Sunday, October 30, 2016

Courtesies of War

Happening to open Josef Pieper's Tradition as a Challenge the other day, I found
By chance, as I was recently paging through Goethe's autobiographical writings, I came across what is not a particularly significant but is both a characteristic and amusing example of such a change. It occurs in the Kampagne in Frankreich--in the records of that strange campaign, which foundered miserably in mud and rain, of the European monarchical forces pitted against the people's army of the French Revolution. In this war, which in many ways really belongs to our era, an arrangement was still able to be made between the warring armies: the outposts on both sides, when the weather was bad (in September! in France!) had the right, depending on the direction of the wind, wrapped in their overcoats, to turn their backs to the enemy without this temporary defenselessness being exploited.
 Grant writes in his memoirs that
The next day, the 24th, I started out to make a personal inspection, taking Thomas and Smith with me, besides most of the members of my personal staff. We crossed to the north side of the river, and, moving to the north of detached spurs of hills, reached the Tennessee at Brown's Ferry, some three miles below Lookout Mountain, unobserved by the enemy. Here we left our horses back from the river and approached the water on foot. There was a picket station of the enemy on the opposite side, of about twenty men, in full view, and we were within easy range. They did not fire upon us nor seem to be disturbed by our presence. They must have seen that we were all commissioned officers. But, I suppose, they looked upon the garrison of Chattanooga as prisoners of war, feeding or starving themselves, and thought it would be inhuman to kill any of them except in self-defence.
and again, of an inspection about a week later
[Chattanooga Creek], from its mouth up to where it bears off west, lay between the two lines of pickets, and the guards of both armies drew their water from the same stream. As I would be under short-range fire and in an open country, I took nobody with me, except, I believe, a bugler, who stayed some distance to the rear. I rode from our right around to our left. When I came to the camp of the picket guard of our side, I heard the call, "Turn out the guard for the commanding general." I replied, "Never mind the guard," and they were dismissed and went back to their tents. Just back of these, and about equally distant from the creek, were the guards of the Confederate pickets. The sentinel on their post called out in like manner, "Turn out the guard for the commanding general," and, I believe, added, "General Grant." Their line in a moment front-faced to the north, facing me, and gave a salute, which I returned
The most friendly relations seemed to exist between the pickets of the two armies. At one place there was a tree which had fallen across the stream, and which was used by the soldiers of both armies in drawing water for their camps. General Longstreet's corps was stationed there at the time, and wore blue of a little different shade from our uniform. Seeing a soldier in blue on this log, I rode up to him, commenced conversing with him, and asked whose corps he belonged to. He was very polite, and, touching his hat to me, said he belonged to General Longstreet's corps. I asked him a few questions—but not with a view of gaining any particular information—all of which he answered, and I rode off.
In World War II there was a tacit understanding that when shells were fired to scatter propaganda leaflets the recipients had some minutes of grace to pick them up, and of course to get out of foxholes and trench, stretch their limbs, and so on. But this understanding was more between the psychological warfare arm and the artillery than it was between the warring sides.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Computers and Superstition

Computer systems in the best case are built in carefully defined layers. The user clicks on a button: the browser sends a request to the web server; the server program issues some commands to send this information and retrieve that; perhaps a database adds information to a table and sends information back; the web server sends a new page for the browser to display. Here the browser is built to display pages and send requests, the web server to send pages and handle requests, the database to save and retrieve information.

In theory, there is a clean separation of responsibilities. The person writing the programs the web server will run need not worry about how the browser works or the details of queries running against the database. Those who configure the database need not concern themselves with what programs will use the database--maybe it will be a script on a web server, maybe the data will be pulled into a spreadsheet. And there is a hard boundary at the database: for the most part commands and data go in, responses and data come out, but one need not worry about what happens inside the database.

In practice, things are not so cleanly separated. Often enough the person writing the scripts for the web server will also write the queries against the database. That person may have to know some of the quirks of the different browsers, and how they follow or break standards--admittedly this is a fairly shallow knowledge. The person writing queries against the database may have to look very closely to see why something runs slowly and how it can be made to run faster.

I have found little in my work that is more frustrating than coming up against one of these layers, needing just a bit of information from the other side, and being unable to get it. It is well to know that steps A, B, and C will produced result D; if D always comes about, that all one needs to know. But if the every tenth application produces E, then one needs to look further. That can be very hard to do.

