Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Beneficiary

My wife's book club read The Beneficiary, by Janny Scott, for their July meeting. This left the book available when I was in between books, so that I read most of it. I found it moderately interesting, but more depressing.

The Beneficiary traces the fortunes of the Montgomery and Scott families, who over about a century made a fair bit of money in railroads, investing, and banking in Pennsylvania, and hung on to a good deal of the money for some years more. The details of their work are not much fleshed out, but one learns a lot about some of their marriages and about their drinking. The marriages were not always happy or enduring, and the drinking had something to do with that.

The author is of a generation that left the Philadelphia Main Line. Her father necessarily takes up a great  deal of the book. He seems to have been a more than competent museum executive, but what a museum executive does, other than scramble for money, one does not learn. One learns a great deal about his drinking, which shortened his life and helped to alienate some of his family. Robert Scott routinely consumed three liters of wine a day, often with cocktails as well. Montaigne in his essay "On Drunkenness" mentions a nobleman who routinely consumed "scarcely less than ten quarts" at a meal, without losing his acuity: but was his acuity mentioned against that of the sober? Robert Scott apparently was not fit for business after lunch many days.

I ended the book not entirely sure why I should care about the fortunes of the Montgomerys and Scotts, including Robert Scott. That his daughter should is natural. The rest of us need a reason, which I didn't quite find. Yet the book is short enough, and well enough written  that I didn't resent reaching this conclusion.

Friday, August 9, 2019

White-Shoe Boiler Rooms

The other evening I happened to be near the phone when it rang. The display said "Covington Burling". Now, Covington and Burling is a well-known law firm. I would expect it to communicate with such as me via registered letters or process servers. I didn't really believe the display. Still, I picked up the phone..

The voice on the line was looking for "senior homeowners", a class I belong to. But as far as I could tell, this was a cheesy AI voice-response system. Its responses to my questions were inconsequent, and when I said, "Are you telling me that you are calling from Covington and Burling?",  there was silence on the line. I hung up.

I have encountered such calls before, ones that talk right past "Are you a robot?" or will not answer when asked, "Who is the majority leader of the Senate?" But I have not run across any from a source so bold as to pretend to be a white-shoe law firm. I doubt that Covington and Burling can avenge itself on the callers; but I'd pleased to hear that it did.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Summer Class

This summer I spent a number of evenings in a class in Spanish as a Second Language (SSL). This was offered through St. Matthew's Cathedral. As is usual in such classes, volunteers taught, and most of the cost went to the textbook. I learned a certain amount of Spanish, and hope to retain much  of what I learned.

Over the last several years, I have taught English as a Second Language (ESL) one night a week through a parish program. A number of contrasts were obvious:
  • The texts our ESL program has used, most recently the Cambridge Ventures series, are aimed at immediate practical use. The SSL text proceeds in the order familiar from school: here are the conjugations, here the declensions, let us proceed from the present indicative.
  • Those seeking instruction in Spanish are on the whole more prosperous and longer schooled than those seeking instruction in English. Our class included three engineers, a lawyer and a law student, and an employee of the IMF.
I think the text, Complete Spanish Step-by-Step by Barbara Bregstein, pretty good, with some reservations. It lacks a vocabulary of any part of speech but verbs: for a forgotten noun or adjective, one must guess the chapter in which it might have been defined and look through the word lists there, or resort to a dictionary. I encountered a number of words in the exercises that I'm fairly sure never appeared with a translation. The book does not consistently alphabetize the verbs in its lists of regular and irregular conjugations, which is not positively an obstacle, but still a nuisance. It lacks completeness in its lists of exceptions: apparently one is supposed to infer that  the participle for "poner" is "puesto" because the participle for "volver" is "vuelto". And it refers to the subjunctive and conditional as tenses.

The text does have many exercises, with proposed answers in the back of the book. It is meant to be used over a semester or a year, I gather, for it returns to many topics--the subjunctive, the preterit, the imperfect. I find that useful.

Many of us found the pace a bit overwhelming. One man, married to a woman of South American birth, said that he would go home and vent to her. His interlocutor, who may have been one of the students with a Spanish-speaking boyfriend or family, felt much the same. Around the Fourth of July, I found myself thinking of the fellow mentioned in the newspaper for winning hot dog eating contests. Can one suffer indigestion from learning the conjugation of too many tenses too quickly?

I also found myself thinking of The Caine Mutiny, a book I haven't opened in nearly fifty years. Early on, the protagonist, an officer candidate in a Navy program, encounters a lesson on the "frictionless bearing". It means nothing to him, but he reads and reviews the material until he has all but memorized it, and he passes with high marks the test on the bearing. This does much to give him grace when he piles up many demerits later on. But I infer that Willie Keith knew nothing at all about the principles of the frictionless bearing, and that in six months if not six weeks would have had no idea about it.

