Sunday, July 25, 2010

Disgusting but memorable

Watching the DVD of Deleuze interviews called L'Abécédaire, in the "C comme Culture" section I suddenly noticed a disgusting detail: Deleuze's fingernails are uncommonly long, wide, and misshapen - as if on a Mandarin manqué. They look too long for plucking guitar strings, but I may be wrong about that.

Anyway, since today is one of my be-nice practice days, I felt obliged to call myself on this one: "What do you mean, disgusting ? Deleuze will have had his reasons for keeping his fingernails like that. What do you care about Deleuze's fingernails ?" etc. etc.

With my eyes right up to the screen to check the fingernails, I replayed over and over a section where they can be seen. I heard this over and over:
Dès qu'on fait une chose, il s'agit d'en sortir. [pause] Il se faut aussi d'y rester dans le sortir. Alors, rester dans la philosophie, c'est aussi comme en sortir de la philosophie. Oui ... [pause] sortir de la philosophie, ca veut pas dire faire autre chose. C'est pour ça qu'il faut sortir en restant là-dedans. [pause] C'est pas faire autre chose, c'est pas en faire un rebond.
With this curious mantra in my ears, I sunk deep into program-notes mode* and arrived at the following considerations. I think I now understand better how structuralism and deconstructionism came into fashion - all that "death of the author" and il n'y a pas de hors-texte crap.

It happened when critics decided they should be ashamed of peering at the personalities and personal habits of authors. They wanted to become more objective by dealing only with the texts. But these critics were now devoting the same over-expectant attention to words as they previously had to ambience, substituting one fetish for another. They were still interpreting, associating, reading things in, and wondering "why this, why that ?".

Suddenly I got a good look at the fingernails, and dropped the program notes. It was now clear that no matter what engages your attention as a writer or speaker, it can pay off to pay attention to your performance as well. An amusing or disgusting detail, although initially distracting, may ultimately help the audience to remember what you said, or reconstruct it. I had figured out what Deleuze meant by Dès qu'on fait une chose, il s'agit d'en sortir. Il se faut aussi d'y rester dans le sortir.. Back in the sixties, we called it "keep on truckin'".

* When you're attending a concert, there are occasionally boring stretches. That's when you turn your attention to the program notes, in search of something more interesting.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Wanderer between worlds ?

Recently I ran across the familiar German expression Wanderer zwischen den Welten in several different contexts. I would go so far as to say that it's a rather hackneyed expression, used to attribute cross-cultural moxie to anybody and everybody who has owned a passport.

Be that as it may, where does it come from ? Is there a "wanderer between worlds" original ? The expression is now so trite that any internet sites that might identify its origin are swamped by the ones where it is merely used.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Babies sign up

On the German sternTV program just now I saw a remarkable documentary about children communicating with their hands, as in sign language for the deaf. But these children were not deaf.

Already at the age of 10 months, children are able to use simple structured gestures in interacting with their parents - for instance to "signal" recognition of situations in which the gestures were learned, as when they hear background music again in a store when they revisit it. It was said that an American working with deaf children had noticed that they learned to deploy signs at a much earlier age than hearing children usually learn to speak.

Mothers who had been trying this out with their children were in the studio with their kids, talking about it with the moderator Günther Jauch. One woman said that in the course of six weeks there had been so many opportunities to learn signs that her child had learned 60 of them. The film had shown a small girl with her parents in a zoo. The child was about 1.5 years old. She had learned simple signs for different animals on previous visits. On this visit, every time she came to an animal she knew she would make the special sign for it. I remember that she made the ones for bear, rabbit, and giraffe.

