Sunday, October 18, 2020


Cynthia Haven posts pictures of assorted messy desks over at The Book Haven. Having occasionally maintained such a desk myself, I am perhaps more apt to remember reading of them. There is Hugh Kenner in "The Untidy Desk and the Larger Order of Things", collected in Mazes:

There are clean-desk people--you know them, you may even be one--whose working space always looks scrubbed for surgery. They make a virtue of handling no paper twice---"Do something with it right now. Don't dither. 'In doubt? Throw it out.'" Any time the clean-desker takes down a book, it's no sooner snapped shut than back with it to the shelf. Each paper summoned from the files is rebounded instantly to the files again. The steady stream from the In-Basket get deflected just two ways: to Out-Basket, to trash. Promptly at five, the clean-desker  departs from a place where the only hint that anything happened all day is an overflowing wastebasket.
 Off-duty, clean-deskers measure their vermouth with an eyedropper, walk their dogs by the clock, succor their spouses by the calendar. Such people exist, and some of them ask fees for training decentered souls to be just like them.
 But there are also souls like mine, content amid what clean-deskdom calls unholy clutter. Cleaning up the room I'm sitting in at the moment, to the extent of meeting clean-desk standards would take a week. The few times I have tried it, useful things have invariably vanished forever: things I routinely laid hands on without fail, back when they were integrated with the mess I fondly manipulate. I am, to put it mildly, an untidy-desker.

The context is a review of G.K. Zipf's Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort, which appeared to justify the preferences of the untidy-deskers. Unfortunately, according to the prefatory note in Mazes, Zipf's reasoning was not really satisfactory, a point that Benoit Mandelbrot brought to Kenner's attention.

 Nor are the untidy-deskers limited to the world of literature department. In the classic Transaction Processing: Concepts and Techniques, Jim Gray and Andreas Reuter compare memory buffering in databases to a desk:

The main idea behind buffering is to exploit locality. Everybody employs it without even thinking about it. A desk should serve as a buffer of the things one needs to perform the current tasks.

They then qualify this with the footnote

Andreas's desk probably doesn't, but that's a different story.

 For the last seven months, my desk has been a corner of the dining room table.  This makes clutter impractical, for come seven o'clock a table setting will supplant computer and monitor. The clutter is to some degree transferred into small text files in the Documents folder of my computer; but there one has the timestamp to sort on and, with luck, a meaningful filename.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

As Any Astute Student of German Knows

Noticed in the editor's introduction of Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings, the footnote:

That intrepid explorer of of the time continuum--the cartoon character Alley Oop--relies on just this principle. (Furthermore, he explores the continuum utilizing a time machine invented by Dr. Wonmug---and as any astute student of German knows, "wonmug" is a translation of "Einstein," which in English means "one mug" of beer.)

In the 1980s, I used to see the Alley Oop comic strip now and then. I remember that it sometimes involved time travel,  but I don't remember seeing the machine. And I'm afraid that such German as I know might not have been up to translating "Wonmug". I am grateful to Edward C. Moore for his explanation.

Thursday, October 8, 2020


 Colleges and universities advertise in the Washington, DC, area a good deal. This is not necessarily a tribute to our passion for learning, since

  • Employers can reimburse employees for training that "maintains or improves job skills" for the job then held. The IRS does not count this reimbursement as taxable income.
  • Many of us work for government contractors.
  • Contractors can bill the government more for the time of an employee with a higher degree than for the time of an employee with a lesser or no degree.
  • Some of that billing rate may be passed along to the employee, and in any case the employee becomes more attractive for work at the current employer and its competitors.

Among the media the universities use are the sides of Metrobuses. Today I noticed a bus advertising the University of Maryland Global Campus. After a moment, I understood that this must be a new name for the University of Maryland University College, the school's continuing education arm. A closer look showed wording that confirmed this.