Willie Keith lacked context for understanding the bearing, which physical intuition should have provided--physical intuition available to the naturally gifted or the well trained. I lack context for Spanish: I guess I will have to get it through the newspapers, radio, and conversation.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Commonest and Most Primitive Kind of Competition

A visit to the outside carts at Second Story Books yesterday, mostly in hopes of getting change for a $20 bill, succeeded beyond expectation when a volume on the last cart turned out to be The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 by Edmund Wilson. There are a number of very good essays--on the Holmes-Laski correspondence, on books by Dawn Powell and George Kennan, one on "My Fifty Years with Grammars and Dictionaries". But what I must quote is from "Donsmanship", a review of Stephen Potter's Supermanship, or How to Continue to Stay on Top without Actually Falling Apart. Having given a sketch of Potter's work, Wilson moves on to a matter Potter had so far neglected, one-upmanship in academic circles.
The commonest and most primitive kind of competition that goes on among American professors is to top one another in reading. I was once told of a conversation between Irving Babbitt and someone else of equal competence in the field of romantic literature which soon reduced itself entirely to an exchange of the titles of books. In this game, the opponent is supposed to show by a brief appropriate comment that he has read the book named by the other. Of course it is easy to cheat if the opponent does not press too far. One may actually know something about the book without having actually read it, and so risk a  non-committal response that cannot be to far wide of the mark. But if the question is cleverly put and searchingly followed up, it may reduce the opponent to a confession of his ignorance. One of the high scores is driving one's opponent--this is quite difficult to do--to a confession that he has not only not read the book but has not even heard of it. The highest points of all--and I have heard of this happening at Harvard--are scored by inventing a non-existent book and getting the other man to pretend that he has read it. The most reliable way, I should say from my own experience, for the non-academic person to counter a well-equipped scholar, who has scrutinized and read more than he has, is to cut in with some opinion, offhandedly and freely expressed, which is quite outside the scholar's gambits and will cause him to gasp and sulk.... I now exploit these shock tactics deliberately.
 The Library of America offers three volumes of Wilson's work, but so far they end with the 1940s. I suppose it will get around to the 1950s and on someday.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019


We spent about a week in Belgium and the Netherlands, and had a constant feeling of awkward familiarity. Dutch is similar enough to German that I feel I should be able to read and follow it, but of course I can't really. The Antwerp cathedral provides a liturgical pamphlet, and there I was able to spot cognates in the readings: "terug" = "zuruck", "dienaar" = "Diener", 'deel" = "Teil" (and is related to the English "deal"; it is odd to think for a moment that one read that Mary has chosen the better deal). The straight narratives, Genesis and Luke, were almost readable; Paul, with theological reflections, definitely not.

And then there are physical resemblances. Quite a bit of the population of Amsterdam looked like second cousins or shirt-tail relatives that I really should remember. Well, a lot of my ancestors lived in northwestern Germany, not far from the modern border.

The bicycling culture interested us, with persons everywhere on  bikes, sometimes with a dog in the basket, children in a tub, or goods in a locking container. I think it more practical for a city such as Amsterdam,which has no visible grades, than for one like Washington, where one has the flat and fill, then a steep grade up to piedmont. I have not in many years seen so many of what we called "girls' bikes", with the lower crossbar to accommodate a skirt.

It was unusually hot in Amsterdam. It occurred to me one night that the last time I regularly slept in hot weather without even a fan would have been the summer of 1980. Then, though, I was in a suburb under tall trees, not in a built up city. I slept, but would have slept better with a fan.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Airport Experience

On the way off a KLM flight today, I noticed a screen stating that KLM offered "the aiport experience." It seemed to me that the copywriter, ad agency, and marketing department must all be out of touch to suppose that anyone enjoys "the airport experience". We had worried about making our flight while in the baggage-check and security lines at Schiphol. Then at Dulles, after seeing KLM's offer, we took thirty-some minutes to get through passport control. The queues wound enough that I came to recognize a dozen families or couples as we passed and repassed each other. Our luggage was off the belt before we arrived to look for it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Buried Under the Path

Yesterday we visited the Begijnhof in Amsterdam. We saw the small Catholic chapel, and the outsides of residences and the English Reformed Church. We did not see, at least I did not, the marker for the grave of Cornelia Arents, a beguine who arranged for burial under the path to the church, as penance for the conversion to Protestantism of certain relatives. An alternative version says that she considered the church as desecrated by the English Reformed takeover.

An early Catholic bishop of New York supposedly asked to be buried under the pavements, though as a reproach to his flock. The churches of Europe are full of grave markers in the pavement--perhaps the point was to be buried outside.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Blackberry Lilies

These turned up as volunteers in the side yard:

Evidently the flower is a member of the iris family. We suppose these were planted by one or more of the birds that perch in the holly tree above them.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Trends and Harm

Cynthia Haven has noticed an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the tyranny of trendy ideas. The article is amusing, the trendy ideas are properly silly, but some of them have little relevance for those of us outside the academy. Some of them make me think of a summer thunderstorm--underneath there is violent weather, two miles away one hears the sound and gets a bit of wind, and twenty miles away nobody knows that it happened. I'm sure that Project 2021 was a big deal in Austin, but did anyone outside the academy hear of it in Norman or Baton Rouge?

On the Fourth, we had friends over for dinner. At some point one of the conversations turned to reading. One man's sister has been fighting with her son's school districts over reading instruction. The sister finds that "whole-language" instruction is not teaching her son to read, and pushes for phonics. A woman in the conversation had been through the same quarrel as a teacher in Brooklyn, almost fifty years ago. This surprised me. I don't follow trends in elementary education, and the last time I noticed, phonics seemed to be making a comeback. But it appears that the contention between "whole-language" and phonics never really ends, just has one or the other on top for a while.