One explanation for the phenomenon was that gross motor skills are acquired in the hands much earlier than are the fine motor skills needed for speech. The film explicitly warned against imagining that this signing is a prefiguration of unusual intelligence, or that it might accelerate or hinder speech learning at a later age. I took this as intended to put a damper on the kind of parents who want to discover black gold in their kids, and are prepared to drill for it if necessary. The commentator also warned against trying to force this signing on children. Here is an American website I found about the subject.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lord of the flies

The estival of flies is upon us again, and the number of the beasts is legion. Since occasions for effective swatting are intermittent, I have decided to observe their behavior more closely than usual. Leaving out of account the torpor caused by occasional cold weather, I have come to the preliminary conclusion that the survival of house flies in the presence of predators and temperate conditions is primarily a function of their unpredictable behavior. Their strategy is to have no strategy as to where they will land, how long they will rest, whither they go and when they come.

This is an interesting idea, whether or not it could be demonstrated by mathematical means that flies exhibit random behavior. It suggests that 1] what may seem to be an absence of goal-directed action can, by changing the frame of reference, be interpreted as serving a purpose, even without anything resembling a circumscribed goal or deliberation. Changing the frame again, we hit on the idea that 2] motives can be effectively concealed by erratic behavior.

I suppose that 1] is more or less the idea of biological evolution. But there is a supernatural fly in the ointment. Its buzz is audible in 2] and the words of P.T. Barnum. who supposedly described the secret of his success thus: "Keep'em guessing".

Conclusio: even though we free our minds from the notions of up-front determinism and progress, we are still at the mercy of crafty ephemera. Walk softly, and hedge your bets. The meek will inherit the earth because they play their cards close to their chests.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The birth of bossiness

Experts, experts everywhere, and not a moment's rest. They tell us to speak one language instead of another, eat these substances instead of those, act this way instead of that ... A disposition to urge other people to change their behavior could be an Anthropological Constant. If this turns out to be a momentous discovery, remember to mention my name when you pass it along.

What can we imagine to be the evolutionary advantages of this imperious meliorism ? Perhaps there aren't any. The only offhand explanation I can think of for the phenomenon itself is longevity overhang. By that I mean this. We may assume that fathers and mothers have always told their kids how to behave. Over many millenia, the average lifespan was only 35 or so. By the time parents were no longer able to tell their kids what do to - when the kids became adolescent and would no longer listen - the parents just died. But as life expectancy increased, there were more and more parents left with time and wisdom on their hands, since the captive audience had flown the coop. This was the birth of bossiness.

Of course this tendency expresses itself in different ways. Some old people get a pet, others get a license to practice psychological counselling, still others learn Esperanto.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I thought the French décupler meant "decouple". But no, mes enfants, that's découpler we were thinking of. Here, at the latest, the gentle but ambitious American must face up to the difference between the French u and ou. Décupler means to multiply by ten, and derives from the Latin decuplus and decem. The OED even gives "decuplation" for use on home territory. But I don't think it will catch on, since it sounds like "decopulation" and the related "depopulation". Perhaps it's just as well if it doesn't catch on, since the meaning would soon start to sag, as happened with "decimate".

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Loads, shoots, and spoils Thanksgiving

It's peculiar that so many writers in the 18th and 19th centuries (but before that and later on too, of course) spent their time discoursing about "logic" in book after book - Hegel, Mill et alii. Each of them was pushing his own "logic", as if there were more than one to choose from. They kicked around notions such as induction, deduction, abduction (Pierce) - and, of all things, causation - and arrived at various conclusions and claims. But I find it all completely useless. Of course I am aware that my position is post-Hegel, post-Mill et alii, that is, parasitic on what has gone before. No one can accuse me of being ungrateful, although an action for frivolousness might lie.

I feel that there is only one kind of logic for everyday and scientific purposes, and not much worth saying about that. What used to be known as books on logic might be more accurately described as pedantic exercises in how to be convincing. Pedantry aside, that is what used to be called the arts of rhetoric. But these writers seem to be intent on persuasion by new-fangled means, without the traditional training and practice. To me, their writings carry the conviction of Butt-head playing air guitar.

