Sunday, June 16, 2019

Father's Day Books

I have come to think of a certain range of books as "Father's Day books", namely volumes one can safely get Dad if he doesn't golf or need new ties. I complain of them only because now and then I must read one. Otherwise, I think they serve the public by keeping publishers and printers solvent.

Such books tend to involve history, generally American history. Military history, the history of exploration, or both (Lewis and Clark) serve well. There are a number of authors who have made something of an industry of these books. The reader who has received or read some will recognize the style. At worst it combines the didactic and the sloppy, giving one lessons to be learned with misstated facts to illustrate them. At the not quite worst it reads like a junior high school history pageant, where the greats come on stage, say a piece, bow, and make way for the next. At almost best it tends to bury the reader in details.

Now, the matter of the books largely overlaps with many books I think well of and re-read. I admire Henry Adams's history of the US during Jefferson's and Madison's administrations, which heaven knows has plenty of battles and some explorations. I have Parkman's histories on my shelves, and some of Samuel Eliot Morison's. On the shelves is Elkins and McKittrick's history of the Federalist era. There are memoirs of war service by Grant and Sherman, and by some who never achieved a commission.

Why do I find Adams, Morison, to a lesser degree Parkman fascinating, and some of their would-be successors tiresome?  I think that it must come down to perspective. The historians I admire master the details, but in service to a larger scope: the US coming into possession of what it had possessed on paper; the European discovery of America; France and England contending for North America. If a small-unit engagement is described in detail, it will be at Fort Defiance or Fallen Timbers--it will matter in some way. Above all, the masters know what to omit: when they quote, they quote for a purpose.

Anyway, Happy Father's Day to any father who may read this. If your offspring give you one of these books, consider the possibility that you may have failed to let them know your preferences clearly enough. Remember that it's the thought that counts.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

No Thirty-Seconds

Partly because I work with computers, the number thirty-two has often been on my mind. With thirty-two bits one can address about four billion locations in memory, or express a positive signed integer as large as about two billion. Going on forty-five or fifty years ago, the computer industry discovered that it needed thirty-two bits in an address. Tracy Kidder's book The Soul of a New Machine tells how Data General made its 32-bit computer. (Now and for some years, sixty-four bits has been standard, but quite recently I've heard from techies who couldn't process a file of size larger than two gigabytes.)

And the compass has thirty-two points. In "boxing the compass", one recites them in order clockwise from North to North by West. Any high school geometry student should be about to make a compass rose with the points using only compass and straight edge.

The other day, though, I discovered a property of thirty-two that hadn't occurred to me: it is the smallest positive integer that cannot be a day of a month. I was looking to validate some input to a script we use, and discovered that JavasSript will happily parse '2/31/2019' as a date, but not '2/32/2019'.  The former becomes March 3, 2019, the latter is not a valid date. The script was to run under the Microsoft Scripting Host (cscript.exe), but I found that this works the same in a browser console. In what follows, the output in in italic:
for (var i = 29; i < 33; i++) {
    var dateString = '2/' + i + '/2019';
    var d = new Date(dateString);
    console.log(dateString + ' -> ' + d);
2/29/2019 -> Fri Mar 01 2019 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/30/2019 -> Sat Mar 02 2019 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/31/2019 -> Sun Mar 03 2019 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/32/2019 -> Invalid Date
I'm not sure what to say about this. Obviously, JavaScript has "thirty days hath September" worked out, and it is not saving time or space by skipping leap year calculations:
for (var i = 29; i < 33; i++) {
    var dateString = '2/' + i + '/2020';
    var d = new Date(dateString);
    console.log(dateString + ' -> ' + d);
2/29/2020 -> Sat Feb 29 2020 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/30/2020 -> Sun Mar 01 2020 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/31/2020 -> Mon Mar 02 2020 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/32/2020 -> Invalid Date
I know how to work around this without much effort. I'm just a little surprised that I should have to.

[Edit: changed "two million" to "two billion"]

Friday, June 7, 2019

Information Wanted

Working as I do near Lafayette Square, I see demonstrations from time to time. Some I see marching to the square with banners up, some I see only when they are gathered in the park or on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is not always convenient to walk across the park to see what they are demonstrating for or against. Neither the National Park Service nor the Metropolitan Police Department makes it easy to find out who has permits for such demonstrations. I wish that someone would.

Demonstrations are not tied to a time of year, but graduations occur about the beginning of June. Many of them take place at Constitution Hall, at 17th and D NW, and sometimes at lunch time or after work I will see graduates in or carrying gowns and mortarboards, and wonder from what school. Last week one day there was green garb in the morning and red in the afternoon. The Daughters of the American Revolution quite reasonably do not include private events, including graduations, on the Constitution Hall calendar.

