Thursday, December 31, 2015

Scarcely Understand, Still Less Imagine

In Vico's The New Science, section 378, cited by Isaiah Berlin in Three Critics of the Enlightenment:
It is equally beyond our power to enter into the vast imagination of those first men, whose minds were not in the least abstract, refined, or spiritualized, because they were entirely immersed in the senses, buffeted by the passions, buried in the body. That is why we said above that we can scarcely understand, still less imagine, how those first men thought who founded gentile humanity.
The Goncourt brothers record a conversation of May 11, 1863:
'Homer', said Gautier, 'is just a poem by BitaubĂ© for most Frenchment. It was BitaubĂ© who made him acceptable. But Homer isn't like that at all. You've only to read him in Greek to see that. It's really very barbaric, all about people who paint themselves.'
Do people paint themselves in Homer? Certainly his world is really very barbaric, and to imagine otherwise is to deceive oneself.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Books as Presents

This December, I found myself looking at Mary Beard's SPQR, purchased for a friend's present, and wondering. And about the same time I bought a similarly sized biography of George Marshall for another friend. It occurred to me that either book amounts to something between a couple of weeks and month of reading, for both parties are employed and have other responsibilities. Is that a present, or a tax?

Left to myself, I would mostly have given books as gifts over the years. Sometimes this worked well. It worked well with my father, for our tastes were similar, and I could assume that the volume of Adams or Liebling or Boll would be what he wanted. It works well enough with various friends. It has and has not worked with my wife: she found and read the remaining novels of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels after I gave her the first; but others haven't much interested her.

As a recipient, I have twinges of guilt at books sitting unread. A review of a collection of Norman Mailer's letters said that he spoke of a "little guilt mountain" of friends' letters not yet returned and a "big guilt mountain" of friends' books not yet read. Almost nobody writes me letters, unless in the form of Christmas cards; and such family and friends as write books write them on topics I am not expected to keep up on. But now and then I look at the books received on birthdays or at Christmas, and yet unread, and think, Really, I should read that.

The good news is that Three Critics of the Enlightenment by Isaiah Berlin is so far fascinating. Is it good or bad news that I may have to read some Herder next?

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Noticed today on the grounds of St. Anselm's Abbey School in northeast Washington, DC:

Friday, December 18, 2015

Late Autumn Colors

These were taken last week. First, a neighbor's hedge

next, a Virginia sweetspire beside our back porch

and finally, a barberry on the west side of the back yard

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Advances in TV Control

Today on Hacker News, I noticed a link to the announcement of "Netflix socks." This proved to be instructions for configuring socks with electronics to pause the show when you go to sleep. The main electronics are an Arduino microcontroller and an accelerometer. All in all, it looked straightforward for anyone who can knit, sew, solder, and program a bit in C++.

I found myself thinking of  a character in Thomas Pynchon's novel V:
 Fergus Mixolydian, the Irish Armenian Jew and universal man lay claim to being the laziest living being in Nueva York....
 His other amusement was watching the TV. He'd devised an ingenious sleep-switch, receiving its signal from two electrodes placed on the inner skin of his forearm. When Fergus dropped below a certain level of alertness, the skin resistance increased over a preset value to operate the switch. Fergus thus became an extension of the TV set. 
On the one hand, I have no idea how alertness affects skin resistance, and so whether the Mixolydian method is really practical. On the other hand, though I expect that the Netflix method is, it probably is not practical for me: while I have programmed a bit in C++, my experiments in soldering and sewing have been few and clumsy, and my knitting experience is essentially nonexistent. Maybe I'll keep using the remote.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Hour of Code

The Association for Computing Machinery sends me email several times a week. The last couple of years, it has urged me to take part in Hour of Code, an exercise in which elementary and high school students get a one-hour introduction to programming. I haven't been able to think of reason not to do this, so I have sent emails mentioning my availability to the parish's school. This year I heard back, and arranged to take part. The school arranged that I should be in the classes with the sixth graders and eighth graders, the last two class periods of Friday afternoon.

The class with the sixth graders went well, largely because we used the "Lightbot" tutorial. Whoever designed it did excellent work. A few of the students finished the section on procedures, and everyone at least started it. Once the students had started it, there was little for me to do but kibitz and offer a suggestion here or there--shouldn't your robot turn the other way--what if you approached the squares in a different order--maybe that should go into a procedure section.  If attention to the task means anything, they enjoyed it.

The class with the eighth graders did not go as well, because I had not thought through how it should work. I provided them with HTML pages with Javascript embedded, thinking that we could view and modify it. This might have worked, had I had the sense to provide batch files that would open the pages simultaneously for viewing and for editing. Or it might not have worked. Projection onto a brick wall works only so well, and in any case the students faced outward to their computers, so none could work and watch the projection at the same time.

I don't know that this did much for good or harm. The sixth graders got a gentle introduction to programming, without the word being used. Will they remember it Monday? I don't know. The eighth graders saw a certain amount of code without much context or explanation. They may not have learned less than they ordinarily would the last class period of a Friday afternoon in December, let alone a few hours before the school's Christmas Play.

Thursday, December 10, 2015


The other day, I remembered something read in The New York Times back in 1999, in the obituary of Donald Trump's father:
Frederick Christ (pronounced Krist) Trump was born in New York City in 1905. From World War II until the 1980's, Mr. Trump would tell friends and acquaintances that he was of Swedish origin, although both his parents were born in Germany.
This says nothing of the earlier war. New York City was probably not a bad place to be of German descent in 1917 and 1918, being large and polyglot enough that hardly anyone would stand out. Some places were not so good. The jingoism of WW I is pretty well forgotten now--anyone who can remember the armistice is at least 100--but it was strong while it lasted. Various states restricted instruction in languages other than English; evidently this was with a view to restricting instruction in the German language, both as subject and as language of instruction, for the cases that made it to the Supreme Court did involve German. Some warm patriots took matters into their own hands, burning high school German textbooks.  M.F.K. Fisher wrote of a rock breaking a parlor window in her family's home while her mother and an uncle were singing German songs. Texans whose last old-world allegiance was to the Tsar (Volga Germans) had a bad time. Assorted scholars found the roots of evil in the writings of Goethe, Hegel, Nietzche, etc. H.L. Mencken, who was at least not an advocate of the allied cause ("an American not of English sentiments"), deeply disliked the atmosphere.

Before the war, there might have been reason to doubt the attitude of this population. In 1916, agents of the German government managed to set off the Black Tom munitions depot in Jersey City, preventing some thousands of tons of ammunition from reaching the Allies, killing a few citizens, and shattering a great deal of glass in New York and its suburbs. When war was declared, though, the Germans volunteered or turned out for induction with everyone else--including the Slovak who apparently managed the explosion.

The jingoism gave people something to think about while it lasted. It left no lingering animus against Americans of German descent (hardly a surprise, for they--we--are still the largest ethnic group in the country).

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Coffee and the Intelligentsia

Sunday's New York Times Travel Section had an article about places to eat and drink along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. I was entertained by the name of Intelligentsia Coffee in the Silver Lake neighborhood, and wondered whether one could be admitted or ejected based on one's reading material. When I mentioned this to my son, he informed me that we had been to the Intelligentsia Coffee in Venice, California, this March. I was troubled by the thought that a true member of the intelligentsia would have noticed this.

I had just read, in Friedell's cultural history, of the role of coffee in the 18th Century:
One can even say that coffee as a universal tonic played even a greater role than it does today. [Friedell wrote in Vienna, when the coffee houses were a center for intellectual society]. It is very significant for a rationalistic time that it should offer a stimulant that achieves a (so to speak) sober intoxication
 He mentions Voltaire's heavy consumption of coffee, without quite endorsing the rumor that Voltaire drank 50 cups of coffee every day.

George Gissing says of the conversations he overheard in Catanzaro
no remark that I heard could be called original or striking; but the choice of topics and the mode of viewing them was distinctly intellectual. Phrases often occurred such as have no equivalent on the lips of everyday people in our own country. For instance, a young fellow in no way distinguished from his companions, fell to talking about a leading townsman, and praised him for his ingenio simpatico, his bella intelligenza, with exclamations of approval from those who listened. No, it is not merely the difference between homely Anglo-Saxon and a language of classic origin; there is a radical distinction of thought. These people have an innate respect for things of the mind, which is wholly lacking to a typical Englishman. One need not dwell upon the point that their animation was supported by a tiny cup of coffee or a glass of lemonade; this is a matter of climate and racial constitution; but I noticed the entire absence of a certain kind of jocoseness which is so naturally associated with spirituous liquors; no talk could have been less offensive.

On the other hand,  Flann O'Brien in The Best of Myles reflects on a definition:
'Intelligentzia: the part of a nation (esp. the Russian) that aspires to independent thinking.
  Now why this assumption that every nation has two parts, one being Russian? 

