Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Hoax

 At the end of the notes to Chapter III, "Columbus's First Voyage of Discovery", of Samuel Eliot Morison's The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages 1492-1616, appears

One of the most amusing hoaxes of our day is the story about Columbus submitting his great enterprise to the Senate of Genoa, all of whom turned it down (in a 964-page report) as impractical, impossible, and incredible, except the junior member, none other than Leonardo da Vinci! After seeing this squib given the dignity of print in the Congressional Record for 28 June 1971, p. S 10, 107, I ran it to ground. Through my friend Robert Sherrod I found that it was written as a satire by Dr. Ralph S. Cooper of the Scientific Laboratory at Los Alamos, to whose dismay it was taken seriously in many quarters.

Though I like as well as the next citizen to make fun of elected officials, I infer from the context provided in the Congressional Record that the Senate was not one of the many quarters that took the story seriously. Senator Sparkman of Alabama read the story into the record during a consideration of the NASA Authorization Bill, in particular whether the space shuttle should be funded.

I had opened Morison to refresh my memory on the date of Columbus's landfall in the Bahamas: it was, as I had thought, October 12, 1492.

Monday, October 11, 2021


 Within the last few years, American sportswriters have taken up the term GOAT--"greatest of all time". So for example, one can argue whether Tom Brady is the GOAT among quarterbacks or Tiger Wood the GOAT among golfers. (As far as I know, nobody has suggested that we separate the sheep from the GOATs.) The position of quarterback has perhaps a hundred and fifteen years of history, if we count from the first legal forward pass. I suppose that professional golf has a few more. In any case, "all time" in such sporting contexts is both short and recent enough to be well documented and long enough not to sound ridiculous.

A bookstore that I've bought from sent an email last week, advertising among other books some new novels. Among them was one with a description including

Don’t miss out on maybe the greatest work of fiction published this season.

I can certainly believe in a best work of fiction published this season. But setting aside the mathematical or use of "greatest"--for example, the greatest common divisor of 128 and 198 is 2, and the greatest common divisor of any two mutually prime numbers is 1--one expects the greatest to be great. Is there a great work of fiction published every season?

The major American sports leagues have a Hall of Fame, admission to which ought to certify greatness, and name a most valuable player (MVP) every year. Sports buffs must know whether it is possible to have won an MVP award and not end up in the sport's Hall of Fame. I don't know, but I suspect that it has been done. Then there are arguments every few baseball seasons whether the MVP award should go to someone with outstanding numbers whose team finishes out of the playoffs, or to someone with less gaudy numbers whose contributions take the team to the playoffs, perhaps a championship. The question raised is whether "wins above replacement" count for that much when the team could have traded the star, found a replacement, and finished no farther out of the running. So perhaps GOTS--greatest of this season--would be a useful complement to MVP.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Keynes on Newton

 The outdoor carts at Second Story Books had a copy of Essays in Biography by J.M. Keynes, and of course $4 seemed a more than reasonable price. Most of the pages in the book are given over to economists: an essay on Alfred Marshall,  whose name I had never heard, takes up about a quarter of the book.

The most interesting essay is "Newton, the Man". There is much in it to quote and consider, but the paragraph that most struck me is

I believe that a clue to his mind is to be found in his unusual powers of continuous concentrated introspection. A case can be made out, as it also can with Descartes, for regarding him as an accomplished experimentalist. Nothing can be more charming than the tales of his mechanical contrivances when he was a boy. There are his telescopes and his optical experiments. These were essential accomplishments, part of his unequalled all-round technique, but not, I am sure, his peculiar gift, especially amongst his contemporaries. His peculiar gift was the power of holding continuously in his mind a purely mental problem until he had seen straight through it. I fancy his pre-eminence is due to his muscles of intuition being the strongest and most enduring with which a man has ever been gifted. Anyone who has ever attempted pure scientific or philosophical thought knows how one can hold a problem momentarily in one's mind and apply all one's powers of concentration to piercing through it, and how it will dissolve and escape and you find that what you are surveying is a blank. I believe that Newton could hold a problem in his mind for days and hours and weeks until it surrendered to him its secret. Then being a supreme mathematical technician he could dress it up, how you will, for purposes of exposition, but it was his intuition that was pre-eminently extraordinary--"so happy in his conjectures," said de Morgan, "as to seem to know more than he could possibly have any means of proving." The proofs, for what they are worth, were, as I have said, dressed up afterwards--they were not the instrument of discovery.