Now, one can go to the websites of local school systems and find some of the graduations. For example, last Thursday morning's graduation  in green was apparently Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Yesterday's in black was apparently Walt Whitman. So far, so good for Montgomery County. But what of the Virginia schools? Do the Fairfax or Arlington County schools cross the river? Maybe I should make a guide to the graduations. But who else would want it?

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Reading by Phone

Earlier in the year, I saw started to see persons standing, looking at their phones during the Gospel reading at St. Matthew's. After the first astonishment, it occurred to me that they were probably following the reading, from an app or a website that gives the readings of the day. Now, I think that the official view is that one should listen rather than read during Mass. However, there can be bad acoustics, soft or heavily accented voices, leaf-blowers or other machinery outside, and other reasons one can't follow by ear. And the Worship (hymnal plus missal) in the pews gives the text of the readings for Sundays, feasts, and holy days only. (In any case, it weighs a good deal more than a mobile phone.) So, odd though it looks, I can understand why someone would do this.

Today I chanced to see someone kneeling in a pew and and looking at her phone. The text was far too small to be read from my distance, but there was at least one illuminated capital. Apparently some in fact do their devotional reading on the phone.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

So Many Confessions

The other week I wished to quote a passage from St. Augustine's Confessions. I copied it out of Garry Wills's translation, but then wondered whether "semaphorings" was really the word I wanted. A Catholic store on K St. had no copies, but Kramerbooks at Dupont Circle had several translations: Wills's, Boulding's,  and Pine-Coffin's. I settled on Boulding. This week in addition they have Ruden's and Constantine's translations. I'd have been curious to see Frank Sheed's translation, but that Kramer's did not have.

The holdings in philosophy and religion are not especialy deep at Kramerbooks, it seems to me.Why it should have so many versions of the Confessions, I don't know.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Reading Emile

Somewhere in Book V of Emile: Or, on Education, I found myself remembering an obiter dictum of W.M. Spackman's from The Decline of Criticism:
Historically, the poème en prose is one of those accidents of French rhetoric, like Bossuet and Chateaubriand, that the French take to be literature.
But all things end, even a first reading of Emile.

In the preface to his translation, Allan Bloom wrote that Kant thought the appearance of Emile as remarkable an event as the French Revolution. I find that astonishing, given that Kant's pedagogical methods were hardly that of the narrator, that Kant lectured (it is said) splendidly on London Bridge without ever having been west of East Prussia. I suppose that a message of liberation from constraint particularly appealed to those who had grown up under French etiquette or Prussian schoolmasters.

A part of Rousseau's program, making the direct connection between experience and learning, is unexceptionable, and needs to be repeated constantly, for it is constantly forgotten. Yet he carries it beyond reason. when Emile is learning to smelt metals or turn spindles, I think of Samuel Johnson on Peter the Great's time as a shipwright--it makes no sense. Still the notion persists into Thoreau and beyond. Thoreau knew a great deal about the practical life, was a good surveyor and worked in the family's pencil factory, but even so could write in Walden
Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month, -- the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this -- or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meantime and had received a Rogers' penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?
 (I vote for the second boy--there is more likely to be an edge on his knife.)

The anti-feminism of Book V is amusing in its way. The passage
All these women of great talent never impress anyone but fools. It is always known who the artist or the friend is who holds the pen or the brush when they work. It is known who the discreet man of letters is who secretly dictates their oracles to them.
recalls a phrase in Nancy Mitford's introduction to her translation of  The Princess of Cleves:
this constantly recurring Branwellism of male critics
In the end, I agree with Wittgenstein on thought experiments. To argue for systems of education is well and good. To have managed a school\and to report ones observations--as Samuel Johnson, John Dewey and others have done--is better.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Jean Vanier, RIP

A friend invited me to the "Heart of L'Arche" breakfast last Wednesday. That morning the newspapers carried obituaries of Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche. The slides shown at the breakfast included one of Vanier with a resident of one of the local homes.

Vanier enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 13, resigned a commission in the Royal Canadian Navy at 21, and studied and taught philosophy before deciding that he was called to set up home in which those with intellectually disabilities might live with dignity. L'Arche is not an especially large organization--it houses about ten thousand person all told. What it does, it appears to do very well.

Vanier's career has resemblances to that of Leonard Cheshire: service in WW II,  followed after a while by the discovery of a charitable vocation. Like Vanier, Cheshire began with a couple of residents under his roof, and built from there.