Monday, December 31, 2012

Long Lost Books

Andrew Scrimgeour writes in the New York Times Book Review of his work sorting through the libraries of deceased scholars. I have read a bit about this sort of work in Larry McMurtry's memoir Books, but what I most noticed here was
Sometimes I find books belonging to libraries that long ago abandoned hope for their return. The letters of thankful astonishment that I have received from some librarians after they opened the unexpected packages are treasures in themselves. “Could we hire you to visit the homes of a few other delinquent scholars?” one library director asked. “We would be happy to make it worth your while.” Another concluded her note, “This gives new meaning to ‘Death the Grim Reaper.’ ”
I suppose that these were the sort of books that only the distinguished get to remove from the library--would a handful of Loeb Plutarchs or a Modern Library Gibbon be worth more than a polite thanks? I hope that there were no long lost library books in the holdings of  the scholar he names, James White, an historian of Christian worship, a man who had Calvin's Institutes open on his desk at the time of his death.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Heinrich Boll's What's to Become of the Boy: Or, Something to Do With Books is back in print, or at least back on the shelves at stores I frequent. It is worth reading in general, but I was struck by what he said of a brother's tutoring technique:
not long before, my brother Alfred had cured me of this [strange German math] trauma by systematically and patiently "probing back" to my basic knowledge, discovering gaps, closing them, and thus giving me a firm foundation.
There is an American blogger who has said something like this: if your child is not getting math level x, you need to find out whether he has understood levels x - 1 ... 1.

Monday, December 24, 2012


At the going-out-of-business sale at Kultura's Books, I bought three or four books, one of them EIMI by E.E. Cummings. The Greek verb eimi is "I am" if the diphthong takes an acute accent, "I go" if it takes a circumflex. Cummings surely intended the ambiguity, for he goes plenty--to Moscow, to Kiev, to Odessa, to Istanbul, and back to Paris--and throughout emphasizes his is-ness. He made the trip in May and June of 1931.

The book makes rewarding, though slow, reading. Cummings writes with puns, with nested parentheses that eventually had me thinking of the programming language LISP, with colloquialisms now forgotten (or as" he might write "now And How forgotten). He did not like the USSR at all: not the theater, not the beer, not the food, not the management of day to day life, and particularly not the American enthusiasts for the system whom he met there.. He mentions mostly in passing the secret police, the GPU, who appear at times as "phibetas" after an American three-letter society. He speaks well of an American or two met there, and of a few Russians. Among the sites he visited, he writes with enthusiasm of a museum of modern art in Moscow, of a church or two in Kiev, and in general of Istanbul, particularly of Hagia Sophia and a bazaar.

In the essay "Transcendental Satyr", collect in Every Force Evolves a Form, Guy Davenport writes of EIMI
He went to Russia (the trip was subsidized: did the man ever pay for anything in his life?) and wrote EIMI, one of the best travel books of our time.
Davenport does not say who subsidized the trip. If it was the Soviet government, then the Soviets got a very bad bargain.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Long Count

A restaurant emails me to ask, “George, quel sera votre dernier restaurant avant la fin du monde?” Clearly they are thinking of the Mayans, though the answer that first comes to mind is from Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, of course.

It occurred to me last evening that the editor I use most at work will display a calendar, and will give the dates in a variety of formats, including Hebrew, Islamic, French revolutionary, and, yes, Mayan. So, according to emacs, Thursday December 20 in the Mayan calendar is
Mayan date: Long count =; tzolkin = 2 Etznab; haab = 1 Kankin
 Friday the 22nd is
Mayan date: Long count =; tzolkin = 4 Ahau; haab = 3 Kankin
and  Saturday the 23rd is
Mayan date: Long count =; tzolkin = 5 Imix; haab = 4 Kankin
 Emacs is a wonderful editor, indeed.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Perl is 25 Years Old

On December 18, 1987, Larry Wall released version 1.000 of Perl. It would have been about five years later than I encountered it, in the Perl 4 days, back before objects and "my" variables. I didn't know about this object-oriented scripting stuff when Perl 5 came out, and installed it mostly because somebody in the contracting office wanted to run SATAN, an early vulnerability scanner, against the network

Perl 4 amazed me when I discovered that one could

while (<>) {
  if /^\s*(\d+)\s+([a-z].+)\s*$/i) {
    do_something($1, $2);

What? I didn't have to use lex and yacc if I wanted to parse a file? And it also handled binary data efficiently (in terms of my time, not the machine's) with pack and unpack. And then there was DBI, and XML, and Net.

Perl has been saving me time these many years, and saving time for many people that I work with. I got home Friday night at a reasonable hour largely because of a Perl script written Thursday and modified in a hurry Friday when the input was not as expected. I am grateful to Larry Wall and all the CPAN contributors who have made the lives of many thousands of programmers so much more productive.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sleeping On the Wing

It seems to me that many who say that they read instead  run their eyes across the page while attending to a private revery. They will reach the end, but with vague impressions. They will not have weighed the author's evidence if the book is a work of history. They will not have have measured the story against what they know of life or history if the book is a novel.

Now and then, an author is tempted to play tricks on such readers. In A Double-Barreled Detective Story, Mark Twain began a chapter with the following paragraph:
It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind Nature for the wingless wild things that have their homes in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of the woodland; the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere; far in the empty sky a solitary esophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.
In the notes of the volume in which I first read this story, Twain printed excerpts from some puzzled readers, one of whom remarked that his esophagus was wingless, and as far as he knew never slept. Twain concluded that he would have got away with the paragraph, lilacs, laburnums, larch, pomegranate and all, but for overreaching and including the esophagus.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pasta and Poetry

Last week we looked into Cowgirl Creamery on F St., where most of the food looks wonderful but a bit richer than we should be eating. I noticed a bag or two of a noodle I hadn't heard of before, "orecchiette del prete", or "the priest's little ears."  They do look like little ears, though why of a priest I can't say. The name brought to mind Yeats's poem "John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs. Mary Moore":
And O! but she had stories,
    Though not for the priest's ear,
To keep the soul of man alive,
    Banish age and care, . . .

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Customer's Not Always Right

Today's Washington Post carries the obituary of Jacques Morgan, owner of the Idle Time Bookshop in Adams-Morgan. I had remarked that I did not recognize the picture of him as someone that I had dealt with at the cash register, and the obituary tells why:
Mr. Morgan reserved a special dose of disdain for his customers — not the bibliophiles who might share his appreciation for a first-edition cover illustrated by the macabre-minded Edward Gorey, but those who pestered him with what he considered inane requests for bestsellers such as “Eat, Pray, Love.”
In fact, Mr. Morgan’s antipathy for many of his patrons was so pronounced that he and his wife long ago agreed that their business’s survival depended on him never working the cash register. Instead, he largely remained behind the scenes . . .
I don't know that I'd care to have my taste in reading judged out loud by a bookstore owner. I don't believe that snubbing a customer over Elizabeth Gilbert is the way to bring her to M.F.K. Fisher or Jill Ker Conway, or whichever author you'd rather sell. But I do admire the man's independence. His bookstore has had a 31-year run so far.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

In Lieu of Flowers

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, Idle Time Books in Adams-Morgan was closed because of the death of its owner, Jacques Rene Morgan. In looking at the picture then in the window, or the one in the Post's death notice, I can't say for sure that I ever met him. Certainly he ran a good bookstore.

The death notice concludes
In lieu of flowers, come buy a book. A memorial service will be held at a later date.
No doubt I shortly shall go buy a book. What better way to remember a bookman?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Reading for Wisdom

Today's Washington Post carries an article on the new Common Core State Standards, and their effect on the teaching of high school English. I am not sure why the students are not getting their "informational texts" in the history classes or other humanities, though the requirement that non-fiction constitute 70% of 12th-grade reading does suggest that some of the material will need to be covered in English classes. What I most noticed in the story, though, was the reaction of a teacher:
English teacher J.D. Wilson agrees with much of what the standards aim to accomplish. But he is disturbed by the subtle shift the new standards are already causing in his classroom at Wareham High School in Wareham, Mass.
“Reading for information makes you knowledgeable — you learn stuff,” Wilson said. “But reading literature makes you wise.”
Perhaps I have not read enough literature, then. But my long-ago observation of those who read and taught literature for a living--professors and graduate students--makes me wonder how strong the correlation is between the reading of literature and wisdom. And I wonder whether high school seniors have the experience against which they might test what they find in books, and so perhaps gather some wisdom. I don't think I did at that age.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kultura's Books Goes Out of Business

This evening I saw that Kultura's Books is having a closeout sale, everything 50% off. The store remains open until Sunday, I gather. I took a hardbound copy of Eimi by E.E. Cummings, and may get back to see what else is left..

