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.]