Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Embassy Fences

 I try to walk to or from work a couple of times every week. My route consists almost entirely of 16th St., NW, and takes me past the Polish and Lithuanian embassies a bit before the halfway point. From time to time, they have exhibits on their fences worth seeing.

For a week or two, the Polish fences have been bare. The last set of placards concerned the first passage of a South American river, or of a portion of it that ran to falls and rapids. Before that, there were posters about noted Polish archaeological work

and about noted Polish scientists

 The most interesting exhibits, several years ago, showed Polish posters from the 1930s and on.

Last year, the Lithuanian embassy had displays showing modernist architecture in Lithuania:


 I am not a qualified judge of architecture, but I thought the buildings all at least handsome. Those are gone, now, though. In their place, there are posters concerning the 700th birthday of Vilnius. I wouldn't mind seeing Vilnius: still, I think the Vilnius posters less interesting than the ones about architecture.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Old Computer Books

 A co-worker retired at the end of last summer, and I assume that some of the books left out on a cabinet near his office had been his. I took Javascript: The Good Parts and Perl Best Practices fairly quickly. That was a few months ago.

Last month, I noticed the Apache Server Bible, a fat, perhaps four inch, volume from SAMS. The age is suggested by the cover note that it "Covers Windows 95 and Windows NT Platforms!" The front matter gives a copyright year of 1999. The stable version of the Apache web server was then 1.2 something; it is now 2.4. There is a fair bit of information about using Perl for scripting, but nothing at all about PHP, which shortly became far more popular than Perl. Python is mentioned in passing, but there could be no mention of WSGI, which came out in 2003.

Could one use the book? I assume that some of the directives for some of the modules, for example, mod_proxy, remain the same. Would I use the book? Probably I would not. I am used to going to the on-line documentation for that. But I am not an expert on Apache or a steady user: almost all that I have done with it lately uses either mod_proxy or mod_wsgi.

After I looked over the Apache Server Bible, I had a look on my own shelves at work, and had no trouble finding several of comparable age. Few of them have been on the desk and open lately. Apart from that, their possible relevance varies.

Programming Perl has a 1996 copyright date. I have used it until the front cover fell off. I suspect that an awful lot of my use has been to check the rules on the module Getopt::Long. Twenty years ago, I might have put in some time reviewing the rules around references, but not lately. I think that within the last fifteen years Modern Perl and Effective Perl Programming have been the books I checked first.

Oracle Design, by Ensor and Stevenson, has a 1997 copyright date. I read it thoroughly, as shown by marginal jottings. A good deal of the advice remains sound. But the Oracle database has gone through about 10 versions since then (they wrote mostly about Oracle 7), and there have been many enhancements to Oracle's SQL and PL/SQL. And databases in general have jumped several orders of magnitude in size (number of records) since those days.

Refactoring, by Martin Fowler, copyright 1999, has held up pretty well, I think. It is written for an early version of Java, and object-oriented programming is less dominant, or anyway trendy, than it was in 1999. Still, it has advice to consider.

My copy of Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach by Hennessy and Patterson is quite old, copyright 1990. There have been a number of editions since then. It was written in the early days when RISC seemed to be undergoing a Cambrian Explosion, and RAID for storage was not yet invented. (Well, Patterson et al. hadn't yet popularized the notion.) But the principles remain sound. It is a student's book, and I should hand it off to a student who doesn't need the latest thinking.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Reading Green

 The Second Story outside carts had a Penguin paperback of three novels by Henry Green, Nothing, Doting, and Blindness. At $5, I thought it worth a look. It was.

My first impression was of the high proportion of dialogue in Nothing and Doting. The last books I read in which dialogue so greatly exceeded narration and dialogue were George Higgins's crime novels The Friends of Eddy Coyle and Digger's Game.

My second impression was of the build of the characters. One of the women in Nothing has fat fingers, so-called at least twice. One of the young women in Doting has fat thighs, another has fat features. The middle-aged woman has "bulk". I assume that the men are not lean, either, for one in Doting has given up lunching on account of his weight. Given that, it seems hazardous for a man to sit on the arm of a woman's chair, then slide his way in beside her; yet that happens a couple of times. Nor can I quite see how the maneuver is actually managed.

Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford, "I think nothing of Nothing." His objection was to the dialogue, which he thought wrong for characters of that class. Of course I have no way of evaluating that. Waugh also wrote poorly, but in passing, of Doting. Do the blurbs on back cover, from respected writers, have reference to these particular novels?

Blindness is a much earlier, very different novel. It reads as a first novel, and in fact it was. According to Wikipedia, it was largely written at Eton, which appears in the novel under the near-anagram "Noat".

Friday, May 12, 2023


 Once I had read Roy Jenkins's biography Gladstone, I wished to read any other biographies he might have written. About twenty years ago, he brought out Churchill, which I read and passed along. I was aware that he had written a biography of H.H. Asquith, but didn't suppose that I was likely to encounter it. Last month, it turned up on the Second Story Books Recent Arrivals page.

Asquith makes for less astonishing, perhaps less entertaining, reading than the other two, for Asquith lacked the extravagant streak in his character. It is hard to imagine him infuriating the US and embarrassing his cabinet with a speech such as Gladstone gave in 1863. He seems to have reached maturity without the boyish streak that Churchill long retained. But by all accounts he was a very good lawyer and a sound prime minister.