Kultura's always had something interesting to see--a decent stock of poetry, philosophy, and fiction, books in French and Spanish, now and then in other languages. Browsing could require some work, for many of the shelves had two ranks of books on them, the back visible a handful at a time. I kept noticing curiosities such as a bilingual Homer--Greek and German, the latter in the old Fraktur type--or a complete and quite pricy St. Beuve.Over the years I may have bought half a dozen or a dozen books there.

Kultura's is located at 1728 Connecticut Ave. NW, a few doors down from S St.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The JFK 50 Miler

In today's Washington Post, the columnist Lenny Bernstein recounts his efforts at the JFK 50-Mile run last weekend. He had the misfortune of running the last two thirds or so with a broken hand and sore ribs from a fall. This was the 50th running of the JFK 50, named in honor of the president who challenged Americans to get back into condition and try such challenges as 50-mile hikes.

In 1982, I ran in the 20th running, and discovered what somebody could have told me: 50 miles is a long way to go. A friend had suggested a try it, so I sent in the application. Another reckless friend signed up, and another came along as "handler" for the two of us. I believe that the field must have grown over the last 30 years, for Bernstein writes of two waves in the race, some runners leaving at 5:30 from Boonsboro, and another, larger, presumably faster wave leaving at 7 am. In 1982, there was that I know of but one start. Those of us issued race numbers under 100 had the privilege of starting about 20 yards ahead of the rest--a nice gesture, but one that seemed eccentric for a race of that distance.

By now, I remember only so much of that day. There is poor footing on South Mountain, which one runs north to south; I thought one would have better footing running north. One covers a marathon distance on the C&O Towpath, having arrived about 15 miles in, and leaving with 9 miles to go. The roads between the towpath and Williamsport were somewhat narrow, and traveled by large pickup trucks. I made a friend in the last couple of hundred yards, a young woman who was truly suited to long distances, and came into her own at 50 miles and beyond; we ran together several times a year until she finished law school and left the area. I acted as her handler at one 100-mile race, and my brother and I handled for her at another running of it.

What I chiefly remember was the locker room at the junior high school in Williamsport where the race finished. I had to wait in the halls until my friend the handler showed up with my pack. With that in hand, I went to the locker room, where I noticed a man leaning up against the wall, with the shower running down his back--this being a junior high, the shower heads were at about shoulder height for a grown man of average stature. I undressed very deliberately, took a long shower, and then dressed and repacked very deliberately. As I turned to go, the man was still leaning there with the hot water running down him. I understood.

I did reasonably well in the run. As I remember it, my number was 26, and my finish was 25th or 27th. I was impressed by the excellence of their seeding, until I got the race report and found that those of us in the first 100 were issued numbers in alphabetical order of name. But that was it for me and 50-milers.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Those who take politics to heart yet do not engage in the day to day details of it seem to me to be subject to a mild variant of bipolar disorder, call it political bipolar disorder (PBPD). The victims interpret any election as either proving that history is marching inexorably on their side, or that a new dark age is here. That there are external, usually economic, factors at work does not seem to occur to them. So a Democratic sufferer will have read 2008 and now 2012 as demonstrating that America is at heart left-liberal and does believe in that change you can believe in; he will be forgetting that in 2010 the Morlocks walked the land, cutting down the Eloi. The Republican sufferer had his moments of euphoria in 2004 and 2010, and is now sure that the end times are at hand.

To say to the Democrat that 2008 did not prove that the world was made over new, but rather that a lot of the electorate was furious at the disappearance of their (apparent) wealth was to waste your breath. To say to the Republican something comparable about 2010, why bother?

The disorder is subclinical. Yet it makes conversations with persons on the other phase impossible, with those on the same phase unprofitable, and with those not suffering from the disorder difficult.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why Would You Read Aloud?

ZMKC notices an account persons reading aloud, and wonders whether the custom has lapsed. Probably it has, but why did it have such a long run? I can think of a number of cases where it makes sense
  1. The audience cannot read.
  2. The audience can read, but is occupied in work that leaves enough attention free for listening to what is read.
  3. The audience can read, but there is light enough for only one reader.
  4. The reader is accustomed to reading to others, perhaps in a liturgical setting, and the audience is accustomed to its role.
  5. Reader and audience simply enjoy one another's company.
  6. The reader and the audience particularly enjoy words, and this offers a chance to reflect on the work read, and to share their impressions of it.
Case 1 may be the most common now, as parents read to small children. In the ages before widespread schooling it must also have been the most common.

The classic example of case 2 is the cigar factory.: at one time, when cigars were hand rolled in the factories, the factories would employ someone to read to the cigar rollers. This case has largely been overtaken by radio or by personal audio devices. I remember spending a day in a warehouse where young men assembled computers, where the radio was going constantly. Now maybe they'd have earbuds in.

Jane Austen's family probably combined cases 2 through 4, maybe 5. Or if it takes as much light to embroider as to read, perhaps we can leave out case 3.

Case 5 pure and simple might be Paolo and Francesca. Does anyone read to seduce now?

Case 6 is probably in all times the rarest. I believe it covers the cases that ZMKC cites. Most people who read take small notice of how the words and the sentences work together, just as most of us who live in brick houses couldn't tell you whether the bricks were laid in Flemish bond or otherwise.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Numbers, Again

I have been reading The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians, a most interesting book. It has a couple of quirks that I have noticed. First, it is written in very short chapters, mostly of ten pages or fewer. Second, it has an uncritical love of numbers. The second may be hard to avoid when one is writing about Russia and comparably large places.

One can use numbers to inform or impress. This book tends use them to impress. The Bratsk dam held 200 billion cubic yards of water. Every year the Baikal-Amur Main line required four hundred tons of ballast for the roadbed, plus eleven million cubic feet of crushed rock, forty thousand tons of lime, and eighty million bricks for embankments, tunnels, and so on. This hydroelectric project was expected to provide so many kilowatts of power--how many Moscows or New Yorks is that?

The Bratsk hydroelectric station was built to produce 22 billion kilowatt hours per year, I read on page 380. On page 382, that project and several others produce 15 million kilowatt hours per day. At this point, I did a little arithmetic: 22 billion per year is about 60 million per day. How did the several dams produce a quarter of the output of one of them?

There is also no context given--what you you do with all those kilowatt hours? The UN says that household use accounts for 15 to 25 percent of energy consumption in developed countries. So taking the lower figure of 15 million per day for Bratsk, Ut-Ilinsk, and Krasnoiarsk, figure that about 3 million went to household use. At modern US levels of consumption (15 kWh per day) that would be about 200 thousand households (along with the industries and so on that employed their working members), but in the USSR at the beginning of the 1970s, presumably consumption was less--work out your factor and you can calculate on how large a population this supports.

And for the reader who wonders how much water 200 billion cubic yards is, other than "a lot", the cube root of one billion is one thousand; the cube root of 200 is a bit less than 6. So if we call it a cube six thousand yard on a side, we're in the ballpark. I haven't seen any  such cubes, but I have a starting place to work with the figures--if I reduce the depth of the lake to a hundred yards, I have a factor of 60 to distribute to the other dimensions.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Inventing the Middle Ages

Norman Cantor's Inventing the Middle Ages is a fascinating book, and excellent hurricane reading. It covers the generations of medievalists who flourished between the 1890s and the 1970s, in chapters of about forty pages. Of those he writes about, I had heard of a handful--Maitland, Kantorowitz, Bloch, Braudel, Le Roy Ladurie, Lewis, Tolkien, and Gilson--and of them had read only Le Roy Ladurie and Gilson on medieval matters.

His judgments are severe, here and there: on the Annales school he has many hard things to say, both about their academic politics and about their histories. On Oxbridge:
But intellectual innovators are severely rationed in British academia--one or at most two per academic discipline per half century. In this subtle way, the intellectual conservatism of the establishment is actually reinforced, since the grandees can point to a single unique innovator as the outcome of their own ambient wisdom and plasticity, and they then can go peaceably back for another generation to pouring the sherry before high table dinner and the port afterwards.
He judges that Etienne Gilson's work ultimately failed. He praises the histories of Percy Schramm and  Ernst Kantorowitz, but not unjustly titles the chapter on them "The Nazi Twins".

I cannot speak to his judgments on the writers. I do wonder whether a man born twenty years later would have so confidently applied the terms of Freudian analysis here and there to his subjects: ego, superego, Oedipal attachment, repression. If I had a spare year between now and Christmas, I could find plenty to read in his 125-book core bibliography (and I may yet read half a dozen of them, just not immediately).