I find that a little Barbara pour ouvrir l'estomac, an amuse-gueule of first-order logic to be followed by Cantor, Gödel, Cohen or Robinson à la meunière, is more easily appropriated by the vegetative system. Mathematical ideas can be conveyed without fancy sauces, and with a minimum of verbiage and ballast. Having acquired familiarity over time with certain mathematical styles, you can peruse recipes in those traditions with profit, even though not yourself a chef.

As an adolescent I had the idea that mathematical logic must have put paid to judicious waffling, but I now know better. I just happened across something that gave me serious indigestion: a description of the so-called Yale shooting problem. Here is how the WiPe article begins:
The Yale shooting problem is a conundrum or scenario in formal situational logic on which early logical solutions to the frame problem fail. The name of this problem derives from its inventors, Steve Hanks and Drew McDermott, working at Yale University when they proposed it. In this scenario, Fred (later identified as a turkey) is initially alive and a gun is initially unloaded. Loading the gun, waiting for a moment, and then shooting the gun at Fred is expected to kill Fred. However, if inertia is formalized in logic by minimizing the changes in this situation, then it cannot be uniquely proved that Fred is dead after loading, waiting, and shooting. In one solution, Fred indeed dies; in another (also logically correct) solution, the gun becomes mysteriously unloaded and Fred survives.

Technically, this scenario is described by two fluents (a fluent is a condition that can change truth value over time): alive and loaded. ...
For Pete's sake ! Where is the conundrum ? It is sufficient to note that the word "shoot" is being used ambiguously here. Apart from that, "a condition that can change truth value over time" used to be called a variable (or predicate, here), and I see no reason to call it anything else. "A fluent" is a preciosity worthy of Molière's médecins.

Daß Narrenschyff ad Narragoniam

Liz Hartnett, in her blog on the BBC's site, reports on a recent edition of The Bottom Line devoted to aspiration, optimism and enthusiasm:
... that the IT customer needs to know what they want - and that their wants are, in many cases, “woolly and aspirational”.

Woolly and aspirational wants lead to over-ambitious and poorly defined systems that take longer to design and implement, and they go over budget.

But it’s not just the customer who’s aspirational. In one public sector IT project, optimistic and enthusiastic IT staff thought, “Yes, an online payment - that’s what they really need, surely.”

But when they engaged in discussion, they discovered that the client was less enthusiastic about the IT department’s suggestion, and didn’t expect much take up or benefit. But what the client thought would really be of benefit was a telephone payment service.

The system, consequentially implemented, brought in a significantly larger sum of money to the public organisation.
One of my recent IT projects overran its budget after only four months. Not only were the specifications overambitious, but there was also an assumption that the programming work did not need to be organized, nor the programmers to be directed. In theory all processes were documented and in line with company standards, and hardly any work got done.

There are at least three topics linked together here: capitalism, competition and waste. I don't see how effective competition is possible without a free-market base. But competition can be considered to be inherently wasteful, since it would be more effective to join forces.

These notions are so jumbled together in texts on political economy I have read, that I have concluded they are all useless. I suspect that wastefulness may not only be Not A Bad Thing, but also an essential ingredient in change, along with stabs at efficiency. Attempts to obtain complete control over a process are doomed to failure, just as are attempts to do without any kind of control or planning.

These are mushy conclusions to arrive at, but they seem to apply to the IT projects I have worked in. And yet I firmly believe the best way to measure progress is to measure it often, and shift elsewhere those who don't measure up. Theory cannot replace practice, especially not in a competitive and wasteful economy.

People are essential, but they must be directed. Heads must occasionally be shifted or chopped, especially those of management. At the company whose IT project I mentioned above, everyone had some kind of job title like "responsible for ...", but no brief to actually do anything they would have to answer for. I suspect this was a marine safety measure to prevent rocking the boat, so that no one could fall overboard.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The dividends of ignorance

I have often meditated on the sociological advantages of ignorance. How easy it is to live a good life without knowledge of large swatches of knowable stuff ! Moreover, I am continually discovering new ways to harmlessly squeeze cash value out of ignorance, or rather my knowledge that it exists. Ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing.

