of Agricola. The tendency of the poem, blindingly effective in every line, is to render the passionately felt belief of an "Antinomian" in such a way as to make the reader able to recreate it in his own imagination.

But the induction of sympathy is not a call to belief. This is where I think the commentator goes astray. I can find only one explanation for his or her calling the poem an "unsympathetic imagination" of Agricola. This explanation requires me to suppose that the commentator is a thoroughly modern, all-embracing Protestant (that is, anti-Antinomian and so non-Agricultural) who yet believes that to sympathize is to condone. The commentator likes Browning and wants things to stay that way. So in the poem Browning must be unsympathetically portraying Agricola's beliefs, because the commentator does not sympathize with those beliefs. I can barely imagine reading the poem in such a frame of mind: "Agricola is presented as self-righteous, he thinks he's OK with God and so can write off everyone else without a qualm".

But it's not always about sympathy and poetical correctness. The commentator seems to be unfamiliar with the willing suspension of belief, as a technique of reading - in this case religious belief. That is the counterpart, for the Christian literary critic, of what Coleridge once hoped to encourage in a different context, in the general public. Note that I have nowhere implied here, nor intend to claim, that Browning "had Antinomian sympathies". Rather, I am stating a generalized version of Coleridge's idea: that it can be useful to occasionally suspend belief, and disbelief, and anything else that a reader may otherwise depend on - in the interests of gaining new insights, as well as avoiding chronic dependence on the old ones. Change the label, and think again, at least once a week.

The poem starts:

There's heaven above, and night by night
I look right through its gorgeous roof;
No suns and moons though e'er so bright
Avail to stop me; splendour-proof
I keep the broods of stars aloof:
For I intend to get to God,
For 't is to God I speed so fast,
For in God's breast, my own abode,
Those shoals of dazzling glory, passed,
I lay my spirit down at last.
I lie where I have always lain,
God smiles as he has always smiled;
Ere suns and moons could wax and wane,
Ere stars were thundergirt, or piled
The heavens, God thought on me his child;
Ordained a life for me, arrayed
Its circumstances every one
To the minutest; ay, God said
This head this hand should rest upon
Thus, ere he fashioned star or sun.
And having thus created me,
Thus rooted me, he bade me grow,
Guiltless for ever, like a tree
That buds and blooms, nor seeks to know
The law by which it prospers so:

The poem ends:

For as I lie, smiled on, full-fed
By unexhausted power to bless,
I gaze below on hell's fierce bed,
And those its waves of flame oppress,
Swarming in ghastly wretchedness;
Whose life on earth aspired to be
One altar-smoke, so pure! -- to win
If not love like God's love for me,
At least to keep his anger in;
And all their striving turned to sin.
Priest, doctor, hermit, monk grown white
With prayer, the broken-hearted nun,
The martyr, the wan acolyte,
The incense-swinging child, -- undone
Before God fashioned star or sun!
God, whom I praise; how could I praise,
If such as I might understand,
Make out and reckon on his ways,
And bargain for his love, and stand,
Paying a price at his right hand?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Chance in a lifetime

For many years I have always held a German number-lottery ticket. I buy only the cheapest one, which merely makes me a participant. Unlike many people, I don't try to improve my chances by poring over the results of previous drawings to decide what numbers to select, or by subscribing to "systems", and I don't look forward feverishly to the drawings. I always check the same six numbers, and remain indifferent to anything except the million Euros (more or less) that would flow my way if I "won".

Some acquaintances indulge themselves in mild ridicule at this minimalist approach of mine. They think either that the lottery itself is a waste of time, or that I should invest more. At the end of his Memoirs of my Life and Writings, I find Gibbon explaining my views on this subject. I too see no reason to be perfectly easy about anything:
The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful. This day may possibly be my last: but the laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular, still allow about fifteen years. [Mr. Buffon, from our disregard of the possibility of death within the four and twenty hours, concludes that a chance, which falls below or rises above ten thousand to one, will never affect the hopes or fears of a reasonable man. The fact is true, but our courage is the effect of thoughtlessness, rather than of reflection. If a public lottery were drawn for, the choice of an immediate victim, and if our name were inscribed on one of the ten thousand tickets, should we be perfectly easy?]

Monday, July 27, 2009

Splitting time's shadow

Hugh Mellor, in a contribution to philosophy bites, explains why he thinks that "time is essentially tenseless". I agree with this view unreservedly. A neat remark he makes during the piece is: "the present automatically follows you around".

Most physics is all the same, whatever view you take about time. But physicists for some reason have a problem with time. They think there is a puzzle about it. They are not willing to take whatever is measured by clocks, and other devices for measuring time, as just an ordinary physical variable like temperature, or indeed distance in space. And so the last issue but one of the New Scientist had a long and very silly piece in it, by someone whose name escapes me (it had better escape me for the moment) - but the time illusion idea, the history of people thinking that time is an illusion, is very long and rather respectable. For some reason it gets physicists' goat. I have no idea why. The idea that time is an illusion can be traced back to the idea that people have a vague sense that there's something odd about tense - and indeed, if you think that tense is a feature of the world, that's an illusion. What is not an illusion, as I have said, is that we are in the world and need to think in tense terms. But it [tense] is not a property of time itself.

But why people get so upset about this, I have no idea. It's on a par with people who think that splitting infinitives is worse than murdering your grandmother.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Missippi thump

Radio 4 is running a serialization of The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which takes place in Jackson, Mississippi. I have never lived long anywhere to the east of Texas, but there's something about the state, where my family comes from, that's like an invitation to fade away there, when the time comes. When in the serialization I hear a kid being corrected for "sass-mouthin'", I get homesick.

One of the best utterances so far was by a woman who had to run hide in the guest bathroom, because she wasn't supposed to visiting the house. She said: "I crouched on the toilet lid, my heart thumpin' like a cat caught in a clothes-dryer".

Friday, July 10, 2009

Hostage to good breeding

I have sometimes had to deal with a certain type of person who can make me regret my good-naturedness, my willingness to give way, forgive and forget. A literary exemplar of this type is Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park. Sweetly manipulative, smoothly offensive and so misunderstood when someone expects her to do what she had said she would.