I have been trying to figure out why certain "integrations", methods for receiving outside data into the Great Plains accounting system, sometimes work properly and sometimes don't. I set these up as copies of another integration. After looking carefully at them all for discrepancies, I have come to a number of conclusions:
  • The integration I copied was copied from some other source.
  • At least one element of the source integration is otiose: it might have made sense in an integration that is a generation or three removed, but not here.
  • Setting up systems in this fashion is nearer superstition than to sound technical practice.
  • The explanation of the discrepancy is simple, a matter that could be explained to me by an expert in ten minutes.
  • Finding that expert is not a technical but a social problem, and could be all but insoluble.
I have tried what I could think to try. The logs produced when the integration runs with logging set to the "trace" level resemble the box scores of baseball games, which is to say that they will tell you what happened but not how. The database level trace on the other hand recorded almost a thousand operations to record three invoices. I gave up on it, but may have to go back.

Trying a change with a notion of what it will effect, and how, and how one can tell that it produced that effect, is experimenting. Changing something because maybe it will help is superstition. It is too easy to fall into superstitious coding, and it always makes me uncomfortable.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Fathers

Long ago, I had heard of Allen Tate's novel The Fathers as very good. Yet though I read a fair bit of Tate's criticism and poetry,  I had never bothered to find and read the novel. This past week,  it turned up at Idle Time Books in Adams-Morgan. After a first reading, it seems to me to justify the reputation.

The Fathers is set in the years 1858 through 1861 in country more or less familiar to me: Fairfax County and Alexandria in Virginia, Georgetown in the District of Columbia. Of course, both sides of the river have changed greatly in the last century and a half, the farms of Fairfax now all suburb, and  Georgetown built up the hill beyond the small town it had been. Anyone trying to follow the path of Lacy Buchan's afternoon walk of May 6, 1861 up from what I take to be M St. would walk through some very expensive yards. The only features of Georgetown I could reasonably identify were the towpath, the college, the Convent of the Visitation, and Holyrood Cemetery. The streets named in Alexandria retain their names; but Georgetown has been assimilated to the Washington system, and my identification of the streets there is conjectural.

The social territory is still more changed, of course, than the physical. Apart from the presence of slavery, there is the society of Virginia, where, in the words of the disruptive Georgetown resident George Posey, "They do nothing but die and marry and think about the honor of Virginia." Some of the older men, like the narrator's father, are unionists and conservative, living in a Virginia that they have imagined:
"Damn it, Lacy, it's just men like your pa who are the glory of the Old Dominion, and the surest proof of her greatness, that are going to ruin us. They can't understand that reason and moderation haven't anything to do with the crisis."
Yet their codes and customs give the Virginians a framework that George Posey lacks; they know what to do in a given situation, be it courting, dueling, or secession. Repeatedly, Tate's narrator, Lacey Buchan points up the difference:
In the sense of today nobody wrote personal letters in our time: letters conveyed the sensibility of of society, the ordered life of families and neighborhoods. George Posey was a man without people or place: he had strong relationships, and he was capable of passionate feeling, but it was all personal...
Posey has for his resources on the one hand mere business and money-making, on the other violent impulse, bringing death to his own family, death and madness to the Buchans. The older generation, Major Lewis Buchan and his cousin John Semmes simply cannot understand Posey: the younger generation look to him for something they are missing. The Posey family of Georgetown is turned in on itself and, George apart, feckless and self-absorbed.

The last word might be left to a Virginian in another novel, John Carrington in Henry Adam's Democracy:
"And would you bring the old society back again if you could?" asked she.

"What for? It could not hold itself up. General Washington himself could not save it. Before he died he had lost his hold on Virginia, and his power was gone."
 (Adams gets a small, off-stage cameo as "a great snob even then" who sometimes attends the "levees" of Charles Buchan's ambitious wife. Well and good; but was it for Virginia to judge the pretensions of Massachusetts?)

I finished the book, Tate's only novel, with something of the feeling I had after reading Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It: I wish I could next read his second novel.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Readings for the Day

The Gospel for today, Friday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time, is Luke 12:1-7. Part of it struck me as curiously apposite:
There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness
will be heard in the light,
and what you have whispered behind closed doors
will be proclaimed on the housetops.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Plain Prose, or Not

A dozen years ago, overseas, I noticed a couple puzzling over a word in a novel, one of John Irving's. I offered my help--the word was "smitten", and then went on to a number of other words that the man had underlined. Both spoke excellent English, he from graduate and postgraduate studies in California, she from a former marriage to an Englishman. Still, there were words they hadn't encountered. All were familiar to me, but I realized on looking at them that they were words I would not expect to meet outside of novels or essays. I had not thought of John Irving as a writer who reaches for the unusual word--he is no Alexander Theroux or S.J. Perelman--yet here were these words.

More recently I have looked through books for passages that adults learning English might be able to read as class exercises. I have long taken it for granted that the best American writers of the 19th Century wrote a good plain style: think of Dana, Lincoln, Grant, Thoreau,  and Twain. And then I look, and think again.