I'm not sure why the school thought it well to use a new name.  In this area, University of Maryland University College was well known. I imagine that it was well known on US military bases across the country and the world. One of its alumni, General John Vessey, rose to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I will say one thing for the new version: it took a very little clicking to find the tuition rates at The last time I looked at the University College website, I simply could not find the rate per credit hour.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A Useful Reminder

 Noticed this evening in "Preface to an Unwritten Book", collected in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings:

... there will remain over no relic of the good old tenth-century infallibilism, except that of the infallible scientists, under which head I include not merely the kind of characters that manufacture scientific catechisms and homilies, churches and creeds, and who are indeed "born missionaries," but all those respected and cultivated persons who, having acquired their notions of science from reading and not from research, have the idea that "science" means knowledge, while the truth is, it is a misnomer applied to the pursuit of those who are devoured by a desire to find things out.

 I presume that "misnomer applied" should be something like "misnomer for that, and properly applied".

Saturday, September 26, 2020


Of course, another observation cannot be suppressed at this point: the habit of considering the texts from an historical and text-critical perspective has somewhat impeded the spontaneity of the listening approach. I would not go as far as Rudolf Borchardt, who, in his letters to Hugo von Hofmannsthal, speaks --with regard to Pindar--of a certain kind of irreverence as of an "organic error committed even by subtle philological minds": "even the best philologist" believes in other ways of experiencing the divine, "for instance of shaking the divine by the hand and thanking it for its outstanding achievements."

Josef Pieper, "The Equitable Interpretation" (of Plato), collected in Tradition as Challenge.

"Susan, you can't possibly know that this is the second best Uruguayan novel," a challenge that [Susan Sontag] always rose to, hotly defending her choices. Her attitude reminds me of something Leon Wieseltier says of another top student, Harold Bloom. "Harold feels that all literature should pass before him and get a grade," Leon said.

Larry McMurtry, Literary Life: A Second Memoir.

The great business of Bostonians was to place values upon everything in the world, with conscientious accuracy. Professor Norton once said to me on the steps of Sanders Theatre, after a performance of Beethoven's "Eroica Symphony," that, after all, the "Sentiment" of the funeral march was a little "forced."

John Jay Chapman, "Mr. Brimmer", collected in The Selected Writings of John Jay Chapman.

Monday, September 21, 2020


 This morning, when I went to walk a little after seven, I wore a light jacket over a long-sleeved shirt, and found myself putting my hands in my jacket pockets. I remembered to have encountered the expression "finger-cold" in Thoreau's journals, and this evening located the entry for October 14, 1856, which begins

A sudden change in the weather after remarkably warm and pleasant weather. Rained in the night, and finger-cold to-day. Your hands instinctively find their way to your pockets.

 The Oxford English Dictionary includes "finger-cold" under "finger", and cites Thoreau, but from what the Gutenberg Projects lists as Excursions and Poems.

 It is getting to be finger-cold of mornings, something it certainly was not two weeks ago.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Back Downtown

 Yesterday I went south of P St. NW. for the first time in sixth months. The occasion was a visit to the dentist, scheduled right before the quarantine. A dentist's office sounds like the perfect place to spread airborne viruses, given that the patients have their mouths wide open, and often enough spraying out aerosols as high-speed tools clean, polish or drill. On the other hand, it is well to make a visit, and who can say that the winter will be a better time?

Downtown is relatively empty.  There are people on the sidewalks and parks, just not that many. Windows are boarded up on the two blocks that border 16th St. NW immediately north of Lafayette Square, but from 17th St. west I saw no more plywood. Some businesses that are in operation had closed early. After the appointment, I noticed that Second Story Books had closed much earlier also.

The receptionist at the dentist's office took my temperature with a sensor that operates from six inches or so. Given that it showed my temperature as 97 F, I wonder how accurately it detects fevers. She next had me clean my hands with hand-sanitizer, then put on latex gloves. I kept my mask on until I was in the hygienist's room.

The cleaning was different in three ways:

  • I declined the dark glasses, preferring to keep my own on.
  • The procedure did not end with polishing, something I can certainly understand.
  • Before the hygienist went to work with the high-speed tool, she brought in a device meant to capture aerosols. She warned me that it was loud, so I waited for the sound with some interest. I thought it about equivalent to sitting in a window seat near the wing when an airliner is taking off.
The streets seemed busier, though not that much so, north of M. I found that my mask diverts exhaled air onto my glasses, so that I walked home with a bit of mist on the lower lens. Most of the people I saw on the streets had on masks.