What is taught in the schools of education affects large numbers of children. It could be a child's chance, as it was mine, to arrive in sixth grade just at the New Math does. Or as it was my brother's chance, to arrive in the parochial schools when they set phonics aside for whole-language. Some of those children will take no harm, as we took none. Others will be promoted without mastering the skills said to be taught, or just alienated by busy work that teaches them nothing.

 The tyranny of trendy ideas that should be overthrown, and probably never will be, is the tyranny of trendy ideas about elementary education. Americans are simply too willing to believe that there is something other than tedious, painstaking work that will teach their children to read, write, and reckon. I know that I say this often; but those who disagree needn't worry--many more qualified, many famous persons have said this for years with no effect.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

There Must Be a Better Way

Raymond Hettinger, a core contributor to the Python language and a frequent speaker at Python conferences, has a routine he uses in talks: he will bring his fist down on the podium, and the audience is to exclaim, "There must be a better way!" I thought of that last week, with Python only part of the context.

Suppose that you, or your employers, take an interest in the data collected by the U.S. Office of Idle Inquiries, or its private-sector cousin, General Information, Inc. It would be good to get hold of quantities of this data, summarize it, total it, analyze it. But you don't have it. What then?

The data held by the government office may be somewhere on if you know how to find it. Otherwise, it may well be available under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In theory, you can "FOIA it": put in a FOIA request, and eventually get back a DVD or a thumb drive with the data you want. In practice, you may get nothing but explanations about why FOIA does not apply; or a mass of metadata with no data; or data in a format that nobody still in the workforce has ever seen. And it may take a while. General Information, Inc., as a private company, is certainly not putting its information out on and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

But the data that you want is published in some fashion or another on the web. You can go to or https/, use a search box, and get the data a record or a dozen at a time. What will you do?

Well, you might put together a script or two to retrieve and parse the data. If the site is amenable to the treatment, you can use Python's urllib.request module to retrieve the data a page at a time. If the site is heavy with JavaScript and wants you to click on a "Next" button for every score of records, you can use the Selenium module to drive a browser. And you can extend html.parser.HTMLParser to take apart what you have retrieved and reshape it. This works well enough.

On the other hand, you may run across a government website that has a few thousand records of much interest. To get what you want, you will have to use Selenium to drive a browser to retrieve the records ten at a time. Each set of ten records you will have to parse, and each of the records will require another retrieval and parsing. About then, you will say "There must be a better way!" As you do so, though, you probably will not pound your fist. More likely you will sigh.

The work is not especially difficult. A task such as I speak of might require a couple hundred lines of Python--emphatically not  counting what's in the libraries, only what I'd have to write. The weariness comes from the reflection that
  • A team of programmers has defined a database to hold structured data.
  • Many persons, whether as their sole duty or as an aspect of it have populated that database with information about the agency's findings.
  • Another team of programmers has taken pains to write programs that will display the data in a format humans can conveniently read when they go to the website.
  • And here I come to pick the presentation format apart into data to load into a database.
  • Can't somebody just send me the database?
But until someone tells we when I'll get the databases, I'll keep on writing scripts.

(For those who use Python and have not heard of Raymond Hettinger, I strongly recommend going to YouTube and watching his presentation "Beyond PEP 8 -- Practices for beautiful intelligible code". I will not say that my code is beautiful, but I will say that it is less ugly than it was before I saw the presentation.)

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


The Monday Washington Post has an article on the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), the continuing-education arm of the University System of Maryland. The article takes up about half a page. It appears to me that the burden of the story is that
  • The administration wishes to increase revenue, which comes primarily from tuition.
  • The administration supposes that the students are looking primarily for credentials, to be gained as quickly as possible.
  • The administration infers that students prefer online courses.
  • The administration considers that students who cannot get the credentials as quickly and conveniently at UMUC will enroll with competitors instead.
  • The faculty thinks that it would be good to get paid better to teach.
  • The faculty thinks that it would be good to see the occasional student face to face, and for more weeks per class than eight.
I think it is well if students can learn quickly and conveniently, and I know it is the case that UMUC's students are mostly employed full time and otherwise busy.  But the faculty may be the better judge of the pace of learning than either students or administration. And I think that courses taught in a classroom are preferable to online courses, even those taught by an instructor online as the class proceeds.

About thirty years ago I took classes at UMUC, for I wished to learn about computers, about programming mostly. I think it was only the last class I took there that was supposed to have a distance-learning component, for the benefit of students at other sites; but it didn't work well and may have been dropped. The classes I took were all at the campus in College Park. I did not in fact acquire a credential--I think I could have with one more class. But I did learn a certain amount about programming and generally about computers.

A few years later I taught one course there several times. These were not online classes. I discovered, as most adjuncts must, that the payment for the first class or two, reckoned against the hours one spends, amounts to something less than minimum wage.  I enjoyed the teaching even so.

The only persons I ever met, not heads of departments, that I knew to make or have made a living as UMUC faculty were a couple of accountants, who had previously taught for the school in Europe at US military bases. The instructors for my classes were working engineers or programmers, with the occasional graduate student. Generally they were good to very good. Most must have made far more at a day job than they did teaching. I sympathize with the adjuncts there now; but as far as I know the reliance on adjuncts is not new at UMUC.