I will add two frivolous complaints;
  1. There is a touch of mandarinism in the occasional use of "middle-class", for example in the passing mention of Barbara Tuchman as writing "suburban, middle-class prose". Now and then finds formulas such as "undergraduates and the educated public", as an audience able to read a certain work.
  2. A sentence such as "[Schramm's] book on Otto III was an intellectual revolution in medieval studies, and it is as exciting today as the day it was published (it has never been translated into English)." depresses me.
And one serious reservation: I don't see his prediction of a "retromedievalism" as likely to come about. Nor do I see that two aspects he identified as central to the project have that much to do with medievalism. Who could argue with "civil society"? Yet in the Middle Ages it existed as much in default of a powerful state as in opposition to it. And the "hard-edged sentimentality" one could locate in many other cultures.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Thing That is Knot

The Washington Post this morning has a little guide to storm terms. The paragraph for "Knots" quotes the informant as saying
A nautical mile is one minute of latitude, so 50-knot winds is actually 90 miles per hour.
This estimate surprised me, for a nautical mile is not that much longer than a statute mile. But a bit of arithmetic suggests that the source said, or at least meant, "kilometers".

The other odd point in the the story is a quotation from Bob Dylan's song about the Titanic:
They battened down the hatches,
But the hatches wouldn't hold.
I doubt they did batten the hatches down, but I bet they would've held.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


  1.  Today was the 25th consecutive Marine Corps Marathon that I have not run in, after several years in which I missed but one. Judging by the way I felt on this weekend's runs, the streak is likely to continue.
  2. Recently, I heard of an "Edit-a-Thon", sponsored by the Royal Society, in which women were encouraged to edit Wikipedia entries concerning woman prominent in science and technical fields. The suffix or rather syllable "thon" has been floating loose for some time, I suppose since 1960s with "telethons" leading the way. Had I more time, perhaps I'd rent from Potomac Video the movies in which Rooney Mara has had a leading role (The Social Network, the Dragon Tattoo movies), and invite friends over for a "Mara-thon"
  3. Late in Swann's Way, a rather stuffy general remarks to the Duchesse de Guermantes that Jena was a batttle before it was a bridge--she has been making a dismissive joke about some Napoleonic title (fictitious, I think). Likewise, Marathon was a battle before a marathon was a race. (Though one could consider the hoplites' forced march back towards the city as having the nature of a race.)
  4. In Ancient Greek the word "marathon", according to Liddell and Scott, is the Attic version of "marathron", fennel, with which the field of the battle was overgrown.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Institutional Will

Higher education in this country needs an historian to tell us the organizational history of colleges and universities in their expansion, both as real estate enterprises and as they have found more subjects to confer degrees and certificates in. Perhaps the book has been written, but if so I've missed it. I see bits of the history in the newspapers, as Advisory Neighborhood Commissions push back against the expansion plans of the local schools. And I see it in the mail, when a local university advertises its Master of Interior Design program.

The physical expansion I suppose derives from the money that schools accumulate through their favored tax status, and from the need to use that money. The increase in the number of subjects seems to be driven by demand. Applicants for jobs suppose that a Master of x in y must be a positive value, for any values of x and y. Perhaps so; perhaps in the human resource offices the resumes get sorted into different pile. But the schools are out there scrapping to meet the demand.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

War and the Iliad

Long ago, probably in college, I read Simone Weil's essay "The Iliad: The Poem of Force." In rereading the Iliad since, I have thought now and then of her opening assertion that
The true hero, the true subject, the center of The Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away.... To define force--it is that x that turns anybody subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.
NYRB has had the happy thought of collecting the essay into a book, War and the Iliad, with Rachel Bespaloff's "On the Iliad" and "The Style of the Mythical Age" by Hermann Broch.

One cannot ignore the role of force--men killed, cities sacked, persons enslaved--in the Iliad. Yet on rereading Weil's essay, good though it is, I find that it says more--or at least I learn more--about her, in particular her need to identify with the powerless, and her desire to unite her love of the Greeks with her Christian conviction, than about the Iliad. If the translation of the essay is faithful, Weil cheats a little on her citations. Christopher Benfey's introduction points out the omission on the adverb "gently" when Achilles removes the suppliant Priam's hands from his knees. I notice also, among other examples

"If you can make an old man fall silent, tremble, obey, with a single word of your own ... " Yes, Homer says that the old man grew fearful and obeyed "the word", but Agamemnon's dismissal ran to several: Fitzgerald gives it a dozen English words, Fagles eleven.

"Achilles himself, that proud hero, is shown us at the beginning of the poem, weeping with humiliation and helpless grief--the woman he wanted for his bride has been taken from under his nose, and he has not dared oppose it." Yes, but more No. There are hints of an affection between Achilles and Bryseida, and she says later on that Patroclus promised that she would become Achilles's wife. The sources I have read suggest that Patroclus was soothing her with empty and impossible promises, though. More to the point, Achilles seems far more upset over lost prestige than over a lost love. And "not dared to oppose it" is too strong; Achilles had his sword half drawn to cut down Agammemnon before Athena warned him off the action.

Weil writes that "The Iliad formulated the principle long before the Gospels did, and nearly in the same terms, 'Ares is just and kills those who kill.'" I should say rather that the statement in Matthew "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword" expresses an imperative to live otherwise; Homer expresses no such imperative, and in fact cannot imagine it as a possibility. The occasional wish that there might be no war is definitely a conditional contrary to fact.

I had not previously heard of Rachel Bespaloff, and am grateful to have read her essays. They seem to me to engage the Iliad more closely than Weil's does. The first essay, "Hector", begins
Time and suffering have stripped Hector bare, he has nothing left but himself. In the crowd of mediocrities that are Priam's sons, he stands alone, a prince, born to rule. Neither superman, nor demigod, nor godlike, he is a man and among men a prince. He is at ease in akids of unstudied nobility that permits neither ride in respect to the self nor humbleness in respect to the gods.
This and the rest seem just and well put. She is very good on Thetis and Achilles, Helen, Achilles and Priam. Her concluding essay, "Poets and Prophets" strikes me as a sounder comparison of the Old Testament to Greek literature than Weil makes. I don't set up as a judge of Homeric criticism, but the back cover quotes Robert Fitzgerald as saying
This book is about the best thing I have ever read on the art of Homer, and unless you have tasted the poem in Greek, Mme. Bespaloff will serve better than the translators to convey how distant, how refined an art it was.
 Broch's essay on the mythical style, on "the style of old age" tells me chiefly that I will need to reread it, and to read more of Broch.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


There is a tendency among the educated to notice particularly the inefficiencies in their schooling and to suppose that the whole business could have been managed much more quickly. I think that this is probably an illusion. It is a widespread one though.

 In the "Harvard College" chapter of The Education of Henry Adams, Adams writes
The entire work of the four years could have been easily put into the work of any four months in after life.
That greatly impressed me when I was 20 and a lazy undergraduate. These many years later, I think that the statement needs the following qualification:
Provided that one had previously spent four years at Harvard or a comparable college, and thought carefully about what one had learned in the meantime.
Santayana, who had the same education as Adams, namely Boston Latin School and Harvard College, writes in Persons and Places of Boston Latin
In the best schools, almost all time is wasted. Now and then something is learned that sticks fast; for the rest the boys are simply given time to grow and kept from too much mischief.
In context, clearly he means "Even in the best schools..." and I'm fairly sure that he means to include Boston Latin among them.

At the end of Kipling's story "Regulus", which begins with a class construing fifth ode of the third book in Horace, the science teacher Hartopp makes his case
'And at the end of seven years--how often have I said it?' Hartopp went on,--'seven years of two hundred and twenty days of six hours each, your victims go away with nothing, absolutely nothing, except, perhaps, if they've been very attentive, a dozen--no, I'll grant you twenty--one score of totally unrelated Latin tags which any child of twelve could have absorbed in two terms.'
 Yet Kipling implies that boys have learned something:
'You see. It sticks. A little of it sticks among the barbarians,' said King.
It is, though, their third time through that Ode. And Kipling writes in his autobiography that he did not at all care for Horace until as an adult he picked up a volume one night.

These days I see men and women who grew up with the very regular orthography of Spanish try to make make sense of spellings like "would"--why not "wood"?--and "ought", irrationalities I mastered as a child. Some of them I mastered under the care of drab teachers and martinets I do not remember fondly. Still, after all those worksheets, somehow I learned the spellings.

The last word perhaps should go to Samuel Johnson, who had some experience in front of a classroom, and not--as Adams and Santayana's--at  a college:
Every man that has ever undertaken to instruct others can tell what slow advances he has been able to make, and how much patience it requires to recall vagrant inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd misapprehension.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


Last weekend we made a visit to Monarch Paints near Chevy Chase Circle, where we considered such colors as Morning Mist and Evening Mist, which are hard enough to distinguish side by side. Eventually, I amused myself by trying to reckon how many colors were represented. Each of the two central displays had, as I counted them, about 560 colors represented (eight sections each of ten rows of cards with four and cards with three colors). The outer two I didn't look at so closely, but guessed to hold more than half as many. You would probably be safe estimating 1500 colors.