By being associated with Mrs. Norris, you can be drawn into situations where you feel you're being taken advantage of. By association, you can get a bad reputation when she turns spiteful towards one of your friends. You don't know what to do or say, since for a while she's been all sweetness and light. But lower your guard, and suddenly the monkey's on your back again.

Mrs. Norris of course always thinks of herself as the little match girl, more to be pitied than despised. She will never admit she's stepped out of line. She would rather cut her throat than eat crow, and won't even acknowledge what's on the plate the waitress has just slammed down in front of her. Mrs. Norris is aggrieved, and refuses to see that what is coming to her is exactly what she ordered.

For several years there have been panhandlers in Cologne, young punk-like beggars, who sidle up to you and put on a display of hyperpoliteness and deference, talking on and on until they finally get to the pitch. Many people don't know what to do, because they're not accustomed to being taken hostage to their good breeding in this manner. They end up giving something, just to escape from themselves.

Me, the instant I recognize what's going on (which is almost immediately), I say "buzz off" (or something yet more disobliging, depending on the weather) and continue on my merry way. I'm not going to let some bozo turn my good-naturedness into a bear trap. And yet that is exactly what has happened. I feel forced to be nasty for an instant, in order to stay nice. I resent this very much. Mrs. Norris also presents a challenge to good-naturedness. I find that my own approach is a more flexible immune strategy than good breeding.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

All shall be well

Here is another mention loop.

After all the nerve-wracking business of "Language Hat: The Movie" and "Hat Audio: Barchester Towers", I thought of mailing Crown an encouraging word. The phrase "all shall be well, and all shall be well" occurred to me. Where did it come from? Ah, Julian of Norwich (beware the electronic harmonium in your ears when the page has loaded), a 14th century English mystic. A woman called Julian?! But wait: "Little is known of her life aside from her writings. Even her name is uncertain, the name 'Julian' coming from the Church of St Julian in Norwich, where she was an anchoress". I found the phrase in the Revelations of Divine Love:
It is sooth [95] that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well.
[95] i.e. truth, an actual reality. See lxxxii.
I wondered about this gloss on sooth as "actual reality", because of soothfastly, For I saw soothly in our Lord's teaching etc. elsewhere in the text. [Mental note: why does truth = "actual reality" seem crazy to me? Because I think of truth exclusively as contrasted with falsity, i.e. as belonging to propositional logic. That other truth, being contrasted with illusion, I call "reality". Oops - I'm smack-dab in the middle of Begriffsgeschichte].

So, I checked the OED. Under "say", at 11 a., I found "sooth to say" as expected. Then my eye caught this at 11b. "not to say", a loop-back to Barchester Towers:
Trollope Barchester T. xliv, ‘Am not I [growing old], my dear?’ ‘No, papa, not old—not to say old’.

Jigsawing on the high seas

I've started rereading Mansfield Park with a view to hatcasting it, as just suggested by Crown, or perhaps doing something entirely different. Already towards the end of Chapter 2, I encountered the very passage about jigsaw puzzles that was referred to in a recent TLS review of Margaret Drabble's new book The Pattern in the Carpet (see below for an excerpt from the review). Last week I listed Drabble among the novelists I had read in the 70's.

I experience such mention-loops frequently, in my philosophy and sociology readings as well. In some cases, I have surmised that my activities and interests must partly overlap those of other people, in some cloudy network of association and cross-reference involving certain publications and the internet. They're not just coincidences, but nor do they add up to a Zeitgeist. More like a gang of Caspar-the-ghosts.

Yet the temporal proximity of these semi-events is strange, when they come to my attention. It's not surprising, for instance, that I read Austen novels long ago, and that many other people have read them too, and that someone mentions one of her novels today. That's merely due to a certain type of shared cultural background. What surprises me is that a particular detail in a particular novel of Austen crops up within a short space of time in contexts that have nothing to do with each other.

In view of the enormous quantity of stuff "mentioned" in the internet, and of the fact that I am not a culture-vulture, and read seemingly quite disparate things in a disorganized way - what could explain these mention-loops? Perhaps it's a kind of "statistical observation defect" on my part, as I think it's called. Precisely because I can't really organize the enormous quantity of stuff that goes through my head, I clutch at coincidences. Thus "primed" to see coincidences, I then see them everywhere. It's the kind of thing that leads some people to a belief in telepathy, or to paranoia.

It may just be a way of clinging to the mast as my ship tosses on the high seas of words. Order out of noise.

The review of Drabble's book starts in this way:

Virginia Woolf once used the idea of patchwork to describe biography, an art which tacks together pieces of stuff with torn edges. Margaret Drabble, instead, chooses the jigsaw puzzle as the controlling metaphor for her new memoir. This book, she tells us, was originally intended as a “harmless” jeu d’esprit on the history of the jigsaw; personal material began to creep in; but then jigsaws reasserted themselves, pushing the autobiographical elements to the edges of the frame. The result is a generically indeterminate work of covert sophistication – “I am not sure what it is”, writes Drabble with deceptive artlessness – whose meandering surface hints at personal depths often too painful to apprehend directly.

The phrase “jigsaw puzzle” was not coined until the late nineteenth century – from the narrow-bladed tool known as a jigsaw, originally designed for cutting fretwork, and fitted to a treadle in the 1870s, allowing for the easier production of the puzzles. The earliest examples, dating from the 1760s, had smooth, rather than interlocking, edges, and were educational aids designed to teach geography. When one of the Bertram sisters ridicules Fanny Price in Mansfield Park for being unable to “put the map of Europe together”, she is referring to just such a puzzle. It is not surprising that the impoverished Price family could not afford one, as the cost of these magnificent “dissected maps” tended to confine their use to upper-class households; they were also considered helpful for teaching young royals about world domination.

One of the earliest jigsaw manufacturers also produced silk kerchiefs printed with maps. Other novelty hankies soon followed – presumably the Chatterton one was for weeping into – and once it was realized that any image could be broken up and reassembled, the scope of the jigsaw itself expanded indefinitely, eventually encompassing, as it does today, images from high art (the Jackson Pollock Drabble mentions sounds particularly terrifying to do)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Hat Audio: Barchester Towers

Not caring to be outdone by "Language Hat: the Movie", I wondered which Hatticker personae would be suited to read which roles in the audiobook of a novel or play. (Unfortunately, the film will be delayed because the casting studios had to be shut down by the riot police.)