Here's a recent example. Commuting between Cologne and Frankfurt, I have found the trains often overcrowded, so I ended up sitting on the floor. I was annoyed at passengers who would occupy a seat and put a bag, rucksack, coat, laptop carrier etc. on the adjacent seat, thus taking both seats out of service. But I didn't realize at first that they were doing this - all I saw was apparently occupied seats. Then, from my vantage point on the floor, I observed other passengers looking for a place to sit as I had done - passing by encumbered seats as if they were occupied. The assumption was that someone was sitting there, and had left their things to signal "occupied" until they returned from, say, the restroom or restaurant car.

I noticed that the people who encumbered seats in that way were mostly women. My first reaction was "bloody impertinence". Then I remembered positive thinking, and turning sow's ears into silk purses, and being fair even to women. So I thought: how can I turn their behavior to my advantage ? I tried stopping in the aisle by such seats and asking, in an ever so slightly stern voice: "Is that seat taken ?" The women would look annoyed, but remove their things without comment, and so I acquired a place to sit.

I have gotten bolder as time goes on, and now say Wollen Sie den Sitz bitte freiräumen ? in a neutral tone. The nice thing about that construction - not würden Sie, but wollen Sie ... bitte - is that it is a combination of request and imperative. It conveys a hint of annoyance, as the Lady Bracknell intonation does in "would you be so good as to clear the seat ?". In other words, now I am bloody impertinent, and grateful that these women reserve seats for me. They don't know they are doing it, nor do other people apart from me who are looking for a seat.

That is what I meant by harmlessly profiting from ignorance. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The wagers of charity

Nosing about in various articles on the statistical notion of standard deviation, I happened on a "review" of the mid-16th century Liber de ludo aleae by Cardano (this is the dude who, among other things, invented the idea of imaginary number). It contains the following quotes from the book: times of great anxiety and grief, [playing games of chance] is considered to be not only allowable, but even beneficial. times of great fear or sorrow, when even the greatest minds are much disturbed, gambling is far more efficacious in counteracting anxiety than a game like chess, since there is the continual expectation of what fortune will bring.

In my own case, when it seemed to me after a long illness that death was close at hand, I found no little solace in playing constantly at dice.
Cardano's life-style throws some light on this:
Cardano was notoriously short of money and kept himself solvent by being an accomplished gambler and chess player.
I myself have never understood the interest so many people have in dice games and slot machines, for instance. Such things bore the pants off me. My attitude is: if good luck wants to come to me, I won't shut the door in its face, but nor do I want to spend time running back and forth in the road, trying to meet up with luck before the neighbors do.

Recently, Sloterdijk has been putting the idea about that possibly "greed" is not the most accurate description of what motivates bankers who blow away other people's money in speculation. He suggests that the motive may instead be "to get something for nothing". Greed, in contrast, is a drive to get more and more, and more than enough. To want to get something for nothing is more akin to gambling. I could add that Pascal, in proposing his wager, revealed himself to be both intellectually lazy and morally calculating - a gambler, in fact.

As I remember, the passage in which Sloterdijk mentions that idea is in Du mußt dein Leben ändern. Unfortunately, I made the mistake yesterday of lending my copy to someone over Easter - and of course one day later I need it in order to double-check a reference. Though I rarely lend out a book important to me, I usually regret it for the reason given. Curiously, this appears to be a case of getting nothing for something. The something is that I have introduced someone to Sloterdijk, the nothing is what I now have in place of the book.

I experience this kind of thing not infrequently, it seems to me - doing good, then regretting it. But then I don't really expect to do something for nothing. It just may be that the wages of charity is mutual resentment. A pari mutuel, where if anyone wins everyone wins, and contrariwise.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Two lumps or three ?

Another mention-loop .

Last night, zapping the TV before going to bed, I was struck sleepless by a stage production of The Messiah from 2009 in Vienna, shown now on the German 3Sat channel. I am neither prone to sleeplessness, nor at all partial to Baroque music. In fact, for the last 10 years I haven't listened to music at all. I find it intolerable because it distracts my thinking.

