Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Points of View

Sunday I happened to be driving when NPR's "Speaking of Faith" was on. Ms. Tippett rebroadcast a 2008 interview with the writer John O'Donohue, recorded not long before his death. The topic was beauty, and Mr. O'Donohoue remarked that starvation of beauty is one of the things that kill us in the modern, industrialized world.

Perhaps so, for some definitions of "kill" and "beauty". Yet humanity is tough, and numbers of us live to great ages in dreary settings. I found myself thinking of a story from Iris Origo's memoir Images and Shadows, about her grandmother and an uncle, members of the old Protestant Ascendancy at the beginning of the 1900s, the uncle an enthusiast of "Young Ireland" and Irish lore:
As for my grandmother, he did not concern herself with much with these matters, but interpreted what came before her eyes with realistic and kindly common sense. One day (the story is told by my mother in her reminiscences) she had diven down the straggling, poverty-stricken street of a neighbouring village. "The need poetry, poetry and music," said Uncle Dot as they drove away. "Perhaps," said Gran a little doubtfully. "What they seemed to me to need most, though, was buttons and teeth."
Perhaps I did not listen long enough to hear Mr. O'Donohue's argument fully developed.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Parallel Texts: Chapman and Chateaubriand

First, John Jay Chapman in "Greek as a Pleasure" originally published in Memories and Milestones, reprinted in Unbought Spirit:
And yet accurate scholarship and scientific precision are illusions in the case of language, and there is no scholar living who could write a page of Greek without making ludicrous errors---errors of the sort that the Anglo-Indian makes in writing English, which he has learned from books. If even Mr. Mackail or Gilbert Murray or Nauck--that great mythical monster--should spend a whole day in dove-tailing phases which they had fished out of Plato or Thucydides to make an essay out of, the chances are that any Athenian would laugh five times to the page over the performance.
 Chateaubriand, in Book 12, Ch.3 of Memoires d'outre-tombe:
We admire the Greeks and Romans: our admiration comes to us from tradition, and the Greeks and Romans are not here to laugh at our barbarian judgments. Who among us has an idea of the harmony of the prose of Demosthenes or Cicero, of the cadence of the verse of Horace or Alcaeus, as they were heard by a Greek or Roman ear?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Neighbors on the Shelves

Noticed at The Strand in the fall:

(The Dilthey is Die Philosophie des Lebens, by the way.)

And at Kramerbooks just the other day:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

You've Seen the Movie, Now Read the Book

We went out to the AFI to see "Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy"; we were open to seeing "The Artist", but K wanted to see whichever was in the big theater.

It has been at least 25 years since I read the book, and my memories of it are a bit sketchy--was Ricky Tarr's fiasco in Hong Kong or Istanbul? Jim Prideau's setup in Budapest or Prague? Yet I remembered enough that the whole movie made sense, even with the bits of dialogue here and there that I didn't quite hear. As soon as the lights went up, though, she said, Just who killed whom? I promised a synopsis on the ride home. From what she overheard on the way through the lobby, apparently she was not the only one who found the movie hard to follow in parts. I suppose the true Le Carre students saw the movie the weekend it opened.

(For the record, she is not planning to read the book.)

Friday, January 13, 2012


Some time ago, I bought a bad reprint of Memories and Milestones by John Jay Chapman. It would not have served the purpose I bought it for, to give as a gift; yet, misprints and all I'm happy to have it around, for many of Chapman's essays are worth rereading. And often the misprints are entertaining, as one in the essay "President Eliot":
As the Prankish tribes in the sixth century submitted to Rome, so the Americans in the nineteenth submitted to Massachusetts.
What sort of pranks did they play?

And the other day in Chateaubriand I encountered the chieftan "Frank Khilperick". Since this was in a digression concerning an Iroquois sachem, I first took the name for a bad rendering of "Frank Kilpatrick". No, it was Chilperic, for whom see The History of the Franks.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Long ago, I was hired as a copy editor. The first manuscript handed to me discussed unemployment among farm workers; within a few pages it gave remarkably different figures for the number of farm workers and for the number unemployed, and the inconsistencies went on from there. As I remember it, I put together a list of questions about a page and a half long, single-spaced, for a manuscript that was about 20 pages double-spaced. It seemed remarkable to me that the author had not noticed and accounted for the discrepancies.

I have since discovered that data manipulation is engaging work, often well paid, and capable of revealing important and otherwise invisible patterns. Some time ago I read an interview about the early days of relational databases, which I can't now find; the subject (I think Jim Gray) said something like

We'd talk to the customers and they'd say "The query took four hours to run." We'd say "Well, I guess we have to work on the optimizer.", and they'd say "But don't get us wrong. We love it. We're learning things about the business we never knew."
But I have also discovered that much of the time data collection is tedious, ill-paid, and uncertain work. The early triumphs of data warehousing were made possible not just by the engineers who wrote the programs but by armies of operators entering data from grocery register tapes. Those operators at least had seats and shelter; canvassers going door to door are out in the weather and may have to write with a clipboard or a wall for a surface. The best typists make mistakes and the most conscientious canvassers now and then print unreadably.*

And I find that in many cases the analyst's confidence in the data is in inverse proportion to what he knows of the circumstances of its collection. One number looks just like another on a computer monitor or a piece of paper, and who is to say that the five-digit number is not made of identical units? The person, perhaps, who saw the canvass sheets, or listened to samples of the interviews, or spot-checked the data entry. But that person is not usually in the meeting where analyses are presented without distracting footnotes.