I first tried casting for several novels at once, so that as many people as possible would get a slot. But I quickly ran out of diplomatic choices for "problematic" characters, since there are too many agreeable Hattickers.

Also, I was annoyed to find there's no way around Noetica for the really heavy roles, some of which I would have liked for myself. For instance Lady Bracknell. But few Americans are seriously up to that mark of verbal delivery, certainly not me. Mr. N., being commonwealthy, has a more precise sense of the required intonation patterns, I don't doubt.

So I restricted myself to Barchester Towers, which I think turned out plausible enough if you remember the characters. Still, I couldn't find anyone for poor old Dr. Proudie.

Mrs. Proudie____________Noetica
Dr. Proudie_____________A. N. Other
Mr. Slope_______________Grumbly

Mr. Harding_____________Crown
His daughter Eleanor______Codfish
Archdeacon Grantly_______Hat
His wife Susan___________marie-lucie
John Bold_______________jamessal

Mr. Popular Sentiment______Nijma
Mr. Pessimist Anticant______John Emerson
The Jupiter_______________David Marjanovic

Noetica is assumed capable of masterful intonation, Grumbly definitely can muster smoldering resentment. Crown is fair to a fault, like Mr. Harding. Hat occasionally politicks to set things straight, while m-l calmly and reasonably subdues the storms of opinion. jamessal is a bit hot-headed, but gets the girl Eleanor in the end. Nijma is against Too Much Information, while John reviles fatuousness. David's views often seem to be set in booming type.

One special effects, hold the plot

My mother passed through Germany once, on her way to join an excursion of American bible-folk to Holy-Land places. I went down to Munich to meet her, and we drove on to Vienna (can't remember why). The sky was overcast after heavy rain, until suddenly a gigantic hole opened in the clouds and 11,000 Hester Prynne units of light streamed downwards - much as in Mab's picture, but on a larger scale.

My mother was, of course, overcome with quiet excitement. She said: "that's what it will be like at the Second Coming of Christ". I too thought it a fantastic sight, but this remark of hers spoiled it for me. I think I said to her something like: "oh you should go to the movies more, that kind of thing is old hat" - trying to spoil it for her too.

Back in Cologne, I considered what a sarky, blasé bastard I had been to say that - no matter that I dislike the woman for her fanatic and surreptitiously manipulative brand of Christianity. Let Christ come in all His glory for all I care. I merely need to proceed as Ralf does with MacDonald's hamburgers - first he removes the pickles.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Neighborhood life

I like living in deceptively empty neighborhoods, where you can enjoy peace and quiet but there is a lot of action nearby if you feel like truckin'. Just as your body is covered with bacteria and viruses that you don't normally need to bother with, the immediate vicinity of zero is teeming with infinitesimally small (non-standard) numbers. Non-well-founded sets lurk at the city limits of well-founded ones. What's so interesting about going to Mars, with all that at hand?

[This is not crazy-talk, just a flowery arrangement of mathematical stuff about which I actually know much less than I would like.]

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Boring and icky

In "Start the week" on Radio 4 last night, there was discussion about a modern opera called L'amour de loin, by a Finnish composer but translated into English for this new production, and about Justin Cartwright's new novel. The name of the opera struck me as icky, the plot as boring, and the musical excerpt made me fidget (Henze with harps in the background). Some prince "transcendently" in love with a princess sails across a sea to meet up with her, moaning the while in twelve tones or more (a synthesizer is in there to "provide sheen"). When the prince reaches his destination, he dies before cashing in.

Because Andrew Marr and guests were interrupting each other so much, I got the impression that the translated title was "To Heaven By Water", which I thought fabulously superior to L'amour de loin. Checking my facts to write this post, I discovered that it's the title of Cartwright's novel, a phrase from the Hades episode of Ulysses.

What a pity. But it gives me the idea of posting (later) a rant about the excruciatingly flatfooted titles that Germans dream up when they translate English-language books and films. Take the animated film "Spirited Away", which is here "Chihiros Reise ins Wunderland" (Chihiro's Journey to Wonderland). Admittedly, the English title is too clever to be easily rendered, but the German one doesn't even attempt to be more than a prosaic description.

I can't remember more examples just now - they were so stupid that I forgot them. The general tendency is to things like "Death and Violence", or "The Green Banks of Love" - glaring or gushing phrases you expect to find in a blurb, but not amounting to snappy titles. It seems to me that, as time goes on, titles are just being left in English. "Blade Runner", "Misery" and "L.A. Crash" already ran as themselves, years ago.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Complete Smiley

Radio 4 is continuing its series of dramatizations of John le Carré's spy novels with George Smiley. This Sunday, July 4, brings "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold". The first two, "Call For the Dead" and "A Murder of Quality", were excellently done: in particular, for those who remember the novels, Smiley's imaginary conversations with his estranged (divorced?) wife Lady Ann.

In the late 70s and early 80s, I read all of le Carré up to and including "The Little Drummer Girl". I read a lot of "complete works in progress" back then, as well as "complete works" where death had conveniently drawn the line. Those in English were my only respite from 24/7 German. I read everything I could get my hands on by Eric Ambler, Dorothy Sayers, Barbara Pym, Raymond Chandler, Saul Bellow, Elizabeth Bowen, Margaret Drabble, Beckett, Trollope, Thackeray, Nietzsche (the lot), Dickens ...

Later, in the 80s and 90s, it was Max Frisch, Fay Weldon, Thomas Bernhard (alles), Schopenhauer, Sloterdijk, Robert Walser, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Eudora Welty, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Gowdy, Fontane, Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver ...

While reading each writer, I was in a special mood and atmosphere that I can still remember. The Radio 4 series brought that back for le Carré.

There are plenty of lady writers in those reading lists, and not by accident. Too often I would become fascinated with a writer like Bellow, Thomas Mann or Frisch, then suddenly be fed up with the smug, intelligent-adolescent personalities of their main characters. Great prose, of course, but populated by predatory, self-pitying intellectuals. I meantersay, no self-respecting man can spend much time in front of a mirror, reading such stuff. So depressing.

Friday, June 26, 2009


The expression "grows like Topsy" is apparently from Uncle Tom's Cabin, which I read long ago. Like so many books written prior to 1984 or thereabouts, it doubtless gives the inmates of political correction institutions many an opportunity to fume and froth.