The last time I thought about UMUC before the Post's story was some months ago. Out of curiosity to see where ESL students might advance their education, I looked up the tuition and fees at some local community colleges. I tried to look up the tuition for classes at UMUC also and could not find the information--the school site offers a "Time and Tuition Estimator" for the cost of a degree program, but does not make it easy to find the price per credit hour. Thirty years ago, UMUC was not so coy.

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.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Reading Cooper

A friend's email mentioned James Fenimore Cooper. Solemn in all things, I mentioned the views of D.H. Lawrence and Yvor Winters, but confessed that mostly I agreed with Mark Twain. It turned out that she had not been reading Lawrence or Winters, but thinking back to Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans. Even so, this reminded me that I had not read all of the Leatherstocking novels: I had to look at the Library of America entry to see that the one remaining was The Pathfinder. Over the fortnight just ended, I have read it.

I still agree with Twain, and still think Cooper wrote inferior Scott. However, I now suspect what I had not for fifty years, that Twain in middle age reacted against the interest and confidence with which he read Cooper when young. He might in another time and mood have written of the books in the manner of S.J. Perelman's "Cloudland Revisited" pieces. But Twain, I think, considered that he had been fooled, and took his revenge. The Pathfinder has a couple of the items that Twain complained about--the shooting match at Oswego, and the anchoring of a ship in undertow off ta lees shore along Lake Ontario.

Twain was probably ten or twelve when he first read Cooper. That seems to me about the best age for Cooper, when a boy has not developed a sense of the probable, or much interest in women. That is the age to identify with the Pathfinder, hiking off into the wilderness with Chingachook, and not with Jasper Western settled down with Mabel Dunham. That is also the age not to roll the eyes at the courting scenes.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

John Lukacs, RIP

The newspapers have just carried the obituaries of John Lukacs, historian and memoirist. He lived to be 95. In his youth he had been imprisoned by the Hungarian state, then allied with Germany, for disaffection, and perhaps for having a Jewish mother; he had sheltered from Allied air raids; he had deserted the Hungarian army and lived in hiding. He survived, and in the United States he flourished. The bibliography appended to the the collection Remembered Past runs to thirty-six page, the first six of books; and he published at least one book (The Future of History) after Remembered Past, six years after .

Those who have not read Lukacs would do well to start with Confessions of An Original Sinner or A Thread of Years. The Last European War (World War II before Japan entered) , and At the End of an Age are well worth reading. Budapest 1900 and Five Day in London are more narrowly focused; yet though I was never aware of an interest in Budapest at the turn of the last century, and would have said I had read enough books about 1940, I found them absorbing.

Lukacs had an excellent eye for the telling quotation--Confessions of an Original Sinner particularly shows this. His interests were broad, though Europe and North American interested him most. His judgments, to the extent I can judge them, seem generally sound. I don't really share his Anglophilia, but I believe I understand how one who lived through 1940 and 1941 in Central Europe--when England seemed a lone hope for Europe--might develop it.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Seen at Lafayette Square

I had never before spotted the metal tags on the trees along the west side of Lafayette Square, yet clearly they have been there for a while. This is not a "wow" oak, it is a willow oak, but the growth of the tree has bent the tag:

On the tree beside it, the folding has gone farther, so that the tag is barely visible:

On the young, slim gingkos next just up from the oaks, the tags are still flat and wholly legible.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

I'd Buy a Ticket

In 1996, Clive James wrote that
The twentieth-century philosophers whose names are inseparable, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, were such a great double act that there simply has to be a buddy movie sooner or later. At last, the material is all set to be licked into a script. Ray Monk has now matched his justly lauded biography of Wittgenstein with a fat and equally enthralling first volume wrapping up the earlier half of Bertrand Russell's long life--Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921--and is sitting on the hottest Hollywood prospect since Paul Newman and Robert Redford signed on for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
James predicted that all the A-list male stars would wish to play Wittgenstein, but that
Nobody bankable--not even Steve Martin, a philosophy wonk who can actually explicate Principia Mathematica while wearing a plastic arrow through his head--will want to play the physically unappealing Russell, so the way should be clear for the perfect choice: Gene Wilder. Fluctuating uncontrollably between idealism and disillusion, forever persuaded that sexual fulfilment is at hand in the form of a luscious girl in a red dress, Wilder's person, like his appearance, exactly fits a part that should revive his career. The only strike against Wilder is that even he has too much gravitas for the role.
In the postscript attached to the essay in Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays (2003), James added
My idea for a movie about Russell and Wittgenstein was meant to depend for its effect on its manifest absurdity. But a Hollywood producer was on the the phone the week after the piece came out, talking large talk about writing a treatment. Since then I've heard nothing, which I suppose is a relief, because it was evident that he wanted to make the kind of comedy that says it's a comedy up front, like Nuns on the Run. I probably put him off when I told him the truth: as Russell proved, it isn't funny unless you play it straight.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Its Minor Key

Chapter XXXV of Volume II of The World As Will and Representation concludes
Now when I see how this unbelieving age so diligently finishes the Gothic churches left uncompleted by the believing Middle Ages, it seems to me as if were desired to embalm a Christianity that has expired.
Schopenhauer did not much care for Gothic architecture, "the negative pole of architecture, or  even its minor key." He offered his reasons for the judgment, summarized by
For only the ancient style of architecture is conceived in a purely objective sense; the Gothic is more in the subjective. We have recognized the real, aesthetic, fundamental idea of the ancient architecture to be the unfolding of the conflict between rigidity and gravity; but if we try to discover an analogous fundamental idea in Gothic architecture, it will have to be that the entire subjugation and conquest of gravity by rigidity are there to be exhibited.
He did grant that the Gothic looks better from inside than the the classic does, and suggested obliquely that it was better suited to a northern climate that encourages one to go indoors.

