Sunday, October 30, 2011

being someone else in another language

The other week I noticed for sale a volume with the title L'Habitude d'Etre. After a second it struck me that this was to say The Habit of Being, the letters of Flannery O'Connor, and a second look confirmed it. I was a bit hurried, and despite the mild curiosity to see how the translator dealt with such phrases as "bob wire" or "skirted and beretta-ed simmernarians", I did not get a chance to check.

O'Connor was steadily translated during her lifetime; several of the letters mention her French translator Maurice Coindreau. There is also the the letter of March 4, 1962, the excerpt from which ends
The German translation of the stories is apparently doing very well. Every week I get a batch of gibberish-reviews that I can't of course read. A German friend of mine here who teaches at the college read the translation and said it was a schizafrenic (sp?) experience for her to read about General Tennessee Flintrock Sash in German. She thought the translation was a good one. Someone else is doing the novel. It it a very odd feeling this of being someone else in another language. . . .

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Parallel Texts: Feynman and Lichtenberg

Richard Feyman, speaking with a Swedish princess at a dinner connected with the Nobel Prizes, starting with the princess's line::

   "Oh. Well, nobody knows anything about that, so I guess we can't talk about that."
   "On the contrary," I answered, "it's because somebody knows something about it that we can't talk about Physics. It's the things nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance--gold transfers we can't talk about, because those are understood--so its the subject nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!"
    I don't know how they do it. There's a way of forming ice on the surface of the face, and she did it! She turned to talk to somebody else.
 (From Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman.)

Lichtenberg, from The Waste Books, Book E, entry 15:
What? to debate a subject you have to know something about it? It is my view that a debate requires that at least one of the disputants knows nothing of the subject under discussion, and that in a so-called lively debate in its highest perfection neither party knows anything about it or even the meaning of what he is saying. . . . When I was in England, the American question was debated in every ale-house, coffee-house, crossroads and stagecoach, and even in the council of aldermen at whose head Wilkes stood, in accordance with the rules of lively debate; and when some poor simpleton once stood up and suggested that it might be a good thing to examine the subject seriously before coming to a decision, another man expressly objected that this would be a wearisome task and lead them too far astray, and that a decision should be taken without further ado--which, because it was almost dinner time, was the course agreed upon.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Critical Heights

A few weekends ago, I read Hugh Kenner's The Elsewhere Community. It is worth reading, and quickly read, a collection of talks given over the radio.

I was struck by his remark that he was 6'4". I had seen him speak at a colloquium when I was in college, and did not at all notice his height--I suppose he was sitting down while he spoke. This led to the thought of other tall critics--Dennis Donoghue, 6'7", Harold Bloom, quite tall, William Wimsatt, something around 6'7" also. Back when they were young there were still centers at the elite levels of basketball who weren't taller than 6'7".

In my teens and 20s I wouldn't have minded another few inches of height, chiefly to have been able to dunk a basketball, pehaps also to have caught the ladies' eyes more handily. But it never occurred to me that the extra height might have helped me pass for a critic. And I suppose that just as work on strength and flexibility could have got my wrist farther over the rim, more work on the books would have given me better things to say about them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


From Ross Douthat's column in last Sunday's New York Times:
 A recent Vatican estimate suggests that 100,000 Copts may have fled the country since Mubarak’s fall. If Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood consolidates political power, that figure could grow exponentially.
Without in any way wishing to be dismissive of the sufferings of the Coptic Christians, I think that Mr. Douthat might want to think about the word "exponenentially". One hundred thousand is 10 to the 5th power; if the exponent is two (about where I might start using the word exponentially), well 10 to the 10th power is 10 billion. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Well-Qualified to Comment on Antipodean Matters

On the flight we were offered a variety of newspapers. I chose Le Monde, and read a few articles, one on the rugby rivalry between Australia and New Zealand. Near the end of discussing the bitter dislike the nations have for each other's teams, it mentions previous cases of cooperation, for example at the Olympic games of 1908 and 1912, and particularly "the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), which distinguished itself in 1915 at Gallipoli, in Italy, a battle commemorated in the two countries on April 25."

(English, because I can't remember how to type accents on this keyboard.)

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Word From Our Sponsors?

At the annual Russian Bazaar a couple of weeks ago at the Russian Orthodox cathedral around the corner, I picked up a few books, one of the Martin Luther: A Selection From His Writings, edited by John Dillenberger. Later in the week, I sat down and began reading Luther's "Commentary on Galatians". When it came time to set it aside, I reached for a bookmark already in the book, a piece of paper about one inch by three. I found that someone had hand-printed on one side
What profit it, my brethren, that a man say he have faith, and not works? Can faith save him?
James 2:14
I will add that Dillenberger includes the "Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude", in which Luther lays out his objections to the former, which he somewhere wrote of as "a thing of straw."