I wonder how these people could ever achieve a sense of the past as something other than "it's not my thing". Perhaps they might meditate on a thing they do have in common with folks dead and gone - outrage, that combination of the two traditional sins of wrath and pride. We have never been modern, as Bruno Latour wrote.

Here is what I found on Topsy:
St. Clare's daughter Eva becomes friends with the young slave girl Topsy, and the novel recounts a conversation between Topsy and St. Clare's cousin Ophelia:

"Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?" The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual. "Do you know who made you?" "Nobody, as I knows on," said the child, with a short laugh. The idea appeared to amuse her considerably; for her eyes twinkled, and she added, "I spect I grow'd. Don't think nobody never made me." [Chapter XX]

Given the astounding popularity of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (at the time of its publication it outsold every book previously published in the U.S. except the Bible), legions of readers were charmed by Topsy's declaration that she just "growed." Soon "it growed like Topsy" had become a popular figure of speech to describe something that grew or increased by itself, without apparent design or intention, and by 1885 Rudyard Kipling was explaining to a correspondent that "I have really embarked ... on my novel.. Like Topsy 'it growed' while I wrote." Today "grow like Topsy" is most often heard in criticism of bureaucratic institutions or government budgets, for whose bloated sprawl and inefficiency no one is eager to take credit.

From "The Word Detective" (April 27, 2002)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Incivil servant

I have a broadband contract with T-Mobile, the severed arm of the former German communications monopoly, das Deutsche Fernmeldeamt. Their employees still have a tendency to bureaucratic give-a-damnedness, as the following example shows.

T-Mobile provides wireless services. I pay a flat monthly rate for a high-speed connection. As I reported recently, it turns out that the fine print in the contract allows T-Mobile to degrade my service for the remainder of any month in which I download a total of 5 gigabytes. I hit that limit again today around 18:00, and then it took over 5 minutes to load Crown's home page. There is probably high traffic around this time, but still, this is more like termination than degradation.

My father always told me to "go to the top" with complaints, and take a wad of bills with me. So I called the service line, but couldn't get past the first call center smoothie who took my call. I asked how much would I have to pay to upgrade my service to avoid this volume restriction, but was told that it was impossible to do that. The schmuck didn't even suggest an alternative. He seemed offended by my question, as if I had tendered a bribe.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Décision de réserve

In an interview from 2000 excerpted below, Sloterdijk explains the thinking behind his decision to walk softly and carry a small stick.

[Skip to next paragraph if this one proves too excruciating]
He sketches his view of our "postconsensual" society, in which "truths" are more appropriately described as "symbolic immune systems", rather than external resources we compete with each other to acquire. We are condemned to the ceaseless task of wielding morpho-immunological shields against microbial invasions and "experiences, those impediments to our semantic arrangements". Each of us, in his/her inescabably defensive position of self-maintenance, would do well to cultivate a radical respect for the defensive needs of others.

I am disgusted by the whiff of pretentiousness in the last paragraph, which is my attempt to give a sense of the excerpt by translating phrases from it into English. But it's damned hard to recreate a vocabulary and style from scratch, even with recourse to congeneric words.

Sloterdijk's style is a baroque literary German that is both precise and allusive. I have my doubts about the French in this interview, but then I'm not a French intellectual. I trust to Sloterdijk, who is bilingual. I have a sinking feeling that I am condemned to parallel existences in distinct language worlds. But it may mean, on a positive view, that I have cognitive spare parts stored safely in different locations, and don't have to wait for advances in stem cell application.

P.S.: One problem with my paraphrasing of the interview in the second paragraph is just that: the paragraph attempts to "summarize" the interview in a few sentences. Maybe there is something like a semantic compaction index for authors, that specifies the maximum amount that an author's texts can be compressed and still be meaningful.

The full interview of Sloterdijk by Éric Alliez in March 2000 is Vivre chaud et penser froid.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Clouds of ontology, Part 1

The last few years I have been encountering expressions containing the word "ontology" in the context of natural sciences, computer science and the internet - "medical ontology", "web ontology". For some reasons or other I feel deeply suspicious about all this, without yet knowing zilch about it. I suppose one reason is that it appears to involve a lot of freshly-minted software, fancy terminology, amiably intelligent hotshots and research loads-a-money. After 25 years in IT, I am fed up to the teeth with that - except for the last item, natch.

I should just mention that I find "ontology" and "epistemology" to be fairly useless words. They made serious sense only in the context of the dogmatically dualistic world-view sometimes called "Cartesian". They have appeared in various philosophical guises in the past, for instance in connection with the similarities and differences between "Venus" and "the morning/evening star". Supposedly someone asked Tolstoi what the difference was between governmental violence and revolutionary violence. He replied, "the difference between cat shit and dog shit". Of course that may be somewhat unfair. I'm sure it makes a difference to upholstery cleaners.

Anyway, I have put on my red riding hood, grabbed my basket, and gone out zilch-collecting in Entity Forest. So far, I have found a few possibly digestible items, and only two toadstools - but these two are quite toxic. I will describe them in a subsequent post. But now, a word about our sponsor: "ontology". (Actually not yet a sponsor, but I'm going to apply for a grant).

One of the success stories in the ontology business appears to be Barry Smith. I reported slightly sarcastically on his having won big money 10 years ago. He is professor of philosophy at the University of Buffalo, and editor of the revived Monist. I once watched some of the videos in a training course he did called "Introduction to Biomedical Ontologies". They're extremely interesting and well-presented, in contrast with other stuff I've found on the internet. From Smith's course, a picture is emerging for me of serious and useful work being done at least in medicine and genetic science. But attendant on this are gigantic clouds of brow-knitted philosophastering - as has ever been the case in IT, where those involved are called consultants.

The guy credited with popularizing the term "ontology" in its new sense in 1992, beyond the confines of AI, is Tom Gruber. He originally wrote: "An ontology is a specification of a conceptualization". Hmmm. But that was only the short answer. He goes on:

What is an Ontology?

Short answer:
An ontology is a specification of a conceptualization.
The word "ontology" seems to generate a lot of controversy in discussions about AI. It has a long history in philosophy, in which it refers to the subject of existence. It is also often confused with epistemology, which is about knowledge and knowing.

