Monday, January 28, 2013

A Numbers Game

Today it occurred to me to wonder whether there is a translation of Fichte's Science of Knowledge newer than the one I bought years ago. Amazon says yes, and and lists a number of works by and about Fichte. Some, I found, had reviews, but not many: 4, 3, 2, 1 reviews for the first books on the first page of searches.

This did not seem many reviews, so I decided to have a look at some other sorts of book:
  • Popular history, searching on "Atkinson, Rick". An Army at Dawn had 208 reviews, The Day of Battle 175.
  • Less popular history: Gordon Craig's Germany 1866-1945 has 3 reviews.
  • Literary fiction, searching on "Franzen". 1,114 reviews of Freedom, 1,196 of The Corrections. On the other hand, Ann Patchett's State of Wonder has more than 3,000 reviews.
  • Programming. Martin Fowler's Refactoring had 88 reviews, Kernighan and Ritchie's The C Programming Language 348.
  • Poetry. Geoffrey Hill's New and Collected Poems has 3 reviews, his Selected Poems 6.
Not all  philosophy is as little reviewed as Fichte's (or Frege's). The 1977 translation of The Phenomenology of Spirit has more than 50 reviews, as does Allan Bloom's translation of The Republic. A recent translation of The Critique of Pure Reason has 98 reviews.

Evidently one must factor in publication date, for a book published long enough before Amazon's founding will get less traffic. The Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Fall of Prussia, 1640-1945 is for my money not nearly as readable as Craig's history, but it has 55 reviews. It might make an entertaining exercise for a snow day, to write a script to collect and correlate the information, but I don't expect there will be any snow days this season.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Snow and Sleep

At some point perhaps a dozen years ago, I noticed that I did not sleep well on nights that snow was forecast. I explained this as arising from the concerns of the "snow day": would school be open; if open, would it open late, and how late; if closed, what were our arrangements? And it never hurt to get an early start on clearing walks, digging out cars, clearing off cars, starting one's commute earlier.

Yet as an "empty nester" I find that I still wake early, even if my employer, following the federal government, has announced that unscheduled leave is available. Is it the habit of all those years of managing school or child-care schedules? Is it just that snow is a rare pleasure for a resident of Washington, D.C., much anticipated by one who grew up in snowier areas? If the latter, I think I could appreciate the pleasure as well on more sleep; I don't have to wake at 4:30 to be out shoveling walks at 6:30.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

El Coro de Niños de San Juan

At the Shrine of the Sacred Heart this morning, the 10 a.m. English Mass was fuller than usual. I supposed that there might be visitors in town for the Inauguration, which proved to be true. A number of young men and women were lined up to the left of the altar, all wearing red vests, the young women over blue-green jumpers, the young men over white shirts, ties, and slacks.

When the congregation had settled back into place after Communion, their director walked up before them, baton raised. They sang an Ave Maria, then a Cantate Domino, both very well. The celebrant, Father Moises Villalta, then told us that this was El Coro de Niños de San Juan, a choir founded in 1966, and that the governor of Puerto Rico was here as well to watch them. The news says that they will perform at an inaugural event.

After the recessional, the choir formed up again, and I moved several pews up to hear and see better. They gave us two songs in Spanish, beautifully sung, but of which I could make out only a word here and there--"misma", "flores". They then gave us a song in English, in Gospel style. Their English enunciation was excellent, not a syllable lost, though curiously it seemed to have an English accent.

The choir is said to accept children from the age of 6 on. I should say that the singers I saw ranged from about 10 to about 15.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Resented Reading

In school, I noticed that many of my fellow students resented reading assignments that I had enjoyed. At the time, I thought that this was out of a taste for easy prose, an unwillingness to engage more complicated writing. On reconsidering some of those readings, I think that my appetite was healthy but my palate somewhat undiscriminating. If I sent my older self back to read some of the selections that I remember as being in the anthologies, he would read them, but come to the lectures with a combative look in his eye.