Today I started to paint with the chosen color, "Edgecombe Gray". When applied, it looks just like the previous color ("Subtle"), particularly in the uncertain light of that bedroom. As it dries, it darkens, and reveals just how carelessly I painted. There will be a lot of touch-up work tomorrow.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Running and Thinking

According to Amby Burfoot and George Hirsch, writing in The New York Times,
Nonrunners often imagine that people can cover 26.2 miles only because they have lean, muscled legs and a highly developed cardiovascular system. Nothing could be further from the truth. The runner’s most important organ, by far, is the brain — the source of our dreams, drive and determination. Almost a century ago, the great Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi said: “Mind is everything; muscle, mere pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.”
 If so, my brain has taken a beating over the last 30 years. Once I could reasonably expect to run a couple of marathons every fall and perhaps one in the spring. These days, I turn out for a five-kilometer race in the spring, and run it at a pace slower than I ran any of those long-ago marathons.

Certainly, discipline and determination are required. But running those distances make physical limitations very clear. I was never going to run the sort of time that Burfoot ran--I could not long sustain training at about half the weekly distance elite runners did, for I would notice injuries beginning. Even in shorter races, there I was only so fast I was going to run. As recreational runners went, I was pretty fair, but there was an obvious and unbridgeable gap between the elite runners and the rest of us.

Nurmi's statement is fine, as regard those very few with comparable physical abilities--those, as they say, who have picked their parents carefully. For the rest of us, Damon Runyon may be the sounder guide:
The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way they're betting it.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Statues of the Poets

Generals and and statesmen must hold the plurality of the statues in Washington, the size and location of the statue not always being in proportion to the achievement, as with McLellan's statue at Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road, or Buchanan's in Meridian Hill Park. Yet there are a few statues of other groups, clergy for example, and poets.

This summer I noticed on the George Washington University campus a statue of Pushkin, a gift, it turns out, of the city of Moscow:

This arrived about 10 years ago. I had long known the statue of Taras Schevchenko about half a mile away:

From what little I have heard of him, Schevchenko was not that good a poet. Yet his standing as a 19th-Century Ukrainian nationalist may have helped secure such a fine site in the early 1950; the monument speaks of the old Tsarist empire as the prison house of nationalities.

And of of course, in Meridian Hill Park, there is Dante:

There is said to be a statue of Pablo Neruda at the Organization of American States, but I think that this must refer to one of the many busts around the building.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Rooting Interest: Memoirs

Over the weekend, we hosted the book club. As hosts, we chose the book, and it was my turn; I chose In Plato's Cave by Alvin Kernan. There were only two persons who definitely disliked the book, four who strongly liked it, and the rest at least found it interesting. Some, even of those who liked the book, disliked the author.

Need one like an author to enjoy a memoir? I would say No, or at least "not without qualification." It is probably about two centuries too late to take the Rousseau of The Confessions at his own valuation, or anything like it, yet simply as a document the book is worth reading, and it has plenty of laughs that the author may not have intended. One reads William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee with wonder at his ability to see the world as he wished to; nevertheless, it says something about a place and time that one can read and make allowances for. M.F.K. Fisher's Among Friends is wonderful reading, but there is something cold in it; extraneous to the book are all the biographies that have come out since, and which make it clear that she would have been a fascinating acquaintance but a bit dangerous to be closer to. I have my reservations about Albert Jay Nock as he reveals himself in Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, a book I enjoyed reading.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Books and Covers

Last week, a man from another department looked at my desk and remarked that computer books never show computers on their covers. I looked at my desk: the most conspicuous book was Perfect Software by Gerald Weinberg, with a cover showing white cumulus clouds against a blue sky. Next to it was Effective Perl Programming, a cover showing oyster shells, one with a pearl. I turned over Beautiful Code: Vs of birds. Then I looked at the shelves. It was obvious that the many books by O'Reilly Associates would not contradict him, for most of those covers show animals. Modern Perl had what might have been a monitor, with the Perl sigils @, %, and $; but also, as he pointed out, a blue butterfly.

On a later inventory, I found three books with a computer or an aspect of one depicted:
And I'd have sworn that my copy of  Hennessy and Patterson's Computer Architecture showed a circuit diagram, but I'd have sworn wrong. That edition has a Corinthian capital on it.

It was surprising to have someone 30 years younger point out something quite obvious that I had just never thought about. Some publishers use a trade dress that has nothing to do with the subject:  O'Reilly Associates animals and Manning's clip art are examples of this.  Other publishers favor an austere cover with no art, as Prentice-Hall did for The C Programming Language. Some well-known texts have whimsical designs by which they are known: the dragon book, the Cinderella book, the wizard book.

There is also the problem of determining what a computer looks like. When I started to work with computers, they were generally the size of refrigerators, and one controlled them from a VDT with green or amber phosphors. If you walk into the server room today and see something the size of a PDP-11, or MV/7800, it is probably a disk array. Even personal computers and their peripherals have changed considerably in appearance over the years, and the hefty 17-inch monitor that was the envy of a department in 1995 is obsolescent now.

The software changes more slowly. My old "camel book"  omits a good deal that has happened in Perl since it was published, but is still a handy reference for standard functions and older modules. The older edition of C.J. Date's Introduction to Database Systems still does a good job of setting out the fundamentals of relational databases.  Publishers are better off, then, sticking with species that will be recognizable a few years down the road.

Monday, September 10, 2012


In re-reading Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, for the first time more than thirty years, I noticed that I had forgotten just how unsatisfactory translations from German can be.  I should say that this translation is better than some such that I have seen, where the translator tries to follow the German syntax, turning what likely is difficult yet acceptable German into barbaric English. The English is not graceful, but perhaps could not be, and anyway grace is not the first quality I want in a translation of Kant. What made me uncomfortable was the regular suspicion that precision had been lost: for example, were certain concepts "mentioned" above, or were they enumerated? Does this "concept" translate the same German word as that "concept" does? This is not only a problem with translations from German: read  Aquinas's On Being and Essence, and amuse yourself guessing whether any given appearance of the word "being" renders "ens" or "esse".

One finds the same problem in other kinds of writing. I'm confident that I know of a few careless mistakes in translations I've read of histories, for example of Marc Bloch's Strange Defeat and of Jules Halevy's The End of the Notables. One counts on mistakes in translations of fiction, and never expects too much from translations of poetry. Yet in history, which proposes to narrate and interpret events, and in philosophy, which offers to explain pure thought, one would like to demand precision, or at least consistency, and to imagine it as possible.

Now and then I wish that the teachers at my schools had said, not "you're supposed to take a foreign language" or "we require five quarters of a foreign language, and recommend French," but something different. Perhaps "You will find that there are important books you must read, which were written in this language; there are better translations and worse translations, but really you will wish to be able to read the book in the original, if only to check the translation." But maybe they said something like that and I didn't listen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Home Team

Today's newspapers carried obituaries of Art Modell, who in 1961 purchased a controlling interest in the Cleveland Browns, and in 1995 moved them to Baltimore, where the franchise (for now) remains as the Baltimore Ravens. The move made Modell unpopular--hated--in northern Ohio. One read, now and then, of this, as for example that he could not attend the funeral of Lou Groza, the great Browns placekicker of the 1950s and 1960s.

It struck me when reading this that persons who abused Modell for moving the team misunderstood the relationship between a professional sports franchise and the city where it happens to play. Yet the misunderstanding did not arise the day he announced the move, or the day before that. It went way back, for some to before the days when Modell controlled the franchise. Art Modell profited considerably by that misunderstanding, both in Cleveland and Baltimore. Given the almost forty years of profit that he had from this misunderstanding, I thought it would have become him to bear the fewer years of unpopularity without complaining.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Homework, Since You Mention It

Rita Byrne Tull, over at The Dabbler, writes
I came to understand that my own children’s homework assignments were often being graded in competition with other parents, not other students.  Who can compete with an engineer father’s battery powered working model of a lung?  This was what my daughter’s painstakingly assembled plastic bag and tubing effort was up against.
Eventually I imagined that the "science projects" assigned in the primary grades were part of a meta-experiment, one to find out what middle-class parents would put up with. The answer, clearly, was "damned near anything." Fortunately, the primary grades do come to an end, and if you are lucky the science classes from then on may include actual science.

I find in Jacques Barzun's The House of Intellect (published 1959), chapter "Education Without Instruction", a footnote:
* A natural philosopher of my acquaintance, a house painter by trade, greeted me one morning a I was taking my young daughter to school; 'Say, are you familiar with the modern homework?'--'Why, yes. What are you thinking of especially?'--'It's for the parents.'

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Phantoms on the Bookshelves

After counting a shelf or two of most of our larger bookcases, I estimate that we have between 800 and 1000 books in this house. Many people would regard that as many books, yet after reading Jacques Bonnet's Phantoms on the Bookshelves, I am astonished at our moderation. M. Bonnet had, at the time of writing, about 40,000 books.