Anyhoo, there was this modernist scenery on a giant almost-empty stage which had separately revolving sections for scene changes - you know the kind of thing I mean, art imitating life. There were a couple of soloists and a group of choir-folks, all in contemporary dress, participating in a plot of marital despair and hope analogized on the oratorio text. (This itself consists of passages from the Bible, I now discover.) The musical sections had been reordered to suit the plot.

So, one naturally thinks "O my god" as the thumb edges toward the off-switch on the remote. BUT - the businessman who turns out to be Christ and the husband (as a cast member apparently a dancer, who doesn't say a word) was standing there glancing repeatedly at his watch, straightening his suit lapels and looking very unhappy. He was cute in a stressful kind of way, and there was another guy in a suit sitting on the ground in the shadows with his back to the wall, who also looked promising. So I thought: "let's look at decorative guys a bit longer".

The guy on the ground gets up, eases over to Christ and starts singing. A countertenor ! Singing his part at an exquisitely slow tempo ! Every syllable, every note made me shiver - and countertenors are certainly not my thing. It was almost unbearably beautiful. If he had been a book, I would have had to shut it to avoid being overwhelmed - as I have had to do occasionally with books chock-full of fabulous ideas, for instance Luhmann's. As for decorative and promising - when the guy you had your eye on suddenly spreads his wings and is revealed as an archangel, sordid intentions tend to give way to wondering whether you should get out grandma's best tea service.

The entire oratorio was performed in this pensive, penetrating slow-motion. The "Halleluja Chorus" was sung quietly, respectfully, hopefully by the choir members sitting in rows of chairs at the funeral of Christ. It was not sung in the loud, triumphant, buzz-off-O-ye-of-little-faith fashion we know so well.

I found a review of this production that sums it up well:
The musical structure differs only slightly from Handel’s operas, with the exception of the central role played by the chorus (which is typical of oratorium). The work can be seen as a group of the faithful talking to themselves in a struggle to find solace in faith. Their dismay at their own entanglement in sin is offset with their assuring themselves that they have been promised salvation by the saviour. The point of reference of this hope is the fear of death. When performed in concert halls the work can easily be reduced to a devotional and edifying solemnity, bereft of real content. But played out on stage, the scenes portray specific situations dealing with the circumstance that the world is yet to be saved. The Messiah succeeds as a theatrical production.
The mention loop began to form 3 days ago when I picked up a paperback edition of Stefan Zweig's little book of essays Sternstunden der Menschheit from the steps of the small theater down the road from me, where people deposit books that they think they don't want anymore. The second essay, Georg Friedrich Händels Auferstehung (G.F.H.'s Resurrection), was about the composition of the Messiah. Y'all read it for Händel as a man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A new take on MacDonald's

"Fornix" is the Latin word for "vault or arch." "Fornix" is closely related to "fornication." It seems that prostitutes in ancient Rome used to hang out under the arches of certain public buildings. The act of carrying on an illicit sexual relationship consequently came to be called "going under the arches" or fornication.

[From the MedicineNet website.]

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Scribbling scientists

In a summarized history of the discovery of trichinosis, I read this:
1859: Germany: After dissecting a dog that had been fed Trichinella infected tissue Rudolph Virchow finds that the Trichinella larvae become adult nematodes that are not Trichuris. Virchow hastily sends these findings to the Paris Academy of Sciences, but his messy handwriting delays the translation and publication of his letter. Even though Virchow beats Leuckart to the experiment, Leuckart rushes to have the results from his own experiments with pigs published by the Paris Academy in September 1859.However, his messy handwriting leads to the inaccurate reporting of the actual number of worms found in the pig’s intestine. Leuckart’s paper claimed that Trichinella became Trichuris. In September 1859 Virchow’s paper is finally published and his findings contradict Leuckart’s hypothesis; after further experimentation Leuckart recognizes that Virchow is correct.