Another Notion of Language Acquisition

Recently, while re-reading Herodotus, I encountered the story in Book 2, Chapter 2:
Now before Psammetichus became king of Egypt, the Egyptians believed that they were the oldest people on earth. But ever since Psammetichus became king and wished to find out which people were the oldest, they have believed that the Phrygians were older than they, and they than everybody else. [2] Psammetichus, when he was in no way able to learn by inquiry which people had first come into being, devised a plan by which he took two newborn children of the common people and gave them to a shepherd to bring up among his flocks. He gave instructions that no one was to speak a word in their hearing; they were to stay by themselves in a lonely hut, and in due time the shepherd was to bring goats and give the children their milk and do everything else necessary. [3] Psammetichus did this, and gave these instructions, because he wanted to hear what speech would first come from the children, when they were past the age of indistinct babbling. And he had his wish; for one day, when the shepherd had done as he was told for two years, both children ran to him stretching out their hands and calling “Bekos!” as he opened the door and entered. [4] When he first heard this, he kept quiet about it; but when, coming often and paying careful attention, he kept hearing this same word, he told his master at last and brought the children into the king's presence as required. Psammetichus then heard them himself, and asked to what language the word “Bekos” belonged; he found it to be a Phrygian word, signifying bread. [5] Reasoning from this, the Egyptians acknowledged that the Phrygians were older than they. This is the story which I heard from the priests of Hephaestus' temple at Memphis; the Greeks say among many foolish things that Psammetichus had the children reared by women whose tongues he had cut out.
 I thought that I remembered a story along those lines told about the Emperor Frederick I, otherwise known as Barbarossa. However, the notes to this edition speak of legends to the effect that Frederick II and later James II of England had tried such an experiment, and proved that Hebrew was the language of Paradise. As I remember the story, the children failed to thrive, and died; perhaps the legend of success attaches to James II.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Dennis M. Ritchie, RIP

Dennis M. Ritchie, creator of the C programming language, co-author of The C Programming Language, and one of the creators of the UNIX operating system, died on October 8.

UNIX is not that visible to most persons who don't work with technology, unless of course they use Apple computers--OS X is Berkeley UNIX under the hood. Yet a lot of the servers on the Internet, not to mention a lot of the machines that handle details one just doesn't see--the databases for banks, reservation systems, phone systems--use some UNIX variant.

It is most unlikely that anyone can read this post without using some software that was written in C--a large fraction of the web servers on the Internet run UNIXes or Linux, which are largely written in C; most of the rest likely use the Microsoft stack, and I dare says that a great deal that  in C, with much of the rest in C's descendants C++ and C#.

C has its flaws. It was written by people who worked at Bell Labs for their use and the use of others who worked at Bell Labs, i.e. really smart people. In the hands of the careless--occasionally including the Bell Labs staff--a language that assumed you knew what you meant could lead to trouble. C didn't care whether you checked your bounds or the return values from your system calls. Want to scribble all over your stack? No problem! Want to read 10 pounds of data into a 5 pound bag? Sure! UNIX also has its quirks, some of them C-related, some related only by the priorities of the creators.

But there are an awful lot of us who have made our livings working with the products Dennis Ritchie had a large hand in. Believe me, I'm grateful to the man.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

From the Spam Filter

In Tuesday's spam filter catch, the subject lines appeared, with just one entry between them:

Why are you waiting? Make life easier with a credit card

Compare bankruptcy information - Attorney Advertisement

Monday, October 3, 2011


This past weekend the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist held its annual Russian Bazaar. They had enjoyed a run of autumns with splendid weather for the festival, but this year the run came to an end, with cool, rainy weather. Everyone seemed cheerful, though, if a bit crowded under the tents.

The central used book tables ran at least 80% Russian, or anyway Cyrillic, with the outer tables running  much more to English and a scattering of other languages. I found myself frustrated not to be able to guess what the books were. Of those with Cyrillic on the spine, I managed to identify an algebra text, a volume of Tolstoy, and (I'm fairly sure) a volume of Stalin's writings.

And I noticed that I was not the only one curious about what he couldn't read. A man in a cassock asked the cashier about a stack that he was buying for his father; he wanted interesting general reading, and no technical manuals. The cashier set aside one volume and said that otherwise he couldn't have done better. I suppose that this is the common case in America: the first generation born here speaks the language in the home, subsequent ones must learn it in school if they wish to.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Numbers, Jumbled

In Chapter 7, "Mapping the World", of The Philosophical Breakfast Club, a book I abused a few days ago, the author discusses a cadastral survey projected for the Commutation of Tithes. She throws in quite a few numbers, without relating them:
  • A full survey would cost about 1.5 million pounds (9 pence/acre for survey, 3 pence/acre for valuation).
  • The maps would be at a scale of 26.7 inches/mile.
  • Some large parishes required tens of square meters at this scale.
  • Had all of England and Wales been mapped to this scale, the maps would have occupied 6.5 acres.
Now, I grew up with a decimal currency, but can see that the first point gives us 30 million acres to be mapped. I also grew up knowing that there are 5,280 feet to the mile, which suggests to me that the "26.7" is a misprint for "26.4", and that the scale envisioned was 1:2400. The third point is more or less inconsequent, at least to those who do not easily convert between square meters and acres. The final one gives us a further check on the scale of the survey: 1 to 2400 linear is about 1 to 5.8 million square, so we get about 38 million acres on the maps. Given that England and Wales lack the man-made geometry of a state like Wyoming, one would expect rectangular maps to include untitheable water or other areas, so the figure is plausible.

However, the figure of 6.5 acres does cast doubt on the remark that
... the tithe maps as envisioned by Jones and Dawson would allow a viewer to take in, with a single look, a complete understanding of the whole extent of the rural land of England and Wales.
What can you tell with a single look over six and a half acres--acres of maps, that is, not of open country?

I don't especially mind doing the arithmetic. I do mind that the numbers seem to have been piled up to impress rather than to inform--else why not connect the numbers and provide some context?

I conclude by providing one piece of context gratis: the standard 7.5 minute quadrangle of the United States Geological Survey uses a scale of 1:24,000. Working out comparisons I leave as an exercise for the reader.