In the context of knowledge sharing, I use the term ontology to mean a specification of a conceptualization. That is, an ontology is a description (like a formal specification of a program) of the concepts and relationships that can exist for an agent or a community of agents. This definition is consistent with the usage of ontology as set-of-concept-definitions, but more general. And it is certainly a different sense of the word than its use in philosophy.

What is important is what an ontology is for. My colleagues and I have been designing ontologies for the purpose of enabling knowledge sharing and reuse. In that context, an ontology is a specification used for making ontological commitments. The formal definition of ontological commitment is given below. For pragmetic reasons, we choose to write an ontology as a set of definitions of formal vocabulary. Although this isn't the only way to specify a conceptualization, it has some nice properties for knowledge sharing among AI software (e.g., semantics independent of reader and context). Practically, an ontological commitment is an agreement to use a vocabulary (i.e., ask queries and make assertions) in a way that is consistent (but not complete) with respect to the theory specified by an ontology. We build agents that commit to ontologies. We design ontologies so we can share knowledge with and among these agents.
"Semantics independent of reader and context": that's a nice one! In his philosophical reading, Gruber possibly didn't get as far as Gadamer and Luhmann, to name but two. I bet even old Schleiermacher would have dropped his veil in shock. It's also a tiny bit inconsistent to say ontology is "often confused with epistemology, which is about knowledge and knowing", and yet claim that his ontologies are "for the purpose of enabling knowledge sharing and reuse". If an ontology is a prerequisite for knowledge, where does knowledge of the ontology come from? Turning and turning in a widening gyre ...

Why does Gruber cling to the word ontology, when he says that "it is certainly a different sense of the word than its use in philosophy", and he would in fact be better served by the term "epistemology" if he's concerned with knowledge? Because it sounds more down-to-earth, that's why. The earth is real, you see. On the published evidence here, Gruber is another Realist wrapped in the cloak of Formalism, trying to gate-crash the Groves of Episteme. "An ontological commitment is an agreement to use a vocabulary (i.e., ask queries and make assertions) in a way that is consistent (but not complete) with respect to the theory specified by an ontology." Tee-hee!

16 years on, Gruber has another definition, in which he writes that some people have said that "computational ontology [is] a kind of applied philosophy". Here, as often, philosophy seems to mean the thinking of deep thoughts, not familiarity with actual philosophers. Gruber does not appear to disagree with that view:

In the context of computer and information sciences, an ontology defines a set of representational primitives with which to model a domain of knowledge or discourse. The representational primitives are typically classes (or sets), attributes (or properties), and relationships (or relations among class members). The definitions of the representational primitives include information about their meaning and constraints on their logically consistent application. In the context of database systems, ontology can be viewed as a level of abstraction of data models, analogous to hierarchical and relational models, but intended for modeling knowledge about individuals, their attributes, and their relationships to other individuals.
Historical Background

The term "ontology" comes from the field of philosophy that is concerned with the study of being or existence. In philosophy, one can talk about an ontology as a theory of the nature of existence (e.g., Aristotle's ontology offers primitive categories, such as substance and quality, which were presumed to account for All That Is). In computer and information science, ontology is a technical term denoting an artifact that is designed for a purpose, which is to enable the modeling of knowledge about some domain, real or imagined.

The term had been adopted by early Artificial Intelligence (AI) researchers ... Some researchers, drawing inspiration from philosophical ontologies, viewed computational ontology as a kind of applied philosophy [10].

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rapped on the accents

Many search algorithms that I have used in the internet and locally installed software are lenient about punctuation and diacritical parsley such as accent aigu and Umlaut. As I remember, Google used to silently "normalize" in the background (ö and oe giving approximately the same results for German words), but it doesn't do that anymore.

The Diccionario de la lengua Española, maintained by the Real Academia Española, is unforgiving. Rereading Nerval's El desdichado, I wanted to know what the Academia had to say about desdichado. There is a "coloq." subentry saying sin malicia, pusilánime. Since the English congenerics have very distinct meanings, I wanted to check the Spanish. I entered pusilanime without bothering about the accent, and got this:
La palabra pusilanime no está registrada en el Diccionario. Las que se muestran a continuación tienen una escritura cercana.

* pusilánime
Since there was only one entry "in the vicinity" of what I entered, I thought: the software might just as well have opened to that result. But no, it knuckles me to acknowledge that "á" is not "a" in Spanish orthography. This is not a case where I would say (formulating as a native English speaker) that "the accent makes a difference" in meaning, apart from indicating the syllable to be stressed . But then si (if) and (yes) are completely different words.

On the whole, I should just take the rap and purge the "diacritical parsley" idea from my head. It makes life easier.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

French antiquity

I just discovered that modern French is more than 100,000 years old, on good authority. Let me explain how I found this out.

languagehat's recent post That darn gene again is about sensationalist claims by some people that a certain FOXP2 "gene" is "responsible" for language, and even grammar. The post links to a Language Log article from 2005 by Geoff Pullum, who puts these claims in their place - the dustbin of media malarkey. Pullum quotes from a useful 2003 survey by Alec MacAndrew entitled FOXP2 and the Evolution of Language . MacAndrew says this:
No-one should imagine that the development of language relied exclusively on a single mutation in FOXP2. They are many other changes that enable speech. Not least of these are profound anatomical changes that make the human supralarygeal pathway entirely different from any other mammal. The larynx has descended so that it provides a resonant column for speech (but, as an unfortunate side-effect, predisposes humans to choking on food). Also, the nasal cavity can be closed thus preventing vowels from being nasalised and thus increasing their comprehensibility. These changes cannot have happened over such a short period as 100,000 years.
The 100,000 figure comes from this:
... by looking at silent polymorphisms in the gene, Enard et al estimate that the mutations in the FOXP2 in the human lineage occurred between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago
Having been polishing my French like a madman over the last few years, I find these observations helpful in understanding why my ability to understand spoken French, apart from that of intellectuals, still does not shine as it should. I conclude that the incomprehensible, nasalizing quality of French vowels must have been established before larynges descended, and noses closed, to enable the bell-like* clarity of West Texas English.

*Think Big Ben rather than Tinkerbell.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Spooky moola

I will now show how God helps those who help themselves to what's on offer.