Sunday, November 29, 2015


The other day I noticed a passage, copied out from George Kennan's Memoirs 1925-1950 a while back. Kennan writes of beginning to learn Russian during his time in the consular service in Tallinn in 1928:
My teacher was an impoverished Ukrainian. He knew nothing about teaching languages, but he had the virtue of speaking, aside from his native Ukrainian, no word of anything but the language he was purporting to teach. He brought me, as teaching aids, the first-grade readers used in the Russian-speaking province just referred to [i.e., extreme southeastern Estonia]. I admired and cherished these slender volumes, with their beautiful unreformed Cyrillic script, their little vignettes and passages from Russian folklore and the classics, their naive drawings of barnyards and animals and peasant children sledding. I learned by heart some of the poems and jingles they included. And I conceived then and there a love for this great Russian language--rich, pithy, musical, sometimes tender, sometimes earthy and brutal, sometimes classically severe--that was not only never to leave me but was to constitute in some curious way an unfailing source of strength and reassurance in the drearier and more trying reaches of later life. Russian seemed to me from the start, a natural language, in  which words sounded the way they ought to sound,  and might be expected to sound, as though one had once known in it in some dead past and as though the learning of it was some sort of rediscovery. I turned to it with such real enjoyment and excitement that by the end of the year I could get around a bit in it.
Elsewhere Kennan quotes the advice of a friend when he was about to take examinations at the Seminary for Oriental Languages in Berlin, "If you have any choice, speak Russian with them, not German. When you speak Russian, you are yourself; when you speak German you are nothing at all."

German does not seem to elicit the same sort of affection from those raised to speak English. William James spoke of it as a language with "none of the modern improvements." Mark Twain was moved to write an essay "The Awful German Language." My father, with three German grandparents, said that he was astonished to hear a record of Lotte Lenya's disclose the possibility that German could sound anything but military. On the other hand, Coleridge puts in a good word or two for it in Biographia Literaria, and Anthony Burgess cites Robert Graves in defense of his own preference for bad German over accurate French.

And finally, there is Flann O'Brien, in Further Cuttings from the Cruiskeen Lawn:
And, I know of only four languages, viz: Latin, Irish, Greek and Chinese. They are languages because they are the instruments of integral civilizations. English and French are not languages: they are mercantile codes.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Henry Adams on the Senses

While looking for examples of plain American prose, I had a look at The Education of Henry Adams, and found, not as plain as I had remembered, but vivid enough:
Boys are wild animals, rich in the treasures of sense, but the New England boy had a wider range of emotions than boys of more equable climates. He felt his nature crudely, as it was meant. To the boy Henry Adams, summer was drunken. Among senses, smell was the strongest--smell of hot pine-woods and sweet-fern in the scorching summer noon; of new-mown hay; of ploughed earth; of box hedges; of peaches, lilacs, syringas; of stables, barns, cow-yards; of salt water and low tide on the marshes; nothing came amiss. Next to smell came taste, and the children knew the taste of everything they saw or touched, from pennyroyal and flagroot to the shell of a pignut and the letters of a
spelling-book--the taste of A-B, AB, suddenly revived on the boy's tongue sixty years afterwards. Light, line, and color as sensual pleasures, came later and were as crude as the rest. The New England light is glare, and the atmosphere harshens color. The boy was a full man before he ever knew what was meant by atmosphere; his idea of pleasure in light was the blaze of a New England sun. His idea of color was a peony, with the dew of early morning on its petals. The intense blue of the sea, as he saw it a mile or two away, from the Quincy hills; the cumuli in a June afternoon sky; the strong reds and greens and purples of colored prints and children's picture-books, as the American colors then ran; these were ideals. The opposites or antipathies, were the cold grays of  November evenings, and the thick, muddy thaws of Boston winter. With such standards, the Bostonian could not but develop a double nature. Life was a double thing. After a
January blizzard, the boy who could look with pleasure into the violent snow-glare of the cold white sunshine, with its intense light and shade, scarcely knew what was meant by tone. He could reach it only by education.
When I must first have read this passage, around forty years ago, I had not read Adams's novel Democracy, with the excursion from Washington to Mt. Vernon:
Lord Skye, too, a little intoxicated by the brilliancy of the morning, broke out into admiration of the noble river, and accused Americans of not appreciating the beauties of their own country.
"Your national mind," said he, "has no eyelids. It requires a broad glare and a beaten road. It prefers shadows which you can cut out with a knife. It doesn't know the beauty of this Virginia winter softness."
Nor his remarks to Elizabeth Cameron in a letter of June 27, 1889,
The world has some slight compensations for its occasional cruelties. I suppose, for instance, that in gradually deadening the senses it cuts away the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. As I walk in the garden and the fields I recall distinctly the acuteness of odors when I was a child, and I remember how greatly they added to impression made by scenes and places. Now I catch only a sort of suggestion of the child's smells and lose all the pleasure, but at least do not get the disgusts.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Stoner, Again

Yesterday's Washington Post carries a bracingly negative review of Stoner by Elaine Showalter, professor emeritus of English at Princeton. I agree with about half of it. It seems to me that some of what she takes as a "lack of ironic self-awareness" is simply the endurance of someone who began life as a dirt farmer, and seems never to have expected much from life.  I think that Stoner was right to give the graduate student a bad time at his orals, and I have to doubt that Showalter would extend more mercy to a faker in such a case. She is entirely correct to say that the depiction of the wife, Edith, is a weakness in the novel.

The theme of Stoner is the worth of a life spent teaching literature. As Showalter says, this flatters the reviewers and the professors. She believes that the pinched condition of the humanities makes the audience particularly susceptible to the message now. I suspect that they were pretty susceptible then; or at least the graduate students were said to be, for I have read of the ones at the University of Denver passing around copies of Stoner as if they were samizdat (the author's description, not mine).

Monday, November 9, 2015


The rain started about  seven o'clock Friday evening. I remarked that Saturday morning was likely to be quiet, with no lawn mowers or leaf blowers running. I returned from my Saturday morning run to discover that I was wrong. A crew with leaf blowers was clearing a lawn down the block. No doubt the clearing took longer than it would have in dry weather.

On Sunday morning, on my way up 16th St., I heard a leaf blower running. It was an electric model and so quieter, but I'm not sure that the neighbors would have found it easy to sleep through its noise; on the other hand, the fellow running it may know their habits. This was a row house, with a yard that looked to be about eight yards by ten. It occurred to me that using the leaf blower might save five minutes over using a rake, and ten over using salad tongs.

On Sunday afternoon we spent about three and half hours raking and hauling leaves: from the alley, from the back yard lawn, from the flower beds. And here I have to say that I wouldn't have minded using a leaf blower on the flower beds: it would pull up fewer flowers, and probably bring along less mulch. But do we want to clutter the garage with a tool we might use five times a year?  Given the weather, I didn't mind spending the time outside.

Oaks are slow to drop their leaves, so there will be at least two more afternoons spent raking this fall. We'll see how the weather and my attitude hold up.

Friday, November 6, 2015

You Could Do That Then

At the last meeting of the neighborhood book club, we discussed Stoner. This week, I happened to think of the episode in which Stoner and his mistress manage an idyll in the Ozarks. It occurred to me that the privacy in which they spent their week would be hard to manage now. Ignoring the whole question of identification, and police (as they do in some places) checking motel ledgers, think of the ubiquity of cameras. Should a professor in 2015 spend a quiet week with his mistress, how long would it be before they showed up in the background of someone's Instagram picture?

That led to the thought of other things hard to manage now.

For example, I worked with a young man with many good qualities, but with a habit of disregarding the traffic laws. The habit brought him many traffic tickets, enough to get a license suspended. However, his family was all from around Washington, and there were enough grandparents and uncles with addresses in other jurisdictions that he could manage three driver's licenses, District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, and always have at least one not suspended.  I last worked with him in the middle 1990s. I'm sure that shortly after 2001 this became much harder to manage.

For another example, one weekend in 1999 I left my driver's license in Pennsylvania. I discovered this some hours before we were to get on a flight overseas. It would almost have been practical for me to drive up to Pennsylvania and retrieve the license. However, it was then possible for me to drive up to a Motor Vehicle Administration station in Glenmont, fill out a form, get a new license, and be home in forty minutes rather than four hours. On my next visit to the Maryland MVA a few years later, the lines were long and slow; the MVA had learned, I suppose at the federal government's teaching, that more documentation is better, and that every applicant is a suspect.