Much of the history of his premiership I had read of, in George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England: 1910-1914. The textual apparatus of Asquith is minimal, limited to end notes with title and author but not date or publisher; but the title of Chapter XVI, "Strange Ailments of Liberal England", seems to nod to Dangerfield's title. For the most part, the narrative and the evaluations are the same in both books. Dangerfield, having just those five years to cover, gives more detail.

Asquith had a thorough classical education at the City of London School and at Balliol College. He lacked the eccentricity to write long books on Homer, as Gladstone did. And clearly he did not restrict his reading to the classics, at least the ancient ones. Near the end of the book, Jenkins quotes Asquith's daughter on the return from his last (lost) election:

Groping wildly for a life-line that might draw me into the smooth waters by his side, I asked in as steady a voice as possible: "I suppose you haven't by any chance got an old P.G. Wodehouse in your bag that you could lend me?" A smile of instant response, mingled I thought with relief, lit up his face as he replied triumphantly: "Being a provident man I have got in my bag, not one, but four brand new ones."

In Larry McMurtry's memoir Books, he mentioned in passing meeting Jenkins, describing him (I recall) as "an amiable enough British pol." Not that far away, McMurtry wrote of having a fondness for British political biography. The conjunction surprised me, for at the time McMurtry wrote, Gladstone had been out for some years, Asquith (1961) for many years more. How did it not come up at their meeting that Jenkins wrote too?

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Logic and Calypso

 Last week's obituaries of Harry Belafonte brought to mind a passage from the 1980 foreword to Willard Van Orman Quine's From a Logical Point of View:

I foresaw by 1952 that [the writing of Word and Object] would be a long pull and became impatient to make some of my philosophical views conveniently accessible meanwhile. Henry Aiken and I were with our wives in a Greenwich Village nightspot when I told him of the plan, and Harry Belafonte had just sung the calypso "From a logical point of view." Henry noted that this would do nicely as a title for the volume, and so it did.

I can't offhand think of another work of philosophy that takes its title from a song.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Hunting and Philosophy

Near the end of Book II, "Of the Passions" of Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature, there occurs a passage beginning

To illustrate all this by a similar instance, I shall observe, that there cannot be two passions more nearly resembling each other, than those of hunting and philosophy, whatever disproportion my at first sight appear betwixt them. 'Tis evident, that the pleasure of hunting consists in the action of the mind and body; the motion, the attention, the difficulty, and the uncertainty. 'Tis evident likewise, that these actions must be attended with an idea of utility, in order to their having any effect upon us. A man of the greatest fortune, and the farthest remov'd from avarice, tho' he takes a pleasure in hunting after partridges and pheasants, feels no satisfaction at shooting crows and magpies; and that because he considers the first as fit for the table, and the other as entirely useless. ... To make the parallel between hunting and philosophy more compleat, we may observe, that tho' in both cases the end of our action may in itself be despis'd, yet in the heat of the action we acquire such an attention to this end, that we are very uneasy under any disappointments, and are sorry when we either miss our game, or fall into any error in our reasoning.

(Book II, Part III, Section X)

 In Plato's dialogue The Sophist, the sophist appears as hunter, but as one out for gain rather than recreation:

Str[anger]. Now up to that point the sophist and the angler proceed together from the starting-point of acquisitive art.
Theat[etus].  I think they do.
Str. But they separate at the point of animal-hunting, where the one turns to the seas and rivers and lakes to hunt the animals in those.
Theat. To be sure.
Str. But the other turns toward the land and to rivers of a different kind--rivers of wealth and youth, bounteous meadows, as it were--and he intends to coerce the creatures in them.

(Loeb Classical Library, translated by H.N. Fowler, 222A)

Saturday, April 8, 2023


 In this week's New York Times, Bret Devereaux, a (most interesting) historian at the University of North Carolina, notes and deplores the decision of Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, to eliminate majors including mathematics, English, history, and philosophy. He questions the wisdom and practicality of aiming to give colleges a more vocational direction, and the motives of those who wish to do so. In all this, I agree with him.

On the other hand, there is another story to be told. Marymount College was founded as a two-year college for women in 1950. Only in 1973 did Marymount offer four-year degrees. At some point in the 1980s, an ambitious college president worked on expansion. I first became aware of this when the Ballston metro station, not within easy walking distance of the original Marymount campus, became Ballston/Marymount University. I became more aware of this when my wife started to receive postcards from Marymount inviting her to earn a master's degree in interior design. (She did not take Marymount up, for she considered that she should be teaching the subject, not studying it.)

I suspect that the expansion of Marymount was enabled by the Washington metropolitan area's appetite for credentials. Many in the area work for government contractors, and a contractor can bill more for someone with an associate's degree than for someone with only a high school diploma, more still for someone with a bachelor's degree, and so on. The contractors get favorable treatment for money spent on courses that go to "maintain or improve" employees' skills for the jobs they hold. I don't know that this fed Marymount's expansion, but I believe that it helped many local schools thrive.

For feeding that appetite, though, there is a ratio to be considered, (dollars + hours) / credential. On-line instruction has driven down the numerator, without necessary diminishing the perceived value of the denominator. Marymount has physical plant to maintain, and for that matter full-time staff to pay, in relatively greater quantity than some of its on-line competitors. That has to have hurt it. The credential business at this level appears to be ruthlessly competitive.

 I am not happy at the news. I know at least one instructor--conscientious, intelligent--who may be affected by the decision. And I know that Marymount has served many of its students well. Still the story is not entirely one of the defeat of the liberal arts.