I don't know that I've read every word in the book, and certainly I did not read it straight through--doing so would seem contrary to the spirit of the book, which celebrates a library oddly arranged, first by category, then roughly by region of origin, and in which of course not every book has been read. Yet I'm confident that soon I will have browsed my way through anything I might have missed. And when I have shelf space, it will go onto the shelves, probably next to Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night (which is mentioned in it).

Perhaps it helps to have lived by the book trade to acquire so many books. Bonnet mentions a dinner with the Italian novelist Giuseppe Pontigia, who had a library running into the tens of thousands of books. Larry McMurtry, novelist and book dealer, wrote that his library amounted to about 25,000 books. I worked for a while on the edges of the publishing world, as copy editor, proofreader, and eventually techie. Was it my apostasy in becoming a systems administrator and programmer that cost me that order of magnitude in book acquisition? Probably not, for I can afford more books and more expensive ones now than I could then.

I noticed this book on the front shelves of  Reiter's Books at G and 20th Streets NW this week, and happened to have the cash in my pocket for it. Reiter's technical stock has fallen off from what it once was, but there is usually something worth looking at when I stop by. No doubt M. Bonnet would find something to acquire.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Rangers

In the United States, owning a sports franchise seems to be as sure a thing as owning a liquor store, only with revenues at least a couple of orders magnitude larger, and less chance of being robbed at gunpoint. Cities and states with more urgent needs will tax themselves to subsidize your stadium or arena, and if one refuses another will be ready. The rules are such that it is always a surprise when an ownership group, recently for example the McCourt family in Los Angeles, manages to run a franchise into the ground.

The most recent past owner of the Glasgow Rangers football club managed to do just that, as The New York Times reported last week. It was the team of Protestant Glasgow, rival of the Celtic, team of the Irish Catholic immigrants, a matter touched on in Seamus Heaney's "Whatever You Say Say Nothing":
As the man said when Celtic won, 'The Pope of Rome
's a happy man this night.' ...
Yet according to the Times, the old barriers are breaking down, and of the boys in a Catholic school perhaps 5% may be Rangers supporters--though I wonder how boldly they dare affirm this.

In any case, Rangers are threatened with relegation to a lower level of professional soccer, as if the New York Yankees were to be bumped down to Class AA minor league baseball. This is unlikely to do their traditional rivals, the Celtic included, any good, for the Rangers are a great draw for tickets and for broadcast money. Red Sox Nation might get a kick out of seeing the Yankees playing AA ball, but Red Sox management would experience it as a financial disaster.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Peck of Dirt

Twenty years ago, the University of Utah Press published Reading and Writing by Robertson Davies, volume 13 of the Tanner Lectures in Human Values. Unfortunately, volumes before 25 seem to be out of print, though the book is not hard to find used.

. A paragraph of "Reading" came to mind recently:

  How dull he is being, you may think, as I draw near to my conclusion. How like a Professor. He is simply parroting Matthew Arnold with his tedious adjuration that "Culture is the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world and thus with the history of the human spirit." But I assure you that I mean no such thing, and I have always had my reservations about Matthew Arnold., who was too cultured for his own good; he seems never to have listened to the voices which must, surely, have spoken to him in dreams or in moments when he was off his guard -- voices that spoke of the human longing for what is ordinary, what is commonplace, vulgar, possibly obscene or smutty. Our grandparents used to say that we must eat a peck of dirt before we die, and they were right. And  you must read a lot of rubbish before you die, as well, because an exclusive diet of masterpieces will give you spiritual dyspepsia. How can you know that a mountain peak is glorious if you have never scrambled through a dirty valley? How do you know that your gourmet meal is perfect in tis kind if you have never eaten a roadside hot dog? If you want to know what a masterpiece The Pilgrim's Progress is, read Bonfire of the Vanities, and if you have any taste--which of course may not be the case--you will quickly find out. So I advise you, as well as reading great books that I have been talking about, read some current books and some periodicals. They will help you to take the measure of the age in which you live.
 The mention of longing for the commonplace and vulgar recalls J.V. Cunningham's epigram on his book Doctor Drink, which concludes
The trivial, vulgar and exalted jostle
Each other in way to make the apostle
Of culture and right living shudder faintly.
It is a shudder that afflicts the saintly.
It is a shudder by which I am faulted.
I like the trivial, vulgar and exalted.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Newly Common Gesture?

Within about the last six months I have been noticing women walking with a small fold of skirt clasped in one hand. Usually, I think, it is the right hand. On some a few days there may have been wet pavement; on a few women a long skirt and tricky heels. Yet there are women who will hold a knee-length skirt. If there are common factors in the cut of the skirt, my eye is not trained enough to spot them.

The gesture is anything but ubiquitous. In a week of walking around the city, I might notice it twice. It is not local to Washington, for I noticed a woman walking so in Philadelphia yesterday, and my son, who had not previously noticed it, saw another later. Is it a trend, and will it take off as the female pedestrian's answer to the male driver's "gangsta lean"? Where did it come from--a movie? The royal wedding?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Rhododendron into Dogwood

In the postscript of his translation of The Odyssey, Robert Fitzgerald writes
A word about "translation." The Odyssey, considered strictly as an aesthetic object, is to be appreciated only in Greek. It can no more be translated into English than rhododendron can be translated into dogwood.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Carmen Possum

A college friend recently sent me a link to the Wikipedia page on macaronic language. This, I was delighted to find, had a link to the page on Carmen Possum, which I had heard quoted in high school, but never, that I recall, seen in full. The rhyme begins
THE NOX was lit by lux of Luna,
And 'twas a nox most opportuna
To catch a possum or a coona;
For nix was scattered o'er this mundus,
A shallow nix, et non profundus.
and ends
Cruel possum! bestia vilest,
How the pueros thou beguilest!
Pueri think non plus of Caesar,
Go ad Orcum, Shalmanezer,
Take your laurels, cum the honor,
Since ista possum is a goner!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

At Great Expense

By way of comp.risks comes a mention of the dangers of trusting too much in on-line translations. The producers of a BBC comedy Episodes needed a headstone in Hebrew and English for a funeral scene. Somebody entered the English text into Google Translate, and dutifully copied the Hebrew letters out. Unfortunately, Google Translate had rendered them into the left-to-right order of English, rather than the right-to-left order of Hebrew. This means, it is said, that what should convey "dearly missed" instead says "pickled at great expense". According to The Guardian this has greatly entertained Israeli audiences that might never have heard of the show; Haaretz certainly seems amused.

Monday, July 30, 2012


In Sunday's New York Times, Andrew Hacker asks "Is Algebra Necessary?" and answers, Generally, no. The reactions to this article that I noticed (over at Hacker News, as it happens) were strongly negative.

I find that I am of several minds about this one.

First, I have seen algebra fetishized by some. The Washington Post used to carry a columnist who was sure that 8th-grade algebra was necessary to the nation's future. She wrote well and set forth her arguments forcefully. Yet I wondered. The Montgomery County schools--which she covered--had more problems than under-enrollment in 8th grade algebra; students were getting to high school not knowing arithmetic they should have learned in the middle grades. I came to think that eventually there would be a movement for third grade algebra, which would have predictable results: the schools would teach what they could, and call it algebra; the parents of the young Gausses and Noethers would write furious letters to the Post about deficiencies in the algebra teaching; and the rest of the parents would shake their heads and wonder what came next.

Second, Hacker's proposal matches many I see. If something turns out to be hard, let's not do it. I don't know that this is the best way to run school systems.

Third, some of his reasoning seems questionable to me:
The toll mathematics takes begins early. To our nation’s shame, one in four ninth graders fail to finish high school. In South Carolina, 34 percent fell away in 2008-9, according to national data released last year; for Nevada, it was 45 percent. Most of the educators I’ve talked with cite algebra as the major academic reason.
Or could it be--as the folks at Hacker News suggest--that algebra can't be fudged with easy grades for bad work, the way softer courses can?

Fourth, good teachers are scarce, and good math teachers are scarcer. Some of what Hacker describes must no be  a deficiency in the students so much as in the teachers and the curricula. Of course, it would be easier to write an outstanding algebra text than to reform mathematics education in a school system, let alone a state or nation.

Fifth, can one consider a college student academically ready if he or she cannot master the rudiments of logic? And if not, are the rudiments of logic easier to master than algebra?