I have no desire to run off to the Ozarks with a mistress. I drive too little to pile up the traffic tickets that would make three licenses useful. And the household where I left my driver's license is gone. But I do miss the world in which it was easier to live unnoticed or unsuspected.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Books by the Numbers

In the essay "The Malice of Witlings", collected in The Leafless American, Edward Dahlberg writes
To come closer to our times ten copies of Thus Spake Zarathustra and seventeen of Stendhal's De l'Amour were sold when they first issued.
Since the second paragraph above that ends
Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack is our meal just as much as lentils and potatoes.
Dahlberg might have remarked that A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was no commercial success on its publication in 1849. In an entry of October 28, 1853, Thoreau records getting back
706 copies of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have ever since been paying for, and have not quite paid yet.... Of the remaining two hundred and ninety odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold.
In "Writers and Money", collected in The Hall of Uselessness, Simon Leys quotes Jacques Chardonne and Chardonne's sometime boss:
His old boss, who was a notorious gambler, formulated an original philosophy of the trade: "on every book you publish, you are bound to lose money; therefore, the secret of a good publisher is to publish as few books as possible--ideally, none at all." From his own experiences, Chardonne himself concluded: "Any truly good book will always find 3,000 readers, no more, no less..."
which figure Leys says "does not seem to have varied significantly over the last 400 years.

In "The Traffic in Words", a review of Gilbert Sorrentino's novel Mulligan Stew, collected in Historical Fictions, Hugh Kenner writes
Apart from [the Joyces, Eliot, Becketts], avant-garde writing is almost exactly as perishable as is Reading Public writing, from which it differs chiefly in soliciting the approval of a smaller group, ranging in size from a group of one, the writer, up to a group of perhaps 1,100, say five per million of the U.S. population. (I derive this figure from the normal circulation of literary quarterlies, the typical press runs of small houses like Jargon and Black Sparrow, the confidences of itinerant publisher-editors, and the observation of the moss on the north sides of trees.)
How many such partially overlapping groups of up to 1,100 there may be is anybody's guess....

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Our Game Was Last Night

Two of the ushers are runners, one younger, one much younger than me. Making conversation, I asked the younger if he had been running lately, and the older remarked that today was the day of this year's Marine Corps Marathon. I asked whether the numbers of marathon runners had fallen off since the 1980s. He thought that the number had not, but that the distribution of times had shifted. A time that I, as a decent recreational runner, might have run in 1981 would be much closer to the front now. I remembered a story in Herbert Simon's memoirs, Models of My Life, and managed to recount it more or less accurately:
One evening I played [Arpad] Elo and lost as usual, playing White in the Giuco Piano. When I got home, I analyzed the game and found that I could have beaten him easily if I had made the correct aggressive move with my Bishop--on the seventh move, I believe. The next evening I pointed this out to him. "Oh," he said, "but our game was last night."

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Seen Today

At Behnke's Nursery on Route 1, I noticed a novel use for a filing cabinet

Mostly, though, what I did was to push the cart or wander about and look at plants. I discovered that there is market for chrysanthemums in NFL team colors--good luck if you are a fan of the Cleveland Browns or Oakland Raiders--and also pansies. The latter I saw only in Redskins burgundy and gold and Ravens purple. I did notice that a certain hellebore is called a "lenten rose", and so later in the afternoon was able to appear much more knowledgeable than I am when my wife and I were talking to a couple of devoted gardeners.

We were then heading to the park to run. My route took me back across Lanier Street NW, where I saw crowds gathered on the sidewalks. They were there, I found, for Porch Fest, an event during which local musicians play from porches here and there in Adams Morgan. In the three blocks of  Lanier St., I saw a man playing a guitar and singing; two bands fronted by women, one woman having an electric piano, the other a tambourine; and a quartet of African American men not much younger than I am: I arrived just as they finished, and believe that they were singing a capella. I regret to say that I have no pictures; but I seldom run with my phone.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Another One Gone

News World, which operated for many years at the northeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW, is closed. The windows are papered over from the inside. I don't know that I am surprised, but I am disappointed.

It was a handy place to buy The Washington Post or The New York Times when the home delivery didn't happen, and to buy out-of-town and foreign newspapers; lately, the latter seemed to have gone to print on demand. I can't say that I did much to keep the shop solvent, for the last purchase I recall--not necessarily the last I made--would have been about the time of the papal conclave of 2013. Yet I must have been stopping in, else why would I know that the shelves had been getting emptier?

It is a shame. Once one could stop by the drugstore and find a dozen or twenty feet of varied magazines on sale. There were stores dedicated to newspapers and magazines at Farragut West Metro and at Connecticut and Florida. Now at CVS the pickings are thin. Kramerbooks does carry magazines of more or less literary interest, including the New Yorker, which is what I stopped by for in the first place.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Stories Too Good to Check

Reading in Friedell's Cultural History of Modernity, I was surprised to see him give Racine as an example of those who declined and died on the withdrawal of Louis XIV's favor. The story was spread by Saint-Simon in his memoirs:
It happened one evening that, talking with Racine upon the theatre, the King asked why comedy was so much out of fashion. Racine gave several reasons, and concluded by naming the principal,--namely, that for want of new pieces the comedians gave old ones, and, amongst others, those of Scarron, which were worth nothing, and which found no favour with anybody. At this the poor widow blushed, not for the reputation of the cripple attacked, but at hearing his name uttered in presence of his successor! The King was also embarrassed, and the unhappy Racine, by the silence which followed, felt what a slip he had made. He remained the most confounded of the three, without daring to raise his eyes or to open his mouth. This silence did not terminate for several moments, so heavy and profound was the surprise. The end was that the King sent away Racine, saying he was going to work. The poet never afterwards recovered his position. Neither the King nor Madame de Maintenon ever spoke to him again, or even looked at him; and he conceived so much sorrow at this, that he fell into a languor, and died two years afterwards.
It makes for a great story, but is not true. Lucy Norton, who edited and translated the memoirs, remarks in a footnote that it is probably not true. The editors of the Pleiade edition of Saint-Simon say in the end notes that there is no need to demonstrate the falsity, that among other things Racine was invited to Marly a few months before his death, ergo long after his supposed disgrace. One understands Stendahl, who disliked Racine, taking the story at face value.

Tobias Smollett did the Duke of Newcastle an ill turn in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, reporting the conversation of a court hanger-on with the duke:
In the beginning of the war, this poor half-witted creature told me, in a great fright, that thirty thousand French had marched from Acadie to Cape Breton--"Where did they find transports? (said I)" "Transports (cried he) I tell you they marched by land"--"By land to the island of Cape Breton?" "What! is Cape Breton an island?" "Certainly." "Ha! are you sure of that?" When I pointed it out in the map, he examined it earnestly with his spectacles; then, taking me in his arms, "My dear C--! (cried he) you always bring us good news--Egad! I'll go directly, and tell the king that Cape Breton is an island."'
 In the little I have read of Newcastle, he appears as no genius, but also as a man far from the incompetence Smollett depicts. Yet it is a striking picture, and from that must derive some staying power. In an essay reviewing Horace Walpole's letters, Macaulay precedes the story with
Of his ignorance many anecdotes remain, some well authenticated, some probably invented at coffee-houses, but all exquisitely characteristic...

Francis Parkman, in A Half-Century of Conflict is cagey also:
Smollett and Horace Walpole have made his absurdities familiar, in anecdotes which, true or not, do no injustice to his character ... 
Frank McLynn, in his history The Jacobites, quotes it, but with what qualification I cannot say, for the book is no longer on my shelves.

Such stories do last. Saint-Simon's memoirs were first published about 1788, Humphrey Clinker in 1771.  That gives us about a century and a quarter between Saint-Simon and Friedell, about two and quarter between Smollett and McLynn.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

When He Just Won't Pay Attention

Out for a walk at lunchtime yesterday, I noticed a young couple standing on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, just east of Lafayette Square. He was not tall, probably bearded, wearing a white jacket; it was hard to see more of him because he was bent over his phone. She was about 5'2", pretty, with dark hair and fair complexion. She had a dissatisfied look. The only thing much distinguishing them from many other visitors may have been her bare feet. Otherwise she was dressed well within local norms, with a loose red top and brown pants.

She did a sudden twisting jump, carrying her from beside his right shoulder in the street onto the curb facing him, then after a moment hopped down to the pavement. He did not look up from his phone. By now I was watching them. After a moment, she raised her hands over her head. She bent backwards until her hands were flat on the pavement behind her and went smoothly to a handstand and back over to her feet. He did not look up from his phone.