There is the first paragraph of Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, a book I first read when about 13 years old:
The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the
brig Pilgrim on her voyage from Boston round Cape Horn to the western
coast of North America.  As she was to get under weigh early in the
afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o'clock, in full
sea-rig, and with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three
year voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if
possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books
and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my
pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure.
Certainly that is plain enough. But I see a number of words or expressions that would require explanation: "brig", "under weigh", "sea-rig", "outfit" (in the sense used), "pursuits."

Lincoln passed for a very plain orator, justly so. Here is the third paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which
it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the
conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should
cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less
fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and pray to the
same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.  It may seem
strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in
wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us
judge not, that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be
answered--that of neither has been answered fully.
You have "magnitude", "duration", and on through to "wringing their bread".

There is Grant's famous note to Buckner:
SIR:--Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.
 World War II popularized the expression "unconditional surrender"--FDR knew his Grant--but how many native speakers of English understand it accurately, or can define "capitulation" or "armistice", or have seen "works" used in this sense?

Thoreau, I have always thought, writes plainly enough. Here are a few sentences from the chapter "Reading" in Walden:
I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. There is a work in several volumes in our Circulating Library entitled "Little Reading," which I thought referred to a town of that name which I had not been to. There are those who, like cormorants and ostriches, can digest all sorts of provender, for they suffer nothing to be wasted. If others are the machines to provide it, they are the machines to read it.
The words "form" and "convict" are not often used in these senses now, and I don't often see "provender" or "cormorant".

 Here is the first paragraph of Mark Twain's  Life on the Mississippi:
THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

I think that excellent clear prose. Yet is it for beginners? How many of us us have a sense of 45 degrees of longitude, for one thing? And barges have long superseded "flats and keels". (At the moment, I can't think how Twain could have imagined that Delaware was in the Mississippi watershed.)

A couple of weeks ago, another teacher brought in a piece from the Wall Street Journal for the students to read. A look through showed words and idioms that I would not expect a new student to know. At the end of every paragraph we explained three or four expressions: "trumpeted", "touted", "playing offense", and so on. I was wary from the start, having tried out the The Washington Post Express on students a couple of years ago without it yielding a return proportionate to the time spent.

The experiment with the Express made me realize what I had more or less known, that newspapers are written in a particular subset of English. It is one that I began learning more than fifty years ago now and hardly notice. It is not one I'd advise students to model their own writing on, not that I have ever been able to get students to write much of anything. It is worth learning in the long run, but it is of limited use in instruction.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Magnolia and Monkshood

Last week, while walking near the Ellipse, I was surprised to see a magnolia tree with a couple of flowers on it, of which one was low enough to photograph with decent resolution:

I knew that there are magnolias that keep blooming after the spring, but early October seemed late; and though I walk past this tree about once a week, I don't remember recent flowers.

This weekend my wife showed me that the monkshood in the garden is blooming:

We planted it with great care, for monkshood is poisonous, and apparently an English gardener died from the effects of mere skin contact with it. I am shy of it, without being good at spotting it by its foliage; I just know that there is something in that corner of the garden to avoid. But it does have lovely flowers. I will post another picture or two once more of the blooms are out.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Command and Assertion

I have started reading Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. It is clearly written, as one would expect. It is also closely written, to be read slowly and carefully.

I am still in the early pages, where Newman lays out the forms of propositions, interrogative, conditional, and categorical, corresponding to the ways or modes of holding them: doubt, inference, and assent. On the second page appears the paragraph
No one is likely to deny that a question is distinct both from a conclusion and from an assertion; and an assertion will be found to be equally distinct from a conclusion. For, if we rest our affirmation on arguments, this shows that we are not asserting; and when we assert, we do not argue. An assertion is a distinct from a conclusion, as a word of command is from a persuasion or recommendation. Command and assertion, as such, both of them, in their different ways, dispense with, discard, ignore antecedents of any kind, though antecedents may have been a sine qua non condition of their being elicited. They both carry with them the pretension of being personal acts.
The passage recalled a paragraph from Herbert Simon's memoirs, Models of My Life, from his early years teaching at Carnegie Tech (as it then was):
Once when I was auditing [Elliot Dunlap Smith's] class (for a time he hoped that I would understudy him, but ultimately let me go my own way), he made a particularly sweeping statement, then turned to me and asked, "Isn't that so, Professor Simon?" My father had carefully taught me, "Never sign in the presence of the salesman," and I had learned that valuable lesson well, to the point of reflexive response. Recovering from my momentary shock, I quickly replied, "On the whole, it seems reasonable." Smith turned to the class and, his voice dripping with sarcasm, said, "Professor Simon says on the whole it seems reasonable. I tell you it's so."
 There I think is a good illustration of the difference between the categorical and conditional proposition, and of the personal nature both of assertion and command.