Out of school, I enjoyed about a 25 year stretch in which I could choose my reading, and set it aside at will. A book that did not engage me ended up unread on the shelves, and eventually with Goodwill. Then we joined a neighborhood book club. The rules as I interpret them--not all members agree--are that you need not like, but you ought to read. On that interpretation, I have read a number of books that it would not have occurred to me to read, but which I enjoyed, and fewer that I'd never have read more than a dozen pages of.

The latest in the latter category is The State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Ms. Patchett seems to write a great deal in phrases rather than words, often without concern with how the component words work together, or even what they mean.
  • "he kissed her under her porch light" at which the snide reader supplies "where she had the rose tattoo" or "where the little birthmark was".
  • "the wind tunnel that roared through the back seat". No, wind tunnels may roar. They may roar across some distance or other, but unless while in transit they do not roar through anything.
  • "the red visage of his neck". How many faces can one man have?
  • A boat navigates "the center aisle" of a river.
 This is to say nothing of the plot, which strikes me as written for an audience that wishes to relax and enjoy an adventure story with some romance thrown in. But she has read up on her rain forest novels, with a prop from Waugh and a tragedy from Garcia Marquez.

The cover bears a blurb from Emma Donoghue, including "Perfect from first page to last." I'd change "perfect" to "consistent."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Age and Technology

Owing to a combination of bad judgment and bad luck, last Monday we found ourselves on I-95 north of Baltimore with an obviously failing clutch. By undeserved good fortune, we were directed to Thompson's Towing and Auto Repair Center, which not only employs skilled mechanics, but has an Avis agency.  Within the hour, we were back on the road in a rented car, having left our sedan to have the clutch repaired.

What with parts that had to be ordered, the car was not ready until Friday. I caught the 12:20 MARC train out of Union Station, and called Thompson's from the Aberdeen train station. The mechanic brought the car himself. In the course of the explanation he remarked that he had been doing this work since 1968, which I found reassuring. And to be sure, the clutch feels just right.

It occurred to me later that I would not find the same reassurance if a programmer told me that he had  been programming since 1968--unless perhaps that programmer's name were Guy L. Steele. I would make no adverse judgment of the programmer, but many of the languages and technologies that I use were not devised by 1968. E.F. Codd's paper that projected the relational database was published in 1970, for example. Thompson and Ritchie developed the first version of UNIX in 1969, and that year Ritchie began work on the C programming language. The languages I use most often are a good deal newer, at most 20 years old. Clutches have been around a good deal longer.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

If There Has To Be a Better Way, Ask a Techie

This morning in the course of an errand I happened by the cubicle of a young woman I've worked with now and then. In what was to be a moment of small talk, she mentioned a 5000 line spreadsheet she needed to work with: her task was to sum column n for every repeating set of columns 1, 2, ... n - 1. I asked whether I might sit down. I imported the worksheet into Access and wrote a three-line query with a GROUP BY clause. She had what she needed, exportable back to Excel.. Had I more experience with Excel, probably I would have created a pivot table and saved a minute or two.

I told her what now and then I've told others dealing with technology: if it seems that there has to be a better way, probably there is. Ask a techie.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Cutting Corners

Raymond Chen's 2012 year-end link clearance includes one to a New Yorker article about a man who seems to have gone to considerable pains to record very good marathon times without actually running the whole races. In the age of transponders and multiple mid-course timing mats, this would require a great deal more effort than it would have 30 years ago.

I took a short-cut in a marathon once, the Marine Corps Marathon of 1980: so did all the thousands of other runners, those anyway who made it a little more than two thirds of the way. The course was shortened in two places: first, when the lead runners followed the press truck in cutting off the very tip of Hains Point; second, when runners were directed to cut across the grass near the Jefferson Memorial. I rolled out of bed the next day quite happy with my time, read the news, and wished to go back to bed and sulk or mourn. But I believe I went to work instead.

As for transponders, I am now suspicious of them. In the last race I entered, the electronic results showed me finishing many places behind where I did. I'm guessing that in the hurry of handling the last-minute registrations the staff  mixed up name and transponder number. Well, the time I actually managed wasn't worth arguing about.

January 3: I should add that we who finished the 1980 Marine Corps Marathon received a certificate with two times on it: the actual finishing time, and the estimated time over the standard marathon distance. As I recall, the shortcuts amounted to about 500 yards.