It could be that he was checking with his phone to find the way to the National Gallery of Art, or a place to find lunch, or the way to where they stayed. It could be that she asked him to check, that her dissatisfied look came from half an hour of wandering lost rather than two minutes of concentration on the phone. It could be that he is used to this, that a telephone call from his workplace will send her cartwheeling until he hangs up. But I wonder whether a friend shouldn't suggest the merits of putting the phone down, and keeping his attention on the young woman instead.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Lichtenberg on Good Books

In the course of an email exchange with a friend yesterday evening, a paragraph from Lichtenberg's The Waste Books seemed apposite, but I did not feel like typing it out. Meaning to save the draft message, I sent it, and deferred the typing for this morning. Having typed it out, why not include it here? The paragraph is entry 43 of  Notebook E:
A sure sign of a good book is that the older we grow the more we like it. A youth of 18 who wanted and above all could say what he felt would say of Tacitus something like the following: Tacitus is a difficult writer who knows how to depict character: and sometimes gives excellent descriptions, but he affects obscurity and often introduces into the narration of events remarks that are not very illuminating; you have to know a lot of Latin to understand him. At 25 perhaps, assuming he has in the interim done more than read, he will say: Tacitus is not the obscure writer I once took him for, but I have discovered that Latin is not the only thing you need to know to understand him—you have to bring a great deal with you yourself. And at 40, when he has come to know the world, he may perhaps say: Tacitus is one of the greatest writers who ever lived.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Suitable Accommodations

In reading through Suitable Accommodations, a collection of  letters and some journal entries of J.F. Powers, I found myself thinking of Jasper McIlvaine's remark in New Grub Street :
'Ten years hence,' he said, 'if Reardon is still alive, I shall be lending him five-pound notes.'
Powers's letters acknowledge many small loans and outright gifts, some from his wife's family, some from Fr. Harvey Egan ("the HFXE payroll"). There is a steady discontent with his economic condition; he was not a fast writer, and did much of his work in short stories, which pay only so well. One wonders at times in reading the book whether a semester here or there grading student work would have been worse for him than sitting in an office not writing.

The book is not unrelentingly grim as New Grub Street is. In the years since 1882 many resources had appeared for writers: magazines that paid well, the Ford and Guggenheim Foundations, universities pleased to have a writer in residence to teach their students, retreats such as Yaddo. And Powers did not marry "the kind of person to grumble". Betty Wahl Powers did grumble, but she managed a household eventually including five children, cooked, sewed, and wrote on her own account.

The letters lack the consistent finish of Powers's fiction, being presumably written in one draft and mailed without revision. Still, every now and then there are sentences that recall the fiction
This room is like a dirty bottle, but inside is the vintage solitude which hardly anybody can afford nowadays, and I am sipping it slowly, hoping to straighten out my life as a writer.
(Letter to Harvey Egan, February 27, 1957) and there is the humor
You will not send me a copy of The Disinherited, Jack. I'll buy one--and that is that. If you send me one, I'll return it to you autographed. That is the form failure has taken in my case, Jack. I autograph every book I can lay hands on, this to compensate for the great success I might have had, and am now watched when I enter the public library here. All the textbooks my daughters bring home from school I've autographed. Ever hear of a case like this, Jack? ...
 J.F. Powers
 J.F. Powers
 J.F. Powers
(Letter to Jack Conroy, December 8, 1962)

I would be interested to see his correspondence with Evelyn Waugh, here represented just by one letter from Powers acknowledging Waugh's blurb for Morte D'Urban. Waugh dined with the Powers family in Minnesota in the spring of 1949, and  J.F. and Betty Powers dined with Waugh at Piers Court in the summer of 1952. The two men had in common their Catholicism and their devotion to the craft of fiction; but in background and generally in outlook they were radically different. The index to The Letters of Evelyn Waugh has no listing for Powers, and Waugh's diary seems to have lapsed for a period covering those years.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Directional Michigan Saturday

At the top of this Sunday's Washington Post Sports pages are college football scores. The two leftmost scores are "W. Michigan 12/1 Ohio State 38" and "C. Michigan 10/2. Mich. St. 30". Somehow the third-ranked college team, Texas Christian University, let Eastern Michigan University get away to play Army. One hopes that TCU will not suffer in the polls for playing a strong team, Texas Tech, and winning only 55-52.

I suppose that in the old days the big schools played their share of weaker ones, and that I have just forgotten. Dramatic games stick in the mind, but for the routs I probably left at halftime to play basketball in the driveway or touch football in the yard. Still, Georgia Tech v. Cumberland College seems to be the game the big teams keep trying to schedule.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Reading Tolstoy, Again

Having hurried through a reading of War and Peace in order to have the leisure to go back and reread it, it seems to me that

  • The fiction is champagne, the historical reflections are the hangover. Fortunately, the proportion of the historical reflections to the fiction is fairly small.
  • Tolstoy's power diminishes in proportion with his contempt for a character. He is excellent on his five leading characters, not that good on the Kuragins, and a bit tedious on Napoleon.
  • What are we to make of the epilogue? By this I mean that:
  • Natasha occupies herself wholly with her marriage and family, and Tolstoy writes of this as admirable. Yet part of this is her understanding of Pierre as a powerful mind and force in affairs. What one knows of the course of Russian history suggests that the latter cannot be so. As for the former, Pierre favors establishing something like the German Tugenbund of the war years; at the time, the Prussian minister Stein spoke of the Tugenbund's activities as "the rage of dreaming sheep". That being so, is is really just for Pierre to condescend to his brother-in-law intellectually?
  • Nikolai is less changed than his sister or Pierre. Once the hussar who knew horses, now he is the landowner who knows muzhiks. His notions seem otherwise to be an officer's notions. Marya may be least changed. She has her children to see to, and her husband to love and, to the extent possible, manage. The young woman of 1805, patroness of "God's people" and disciple of the Gospels, is recognizable in the matron of 1822; Natasha has gone through at least three metamorphoses in that time, though to be sure she is some years younger.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Reading Tolstoy

An acquaintance, the friend of friends, has decided to reread War and Peace with an on-line group. He was willing to have me join. Last month, I stopped at Kramerbooks to pick up the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation the group will use. I had read War and Peace before, but in Anne Dunnigan's translation.

The most obvious difference is the new translation's way of rendering French and German passages untranslated, with the English in footnotes. Dunnigan was content to give one the occasional "Eh bien, mon prince." In this edition, on the pages 92 through 96, the correspondence of Julie Kuragin and Marya Bolkonsky, there are about fifteen lines of English main text. One could argue that the sensibility of the former at least is better revealed in the original language. On the other hand, I don't know what the tactical dispositions for Austerlitz gain by remaining in German.

One thing that struck me at once is the inverse correlation between beauty and fortune in the young women introduced early in the book. Lise Bolkonsky and Elena Kuragin, the beauties of opening reception, will die miserably. The beautiful Vera Rostov will marry Berg, a pedant and bore. Natalya Rostov, at thirteen plain with a big mouth and broad neck, will fare much better than her prettier cousin Sonya. Marya Bolkonsky, plain at best, will marry well. Her prettier friend Julie Karagin will marry Boris Trubetskoy, climber and dud.

I have also noticed that the problem is less finding time to read War and Peace than it is finding the will to set the book aside. I have encountered few incidents that I didn't remember at all--some of the Rostovs' relations with Dolokhov had slipped my mind--yet it is hard to reach the end of one chapter and not continue on. I did have to take a break for vacation. The book would be excellent for long trips by airplane or train, but is too heavy, combined with everything else, to haul through airports and railroad stations.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


On the front page of The Washington Post's Metro Section for Friday, September 11, there were adjacent headlines:
  • At the top of a caption showing the NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, Revving up girls' dreams
  • Above a story just right of the picture, Girls are in majority at D.C.'s top high schools
The top high schools in this case are public high schools with competitive entry, namely Benjamin Banneker (math and science), School Without Walls (humanities), and Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

What does it all mean, the high school part? I don't know. The statistics quoted show boys graduating from high school at anywhere a rate anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent lower than girls in their ethnic groups, so something is going on. But as far as the selective high schools, I wonder. A family on our street has a daughter who graduated from Banneker and another who graduated from Walls. Their two sons tested in to Banneker, then chose Wilson, a good school but one that admits by boundary or lottery. Their mother teaches in the DC public schools and must have regarded the choice as reasonable.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It Will Be on the Quiz

This morning while the rest of the family slept, I went out and walked around some of the old city of Lubeck. On an early pass by the town hall, I saw a circle of about twenty high school students. I noticed how few boys were in the group, maybe three, but didn't otherwise think about what this might be. I went on my way.

Somewhat later, I was in the same area when three young women of about 16 stopped me and asked if I had few moments. I said (in English) Yes, with the qualification that I am an American and that the questions and answers would have to be in English. All clearly knew some English and one spoke it well, so this was not a problem. They wanted to ask me a few questions about Thomas Mann; they had notebooks and a list of questions. Fortunately, we had visited the Buddenbrooks House yesterday, and I was not entirely unprepared.

So: Where was Thomas Mann born? Lubeck. When? I thought 1878 (1875). What did his father do? His father was a merchant and senator. (Here there was a bit of confusion, and I came up with Kaufmann.) Was Thomas Mann pro- or anti-Nazi? He was opposed to the Nazi regime, and emigrated shortly after it came to power. (Again, a bit of confusion, and I said, "anti-Nazi".) Did he have any children? I thought five, and was able to name Klaus, Elisabeth, Golo, and Michael; I knew that I was missing the name of one daughter, but in fact missed two (Erika and Monika). When did he die? 1955. Where? Switzerland.

Later on I saw two more trios with notebooks, but I did not see anyone answering questions. I suppose that I should have asked what school they attended, and whether its web site will offer a statistical summary of what people knew. If we see them later on when out and about, I will ask.

