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?