 In Adventures of a Mathematician, Stanislaw Ulam wrote that an hour of concentration on a problem is worth far more than two half-hours, and credited an American collaborator's powers of concentration. The proofs coming second recalls something that Richard Feyman said of another physicists work: there certainly were a lot of equations.

There are other essays in the book worth reading. "The Council of Four, Paris, 1919" gives a deplorable picture of Woodrow Wilson, how accurate I can't say. The essay on Malthus as economist gives the curious detail that his father was an enthusiast and friend of Rousseau.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian

It is said to require twenty inches of annual rainfall to allow agriculture without irrigation. Within the United States, one can't or couldn't count on those twenty inches beyond roughly the 100th meridian of west longitude. Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian is a biography of John Wesley Powell, who led the first expedition through the Grand Canyon, founded the Bureau of Ethnology, and for practical purposes was the first director of the Geological Survey. Powell's notions about reclamation, damming, irrigation, and dry land agriculture were prescient. Stegner, the son of an unsuccessful dry land farmer, used Powell's history to draw in many threads of western American history.

The first part of the book, through the running of the Grand Canyon, can be read as an adventure story. Powell lost an arm at Shiloh:

Losing one's right arm is a misfortune; to some it would be a disaster, to others an excuse. It affected Wes Powell's life about as much as a stone fallen into a swift stream affects the course of the river. With a velocity like his, he simply foamed over it. He did not even resign from the army, but returned after a leave and a stretch of recruiting duty, and served as an artillery officer with Grant, Sherman, and Thomas. On January 2, 1865, after tasting more battle at Port Gibson, Grand Gulf, Raymond, Jackson, Champion's Hill, Big [Black?] River, Vicksburg, the Meridian Raid, Nashville, and having risen to the command of the artillery of the 17th Army Corps, he resigned [for family reasons].

Powell was in the first party to make a documented ascent of Long's Peak in Colorado (though I understand there are reasons to think that local tribes had climbed it and trapped eagles there). He did quite a lot of climbing of canyon walls for a man with just one arm.

The meat of the book occurs after the expedition has come out of the canyon in late 1869, though. Powell's exertions in geology, ethnography, and attempting to rationalize the pattern of settlement in the dry western plains were remarkable. In the last he was unfortunate in bearing a message that almost nobody wanted to hear: that water was scarce in the West, and that a fair allocation of water required time and care. The belief that "rain follows the plow" had been briefly shaken by a succession of dry years that followed some unusually wet ones. But the pressure for allocation of land was hard to resist. Still, many of Powell's suggestions were followed long after he had retired and died. 

The West now seems to be facing droughts more severe than in Powell's day. The fires in California in particular suggest that some patterns of land use are just not safe. The forces pushing back against regulation of the use of federal land have increased since the 1970s. Though it was published nearly seventy years ago, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian remains topical.

Thursday, September 23, 2021


 In Knut Hamsun's novel Hunger one reads the narrative of a starving writer. There is no glamour, just hunger, the attempts to get by with a little money from the pawnbroker or the publisher. The unfortunates of Gissing's New Grub Street are materially better off, pinched for money, getting nowhere, but never uncertain of the next meal. The picture is nearly that which Macaulay gives of life for struggling writers in London when Samuel Johnson was young:

The patronage of the public did not yet furnish the means of comfortable subsistence. The prices paid by booksellers to authors were so low that a man of considerable talents and unremitting industry could do little more than provide for the day which was passing over him. The lean kine had eaten up the fat kine. The thin and withered ears had devoured the good ears. The season of rich harvests was over, and the period of famine had begun. All that is squalid and miserable might now be summed up in the word Poet. That word denoted a creature dressed like a scarecrow, familiar with compters and spunging-houses, and perfectly qualified to decide on the comparative merits of the Common Side in the King's Bench prison and of Mount Scoundrel in the Fleet. Even the poorest pitied him; and they well might pity him. For if their condition was equally abject, their aspirings were not equally high, nor their sense of insult equally acute. To lodge in a garret up four pairs of stairs, to dine in a cellar among footmen out of place, to translate ten hours a day for the wages of a ditcher, to be hunted by bailiffs from one haunt of beggary and pestilence to another, from Grub Street to St. George's Fields, and from St. George's Fields to the alleys behind St. Martin's church, to sleep on a bulk in June and amidst the ashes of a glass-house in December, to die in an hospital and to be buried in a parish vault, was the fate of more than one writer who, if he had lived thirty years earlier, would have been admitted to the sittings of the Kitcat or the Scriblerus club, would have sat in Parliament, and would have been entrusted with embassies to the High Allies; who, if he had lived in our time, would have found encouragement scarcely less munificent in Albemarle Street or in Paternoster Row.

Hamsun's narrator has no bailiffs after him, and is imprisoned only has himself admitted to jail for a night on the pretense of having lost his key, to have a lodging for a night. He has occasional luck with publishers. But Macaulay's passage captures the tone.

The edition I read is translated by Sverre Lingstad.  It  is curious as giving twenty pages of preface to the failings of the previous translations into English, and eleven to an appendix giving examples of the lapses of Robert Bly's translation. I have a dim recollection of Nabokov's hard words for translators of Gogol and Tolstoy; but I don't remember his going into such detail.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Not Just One Cause

 On Wednesday, we woke up with the sniffles. This seemed to me a natural consequence of running the air conditioning at mid-summer power when the nights are getting cooler. Still, after some discussion, and some checking on the web, I drove down to the Mount Pleasant library to pick up a couple of COVID 19 test kits. We took the tests, registered them, and I walked them back to the drop box at the library. We heard Friday afternoon and Saturday morning that we do not have COVID 19, or at least did not on Wednesday. And we have a couple of spare kits for the next round of sniffles.

One forgets that there are other things that can make one feel rotten. Most winters that I can remember, I have had a week or so of feeling just awful, and winter of 2019-2020 was no exception. A friend felt bad about the same time I did, and he hurried out to get a COVID test as soon as they were available. He hoped that he would be found to have had it, be presumed immune, and could visit his mother, who is in frail health, without the risk of infecting her. He tested negative: it had just been routine winter crud.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Contacts Tracing

 About ten years ago, I received an email from an acquaintance, asking me to join her LinkedIn network. I sent her an email saying that I'd be glad to, but preferred to use LinkedIn with my work email only. She replied that she was by then considering leaving LinkedIn entirely. It developed that she had checked, or more likely failed to clear, a box allowing LinkedIn to see her email contact list. LinkedIn had then sent everyone in that list an invitation to join her network. She was embarrassed and angry.

This week, a friend sent me a link to a folder that he had set up on Dropbox. He wished to be sure that he had set it up properly, and since the intended user was not technically proficient, he wanted someone to test who could give a clear account of any difficulties. There were no technical difficulties; he had set the folder up correctly.

However, I found to my annoyance that when I signed in using my Google account that Dropbox wished to see my contact list. It had a moderately plausible reason for the request, to make it easier for me to share files with them. Unfortunately, there is no good way to take those contacts out of Dropbox as long as I use my Google account to log in. The user is I suppose expected to trust Dropbox to use the contacts only for proper purposes, or maybe just to regard them as an exchange for the 2 GB of free storage. Dropbox may be trustworthy, but it becomes harder to find reasons to trust such companies.