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.