A few years back I read about the 2004 experiments in Vienna demonstrating quantum entanglement. This is explained in a 2005 article in the publication LaserFocusWorld:
One of the most bizarre predictions of quantum mechanics is that a pair of particles can become entangled, which means that measuring the properties of one particle instantly determines the state of the second no matter how far apart the two are.
For the layman like myself, this seems to mean that information, such as the results of measurements made on a photon, say, in one place, "is transmitted instantaneously" to another photon in another place. That is, when similar measurements are made at the second place at the same time, the same results turn up. And all this without the hindrance that the speed of light represents for any kind of movement. To make sense of "immediately", imagine that the two sites are equidistant from a third site with a clock, with which each site synchronizes its local clock.

Einstein called this "spooky action at a distance". In their famous 1935 EPR paper (Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen), the fact that such a result was predicted by quantum mechanics was presented as a fatal flaw in the theory. Einstein fought quantum mechanics all his life.

It occurred to me, considering the Vienna experiments, that what appears to be two particles, say two photons, might be imagined as being two distensions in space-time created by one "object" - such as what happens when you inflate a balloon, then separate two fingers of one hand and stick these into the balloon. A two-dimensional observer on the surface of the balloon would see two apparently independent distensions in his world. One movement of the hand, the fingers held rigid, would seem to that observer as oddly synchronized movements of two things with no physical connection between them.

This is a fairly obvious idea to come up with, if you've ever dabbled in algebraic topology, as I have. That kind of imagery is used everywhere in Brian Greene's popularizing works on string theory. I imagined some physicist must have already tried to make mathematical sense out of this quantum phenomenon on these lines. Sure enough, I just now read, in a footnote to Morin's La méthode from 1977, that the theoretical physicist Bernard d'Espagnat had proposed such an interpretation in 1972. He later wrote a book about "veiled reality".

We're now close to the payoff. The Vienna team had only the courage to top up their pocket money:
In 2004, a team from the University of Vienna (Austria) used polarization-entangled photons to send a secure quantum key between the Vienna City Hall and a large bank through 1.45 km of fiberoptic cable laid through the city’s sewer system.7 They tested the arrangement by using it to transfer a €3000 donation to the lab’s bank account (see Fig. 2).
But d'Espagnat has been investing in ideas for a long time. Just last month he cashed in, winning $1.4 million from a religious foundation for "work which acknowledges that science cannot fully explain the 'nature of being'".

I used to think I would have made a good Evangelical preacher. Pity I didn't go on with mathematics either, since there seem to be lots of dollars-for-jesus floating around.

Novel therapy

I see that Claire Tomalin has recently written a book on Thomas Hardy. I had been looking on the net for a sentence that has stuck in my mind since I read it more than 40 years ago. I found it in a piece by John Sutherland in the Telegraph:
'What has Providence done to Mr Hardy, that he should rise up in the arable land of Wessex and shake his fist at his Creator?' asked Edmund Gosse, in his review of that grimmest of novels, Jude the Obscure.
My nerves are all a-jangle from the heady stuff in Atlan and Morin. Being reminded of Hardy has sent me off to the bookstore. I want to get back to reading British novels again, particularly from the 19th century into the 20th. "Again" means for the n-th time in some cases, such as Trollope, Dickens and Eliot. I'm glad I haven't read much Hardy yet.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hunk saved from shark

Where are this guy's clothes? Exactly what was going on in that boat before the shark elbowed in? Horror is visible in the eyes of the young boys. The men seem merely determined to do what comes naturally.

A rich allegory of sexual maturation, I think. The shark is clearly das ewig Weibliche. (As it might have been in Faust: das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinunter).

Once rescued, this guy became Mayor of London for a year.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A zillion questions about linguistics

I sometimes wonder what linguistics is about. "It" is about various and sundry things, to be sure. But does anything tie them together? Earnest-minded readers may here already suspect the baleful influence of Luhmann in the background - and they would be right.

This is how the foreword to Social Systems begins:
Sociology is stuck in a crisis of theory. Empirical research, quite successful on the whole, has increased our stock of knowledge, but has not led to the construction of a theory that would unify the various subdisciplines. Being an empirical science, sociology cannot abandon its ambition to validate its pronouncements against data gathered from reality, however old or new the bottles may be into which the pressings are poured. Yet sociologists have been unable to apply precisely this principle to demonstrate that sociology has its own special area of study, and is a unified scientific discipline. Resignation about this state of affairs is so profound that no one even tries anymore.
One might reasonably expect linguistics to have some kind of general, unifying theory. But what are the common ideas of phonology and grammatology, say? Chomsky didn't think actual languages were much worth bothering with, as I remember - UG is embedded in a reductionist program. At a pinch, would one say phonology and grammatology are "just very different aspects of the same thing, language"? What is this "language"? Is it different from "languages"?

Isn't it a bit strange that this kind of unanswered, perhaps even unproductively formulated, question seems to be completely irrelevant to the everyday work of linguists? But does "we're all just laboring in the vineyards of the Lord, so go away" say all that could usefully be said in answer to questions that are seldom if ever asked?

Is there a more satisfactory account of "what is linguistics about" than there is of "what is sociology about"? Surely physicists should have something useful to say about physics (not just about physicists), which after all is part of the physical world? Physicists were forced to start doing precisely this about 100 years ago, upon the advent of quantum mechanics to explain how physics is non-trivially intricated in physics. Surely linguistics is non-trivially intricated with language? If Sapir/Whorf had made their claims with regard to the terminology of linguists themselves, not Eskimo Joe's words for snow, the ensuing ruckus might have been more productive.

On the internet, discussion threads among linguists often seem to me to be squabbles about taxonomy: "is this an adverb or an adjective?", "did /x/ mutate into /y/ or the other way around?", "is [a] an etymological descendant of [y], or is [a] on a different branch?". It reminds me vividly of the enormously productive classification activities in botany and zoology up into the mid-19th century. Darwin drew heavily on the results, and contributed his own. Then he took a step further, and blew many of his colleagues out of the water.

Are languages just "there, to be studied", like species used to be? Do languages evolve from other languages on the analogy of organic species? If phonology is not a subfield of biology, or musicology or acoustics, what is it? Is everybody sure it has nothing to do with semantics? On what principles has this been demonstrated? Or is this an axiom, making linguistics more like a field of mathematics? As presently visible in discussion threads, at any rate, many parts of linguistics seem to me more like cross-dressing cousins of ontology.