Monday, April 15, 2019

After the Cherry Blossoms

The cherry blossoms peaked probably about the first of April this year. But more trees have been and are in flower.

About a week ago, I noticed that the serviceberry trees near the Kennedy Center were in full flower:

 On our street, and in many places around town, the eastern redbuds are in flower:

And the dogwoods are not yet at their peak:

On Saturday I noticed a virburnum in flower near the Potomac above Reagan National Airport. The one in our yard looks to be about a week from flowering.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Behnke's Is Closing

Behnke's is closing. For as long as I can remember, it has had the reputation of being the best nursery in the Washington area. My own direct acquaintance with it is fairly short; but for a while we have gone out once or twice a year to buy plants. I can point out a couple of plants that we have bought there, and my wife could point out many more.

The Behnke Nurseries Company has operated since 1930. The family has decided to close it, for reasons not given. I suspect that a large one is that the property will earn more when sold for development than it will as a nursery. I shouldn't care to commute to anywhere in particular from the Behnke's site, nor live quite so close to Route 1 and a busy train track; but there are many jobs in that direction.

There are other nurseries in the area, though the Johnson's Garden Center south of Tenley Circle closed last year. None have the space and selection of Behnke's, that I know of. The nearest comparable nursery that I have been to is  in the Harrisburg suburbs, about a hundred miles from here. We may end up driving there rather than to Beltsville.

In the meantime, everything is considerably discounted, until Behnke's closes in June.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Tiresome Bias

In Word and Object, section 36, W.V.O. Quine makes the curious remark that
  Our ordinary language shows a tiresome bias in its treatment of time. Relations of date are exalted grammatically as relations of position, weight, and color are not. This bias is of itself an inelegance, or breach of theoretical simplicity.
And for the purposes of his canonical notation, he drops all tenses but the present, using "before now" and "after now" as useful.

In the former of The Blue and Brown Books, Wittgenstein writes
And when we are worried about the nature of thinking, the puzzlement  which we wrongly interpret to be one about the nature of a medium is a puzzlement caused by the mystifying use of our language. This kind of mistake occurs again and again in philosophy; e.g. when we are puzzled about the nature of time, when time seems to us a queer thing.
And a few pages farther on,
It was such a "contradiction" which puzzled Saint Augustine when he argued: How is it possible that one should measure time? For the past can't be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can't be measured because it has not come. And the present can't be measured for it has no extension. The contradiction which here seems to arise could be called a conflict between two different usages of a word, in this case the word "measure". Augustine, we might say, thinks of the process of measuring a length: say, the distance between two marks on a traveling band which passes us, and of which we can see only a tiny bit (the present) which passes in front of us.
Locke writes, without naming St. Augustine,
The answer of a great man, to one who asked what time was "Si non rogas, intelligo', (which amounts to this; the more I set myself to think of it, the less I understand it,) might persuade one, that time, which reveals all things, is itself not to be discovered. Duration, time, and eternity, are, not without reason, thought to have something very abstruse in their nature.  But however remote these may seem from our comprehension, yet if we trace them right to their originals, I doubt not but one of those sources of all our knowledge, viz. sensation and reflection, will be able to furnish us with these ideas, as clear and distinct as many other, which are thought much less obscure; and we shall find, that the idea of eternity itself is derived from the same common original with the rest of our ideas.
(An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XIV, Section 2.)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Character Sets

It has occurred to me that some confusions would never mislead a couple of classes of programmer: the one who started about 1970 and retired about 1995; the one who will start in 2025. The first will have spent a career in a world where every character may be represented in an 8-bit byte, most of them in only 7 bits, in so-called US ASCII. (Yes, I'm ignoring IBM and the world of EBCDIC.) The second will have a career in which Unicode is everywhere, and nobody confuses bytes and characters. But perhaps I should date the latter's career from 2025, or later

For the first programmer the bit pattern 01000001 (decimal 65) meant 'A'. It was the sole representation for 'A'. For the second programmer, code point 65 is 'A', but code point 65 may be represented in many ways: identical to US ASCII if the Unicode representation is UTF-8; with an all-zero byte preceding or following in the UCS-16 representations; for all I know, whistled on a bosun's pipe or carved on a rock. The second programmer knows that always and everywhere there is a distinction between bytes and characters, even if a particular encoding maps them one-to-one.

I live in the uneasy world betwixt and between. I know that a string is made up of characters, and a byte sequence of bytes, but the distinction is not generally in my thoughts. Most of the time, I can pretend strings and byte sequences are the same. Now and then, I can't.

Recently I have been helping a co-worker by pulling data from the internet and using scripts to transform it. Today one of the scripts failed with an error: it encountered the character 0x95, which is not valid within UTF-8. As it happens, 0x95 represents a bullet in the code set CP-1252. I had a look at the headers of the web page, and was not greatly surprised to discover that they included "charset=UTF-8". Changing the script to read the page as CP-1252 resolved the difficulty.