Finally, it is hard not to recall the numbers of obviously intelligent persons who have confessed--the boasters I don't count--that they could not master algebra. I suspect that many of them simply encountered bad teachers, and were too young to know how to ignore the teacher and work from the text. Yet some probably could not manage it, others didn't, and many went on to useful careers in academia or elsewhere.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fuhrer Meets Geyser

Thirty years ago, I worked with a delightful woman, then a copy editor, who had started her working life as a proofreader at a vanity press. The excellence of her author queries--one jotted these in the margins of galleys--got her promoted to copy editor fairly quickly. The one publication she mentioned from this press was called something like My Three Weeks with Hitler in Yellowstone National Park. The plan of the book was simple: during the 1920s, Hitler visits the US, and while sightseeing in Yellowstone discusses with an interlocutor his plans for world domination. Hitler's dialogue, my coworker said, was rendered as if spoken in broken English by a German: 'Und zen ve must einother var fight mit die Englitsch und French." She was droll, but not I think given to just making stories up, so somewhere out there--perhaps in a storage shed owned by the writer's descendants, there must be copies of this book.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It's Greek to Him

In the essay "The Greek Conquest of England", collected in Essays Ancient and Modern, Bernard Knox writes
Ben Jonson, who sneered at Shakespeare's "less Greek," had none too much himself and Samuel Johnson [said] of the young Alexander Pope that "it was not very likely he overflowed with Greek" . . .
Here Knox is writing of how Greek displaced Latin as the most esteemed language of antiquity, something that occurred with the Romantic generation Still, it brought to mind other instances of writers being happy to say hard things about one another's mastery of Greek.

In his biography Thomas More, R.W. Chambers cites and argues against
the gibe, to which Gibbon gave currency, that Erasmus learned at Oxford the Greek which he subsequently taught at Cambridge.
(Though in context this appears to me to be a gibe aimed at Cambridge, not at Erasmus.)

In Eothen William Alexander Kinglake reports Lady Hester Stanhope's remarks on Byron:
The first whom she crucified in my presence was poor Lord Byron; she had seen him, I know not where, soon after his arrival in the East, and was vastly amused at his little affectations; he had picked up a few sentences of the Romaic, and with these he affected to give orders to his servant in a sort of ton d'apameibomenos style ...
And Stendahl reports the remarks of a Milanese professor on Byron to the same effect.

Macaulay is happy to demolish the learning of John Wilson Croker at some length, including
 Johnson was not a first-rate Greek scholar; but he knew more Greek than most boys when
they leave school; and no schoolboy could venture to use the word thnetoi in the sense which Mr. Croker ascribes to it without imminent danger of a flogging.
(To be sure, he is as hard on Croker's Latin and command of facts and dates.)

Knowing better was Macaulay's and Gibbon's stock in trade, of course.  Johnson, evaluating Pope's versions of Homer, had good reason to judge Pope's knowledge. Byron, I suppose, had only himself to blame for unkind attentions.

The amusement of maligning someone else's mastery of Greek must by now be purely a specialist's treat, to be carried out in academic journals, rather than in widely circulated magazines or in books with the print run of Johnson's Lives of the Poets or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I sat through the commencement of a large college of arts and sciences last year, where the students came up by department; there was one classics major. The attempted coup against the University of Virginia's president came in part because some on the Board of Visitors thought her too reluctant to shut down dwindling departments, one of them, of course, being Classics.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Oh, to be in Texas, Now That August's Here

Today's Washington Post notes that Larry McMurtry is closing down his Booked Up store in Archer City, Texas. The store's web site confirms this: on August 10 and 11, the store will auction off several hundred thousands of books by the shelf lot. The stores will be open for browsing the week before.

  • I don't have a lot of shelf space for shelf lots.
  • I lack the experience needed to buy efficiently when somebody is auctioning off tens of thousand of lots in two days.
  • I have other commitments those days.
The books, then, that I remember from Booked Up's Georgetown days, if still with McMurtry, will be somebody else's prize. To those who have the time, the space, and the money, I can only quote Booked Up:


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

An Odd Perspective

In an opinion piece, "The Inequality of Opportunity", in yesterday's Washington Post, Lawrence Summers remarks that
The number of children not born into the top 1 percent who move into it must equal the number of children born into the top 1 percent who move out of it over their lifetimes. So a serious program to promote equal opportunity must seek to enhance opportunity for those not in wealthy families and to address some of the advantages currently enjoyed by the children of the fortunate.
True enough, yet I found the notion that inequality is about the top 1 percent very odd. One could smooth out the curve considerably within the top 10 or 50 percent, yet leave troubling inequalities in place.

But Summers was president of Harvard University, where he remains a professor of economics. As viewed from the Harvard admissions office, or from the admissions office's chain of command, equality of opportunity is about the 1 percent. Those who graduate from high school functionally illiterate or innumerate aren't sending in applications. Perhaps the president of a decent state school or community college would put matters differently.

To be fair, Summers does mention the need to improve public education; still, the ending of the paragraph in which he does so doesn't quite reinforce his point.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Slot in the Cabinet

In the houses where I grew up, there was a slot in the back of the medicine cabinet in the bathrooms, made so that one might dispose of old razor blades. Yet I have never shaved with a razor that took such blades. My first razor used a band of metal that one wound on the a fresh stretch when the edge became dull. Not long after, I began to use razors with the two blades in a plastic cartridge, which I have used since. All are much too big for a slot made to receive a flat, unenclosed blade.

Yet a row ouse where we lived, built in the early 1980s, had that slot in the medicine cabinets, though by then most American men must have moved on to the bulkier razor cartridges. I was a little disappointed, when we painted the bathrooms, to find that there was no special receptacle for the blades to fall into; anything pushed through simply dropped to onto the ceiling below. I knew that it was unlikely anyone would ever have collected years of old razor blades, but there was something unsatisfying in thinking of them falling onto old plaster, dusty drywall, and construction debris.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Parallel Texts: Waugh and Diogenes

Evelyn Waugh, in a letter to his wife, October 13, 1940, from a troopship
... In fact I am friends with all on board but I do wish sometimes I could meet an adult. They are all little boys. Some of them naughty little boys like the Brigadier, most of them delicious & just what I want Bron to be at the age of ten, but not one of them a mature man.
Diogenes, as translated by Guy Davenport in 7 Greeks:
Men nowhere, but real boys at Sparta.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


I am musically illiterate, so my opinions on music hardly deserve the name--they are prejudices. One is that Mozart is the greatest composer ever. Start my Desert Island mix with Symphony #40 and The Marriage of Figaro, and I'll consider it solid.

Yet a couple of times a year I admire Tchaikovsky's versatility. Around Christmas he is the favorite composer of girls between 5 and 7; on Independence Day he is the artillerist's favorite composer. At least, I think he must be the latter; maybe the gunners had rather pass in review to "The Caissons Go Rolling Along" than fire off Long Toms in the 1812 Overture. Of the former I can't doubt, after having seen a lobby or two of dressed up little girls spinning during the intermission of The Nutcracker.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Middle of Next Week

In the introduction to his Essays Ancient and Modern, Bernard Knox writes
I remembered often the man in Lewis Carroll's poem who "thought he saw a rattlesnake,  / that questioned him in Greek, /He looked again and found it was / The Middle of Next Week." Though it had taken me a long time, I had finally realized that when you read Thucydides, or Sophocles, or any of the great Greek writers, you may think you see an ancient text that speaks to you in Greek. You look again, and find it is The Middle of Next Week.
 The book is absorbing, surprisingly so when I consider that it consists largely of extended book reviews. Of them, I so far like best "The Greek Conquest of England" and "Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War: Politics and Power."

Knox, who died just two years ago, led a remarkable early life, sketched out in the introduction. In 1937 he was wounded serving with the International Brigades at Madrid. In 1943 he was an officer of the U.S. Army, training for infiltration behind German lines with such men as William Colby, Lou Conein, and John Singlaub, all later notable Cold Warriors. He served behind the lines in Brittany, with Italian partisans ("party-jans" according to some less linguistically gifted generals) on the front lines of a then secondary front, and was fortunate not to be landed in Honshu to seek out Japanese party-jans.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Kickball Season

Kickball season seems to have just started. At least, it was last week  that I first noticed a couple of the young wearing their team shirts.

My generation gave up kickball at about age 12, maybe 11 if you don't count PE. Playing kickball at 13 or older would have caused one to be seen as simple-minded or simply uncool. Of course, so would have many actions that the distinctly cool do now: buttoning the top button of shirt not worn with a tie; wearing a tee shirt under an athletic shirt; wearing dark socks with athletic gear; etc.

A co-worker of about 30 tells me that mostly this has to do with drinking, and in fact one of the shirts I saw today showed that the team was sponsored by a bar on Capitol Hill. I am sympathetic to physical activities that serve as an excuse for subsequent beers, not that I ever required much of an excuse. I suspect kickball is supposed to be ironic. if so, the irony is lost on me, which would be satisfactory to the ironists and to me.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Travel Theorem

In Herbert Simon's Models of My Life, he states his "Travel Theorem":
  Anything that can be learned by a normal American adult on a trip to a foreign country (of less than one year's duration) can be learned more quickly, cheaply, and easily by visiting the San Diego Public Library. San Diego is not essential; you can substitute any other major city. (I conceived of the theorem when I was about to go to India, where I was supposed to acquire expertise in Indian management education and a good tan--in San Diego, I could have acquired both.) The theorem holds in spades if the traveler does not have a fluent knowledge of the language of the country visited.
 So most American adults, long before the grasp their first passport, have had contact with a wide range of human cultures. If they have been at all observant (if not, they will be no more so abroad), they will have learned what a peasant is, and what are his feelings toward the possession of land; they will have heard the political views of a blue-collar worker; they will have glimpsed the life of a Midwestern born-again Christian; they will have observed the flittings of Beautiful People, and the diligent journeys of salesmen.
  The theorem was discovered during a period when I was advising the Ford Foundation about its programs in management education. whevever the Foundation was considering a new program in a foreign land, it would sen out an an American expert to survey the scene in two weeks and return with recommendation. The expert need not have any background of knowledge about the country to be visited--only about, for example, American management education, if that was the topic. The procedure was so obviouisly ridiculous that the travel theorem came to me in an immediate Aha!
It is a pity that MIT Press has not found it worthwhile to keep the book in print...