Friday, February 20, 2009


"Mull" in "mulled wine" does not mean "steep", as many people seem to think, myself included. At least that's according to the OED. I had had the notion of spices steeping in wine. Of course mull can also mean to moot coram se ipso.

The spiced meaning of mull is "not easy to connect satisfactorily", as the OED says:
[Of obscure origin.
It is not easy to connect the sense satisfactorily with that of mull v.1 It has been suggested that the vb. is f. mull n.1 applied to the powdered spices used in mulling; but there is no evidence of such a specific use of the n. Another unsupported conjecture is that the original sense may have been ‘to soften’, ‘render mild’ (cf. Du. mul soft) of which mull v.2 might be another application. Quite inadmissible is the notion, which appears in all recent Dicts., that mulled ale is a corruption of moldale (mould n.1) funeral banquet.]

trans. To make (wine, beer, etc.) into a hot drink with the addition of sugar, spices, beaten yolk of egg, etc.
I particularly like "quite inadmissible is the notion ...". In those days, PF (pussyfooting) was not the fashion. In my experience, PC is three-quarters PF.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

To ? or not to ?

Russian has no copula - or to put it more cautiously, Russian speakers don't need one "in the present tense", of all tenses.There are no everyday "This is really that" expressions to reinforce talk about "existence", "timelessness of being" and so on.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that there has never been a widely-known Russian Philosopher of Being. The major work of such a person, ? и время, would probably not have wowed the literate community. I bet Heidegger goes off in Russia like a damp squib.

Come to think of it, copulation itself requires no copula. You just put two people next to each other, and off they go. I can cite Burroughs in support of this: "Me Tarzan, you Jane".

"To be" is not meaningless though, in English say, since it is needed as an enzyme to bring things together that are conceived of as ontologically inert. I wonder whether evidence exists that static, "building block" world-views are associated, in a statistically significant way, with languages in which a copula plays a prominent part. This could take the form of a comparative frequency chart of schools of ontology, and the languages in which the philosophers involved publish.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Conflicting standards

DIN standards can have annoying side effects. Many of you will have experienced having a loop of your bathrobe get caught on the handle of a door when you pass from one room into another. At least this occurs here in Germany, since people still wear bathrobes and most doors have handles, not knobs.

DIN defines a standard average person of certain dimensions and proportions. When this person's arms are hanging, he (sorry, ladies) raises his hand slightly to (un)buckle his belt. Since he does this several times a day, if he gets lucky, this is considered to be a natural height for his hand to be at. Doors have to be opened and closed many times a day, even when your luck runs out. So the height of door handles and belts was standardized to the same value, for convenient living. This is why larger belt loops, as on a bathrobe, get caught on door handles.

The information about belts and doors comes from a fat DIN standard volume I once had to consult for some other reason. The justification for the slightly raised hand was a tad different from the one I just gave, but this is the way I was able to remember it. You sometimes get caught even when you're lucky.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A categorical mistake

There was a brief obituary in the Sunday Times "Intl Culture" a few years back, of the American philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser. It related an anecdote about his being accosted in the subway by a policeman for some minor infraction. During a mild argument, the policeman said to the philosopher "You shouldn't do that, you know. Just imagine if everyone acted like that!". The philosopher replied testily:
Who do you think I am, Kant?
at which he was hustled off to the police station.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Eat up all your logic, Johnny

For many years, I have been annoyed by writers who thought they could refute a philosopher's views by pointing to passage A in his writings, then to passage B, and then claiming "this is a contradiction". End of argument.

I thought: so A is incompatible with B, so what? Is the world a syllogism? Is a syllogism a syllogism? I began to suspect that Uncle Hegel was at the root of all this. Having now listened in on his lectures, I am fairly certain: not Uncle himself so much as the Marx and Engels engeance.

Thank God for quantum physics, I say, even if most of us don't know more than squat about it. At least it cast the logic-lenders into outer darkness. These are the people who want to maneuver you into a dependency on some supposedly unavoidable way of thinking - Kantian ethics, essentialisms of all kinds, including scientific ones about "the subjective/objective world", some one system of thinking which is supposed to do service in every context.

"Eat up all your logic, Johnny, you know it's good for you - and if you don't, you're not going to get any dessert".

Quantum physics is not illogical, nor has it made the "really real" world illogical. The weakest objection to it was that it was "counter-intuitive". But what does this mean? Pre-Heisenberg and Co., most philosophers / scientists et al. have argued, implicitly or explicitly, that their preferred views were merely an elaboration of the way we think, the way the world is - i.e. they were intuitive and natural when viewed in the right light, the one shed by their proponents. They were simply teasing out, into a system, the way we think, the way things are. There's no way for systematic thinking to be counter-intuitive, right? Whatever intuitions are, they're right, right?

The successes of quantum physics in making scientific predictions about the behavior of the scientific world, and then demonstrating the correctness of those predictions, show that even intuitions must bow to recalibration, even basic restructuring - over time. There were real dog-fights about this among physicists, for decades. "Intuitive", "natural", "impossible" - what loaded terms these be!

One conclusion I draw from this is that it's just not on to be rigid or rancorous about being right. It's not scientific, it's not even polite. Is a certain reserve inimical to knowledge? What is truth? said jesting Pilate. And would not stay for an answer. I used to think he just was going to grab his dessert before Jesus could start nagging. In fact, both of them showed reserve: Pilate was remarkably patient, while Jesus was ... well ... coy. This is neatly glossed by Ray Davis in Three Reputations.

And no, this is not an attempt on my part to get Lacan, Jung, "creationists" et al. a free ride on the bus by sneaking them in the back door. Although it's not very polite, I would at most consider letting them hang on outside at the rear of the bus, keeping an eye out the while to make sure they didn't steal the license plates. On these topics, I highly recommend a book I just finished, by the French physician and biologist Henri Atlan - À tort et à raison: Intercritique de la science et du mythe. To my astonishment and alarm, I found that there are writers in the "Kabbalist traditions" who have had some very reconsideration-provoking things to say. Atlan sez: stay cool, Grumbleby, nobody's going to take your dessert away. They're just showing that it doesn't have to be low-cal pecan pie.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Parrocites, Part 1

This is an occasional series where I collect quotations in which some familiar snippet of text turns out to be not so familiar after all. This occurs when someone cites it in a truncated or otherwise mangled form, or in ignorance of what it meant in its original context.