This was not the first time that I have encountered such a difficulty. The word has gone out among developers--of web frameworks, at least--that one should always announce the character set. The users of the frameworks, though, haven't always heard that one should ensure that the data provided is in the character set announced.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Thought Experiments

Noted in Wittgenstein's Philosophische Grammatik,  Part I, section VII, 106:
A  thought experiment amounts to an experiment that one does not carry out, but rather sketches out, paints, or describes. And the result of the thought experiment is the imaginary result of the imaginary experiment.
In Book I of Emile, or On Education, I find
I have chosen to give myself an imaginary pupil, to hypothesize that I have the age, health, kinds of knowledge, and all the talent suitable for working at his education, for conducting him from the moment of his birth up to the one when, become a grown man, he  will no longer have need of any guide other than himself. This method appears to me useful to prevent an author who distrusts himself from getting lost in visions. He will soon sense, or the reader will sense for him, whether he follows the progress of childhood and the movement natural to the human heart.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Older Programmer

Blake sent along a link to a posting by a man who noticed that there weren't any programmers older than forty due to present at the PyGotham, a Python conference he was organizing. It had caught Blake's eye, for he is over forty, and I read it with interest, for I am over sixty. A number of points occur to me.
  • Many of us over fifty likely work with applications considered to be "enterprise" software, which is seldom glamorous or even much publicized, but keeps organizations running. There must be conferences at which one might speak about Microsoft Dynamics "integrations", ways of pulling external data into an accounting system. I don't know what those conferences might be, I doubt even those in attendance consider the work glamorous, but organizations using Dynamics for accounting need those integrations to work; they can be set up better or worse; and the difference between better and worse directly affects the work of those in the accounting department.
  • In general, our work may be useful but not exciting. Probably nothing of what I do with Python would excite the folks who attend PyGotham. Yet, I can think of a few small systems using Python that I put together, or had a hand in, that we use regularly, and that quite a few people rely on.
  •  We may have other things to do than present at conferences. As I recall, the last time I did a presentation (at a regional Oracle users' group meeting--see, enterprise and unexciting), it was about a year and a half before we purchased a house needing a great deal of work. Did that have to do with the lapse in presenting? It could have.
Would I care to be out looking for a job at my age? I would not. But I think I have some productive coding in me yet.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Dan Jenkins, You Should Be Living at This Hour

My first reaction to the news of the indictments for fraud involving college admissions was weariness. The scale of the the fraud was a mild surprise. Yet over the years there has been plenty of reporting on efforts to rig admissions for the well to do.

By the evening, though, I wished that Andrew Lelling could have announced the indictments in time for the late Dan Jenkins to have had a good laugh. Jenkins  tended--or so I read him--to regard universities as founded to be the marketing, facilities, and operations arms of football and basketball teams. He had, I thought, a distrust for any institution that might try to assert academic priorities. He was not wrong to see hypocrisy in NCAA rules. Whether the changes he had in mind would have removed the hypocrisy yet preserved college sports, I don't know.

I do think that Jenkins would have enjoyed this. The schools involved are mostly not the big Football Bowl Subdivision powers, unless Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State are buried in the footnotes. Instead we have Stanford, Georgetown, and Yale. The sports are not the revenue sports of football and basketball--where it would be hard to hide an inferior athlete--but tennis, rowing, water polo. I wish I could have read his column on this.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Empire of the Steppes

Some years ago, friends gave me a copy of Rene Grousset's The Empire of the Steppes. Over the years, I looked at this or that bit of it, but didn't really read it. This month, I sat down with book and bookmark, and read through it.

The Empire of the Steppes is thoroughly informative on the peoples of the steppes: Scythians, Alans, Cumans, Huns,Turks, and Mongols, from pre-history through the 18th Century. Its weakness is maps. It does have maps, but for anyone not already acquainted with the geography of eastern Eurasia, it doesn't have enough at the right level of detail. There was hardly a chapter that did not refer to places that required checking a couple of the maps. By now I do know where the Black Irtysh, the Lob Nor, the Issyk Kul, the Koko Nor, and Kashgaria are; but learning all that took a good deal of flipping back and forth between maps. I suspect that that the maps in the book do not identify all of the sites of archaeological discoveries mentioned in the first chapter. And I noticed that the river is always called "Amu Darya", not "Oxus", but the region immediately to its east is always "Transoxiana".