Friday, June 22, 2012

Turing Centenary

Today is the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing's birth, and Google has a nifty doodle representing a Turing machine as its doodle today. The Register links to a Dutch project that made a Turing Machine with Lego Mindstorms parts.

Exercise for the reader: explain how a Turing machine can generate all words in a recursively enumerable language, and generate all words in a recursive language in canonical order. Show your work.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Two Cultures Again?

The NY Times review of Fouad Ajami's The Syrian Rebellion includes the sentence
The mutilation of young Hamza did not crush the Syrians; it enraged and catalyzed them.
The OED I have does not include catalyze (or catalyse) as a verb, unless in the supplements. For the noun catalysis it includes
2. The name given by Berzelius to the effect produced in facilitating a chemical reaction, by introducing a substance, which itself undergoes no permanent change. Also called contact action.
(Sense 1, given as obsolete, is a nod to the Greek: dissolution, destruction, ruin.)

I suppose that the reviewer might have reached for "galvanize", but have come up with "catalyze" as more, well, cataclysmic. To anyone who has ever taken even high school chemistry, it reads distractingly wrong. The byline describes the reviewer as a staff writer at The New Yorker, a publication that used to excerpt absurdities from small-town publications, and print them as filler under facetious headings.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


I think it wrong, or at least a waste of time, to read to confirm my prejudices. Yet when chance throws something in my way, why not enjoy it? This afternoon I took from my shelf of copy of Kipling, Auden, and Company by Randall Jarrell, and opened it at random. The second flip of the page yielded
(That a poem beginning I think continually of those who were truly great should ever have been greeted with anything but helpless embarrassment makes me ashamed of the planet on which I dwell.)
I laughed, briefly but from the belly.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Bicentennial

Tall ships are gathering in Baltimore to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. It is appropriate that ships should take part, for the war grew out of America's frustration with the restrictions placed and depredations practiced on its commerce by the British and French. It is also appropriate in that for a long time the US had no successes to point to but naval ones.

Baltimore saw action, but late in the war. Having successfully raided Washington, the British attacked Baltimore. Their soldiers encountered field fortifications that appeared uneconomical to storm; in any case they had lost their general in the confused skirmishing. The celebrated shelling of Fort McHenry, on the other hand, caused no deaths or injuries on either side. Still, it was showy enough to inspire Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner", a fine anthem that few can sing.

Yet in June of 1812 there was excitement in Baltimore. A city mob destroyed the plant of a Federalist paper that had dared criticize the declaration of was. The next week's edition of the paper was printed in Washington, but with the address of a house in Baltimore. The mob attacked this house, where the occupants were waiting, armed, and were fired on. The occupants were taken to jail, but the mob broke into the jail and beat them. One man, a veteran of the Revolution, died of his injuries. Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee, sometime governor of Virginia and father of Robert E. Lee, survived, but never really recovered his health.

There were riots again in Baltimore at the beginning of the Civil War, when the locals exchanged fire with Massachusetts infantry marching from one rail station to another. Maryland was a slave state, much in sympathy with secession, and did not care to see Yankees marching through.

The Maryland state anthem, "Maryland, My Maryland" recalls this incident. Now and again somebody will notice that "the despot's heel is on thy shore" speaks poorly of Abraham Lincoln, and will raise a question in the legislature about changing the song, but nothing has been done yet.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Superstition

It seems to me that we in America suffer too often from the belief that to systematize is necessarily to rationalize. I have seen this up close in the worlds of children's sports and in education. During the 50 years or so over which my memory of the matters extends, they have been relentlessly systematized, but it would be flattery or deceit to say that they have been rationalized.

Sunday's New York Times reviews The Most Expensive Game in Town, a book by Mark Hyman on youth sports. It documents the astonishing amounts of time parents and children spend on these teams, and the also astonishing amounts of money involved. Most of the children, of course, will reach their limits by the end of high school; a few will go on to play sports at the college level or in the minor leagues; and a tiny fraction will be good enough to make a living playing a sport for a few years. And of course this was the way things worked when even Little League was hardly known, and most kids didn't play on teams outside of school.

US News and World Report will be happy to tell you what are the best high schools in the country, based on a "challenge index", a ratio of AP exams taken to the size of the graduating class. It is very systematic, breaking ties out to I think the fourth decimal place. The same publication will tell you whether Notre Dame is this year better than Brown, or Carnegie Mellon than Case Western Reserve, and will back it up with statistics. The challenge index can be gamed, by pushing more students into the AP courses; some thoughtful and articulate teachers have argued that this does not help the students or the school. The statistics that go into the college rankings can be gamed--you can become more selective by encouraging more students to apply.

And now the states are dealing with the consequences of "No Child Left Behind". The scores aren't what they should be, despite the schools closed and the teachers counseled or pushed out. Systematically,  perhaps rationally, states are redefining the threshold for proficiency, lowering the score that must be achieved.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Idle Time Books Honors the Jubilee

Noticed on my morning walk, the front window of Idle Time Books in Adams-Morgan:

The little plastic Queen figurine is I understand solar-powered. In any case, it was waving benignly to the passersby on 18th St. NW. The books all touched on Great Britain in one way or another, though one on Ducal Brittany suggested either shortage of stock or of attention.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lone Tree and Junction

Some months ago I noticed at Second Story Books a novel or two by Wright Morris, and have since found and read more. All involve Nebraska, but four in particular involve Lone Tree and Junction, Nebraska, towns said to be about 20 miles east of Grand Island: The Home Place, The Field of Vision, The World in the Attic, Ceremony at Lone Tree. In Field of Vision and Ceremony at Lone Tree the people who count most are of the families of Gordon McKee and Lois Scanlon McKee, with the outsider Gordon Boyd. In The Home Place and The World in the Attic it is the families of Clyde Muncy and (in the latter) Bud Hibbard.

The details of the lives of the McKees and Scanlons have the comfortable inconsistency of legend. In The World in the Attic it is Tom Scanlon who died with ash-filled cuspidor balanced on his head; in Ceremony at Lone Tree it is his father Timothy Scanlon. In The Field of Vision, the younger Gordon McKee, aged about 6, is the oldest of the four children of Walter McKee's son Gordon; in Ceremony at Lone Tree, he is the baby of his family, with a much older brother. Tom Scanlon's hotel is the New Western Hotel at the west side of Junction in The World in the Attic but the Lone Tree Hotel of Lone Tree in Ceremony in Lone Tree. For that matter, Will Brady from The Works of Love gets a mention under his own name in Ceremony in Lone Tree, but his son goes by W.B. Jennings.

Railroads still shape the world. Scanlon's hotel is beside the tracks in Lone Tree (or Junction), where it catered to travelers.Will Brady begins as a railroad clerk, and becomes prosperous selling eggs to the railroad. Clyde Muncy, the narrator of  The Home Place and The World in the Attic, is the son of a station agent; Walter McKee is the son of a railroad worker. The Union Pacific and C.B. & Q railroads divide the town of Junction, just a little way from Lone Tree; Junction reveals the geography--and sociology--they impose only from the grain elevator. No native much notices the sound of a passing freight, though it wakes visitors. In fact, Clyde Muncy finds electric locomotives troubling for their lack of smoke and sound.

Morris's Nebraska is a dangerous place. A number of the men of Lone Tree have departed this life when they failed to notice an oncoming train. Will Brady's father died falling from a windmill he was repairing. Gordon Boyd's father died crushed by cargo he was unloading by the tracks. Young men commit unmotivated murders by gunshot or by car. Older men end up in Chicago, imagining impossible things. The women wear out from drudgery and from putting up with the men formed by and suited to such a land, Other women take a look at the town or the homestead they've married into, and disappear next day.