I believe it was Dennis Healy who wrote in his memoirs of an incident of WW II service, when he was convalescing from an operation and assigned to a railway station. His duty was to keep track of the numbers of all soldiers boarding or leaving trains at this station. It was a large station, and he was on crutches, so an actual count was not possible. He made his best estimates and checked them with the civilian station master, who was himself estimating. Healy wrote that when he became a cabinet minister in the 1960s and 1970s, the memory served as a caution against blind faith in the numbers he was given.

* These days, of course, with so many cash registers computerized, and so many purchases by card, the clerks and the customers do the data entry. And businesses love cell phones and smart phones--what better than having the public provide a lot of data on its comings, goings, and loiterings?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Park and a Pope

Noting Jeff's comment about the Joan of Arc statue in Meridian Hill Park, I detoured through the park on Tuesday during my walk to work, and was pleased to see that Joan has her sword back. It looked a bit shiny to me, as if the weather hasn't had much time to work on it; but I don't know how long it has been back. On the other hand, the statue of "Serenity", a seated woman, is missing its nose, and shows other signs of weathering and vandalism.

Pope Pius II wrote an autobiography, The Commentaries, in which he mentions Joan of Arc, with respect. A couple of professors from Smith College translated and edited the commentaries, publishing it as Memoirs of a Renaissance Pope. Those who'd like English and Latin together, or simply want the whole and unabridged text, will be gratified to know (or do know) that Harvard University Press includes The Commentaries in its Italian Renaissance Library series. Some of his writings may be found on-line at www.neolatin.com, where he appears under his previous name, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini.

I have read a fair bit of the translation. There are absorbing passages, but there are also longueurs--and remember, this is abridged version. There are consistories and councils, there are meetings with ambassadors, incidents of wars both nearby and as far off as Belgrade, and quite a few details of his travels about Italy. Among the latter, account n, of his welcome in such-and-such a city,  reads a good deal like the account n-1 of his welcome in the city just before that.

Back to the park: Meridian Hill Park is so called, because once the United States had the notion of establishing its prime meridian on the White House, in which case the center stripe of 16th St. NW would have been 0 degrees longitude. Whether the District of Columbia would then have suffered the anomaly of a street grid based on the Capitol in a country with longitudes based on the White House, I don't know; and what we'd have done to gratify the Supreme Court, I can't imagine. But in the end, Greenwich got  with the prime meridian, and Washington is about 77 degrees west.longitude.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


Franklin gives the proverb as "Three removes is as bad as a fire." I first encountered it as "Three moves is as good as a fire", where even if we take "as good as" to mean "equivalent to", the proverb suggests at most resignation rather than warning. Stuff has become easier to come by since Franklin wrote, and the prospect of losing some of it is at worst indifferent.

Since last week I have been preparing to move offices, just a few doors down the hall. I found that in the course of twelve years or so I have accumulated about 12 cubic feet of stuff I have no further use for, including
  • documentation of an accounting system abandoned ten years ago, going back to the proposals from consultants who would help us install it, the schedules of implementation, the details of upgrades
  • documentation for the accounting system that replaced that one, and which has itself been replaced
  • many shelf feet of manuals for software we no longer use
  • several shelf feet of books about software that is obsolete or that we no longer use
  • CDs with software that the vendor hasn't supported in years
  • CDs that I probably burned but have no idea why--when did I want to use Ubuntu Linux 8 (Hardy Heron)?--or was that the guy who has since moved halfway across the country?
  • 3.5 inch "floppy" disks (and some mailers for them)
  • tapes for which we no longer have drives--8 mm, 4 mm, DLT
  • lists of employees from events years ago, so that most of those named have moved on
  • enough legal pads, steno pad, and other tablets, mostly blank, that I could not fill them up in six months without disabling myself with writer's cramp
Yet my office was not inordinately messy as offices go. The books for the most part were shelved, the work plans and so on were in files, the software was in a cabinet.

One lesson that I hope I have learned is to be cautious at tech shows.  For a while I had a tech-show mug for every year I had been with my employer; I never drink from them, and use at most one, as a holder for pens and markers. And tech shows will hand out tablets, which I hardly use, but then don't discard.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Church Census

At Christmas Eve dinner, a guest remarked that there were hundreds of churches on 16th St. NW, then somebody said at least a hundred. I thought not, estimating that 16th St. runs about 65 blocks (nearer 75) from Lafayette Square to the Maryland line, and that the density was much lower than 1.5 per block.

My best count over the last couple of days is about 35 religious institutions: 30 churches, two synagogues, two Buddhist temples, and the Ethical Culture Society*. The count is uncertain for a number of reasons:
  • The status of some of the churches. Are the 7th Day Baptists here to stay, or does all that digging mean that something else will replace their building? What about the Third Church of Christ Scientist at 16th & I, where the congregation has fought a battle to be able to demolish the structure? Should we count the Mormon church under construction?
  • Whether one counts buildings or congregations. There is an Ethiopian church sharing space in the Presbyterian church at Carter Barron; and an independent Jewish community, Fabrangen, meets at the Ethical Culture Society.
  • The ease of missing a small church, such as Trinity Religious Temple Church, in a rowhouse between Florida and U.
  • The question whether to count churches not actually on 16th St. but visible from it and probably considered by the passers by to be on 16th. I have in mind Shrine of the Sacred Heart, and St. Francis and the Ascension, within a couple of blocks of each other in Mount Pleasant.
As I reckon it, going by buildings, the Baptists have the lead with five, followed by the Methodists with three; after that it is the Buddhists, Christian Scientists, Episcopalians, Jews, Lutherans, Orthodox, and Unitarians with two each, then everybody else, subject always to the cautions above.

* I don't know whether the Ethical Culture Society would object to being counted as a religious institution.