If you are not sure how the Hungarians and Bulgars ended up where they are, or about the travels of the Torguts, the fortunes of the Jenghiz-Khanites or the Timurids, this book will tell you. But I recommend that you read it with a good, large-scale map of Asia at hand.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A Certain Inattention

In Eothen, Kinglake gives some sentences on John Keate, in Kinglake's younger days the headmaster of Eton:
Anybody without the least notion of drawing could still draw a speaking, nay scolding, likeness of Keate. If you had no pencil, you could draw him well enough with a poker, or the leg of a chair, or the smoke of a candle. He was little more (if more at all) than five feet in height, and was not very great in girth, but in this space was concentrated the pluck of ten battalions. He had a really noble voice, which he could modulate with great skill, but he had also the power of quacking like an angry duck, and he almost always adopted this mode of communication in order to inspire respect. He was a capital scholar, but his ingenuous learning had not “softened his manners” and had “permitted them to be fierce”—tremendously fierce; he had the most complete command over his temper—I mean over his good temper, which he scarcely ever allowed to appear: you could not put him out of humour—that is, out of the ill-humour which he thought to be fitting for a head-master. His red shaggy eyebrows were so prominent, that he habitually used them as arms and hands for the purpose of pointing out any object towards which he wished to direct attention; the rest of his features were equally striking in their way, and were all and all his own; he wore a fancy dress partly resembling the costume of Napoleon, and partly that of a widow-woman. I could not by any possibility have named anybody more decidedly differing in appearance from the rest of the human race.
(A couple of assistants to a Cairo magician are about to try and fail to describe Keate's appearance.)

I was not, then, surprised to notice in Hugh Jenkins's biography of Gladstone a mention of "Keate, the famous flogging headmaster."

But the other day, looking into Centuries of Childhood, I noticed the passage
It is said that Keates , the headmaster of Eton at the beginning of the nineteenth century, mixed up his lists one flogging day, and whipped the boys who turned up for Holy Communion.
That argues a certain inattention, if true. Yet the "it is said" makes one wary:  clearly Keate was the sort to inspire legends.

Monday, February 18, 2019


In "A Painful Case", Mr James Duffy had one bookcase, with the books arranged in order of bulk, with a complete Wordsworth at one end of the bottom shelf and a Maynooth Catechism at one end of the top. Arranging by height of books could be a good way to optimize the use of space, assuming that one has some way to adjust and perhaps add shelves, as it seems he did. But Mr Duffy apparently used care in selecting his books, and so may have employed the arrangement more to satisfy his sense of order than to fit in more books.

I removed Dubliners from the shelves Saturday, wiped it down, and stacked with many other books so that we could pull the shelves out to clean behind them. In returning the books on Sunday, I aimed to keep books of the same sort more or less together, but height was a consideration. A Vulgate and a couple of New Testaments are much of a height, and can go on an upper shelf; but a Jerusalem Bible will not. It occurred to me only this afternoon that the height of the shelves is adjustable. With any luck, though, it will be a few years before we undertake this task again.

Thursday, February 14, 2019


Today on the Roman Catholic calendar, it is the Feast of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. A Tridentine Missal printed in the 1950s calls February 14 the Feast of St. Valentine; but at some intervening time Sts. Cyril and Methodius have been promoted ahead of him in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. At one time their feast fell on July 7, but it has, Wikipedia says, been moved to coincide with the date of St. Cyril's death. A calendar I saw described them as patron saints of Europe, which I had not heard; again, Wikipedia has something to say: namely, that John Paul II declared them co-patrons with St. Benedict of Nursia.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Willard, Walt, and Copyright

Last month, my copy of Word and Object split down the middle. This was not a surprise: according to the front matter, it was from a 1964 printing. Still it was an inconvenience, less for finishing the first reading than for proceeding on to a second.

The MIT Press website showed that the book is still in print; there is a newer edition with a foreword by one of Quine's students. The local bookstore said that it could order the book. I was a little surprised at the estimate of three to five business days, but also pleased. The store called within that time.

The volume surprised me by its colorful cover--the old printing had sober black and orange lettering on white--and by giving Willard Van Orman Quine only two of his initials. It surprised me yet more to open the book and find the 2013 copyright of Martino Publishing at the front of a copy of the MIT Press 1960 edition, apparently unaltered but for larger margins, and the omission of the MIT Press logo from a title page. However, last Wednesday was a very cold day here, and I did not wish to discuss this at length with the store and perhaps miss my bus.

In the tech world, long copyrights are much resented. Some of this I think is because tech companies regard copyrighted work as "content": revenue, in the world of YouTube, Facebook, etc., is for the content aggregator and presenter; the content producer (what one once called artist or writer) can live on kudos. Still, there are arguments to be made against very long copyrights.  In A Sinking Island, Hugh Kenner makes an argument that the extension of British copyright in 1912 tended to arrest English taste in the early Victorian era. 

In any case, one will hear grumbling about works that under earlier American laws--before 1998 and before 1976--would long since have been in the public domain. The first Mickey Mouse cartoon,  the "Steamboat Willie" of 1928, remains under copyright through 2024. Walt Disney died in 1966, Willard Van Orman Quine in 2000. How it happens that a 1960 work by Quine can be reproduced by a third party while Disney works from the 1920s cannot, I don't know. Yet the book seems to have come from a reputable distributor.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Fifty Years of the Nova

My friend Blake recently emailed me a link to a video tour of much gear brought together this past fall to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Data General's Nova minicomputer. I was a bit surprised not to have heard of it, not that I could have made it to Denver for two days of reveling in old systems.

The Novas and their successors in the Eclipse line had a good run. By the end of twenty years, though, a prescient eye could see the run coming to an end. About 1990, an article in Focus, the Data General Users Group magazine, mentioned a 386-based PC beating an MV/20000 minicomputer on a sorting benchmark. I would imagine that the PC cost at most $5000; the one reference I can find on-line for MV/20000 pricing says that they cost $200,000 and up when introduced in 1985. One could do a number of things with the minicomputer that one couldn't do with the PC, for example support a lot of word-processing users. But by the early 1990s organizations wanted to use the PCs for word processing. And by the middle of the 1990s, RISC-based systems running UNIX had largely supplanted the old minicomputers for such work as the PCs hadn't taken over.