There is a dignity to those who have learned to live with the land on its own terms, notably on the farms:
Character is supposed to cover what I feel about the cane-seated chair and the faded bib, with the ironed-in stitches, of an old man's overalls. Character is the word, but it doesn't cover the ground. It doesn't cover what there is moving about it, that is. I say these things are beautiful, but I do so with the understanding that mighty few people anywhere will follow what I mean.
(The Home Place) And there is beauty here and there in the landscape, for all the "too much sky, ... too much horizontal, too many lines without stops":
I had heard so much talk, in the last twenty years, of the dreary flatness of Nebraska, that I had come to think of it as flat myself. Perhaps I had never known the land could be beautiful.
  "You ever see--" Bud said, propping his foot on the fence rail, "anything prettier than that?"
  Well, maybe I had. But I wasn't sure. I had seen country like that in France, but that was long ago, I was an exile, and I thought it was France--in country like that--that appealed to me.
(The World in the Attic)

The University of Nebraska Press publishes Morris's work under the Bison Books imprint. Kramerbooks was able to order The Home Place for me, and received it in a week.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Two Great Stories

During the late 1980s, when I traveled a good deal for work, the travel and the solitary meals led to a lot of enforced eavesdropping. The spectacular aside, I noticed some patterns, and came to conclude that there are two stories that American men tell, a lot:
  1. I could've, and probably should've, kicked his ass, but it would have been unbecoming.
  2. My boss is an idiot.
An admirable example of the first story appeared in the newspapers in 1986, when Congressman Henry Gonzales punched one of his constituents at a San Antonio restaurant. The man he punched had been referring to Gonzales as a communist, speaking to be overheard. Gonzales, at the time 70, allowed that he gone easy on the man; after all, he had been a boxing champion of his college. The man punched, a flourishing youth of 50 or so, told the reporters that he could have thrashed Gonzales, but who could hit an old man?

As for the second, Scott Adams has made a fortune out of it with Dilbert. As a staple of conversation, it is almost up there with talk of the weather. Yet it leaves me with the uncomfortable feeling that it is mostly we have not found a vocation, who are putting in an honest day's work at any one of several jobs we might have held, who tell it. I don't think the members of the technical staff at the old Bell Labs were telling this story, or the engineers at Intel or Google.

Have I told these stories? Yes, you bet. Have I told them as often as I did before about 1987? I hope not.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lost Allusions

I noticed the other night in Wright Morris's The Home Place

"Thinks I--" the old man said, "tube as heavy as that will last forever. Well, he says, it would if it was rubber, but it ain't rubber. What is it, says I? Airsuds, says he. What's that, says I? That's what it is if it ain't rubber, says he."
The term "airsuds" appears several more times in the book, and it left me baffled. When I looked back at the early pages, I understood: Ersatz.

The Home Place appeared in 1948, when the war and the German rearmament preceding it had made "ersatz" a familiar term. It may not have been familiar to old Nebraska farmers, but I suppose Morris could count on his readership knowing it, and recognizing it in its disguise of "airsuds". We baby boomers must know "ersatz" from the reading of history and literature, if at all. I wonder whether our children will recognize it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Philosophy and Finance

Today's Washington Post has an article about J. Paul Reddam, owner of the Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another. Mr. Reddam is unusual among horse owners, in that his first career was as a teacher of philosophy in the California state university system. Having become fed up with academia and academic politics, he founded and later sold a mortgage company.  After this, he founded "CashCall, a company that makes unsecured loans to high-risk borrowers." The radio today mentioned some complications with the state regulators.

Perhaps he is in good, or at least notable company there. The agents of that noted Stoic Brutus charged 48% annually on loans until Cicero, then governing Cyprus, held them to the legal 12%, Adam Smith thought the high rate a natural consequence of lack of security for the loans. Peter Green, in Alexander to Actium quotes somebody on Brutus as a man of high principle, and even higher interest.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Parallel Texts: Rousseau and Burke

I noted the other night in Emile
Distrust those cosmopolitans who search out remote duties in their books and neglect those that lie nearest. Such philosophers will love the Tartars to avoid loving their neighbour.
which recalled a passage from "Letter to a Member of the National Assembly":
It is that new-invented virtue which your masters canonize that led their moral hero constantly to exhaust the stores of his powerful rhetoric in the expression of universal benevolence, whilst his heart was incapable of harboring one spark of common parental affection. Benevolence to the whole species, and want of feeling for every individual with whom the professors come in contact, form the character of the new philosophy. Setting up for an unsocial independence, this their hero of vanity refuses the just price of common labor, as well as the tribute which opulence owes to genius, and which, when paid, honors the giver and the receiver; and then he pleads his beggary as an excuse for his crimes. He melts with tenderness for those only who touch him by the remotest relation, and then, without one natural pang, casts away, as a sort of offal and excrement, the spawn of his disgustful amours, and sends his children to the hospital of foundlings. The bear loves, licks, and forms her young: but bears are not philosophers. Vanity, however, finds its account in reversing the train of our natural feelings. Thousands admire the sentimental-writer; the affectionate father is hardly known in his parish.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Amazon Reviews

Frank Wilson at Books, Inq. notes a piece at TechCrunch, "Amazon Killed the Book Reviewer Star" The author of the latter piece, Greg Ferenstein, interprets a paper from the Harvard Business School "Working Knowledge" site as showing that "the aggregate rating of Amazon reviewers are every bit as good as professional book critics." I read the paper as making a different claim: that for the 100 highest-rated books on Metacritic between 2004 and 2007, the ratings of the professional reviewers are correlated with those of the Amazon reviewers. As best I can judge from a brief reading, the correlation is strongest in mainstream US journals and alternative sources, weaker among magazines; and the correlation could be checked only for books rated between 5 and 7 out of 9 by professional reviewers.

Mr. Ferenstein also interprets as "nepotism",  meaning favoritism,  the paper's finding that "connected" authors receive better reviews. That I think is subject to interpretation. Does Joe Dokes, who has reviewed for the NY Times, get good reviews because they know his face, or did he get to review for Times because the editors admired his previous work?

The mainstream reviews have their faults, which have been catalogued by excellent critics. Yet I find that Amazon reviewers give out a lot of high scores to books I would score low. To name a couple:
  •  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. Out of 682 reviews on Amazon, 520+ were 5 or 4 stars out of 5. A hinge of the plot involves a Chinese father, during WW II, planning to send his son from Seattle to Canton to finish his education. If Mr. Ford had picked up a history book, he might have noticed that Canton was then occupied by the Japanese.
  • The Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles. Out of 217 reviews, 168 are 4 or 5 stars. I found it implausible as to character and plot, and awkwardly written in too many places.
And I could go on, but why?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mount Vernon

Last week we went to Mount Vernon, for the first time in probably a dozen or fifteen years. About the only detail that seemed familiar was a recipe for cake, which uses 40 eggs and four pounds of butter. While waiting for our turn in the mansion line, we walked down to the wharf, and through the gardens and threshing barn there.

One of the better episodes in Henry Adams's novel Democracy is the excursion to Mount Vernon. The novel is set around 1870, so about 10 years after the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association had bought the property from Washington's family. Restoration had not gone very far.
 They passed on, wandering across the lawn, and through the house. Their eyes, weary of the harsh colours and forms of the city, took pleasure in the worn wainscots and the stained walls. Some of the rooms were still occupied; fires were burning in the wide fire-places. All were tolerably furnished, and there was no uncomfortable sense of repair or newness. They mounted the stairs, and Mrs. Lee fairly laughed when she was shown the room in which General Washington slept, and where he died.
This is to say, I suppose, that the room was not large by standards of New York. As I recall the dimensions, it would not do for a master bedroom in a large American house now, but I would not consider it cramped. What is noticeable is the length of the bed: to my eyes it is nearer five and a half feet than six; yet George Washington stood well over six feet tall, and Martha Washington had the bed made for him.
 Carrington smiled too. "Our old Virginia houses were mostly like this," said he; "suites of great halls below, and these gaunt barracks above. The Virginia house was a sort of hotel. When there was a race or a wedding, or a dance, and the house was full, they thought nothing of packing half a dozen people in one room, and if the room was large, they stretched a sheet a cross to separate the men from the women. As for toilet, those were not the mornings of cold baths. With our ancestors a little washing went a long way."
"Do you still live so in Virginia?" asked Madeleine.
 "Oh no, it is quite gone. We live now like other country people, and try to pay our debts, which that generation never did. They lived from hand to mouth. They kept a stable-full of horses. The young men were always riding about the country, betting on horse-races, gambling, drinking, fighting, and making love. No one knew exactly what he was worth until the crash came about fifty years ago, and the whole thing ran out."
Yet Senator Ratcliffe (a stand-in for James Blaine) remarks
What I most wonder at in him is not his military or political genius at all, for I doubt whether he had much, but a curious Yankee shrewdness in money matters. He thought himself a very rich man, yet he never spent a dollar foolishly. He was almost the only Virginian I ever heard of, in public life, who did not die insolvent.
He was, by the standards of his time and region, a very rich man. He did manage his money well, and unlike Jefferson and Monroe, died prosperous. This enabled him to free his slaves, as Jefferson could not have done.