Monday, August 31, 2015

A Football Memory

In The Moviegoer, Walker Percy talks about the taste of time, unexpectedly sensed on noticing a long-used advertisement in a newspaper or seeing on television a movie seen long before at a well-remembered theater.  I felt a bit of that last week when glancing into Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942, 1963. A random flip opened to a letter of November 4, 1961, mentioning among other things that the University of Minnesota had upset Michigan State University in a football game played that day.

I remember seeing that game on television, though I remember almost nothing of it. I remember that it was an upset, not because I knew the reputations of Michigan State and Minnesota, but because the announcers on the broadcast said so, and perhaps my father remarked on it. I remember that there was a safety, certainly the first one I remember seeing; was it intentional, and did my father explain the tactics behind it? I don't know. Nor do I know why we watched. Was a Notre Dame game not on that day, or did it follow the Notre Dame game?

But that victory of the Golden Gophers over the Spartans stays in mind with a memory of a late fall day in the Cleveland suburbs. Did I go out back after the broadcast? Somehow the pine tree out back in late afternoon light comes to mind.

Monday, August 24, 2015


I get plenty of unsolicited email every day at work, and have no trouble ignoring it. The one I am about to quote becomes more entertaining each time I receive it. The sending address and the signature vary, but the remainder is verbatim, down to the missing pronouns and misplaced apostrophe. When I got the third one, I saved them to a system where I could run diff , and sure enough only the signatures varied. Today I received it again, for the fifth time in a month:

Dear owner of whatsit.tld,

I’m sure you have been contacted in this matter many times before but our value proposition is much different. We show the client results before we ask for any further commitment.

As a business owner you might be interested to gain profit by placing your website among top in search engines.

Your website needs immediate improvement for some major issues with your website.
-Low online presence for many competitive keyword phrases
-Unorganized social media accounts
-Not compatible with all mobile devices
-Many bad back links to your website

I have selected your website whatzit.tld and prepared a FREE website audit report. This is for you, completely free at no charge.

If my proposal sound's interesting for your business goal, feel free to email me, or can provide me with your phone number and the best time to call you. I am also available for an online meeting to present you this website audit report.

I look forward to hearing from you - thanks!

Best Regards,
Randolph Scott
Marketing Consultant

PS: I am not spamming. I have studied your website, prepared an audit report and believe I can help with your business promotion. If you still want us to not contact you, you can ignore this email or ask to remove and I will not contact again.
The signature has never been "Randolph Scott", but this time it was the name of an actor.  Only rarely do I have anything to do with our organization's public website, but maybe one of these days I will weaken and reply, if only to see what "Low online presence for competitive keyword phrases" means.

Saturday, August 22, 2015


When we moved to Wheaton in 1989, for several months I found myself irritated every time I washed my hands. Eventually I discovered that this was because the faucets were so short that it was hard to get my hands in the flow of water. I think that this discovery came when it was time to replace a faucet. I found that a faucet somewhat better than those in the row house cost about $5 at Hechinger's, and that a faucet that I would have considered adequate cost about $20. Considering volume discounts, the builders must have annoyed many residents for roughly $25 in savings per residence, maybe .0003 of the original price of the row houses.

Eventually the kitchen faucet started to fail. Once I figured it out, I took the failed cartridge to a hardware store. This had a plastic cartridge like the failed one for something under $10 and a metal cartridge for about $20. The clerk remarked that the had been selling many of these cartridges lately. I told him where the customers came from, and why.

Long ago, I learned to replace washers in faucets. It is possible that I was encouraged to do so by a passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which the unhandy couple find themselves on edge from a dripping faucet. With a wrench, a screwdriver, and a properly working water cutoff, one can change a washer in less than 10 minutes.

Faucets with washers stop the flow of water by pressing the rubber washer against the faucet seat. Over the last forty or fifty years, cartridge faucets have become more popular. Those for faucets that control hot and cold water with the same handle have a ceramic ball drilled to admit water in certain alignments. Those where one handle controls one temperature have a couple of ceramic disks, one fixed, and one rotating, each with a couple of wedges cut out. When the wedges align, water flows; when they don't, the water is blocked. You don't have to replace washers, but if the faucet starts to drip, you must replace the cartridge.

In this house we installed a handsome set of faucets. The manufacturer had everything going for it except, eventually, longevity. When one of the faucets started to drip, we discovered that the company was out of business. A plumber looked at it, found a faucet at Union Hardware with matching disks, and replace them, which worked. He saw no flaw in the original disks, and that should have told us something. A co-worker of his, summoned later, saw no alternative to replacing the whole faucet,, which we did not care to do. The cutoff valve for the cold water stayed in the off position, until my wife tired of having hot water only in a couple of bathrooms.

I had a look, and was able to stop one faucet dripping by tightening the cartridge down. That suggested to me that the flaw was not in the disks but in the washer at its bottom. The washer is not used to stop the flow, but it must keep water from getting around the cartridge. It will deteriorate over time. Nobody seems to sell these washers separately, though.

Of course one can find almost anything on the internet. Several sites claimed that they had these cartridges. One provided pictures, with a ruled background to judge by. About $50 and two days later, I had the cartridge installed, and the faucet working properly. To be sure, I had to tighten the compression fitting at the cutoff valve. Whether the leak there had anything to do with the flow being shut off for a year, I don't know.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bored to Waking

Most of us have been bored to sleep at one time or another. Now and then I have had the odd experience of being bored to waking by my dreams.

I work with computers; during periods when I concentrate enough on programming, they intrude on my dreams. I first became aware of this during a computability class, when I found myself dreaming of cars moving out of and back into parking spaces, and realized on waking that this had to with the "pumping lemma" for regular languages.

Such dreams tend to be boring. I explain this to myself by saying that a very important aspect of computing is controlled repetition: do this until that changes. The computer doesn't get bored executing a loop a million times; But the dreamer contemplating it is bored before the dozenth execution.

Such dreams can be mixed up with whatever I have been watching or reading. The parking lot part of the computability dream may have come from a scene in the movie "Tin Men". This summer the dreams have included an as-told-to memoir of Brendan Behan's, a collection of short stories, and perhaps a novel. Such additions do not make the dreams more interesting; if anything they make them more tedious.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


When first in this area, I found myself on the edge of many real estate discussions. Having little money and no prospect of soon buying property, I found these discussions hardly intelligible and not interesting. Then I found it was discussions of children, child care, and schools; I suppose the lag may have been to get the house painted and the student loans paid down. Again I had nothing to contribute to the conversation, and no way of judging others' contributions. Eventually my stage of life caught up, and I hope that I inflicted only minimal boredom on those on the edges of the house and kids conversations.

This weekend I discovered another local discussion, the rat discussion. We have been through a rat infestation that lasted almost six months. It ended with the trapping of one rat, and the detection and closing of a plumbing vent carelessly left open. It could be that there are a couple of dead rats in the walls--it's hard to be sure. We found, though, that pretty much everyone we know has a rat story.

One household has an active burrow in the back yard. Another trapped one hundred rats in six months. One man went to a school were rats were poisoned over a break, and rotted where they died, in the walls. A woman had rats in her basement because of bad concrete work.

My first rat story goes back about 35 years. I did not find it at the time especially disgusting or depressing, nor I think did my housemates, though we were eager to get rid of the rats. I suppose that single men in their early twenties have a higher tolerance for rats scuttling through the ceilings or foraging pantries.

Monday, August 3, 2015


On Saturday at the Mount Pleasant Farmerts Market we took a while making up our minds about the tomatoes. After looking at the boxes under the tables, many of them with stickers from the Lancaster Produce Auction, we decided to  buy some heirloom tomatoes. It occurred to me afterward that the nominal price per pound is the same as I paid for flank steak thirty-five years ago.

The price turned out to be worth paying. While cutting up tomatoes for taboulleh, I told my wife that we finally had tomatoes that tasted like tomatoes. This may have been the first time it happened in a couple of years. These tomatoes probably refute our earlier notion that the heavy rains of June had weakened the flavor; the hybrids we get just aren't very good. Next summer we may have to try growing them.

When I was a boy, my family pulled down our garage, mostly from an expectation that it fall down on its own. Half we covered with flagstones, half became garden. Out of dirt soaked with oil and filings from crankcases, probably sown with old rusted nails, splinters, and bits of tire tread, we got excellent tomatoes. But I don't think that I was properly appreciative of them, though I must have been made to eat them in salads.

While I cut up the tomatoes Sunday, it occurred to me why I might have been unenthusiastic about the tomatoes. The texture is too complicated for a child's preferences, with skin, flesh, seeds, and juice. The great principle of kid food is consistency of texture: the best meat is hamburger or skinless, boneless chicken breast; the best fruit is an apple, quartered; the best vegetable the potato, baked, mashed, or fried. Homemade chicken soup, with irregular bits of meat and with bits of fat spotting the surface, is far inferior to Campbell's with perfect little cubes of chicken in homogenized broth.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Street Music

Friday's Washington Post has an article about a group of street musicians who play at 15th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW, by the northeast corner of the Treasury Building. The short version is that tourists love them and that persons whose offices are in earshot wish they would go away.I guess that the former is true. On Friday, I saw a blond boy of about 10, certainly a tourist, doing what looked a creditable job on the tambourine beside them. I expect that the latter is true also. The lawyers at Skadden, Arp are paid a good deal for the ability to bring concentrated thought on legal matters, and music, however good, must distract them.