The original text is being parroted. Not all parrots do a good job of repeating. Some parrots seem to parrot because they've noticed that people think it's cute. I suspect they all don't much care what they do, as long as they get attention. It's not fifteen minutes of fame, but it's a start.

Exhibit 1:
In a phrase, Thomas Gray was right: Ignorance is bliss - at least when it comes to assessments of one's own ability.
This occurs in an annoying article of statistical psychology entitled Unskilled and Unaware of It (top of page 1131). After much sampling and speculation, the authors decide that dumb folks don't know they're dumb, and that they seem unable to learn to see themselves as dumb and then to incorporate this knowledge into a more successful ("calibrated") life-style.

In the "Concluding Remarks", the authors enter the twilight zone. They gaze at themselves in their speculum, and allow as how they might be overestimating themselves and the value of their work.
In sum, we present this article as an exploration into why people tend to hold overly optimistic and miscalibrated views about themselves. We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.
Culpability peeps over the ramparts! Dumb people don't worry about being smart - the authors charge this against them (in the most gingerly thoughtful manner). Smart people worry about being dumb - the authors give themselves credit for this. But haunted by faulty logic, my foot. The authors see other trouble coming, which they hope to deflect in the following way. Having invited themselves to a party by publishing the article, they tell the host: "in the course of the evening, if you're stupid, you may discover that we have peed in your pocket. It is not a sin we will have committed knowingly".

Grumbleby sez: if you're not sure about what you want to say, and whether and how you ought to say it, then don't say it. That especially applies to claims of knowing other people better than they know themselves. Geebus! Did Luhmann live in vain?

There's more than tautology in Wittgenstein's
Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.
[Whatever can be said at all, can be said clearly. On things about which one cannot speak, one must remain silent.]
For those with a tin ear, allow me to pump up the volume:
Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, sollte klar gesagt werden; und wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber müßte man schweigen. Also raff' dich zusammen!
[Whatever can be said at all, should be said clearly. On things about which one cannot speak, one ought to zip up. So pull yourself together, dude!]
In the Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, Gray imagines students at play, and what life will become for them. He does not say "ignorance is bliss" tout court but rather, conditionally, "where ignorance is bliss", namely in young people.
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.
Here now, as a refreshing alternative to hand-wringing over other folks, is a witty mathematical paper applying Bayesian analysis to the question of how ignorant it might be to believe that ignorance is bliss, and then act accordingly. The authors quote Gray's stanza in full. The abstract reads:
If ignorance were bliss, there is information you would pay not to have. Hence the question is whether a rationally-behaving agent would ever do such a thing. This paper demonstrates that

1. A Bayesian agent with a proper, countably additive prior never maximizes utility by paying not to see cost-free data.

2. The definition of "cost-free'' is delicate, and requires explanation.

3. A Bayesian agent with a finitely additive prior, or an improper prior, however, might pay not to see cost-free data.

4. An agent following a gamma-minimax strategy might also do so.

5. An agent following the strategies of E-admissibility recommended by Levi and of maximality recommended by Sen and Walley, might also do so.

A discussion follows about how damaging to a decision theory intended to be rational it might be to pay not to receive cost-free information.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Luhmann on sense-holes (there aren't any)

In the 60's, a lot of books on Zen Buddhism were floating around. I remember reading this "standard" koan in one by Alan Watts:
Master: You know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?

It was clear to me then that there is no answer to this silly question, yet over the years I have thought back to it from time to time - I can't really say why.

Something else in the 60's also got my goat: the films of Antonioni, Godard and Co. These characters with long faces would hang around, mostly not answering questions other characters would put to them. Not only did they not answer the questions, they exhibited no reaction at all. I thought: all these depressive French and Italian bozos, what's in it for me?

The third ingredient in the resolution of the koan (including the koan itself) came from thinking about Ralf, my heroin-harried friend, who apparently resented some of the questions I would ask him when we talked. Mostly he just didn't answer them, literally not saying anything at all. Exactly as in Godard. Sometimes he would say "I don't know" or "What can I say?". He seemed to take my questions as aggressive maneuvers. But since I had recently read Bodenheimer's On the Obscenity of Questions, I figured I was in the know, and off that hook at least.

Then the illumination. It has to do with hearing what is not being said:
Master: You know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?

Student: !
The sound of one hand clapping is silence. Some questions have no answer. To some questions, no answer is the answer. To some questions, the answer is not of the kind you're expecting.

With this provisional understanding in my pocket, I could better appreciate Luhmann's detailed discussion of "Sinn" in Soziale Systeme, which I'm now reading.To compress it into a blurb, one might say that Luhmann sez: sense is the I of the beholder.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 2, in English more or less. Unfortunately, I discovered that some of his Sinn-tences are a bear to put into intelligible English. German-wise everything's cool, though. Luhmann was no dark mutterer, but a lucid, learned old sweetheart with the occasional touch of good-humored malice.

With no philosophaster around to jump on my case, I might well, for "Sinn", just say "significance" or "meaning", maybe even "sense". Trouble is, "significance" connotes "signs", whereas Luhmann explicitly distances himself from the view that sense has anything to do with signs - in fact, he shows that signs work only because sense is already around. "Meaning" suggests concepts, intensionalities and all that cognitional-semiotic baloney, and Luhmann is not having any of that either. As Holden would have said, this guy just kills me.

So, in the following excerpt, I mostly left it at "sense" in the sense of "sensefulness", a non-existent word that would be the opposite of senselessness. The link, in German, contains longer passages.
Sense always refers to sense. It can never refer to something outside the domain of sense.... Systems that are tied to sense can never have a senseless experience, or act senselessly. ... [But] a preference for sense over world, for order over disturbance, for information over noise is merely a preference. It doesn't make their counterparts superfluous. Indeed we can say that the process that is sense (Sinnprozess) thrives on disturbances, feeds off disorder, and is supported by noise.

.. The generalisation called "sense" makes it possible to find a pragmatic solution for any logical problem. Even a contradiction, even a paradox, makes sense - as a contradiction, as a paradox. (Auch ein Widerspruch, auch eine Paradoxie hat Sinn.) Logic can exist only because this is the case. Otherwise, at the first contradiction we encountered, we would fall into a sense-hole and vanish. [Sinnloch, I kid you not, G.]
vibrierende Mülleimer