I must say that I enjoyed working with the Novas and Eclipses. Given a day or so to brush up, I might be able again to write programs and scripts for them. Yet what then? Pretty much everything I did on the machines was for use, not play, and I doubt anyone is now doing the those tasks on them.

Yet here are to this day machines emulating the Eclipse instruction set to run old programs. How many, I can't say. Probably the people at Wild Hare Computer Systems have a good idea.

Monday, January 14, 2019


Novalis writes that
For all the gaps and imperfections of his knowledge, which necessarily arise from his manner of study, the autodidact has on the other hand the great advantage that every new idea that he makes his own thus enters into the community of his knowledge and ideas, and mixes itself most intimately with the whole of them; and this gives the opportunity for original connections and many new discoveries.
(New Fragments, 169)

 Schooling ought to show one many of the connections and convey the information that would go into at least some of what here will be new discoveries. Yet the elective system and the general tendency of American schooling make it possible for one to spend many expensive years in school and remain essentially an autodidact.  It is true, though, that many of the reasonably schooled don't much care to make connections. A college teacher once told me that her students appeared to keep separate, non-communicating apartments in their minds for different kinds and sources of information.

Saturday, January 12, 2019


Noticed in W.V.O. Quine's Word and Object, Section 24, "Identity":
Though the notion of identity is simple, confusion over it is not uncommon. One instance is suggested by the fragment from Heraclitus, according to which you cannot step into the same river twice, because of the flowing of the water. This difficulty is resolved by looking to the principle of the division of reference belonging to the general term 'river'. One's being counted as stepping into the same river both times is typical of precisely what distinguishes rivers both from river stages and from water divided in substance-conserving ways.
Quine was a notable philosopher, I am but a casual reader of philosophy. Yet I imagine that Heraclitus had a sound understanding of what his fellows meant by river. That is, if someone had asked Heraclitus whether this was the Maeander, or whether this was the same river he had seen over the last range of hills, Heraclitus would have answered colloquially, not dialectically. I judge that Heraclitus was not attempting to write a work of logic such as Aristotle later did, but giving his sense of the slipperiness of reality.

In 7 Greeks, Guy Davenport gives as fragment 21
One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.
and as fragment 110
The river we stepped into is not the river in which we stand.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Feast of Artists

In a letter of January 9, 1945, Evelyn Waugh wrote to his wife
 Have you ever considered how the Epiphany is the feast of artists. I thought so very strongly this year. After St Joseph and the angels and the shepherds and even the ox and the ass have had their share of the crib, twelve days later appears an exotic caravan with negro pages and ostrich plumes. The have come an enormous journey across a desert and the splendid gifts look much less splendid than they did when they were being packed in Babylon. The wise men committed ever sort of bêtise--even asking the way of Herod & provoking the massacre of the innocents--but they got there in the end and their gifts were accepted.
 I have always detested Christmas. Now I shall always celebrate Epiphany instead.
In fact, it seems to have been the secular trappings that bothered Waugh. On December 28, 1935, he wrote to Katherine Asquith that "It was decent to have Christmas without the Hitlerite adjuncts of yule logs and reindeer and Santa Claus and conifers."  In  1952 he wrote well of Christmas in Goa, where there was "No mistletoe or holly or Yule logs or Teutonic nonsense."

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Nothing Like Numbers

The New York Times of New Years carried a piece by one Paul Greenberg, asserting that we should spend less time with and less money on our smartphones. In general I agree, and probably I would have nodded and forgotten about the piece in ten minutes. But a paragraph caught my eye:
The average reader, reading at a speed of 280 words per minute, would take approximately 71½ hours to read the 1.3 million words in Marcel Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time."
 Has Mr. Greenberg read Lost Time already? If not, is he willing to demonstrate the feat? If so, can he provide an average reader, having no prior acquaintance with the work, to undertake it? I'm sure that the readership of the Times includes dozens of professors who would be happy to devise and grade a test of the reader's comprehension.

I was astonished by this, and so on my first look missed the assertion that
In most Western states, that $1,380 you spent on your phone could buy half an acre of land. In the right conditions, that half acre could easily accommodate 150 trees. A single tree sequesters 48 pounds of carbon a year. It takes about 30 minutes for an amateur forester to plant a tree. If every American smartphone owner used that time and money to plant half an acre of trees, we would sequester about 886 million tons of carbon a year, enough to offset more than 10 percent of the country’s annual emissions.  
Well, for one thing, the right conditions for trees include water, which can be hard to come by in the western United States east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades. The price per acre will depend on what a seller thinks can be done with it, and I suspect that most western land that will support trees either already does, is used for crops, or is improved by building. In the first case, the land has all the trees it can reasonably accommodate, in the second and third (and maybe the first), the price will be a good deal higher. For another, the roughly 123 million acres, at 640 acres per square mile, amount to about 190 thousand square miles. That is a bit more than the size of California.

Yes, it is a hypothetical proposition. But stated as it is, it invites objection. Numbers can be used to inform or to dazzle. This piece leaned too much towards the latter.