My own office is out of earshot of them, Still, they have affected my lunchtime walks. I don't care to walk within six feet of a vigorous man's trumpet  or trombone with unprotected ear, and I think it rude to walk past with my hands over my ears. More than one intended walk around the White House (well, the Executive Compound) has turned into a walk up New York Avenue. Proficient though they are, I would like them better someplace I could give them a wider berth.

Charles Babbage did not care for street musicians, and spent a good deal of time and energy trying to keep them away. It seems that he made himself at least conspicuous, maybe a figure of fun, in doing so. A database administrator I knew got into a fistfight with a street vendor over the volume of the latter's portable stereo. Though less fit than the vendor, he didn't suffer much visible damage, and the vendor was arrested, though not held in custody long. The next morning he was at his table to turn up the volume as the DBA went past.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Biography and Memoir

Let me say first that I found Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d'Orcia by Caroline Moorehead informative and well worth the time spent reading. It offers a detailed account of Origo's long and interesting life.

It struck me, however, as suffering from a problem that biographies of writers sometimes do. Where the material is clearly taken from the subject's own writings, there is the risk that the reader will be comparing them to the book at hand. If the subject was a good writer, the biographer had better be also. So where the biography tracked Origo's memoirs War in Val d'Orcia and Images and Shadows: Parts of a Life, I kept hearing Origo's words behind Moorehead's, generally not to Moorehead's advantage. In a few cases, Moorehead provides slightly inaccurate context, for example quoting Santayana in a way that removes the reference to his revision of The Life of Reason.  I don't know what the biographer of a writer should do, unless generally steer as far as possible from the subject's own words, and include them, in quotation marks and with clear context, where most useful.

Yet there are matters that don't (or once didn't) find their way into memoirs. U.S. Grant's memoirs are wonderfully written and clear throughout on the campaigns he served in and directed. However, he does not mention the drinking that made his peacetime superiors demand that he resign his commission, and that alarmed his subordinates during lulls in the campaigns. Richard Henry Dana could tell you anything about the operation of a brig, or the duties of a "hide-drogher" on shore in California; he omitted, it seems, to discuss the happy concubinage in which he lived for part of his shore time. I suppose that one could complain that St. Augustine's Confessions, explicit enough on his sins, don't tell how he ran his diocese or that Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua tells nothing about university management.

Moorehead supplies what Origo's discretion omitted: Origo's affairs, her mother's, her stepfather's, those of a fair portion of the Anglo-American colony in Tuscany. She says what Origo does not quite say, that her mother was a hypochondriac, and bad company for other reasons as well. She discusses at greater length, if not very clearly, Antonio Origo's relations with the Fascist regime. And some of what Moorehead provides simply did not fit into Origo's memoirs as falling outside the main topics or post-dating the periods covered. If she does not write as well as Origo, she writes clearly for the most part.

Moorehead does have some difficulties with time.
By 1911, it was getting on for half a century since Florence had been, briefly, the capital of Italy, and most of the city's best-known foreign residents,  Swinburne, Dickens, Trollope, the Brownings, Mark Twain, Henry James and the Goncourt brothers, had long since departed, gone home to write memoirs of their Florentine lives, leaving behind much gossip about their visits.
By 1911, everyone on that list but Henry James had departed not simply from Florence but from this life, most of them not very recently. I cannot tell from her account when Bernhard Berenson took up with Mary Costelloe; it is not important to the biography, and I wouldn't care but for the puzzle. In the sentence
That summer the rains arrived early in August, and toads emerged in the garden to sit in the water
I can date "that summer" somewhere between 1927 and 1932, but no more precisely.

Still, I am glad to have read it. It is unlikely that I will look into it again as soon or as often as I will into Origo's memoirs.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

So Many Days

According to the calendar of events in the back of The Northwest Current, today is

The weather so far, muggy with light rain, is not favorable for digging in the ground, even for mock excavation, or playing golf. Some of the activities of the Polish Day must be inside, for they include a "mini Chopin recital".

Thursday, July 16, 2015

For Everyday Use

A Langenscheidt's Pocket Dictionary: Latin-English, English-Latin, sat beside my computer for several weeks, I'm not sure why. Last weekend, I noticed that the descriptions on the back cover conclude with "The ideal compact reference for everyday use."

Who, other than teacher, scholar, or student, makes use of a Latin-English dictionary every day? I did look into it several times a week, mostly because my computer takes a while to boot up and be ready for use. So I know, until I forget, that "ethologus" means "an imitator of manners" and "pernonides" is "son of a ham". Yet it has moved, and I have managed to start the computer without missing it.

Flann O'Brien writes in the "WAAMA, etc." section of The Best of Myles, in proposing the employment of professional book handlers,
The wares in a bookshop look completely unread. On the other hand, a school-boy's Latin dictionary looks read to the point of tatters. You know that the dictionary has been opened and scanned perhaps a million times, and if you did not know that there was such a thing as a box on the ear, you would conclude that the boy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary.
 The box on the ear was out of fashion in this country by my parents' generation. The only dictionary now falling apart in the house is a Langenscheidt's, but for German and English. Time has as much to do with its state as use, I think.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Rereading Dana

The Yankee pride in knowing how to do things, and in doing them well, runs through Two Years Before the Mast. Shortly after the ship's arrival in California, it arrives in Monterey, and
I also connected with our arrival here another circumstance which more nearly concerns myself; viz, my first act of what the sailors will allow to be seamanship--sending down a royal-yard. I had seen it done once or twice at sea, and an old sailor, whose favor I had taken some pains to gain, had taught me carefully everything which was necessary to be done, and in its proper order, and advised me to take the first opportunity when we were in port, and try it. I told the second mate, with whom I had been pretty thick when he was before the mast, that I would do it, and got him to ask the mate to send me up the first time they were struck. Accordingly I was called upon, and went up, repeating the operations over in my mind, taking care to get everything in its order, for the slightest mistake spoils the whole. Fortunately, I got through without any word from the officer, and heard the "well done" of the mate, when the yard reached the deck, with as much satisfaction as I ever felt at Cambridge on seeing a "bene" at the foot of a Latin exercise.
Doing things better than others adds to the pride:
There we found the brig which we had assisted in getting off lying at anchor, with a mixed crew of Americans, English, Sandwich Islanders, Spaniards, and Spanish Indians; and, though much smaller than we, yet she had three times the number of men; and she needed them, for her officers were Californians. No vessels in the world go so sparingly manned as American and English; and none do so well. A Yankee brig of that size would have had a crew of four men, and would have worked round and round her. The Italian ship had a crew of thirty men; nearly three times as many as the Alert, which was afterwards on the coast, and was of the same size; yet the Alert would get under weigh and come-to in half the time, and get two anchors, while they were all talking at once--jabbering like a parcel of "Yahoos," and running about decks to find their cat-block.
The others can as easily be Russians, Yankee whalers with a crew mostly of country boys who "hadn't got the hayseed out of their hair",  or much later a midshipman of the United States Navy, who "could not tell ladies the length of a fathom, and said it depended on circumstances."

Dana does concede the Californians superiority in riding
There are probably no better riders in the world. They get upon a horse when only four or five years old, their little legs not long enough to come half way over his sides; and may almost be said to keep on him until they have grown to him.... They can hardly go from one house to another without getting on a horse, there being generally several standing tied to the door-posts of the little cottages.
and in dancing
... we were invited, from every quarter, to give them an American sailor's dance; but after the ridiculous figure some of our countrymen cut, in dancing after the Spaniards, we thought it best to leave it to their imaginations. Our agent, with a tight, black, swallow-tailed coat, just imported from Boston, a high stiff cravat, looking as if he had been pinned and skewered, with only his feet and hands left free, took the floor just after Bandini; and we thought they had had enough of Yankee grace.
But what are riding and dancing to seamanship and boat handling? In general, his references to the Mexican population of California are slightly contemptuous.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr. shipped as a common seaman, "before the mast" in August 1834
from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure
He returned in September 1836, having spent nearly a year and a half on the coast of California, between San Diego and San Francisco Bay, and having in Santa Barbara read an account of the graduation of his class at Harvard. In the California of the middle 1830s, the site of the modern San  Francisco was occupied by a mission and the board house of a Yankee trader. Los Angeles was "the Pueblo" (which once gets its almost full title  "Pueblo de los Angeles"), an inconvenient thirty miles from the bad roadstead of San Pedro. Monterey was the capital of the province.

Home, he finished his undergraduate work at Harvard and entered its law school. His legal practice specialized, not surprisingly, in maritime law. He served as United States Attorney for Massachusetts during Lincoln's administration, having been active in the Free Soil movement, and in efforts to protect the free Negroes of Massachusetts from the effects of the Fugitive Slave Act. He did well enough as a lawyer, but would probably have been happier as a scholar and writer.  He returned to California, by then a state, for a brief visit in 1859, and found San Francisco changed out of recognition, San Diego hardly at all.

D.H. Lawrence speaks well of  Two Years Before the Mast in his Studies in the Classic American Literature. Simon Leys translated it into French, and in his The Hall of Uselessness includes a concise account of Dana's life and writings, crediting him with establishing the rule that ships under sail have the right of way against those using power.

The copy I have been reading, purchased at the end of the 1960s serves well enough. Somebody should bring out an annotated edition that would carefully explain, with illustrations, the technical terms. I know well enough what a fathom is, and even a studding sail yard,  but have to guess at plenty of other terms. The Library of America publishes Two  Years along with two other books of travel Dana wrote. They might better publish it with The Seaman's Friend, a book of

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Recently while talking to neighbors I noticed a squash racket placed on the transom over their front door. I asked whether birds had been trying to nest there: Yes, and succeeded. I took a few steps east, and  could see the robin's nest nestled among the objects that they had placed there to keep the robins away.

We had a robin or robins trying to nest on our transom for a while this spring. We put up garden tools and scrap metal, we discarded the bits of nest that we found, and eventually we put bird spikes in place. Perhaps the bird spikes worked, perhaps the robins had simply found a better place to go, to the neighbor's house perhaps. I suspect they succeeded across the street because the family was out of town for a weekend. Considering the amount of nesting material that ended up on our porch, I don't think that a ledge so narrow is the best place to build a nest. Yet it is out of the weather and must be hard for predators to reach.

In the back yard, we have a metal arch next to the garage, over which we have trained a couple of rose bushes. Last fall, when the leaves had fallen, I notice a nest near the top of the arch. It struck me as a good spot, for I couldn't imagine a cat pressing through rose branches to get to it. This spring the nest was in use for a while--a robin in it cried out in indignation and flew off when I tried to take a picture of it. It seems to be disused now; a brood would have had time to grow up and fly off. In the meantime, the nest looks like this:

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fine Writing

This week, I noticed in Mme. de Stael's De L'Allemagne, in her chapter on Schiller's plays Wallenstein and Mary Stuart,
Nothing is easier than to compose what people call brilliant verses: there are ready-made machines for that...
(She thought, by the way, that the French were given to this, and that Schiller was not.)

Not that long ago, I encountered in Wilfrid Sheed's Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents the tutor,
a third gloomy genius dressed entirely in gray who cured me forever of fine writing with one offhand sentence. "This sort of thing is much easier to do than many people suppose."
In English, I suppose, the model for such advice comes from Samuel Johnson, quoted by Boswell on April 30, 1773:
 I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: "Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

Thursday, June 11, 2015


On a recent Sunday afternoon I noticed a boy across the street, about four years old, helping to guide the weed whacker that his father operated. I should say that he had on eye protection and was well back from the spinning strings. It occurred to me that if I lacked enthusiasm for lawn care in my childhood, it might have been because the tools of the day made less noise and offered fewer dangers. But as far as I can remember, I regarded lawn care as something invented for the oppression of young boys, something that ate up time in weeding or mowing when I could have been doing something else. I don't think that it occurred to me much to relate the mowing to the possibility of playing football, kickball, whiffle ball or tag on that lawn.

For many years, I didn't do much, or any lawn care. Under the trees in Takoma Park, grass grows slowly and sparse. Every three weeks would have kept the lawn more or less decent, and sometimes I managed that. After that, we lived in an apartment and then in a townhouse development, where contractors cared for the lawns. When we first moved here, we used a mowing service until the proprietor ceased to answer phone calls.

This my fourth season of mowing. I expect that I could think up as many alternatives to mowing as I did in my childhood, but I don't much mind it. It is time outside, for one thing. For another, there is the satisfaction of seeing the lawn look better. I suppose that I am turning into the suburbanite who looks censoriously at uncut lawns.

I haven't played kickball in forty-five years, touch football in thirty. Yet I am concerned for the grass and worry a bit when my wife speaks of encroaching on it with new or enlarged flower beds. Grass is good ground cover all year, whether growing or dormant, and the dirt on which it grows won't wash away. Grass does not require mulching, so leaves raked off the grass do not bring mulch along with them. In this climate one need not water grass; it will become yellow in the high summer, but will become green again when the weather cools and the rains come back.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Computer Security

The newspapers reported this week that there has been a major breach of computer systems at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. A relative forwarded on a link to one of the stories, and it struck me in thinking about it that perhaps Hamlet's father summarized the field of computer security as well as anyone:

But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
Very little surprises me now.

No doubt OPM made some mistakes. Yet I know what they were up against. One in couple of hundred users will click on the email from the lovely, lonely Russian girl looking for a friend. One in perhaps one hundred and fifty will click on the email with a link to log in and increase his email storage quota. Maybe one in one hundred will click on the browser pop-up that appears to be for upgrading Internet Explorer or the computer's anti-virus software. A few more will open an Acrobat file or Word Document coming from an official-looking but hostile source. And then the fun begins.

You can guard against this in some ways. You can install a web filter that blocks access to notoriously dangerous sites. You can make use of the  improved security in Windows 7 and later, requiring privilege escalation to install software or open certain files that have arrived by email. But if the users can't increase their privileges, they will complain. If they can, allowing privilege escalation will become so routine that it is automatic for them. Every such safeguard you introduce gets in the way of doing something that users want to do, at least some of which is in their job descriptions. If you make it sufficiently difficult, they will do what they want to do on their own computers, almost certainly using credentials for your systems.

You can classify action and object privileges very finely, and prove that malicious actions contrived by a particular attack will be limited in their effect. The National Security Agency (NSA) developed "SELinux", which does a good job of this, so good that I have spent days looking at logs and figuring out how to make certain programs work with it. You can, as NSA did, compartmentalize access to different pieces of data to make intrusion limited in effect and quickly detected. But then you may well hire sysadmins who share their credentials, because a trustworthy guy like Edward Snowden said that he needed them.

In Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn, Flann O'Brien, setting out the differences between the Dublin Man (disillusioned) and the Irish Man (not), says "Dublin Man rarely permits himself a laugh but the word 'idealist' will always get one." I don't laugh when I hear "computer security", but I might permit myself a pained smile that you can almost tell from a wince.

Saturday, May 30, 2015


We agreed this spring that it was time to paint the garage door, which had peeling or missing paint in places. Last weekend, I scraped, washed, and primed, the last couple of days I washed again and painted. Tomorrow I will do a bit of touch-up work with a small brush.

I believe that I last painted the door in 2004, the year we moved in. When we bought the house, the garage door hardly closed and looked as if it would fall off its hinges. We must have replaced it promptly, for that fall we were storing things in the garage. That is how I figure it, anyway.

If the paint store mixes a can for you, the can will have a sticker giving the name of the color, the mix of pigments, and the date mixed. I had a look at the old paint can, but since black is a color always stocked, there is never a need to mix it, and so no sticker. There was a can number on the top, but the cashier at the store said that he couldn't use it to establish an age.

The can specifies a 25-year limited warranty, if the paint is properly applied. I am sure that a good painter could find faults in my application in 2004 and again in 2015. I don't know that the 2004 faults contributed to the flaking of the paint. I think that the door has been hard on the paint. For one thing, a garage door has joints. Ours has four rows of eight panels, and a good storm must send water through between the rows; the panels have water stains on the inside. For another, it is pulled up a track and lowered down, traveling six feet each way. It is a shaky trip, and was shakier for a while when the wheels were failing and we didn't know it.

It seems to me that the true craftsman must know how much paint to put on his brush or roller, and get it right every time. I might, on a good day, get this right four times out of five. The true craftsman must prepare his surface correctly, and here at least I am better than some people we have hired, who would paint over loose dirt. On the other hand, the professional will know how to set priorities, and will spend most of his time on what is most visible; the amateur can spend great effort on corners, and then lack the energy to prepare the main walls.

A neighbor, a contractor who learned his trades in Europe, says that Americans don't want to pay for good painting. The fliers put out by Fine Paints of Europe, a Dutch brand, hint at the same by describing the apprenticeship that Dutch painters must go through. I expect that my neighbor and the Dutch are correct, but I must say that telling who will paint well is harder than they might think. (Well, my neighbor would say "Hire me", and he would be correct.) The contractor who says all the right things Friday might show up Monday with a couple of guys he just hired in the Home Depot parking lot. In general, we paint what we can reach with no more than a 10-foot stepladder.

Monday, May 25, 2015

California as Heaven, or Not.

In Palo Alto in 1956, George Kennan wrote
California reminds me of the popular American Protestant concept of heaven: there is always a reasonable flow of new arrivals; one meets many--not all--of one's friends; people spend a good deal of their time congratulating each other of the fact that they are there; discontent would be unthinkable; and the newcomer is slightly disconcerted to realize that now--the devil having been banished and virtue being triumphant--nothing terribly interesting can ever happen again.

(Sketches from a Life, entry for May 13, 1956.)

I thought of this today when I happened to pick up Mazes by Hugh Kenner, and found a bookmark at the end of the essay "Please Welcome My Next Idea", a piece from 1982. Within it, the angel at the entrance to the afterlife is catechizing Mortimer Adler, who then had a show running on PBS:

ANGEL: ... Back when the morning stars were singing together, I made my thousands of decisions with elan. Now I scarcely know which telephone to pick up.
ADLER (quickly): The blue one.
ANGEL: Hush, you do not know what you are saying.(A long pause.) I have decided. Your eternity shall be unique.
ADLER: Not . . . (he gropes for the worst) an eternity of culling the Great Thoughts of John Dewey?
ANGEL: No. An eternity at this very desk. You are a packager, I am a packager. Heaven, Hell, those are packages. Our appearance, even is not unlike. I shall change my pace for an aeon. I shall descend and run the Aspen Seminars. You shall sit here and catechize the clients.
ADLER: With the files? The Rolodex? The video archive?
ANGEL: With all of it. You will find it comes naturally. I must tell you, though, the secret of the telephones. Red, blue, it does not matter: mere decor. Both go to the one Dispatcher. What matters is not which you pick up but the word you say: you say merely "Los Angeles," or "Kalamazoo."
ADLER: Los Angeles. Ah, of course: Heaven.
ANGEL: Your blind trust in categories! For once consider reality. No, for the deserving, seasons and Michigan air. For the mass of men, in their infinitely greater number, an eternity of smog and issueless freeways.
ADLER (speechless): . . . 
Unfortunately, the University of Georgia Press seems to have let Mazes go out of print. It is not perhaps the best collection of Kenner's essays, yet it has excellent pieces--this one, "The Wherefore of How To", and "Marshall McLuhan Redux" among others.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

So That's Who John Galt Is

Having discussed the new "Far From the Madding Crowd" with a friend (we thought well of it), I was going down the list of poets on the University of Toronto's Representative Poetry Online site, looking for Thomas Gray and the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", when I saw the name John Galt. After a moment of surprise, I had a look.

The University of Toronto hasn't much to say about this John Galt. It gives his year of birth as 1779, his year of death as 1839, and his literary period as Romantic. One of the poems they give is in broad Scots, heavily footnoted, and a couple of others use Scots words here and there.Wikipedia says that he was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, and founded the city of Guelph in what is now Ontario. Wikipedia also gives "(novelist)" in apposition to his name, to distinguish him from the better known John Galt, the hero of Atlas Shrugged.

It seems improbable that Ayn Rand named her character after the literary John Galt. He was successful enough in business, but one of the poems that the University of Toronto offers is The Selfish, which begins
There is a death, an apathy profound
As that of those who in the churchyard lie,
Although the sepulchres be above ground,
Where rot these moral morts unconsciously.
 That is not the Randian view of selfishness, as I understand it.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Rereading Walker Percy

It seems to me that one of Walker Percy hints at one of his strengths early in The Moviegoer:
.. "We'll not see their like again. The age of the Catos is gone. Only my Jules is left. And Sam Yerger. Won't it be good to see Sam again?
This is absurd of course. Uncle Jules is no Cato. And as for Sam Yerger: Sam is only a Cato on long Sunday afternoons and in the company of my aunt. She transfigures everyone. Mercer she still sees as the old retainer. Uncle Jules she sees as the Creole Cato,, the last of the heroes--whereas the truth is that Uncle Jules is a canny Cajun straight from Bayou Lafourche, as canny as a Marseilles merchant and a very good fellow, but no Cato. All the stray bits and pieces of the past, all that is feckless and gray about people, she pulls together into an unmistakable visage of the heroic or the craven, the noble or the ignoble. So strong is she that sometimes the person and the past are in fact transfigured by her. Uncle Jules has come to see himself as the Creole member of the gens, the Beauregard among the Lees. Mercer is on occasions not distinguishable from an old retainer. Truthfully, I do not know, and Mercer does not know, what Mercer really is.
In 1961, Walker Percy knew how quite a few people talked: women like the aunt, Emily Bolling Cutrer, born to property and authority about 1900; her Vassar-educated stepdaughter; the speakers on "This I Believe"; screenwriters for the movies or TV; New Orleans newsstand operators; Midwestern veterans; and many more. He well deserved his National Book Award. He did not lose his ear as he got older; the voices in The Second Coming are believable.

The one voice he did not seem to hear well enough was his own, that of a Catholic existentialist novelist. I found it increasingly doubtful as the years went on. I would sum it up by saying that Walker Percy was good at depicting what he found wanting--"This I Believe", the Phil Donahue Show, bad 1970s TV--but not clear on the alternatives. The apophatic mode is useful and necessary in theology, but I don't know that it gets one far in fiction.

Still, there is The Moviegoer. I bought the copy I now have, when I found that NPR had revived "This I Believe", for the one paragraph
I did not always enjoy This I Believe. While I was living at my aunt's house, I was overtaken by a fit of perversity. But instead of writing a letter to the editor, as was my custom, I recorded a tape which I submitted to Mr. Edward R. Murrow. "Here are the beliefs of John Bickerson Bolling, a moviegoer living in New Orleans," it began, and ended, "I believe in a good kick in the ass. This--I believe." I soon regretted it, however, as what my grandfather would have called a "smart-alecky stunt" and I was relieved when the tape was returned. I have listened faithfully to This I Believe ever since.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Noise and Signal

We requested some data from another organization. Eventually a CD arrived that was said to have the data we wanted. We found a T-SQL script, T-SQL being the dialect supported by Microsoft SQL Server. The file was large, about 55 megabytes. However, it appeared to have only the data definition language (DDL) to create the database.

The other organization said otherwise: the data was in there. I doubted this. The script had no INSERT statements, for one thing. For another, the script had a suggested database size around 500 gigabytes, four orders of magnitude larger than the script. But  I went ahead and ran the script. It created more than 5000 tables, all empty. I pulled a list of them to be sent back to the other organization

The next day I had another look.The name of the database sounded like that of a well-known Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and some of the tables seemed, according to Google, to belong to that system. That satisfactorily explained the number of tables. A look at a printout we received with the disk provided more information, enough to make some educated guesses. It appears to me that

  1. The organization found a contractor to build the new system..
  2. The contractor's data analyst looked about for a system that might suggest what he should do.
  3. His eye fell on this ERP system, which had tables matching a component or two of the requirements. (It has tables for almost any data a company might need to record, from payroll to cash-register transactions to customer complaints and loading dock traffic.)
  4. He selected and perhaps adapted about twenty-five tables and created about twenty-five more.
  5. He or the database administrator created such intermediate tables as were needed to load up and modify the data from the previous system.
  6. At no point did anyone drop any of the load tables,which usually have multiple versions, with a suffix indicating creator or date. In fact,
  7. At no point did anyone drop the 5000+ tables set up for the use of loading dock, kitchen maintenance, payroll, etc., etc., and of no use to the new system. The noise to signal ratio therefore is about 110 to 1.
  8. Somebody in management told yet another employee to extract the whole database.
  9. That employee found instructions for dumping the DDL and followed them.
This sort of thing happens. Programmers have very good reasons for reusing code, though reusing 1% and dragging the other 99% along seems careless. But it would be good if one could find that one person who understands the system at all, or at least multiple, levels and could provide what we asked for.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Flyover

Today between noon and one, a series of flights of American WW II aircraft flew over the National Mall. About forty of us were on the terrace of the building where I work to watch, and we could see crowds on top of other office buildings in view. It was well to have an aviator's eyesight or a pair of binoculars; I had the latter.

The difficulty of identifying the airplanes varied a good deal. Fork-tailed craft--the P-38, the B-25, the B-24--were simple. The P-51 with its air scoop and the F-4U with its gull wings were easy, as were the PBY Catalina, B-17, the B-29, and the C-47. The Navy's mainstays were harder, for the Navy favored small planes with radial engines, and the F4F Wildcat could hardly be distinguished from the TBM Avenger or the SB2C Helldiver, at least with my eyes, binoculars, and vague memories of pictures seen long ago. This is a little unfortunate, given how decisive the Battle of Midway was and how gallantly the Battle of Leyte Gulf was fought--both represented chiefly by those small planes.

I found myself, partway through, serving as narrator for my end of the terrace.
"The lead one is a C-47. That was the military version of the DC-3."
"It was the first really successful commercial airliner."
At the end a woman, probably about 30, asked how I knew what the planes were. I said that I was a baby boomer, and that when I grew up essentially everyone's dad had been in the war. (And for that matter a lot of  moms; two of my aunts were nurses in the military.) One heard the stories and read the books.

The Washington Post website has a video that gives a fair representation of what it was like to watch without binoculars.