Saturday, December 30, 2017

An Old Acquaintance Not Forgotten

In The Enemy in the Blanket, second in Anthony Burgess's "Malayan trilogy" The Long Day Wanes, the failing solicitor Rupert Hardman regards the missionary priest Father Laforgue:
His office was displayed frankly in a long white tropical soutane that spoke of the clinic more than the altar, and the sweeping aseptic dress made sense for Hardman out of the words of Finnegans Wake: 'They do not believe in our doctrine of Real Absence, neither miracle wheat nor soul-surgery of P.P. Quemby.' Sooner or later everything in Finnegans Wake made sense: it was just a question of waiting.
I never made it far into Finnegans Wake, but concede Burgess's right to have a solicitor, a sometime RAF pilot, well acquainted with it.

Just now, in reading Chapter 29, "The Golden Age of  Democratic Evangelism" in Sidney E. Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People, I found
Phineas P. Quimby of Portland, Maine, who tried in his way to evolve a scientific view of mental healing, did not stress these affinities, but Warren F. Evans, a former Methodist minister in that city, became an ardent Swedenborgian after being healed by Quimby. Evans published his views on healing well before Mary Baker published Science and Health, and with other disciples of Quimby he founded the New Thought Movement.
A question of waiting, indeed: for the fictional Hardman call it a dozen years between university and his encounter with the Father Laforgue; for me, thirty-five years between first reading The Long Day Wanes and encountering P.P. Quimby.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Rooms and Telescopes

Schopenhauer writes that
Thus we shall find that author profitable the occasional use of whose mind when we think affords us sensible relief, and by whom we feel ourself borne wither we could not attain alone. Goethe once said to me that, when he read a page of Kant, he felt as if he were entering a lighted room.
Certainly there are authors who produce that effect for me, though I would more likely name historians than philosophers. But Schopenhauer continues
Inferior minds are not such merely by their being distorted and so judging falsely, but above all through the indistinctness of their whole thinking. This can be compared to seeing through a bad telescope, in which all the outlines appear indistinct and as if obliterated, and the different objects run into one another.
Many translations of German philosophy are bad telescopes. I have put aside a copy of Kant's  Critique of Judgement because the effort of discovering the thought through the English is wearying when not maddening. Kant's philosophy is in itself difficult enough without the obstacle of a bad translation. I hope to find a better one soon.

(The quotations are from Book II, Chapter XV of The World as Will and Representation.)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Boards and a Book

In The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, Robert Farrar Capon writes
Let me go further, therefore, and suggest that your cutting boards be numerous: a chopping block, if you can manage it, then a bread board, a fish board, and an onion board. Except for the chopping block, these can succeed each other in a kind of hierarchy. A new board is always a bread board; a retired bread board becomes a fish board (for filleting and skinning); and a retired fish board becomes and onion board. the principle is simple: At any given period in its life, a board will come into contact with nothing stronger than that for which it is named. A retired onion board, accordingly, becomes firewood.
I remembered the passage this morning while I was chopping onions on the board we use for all foods, and have for years. No doubt the rectory kitchens of Long Island, some of them anyway, had more room than our kitchen does. And certainly Capon had a more sensitive nose than I do--nearly everyone does, and he writes about his ability to smell peanut butter on the breath at ten paces or tobacco at twice that.

The Supper of the Lamb reminds me in some ways of Laurie Colwin's columns on cooking. I would be hard put to find a recipe that I followed or technique that I learned from it, yet the tone of common sense and the explanations of why one does this or that are encouraging. One reads, and may decide to try something new.

Capon was a priest of the Episcopal Church, and taught in one of its seminaries as well:
You have arrived at the point where you will have to trust me. I am a teacher. Every time I start a class in elementary Greek, I tell the members that I can teach Greek to anyone, provided he will do exactly what I tell him and nothing else. The ones who believe me go fast; the others give themselves a hard time. I say the same thing to you about pastry.
 Elsewhere he mentions teaching dogmatic theology. His professions and convictions inform the book. In the introduction to the 1989 second edition, accounting for the book's success, he writes
Which brings me to the major reason I think this improbably combination has proved successful. There is a habit that plagues may so-called spiritual minds: they imagine that matter and spirit are somehow at odds with each other and that the right course for human life is to escape from the world of matter into some finer and purer (and undoubtedly duller) realm. To me that is a crashing mistake--and it is, above all, a theological mistake. Because, in fact, it was God who invented dirt, onions and turnip greens; God who invented human beings, with their strange compulsion to cook their food; Gog who, at the end of each day of creation, pronounced a resounding "Good!" over his own concoctions. And it is God's unrelenting love of the stuff of this world that keeps it in being at every moment. So if we are fascinated, even intoxicated, by matter, it is no surprise: we are made in the image of the Ultimate Materialist.
It is tempting to go on quoting, but the book remains in print. It is not expensive, and you can see for yourself.

Capon died in 2013, and you can find an obituary from the New York Times, a brief biography in Wikipedia, and various other notices on line.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Reading Pelikan, Again

The fourth volume of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine is Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). It makes appropriate reading for the 500th anniversary year, by some counts, of the Reformation The book resembles its predecessors in the series in being clearly written, well organized for reading by the non-specialist, and having a scholarly apparatus that I imagine must serve the specialist well.

The book has seven chapters of three or four sections each. Each section runs to about a dozen pages. These pages are printed with the text occupying the the right two thirds of the page, the left being reserved for the references. A typical section, then, has the equivalent of eight full pages of text, meaning that the attentive reader can finish it in an evening. As for the references, the first paragraph of "The One True Faith", the last section of the first chapter, "Doctrinal Pluralism in the Late Middle Ages", has twenty-one of them, to the works of fifteen authors.

After two chapters taking the still mostly unified church through the end of the 14th Century, Pelikan gives the next four to the main streams of the Reformation: Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic Counter-Reformation, and Radical (Anabaptist, Socinian, other). The final chapter shows the three larger groups consolidating their doctrines: the Lutherans in their christological thought; Calvinists thinking through covenant theology; and Roman Catholics clarifying what their teaching on grace should be

It is a relatively drier read than Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation, for it is doctrinal history, not cultural and political history. You will not read of Swiss printers announcing their adherence to the Reformation by consuming sausages in Lent, of Ulrich Zwingli falling in battle, or of the lively manner in which the early Jesuits held their missions. For that matter, you will not read how Archbishop Laud brought the Church of England some distance back from the Reformed tradition to something nearer Lutheranism and Catholicism. But you will, if attentive, come away with a sound understanding of what all the parties thought, and how they adjusted and clarified their thinking in opposition to one another.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Bookshelf Riddle

The essay "Extra Shelves" in Clive James's Latest Readings begins
When is a bookshelf not really an extra bookshelf? When you don't have to build it.
The extra shelves he first mentions are kitchen counters, and the tops of kitchen bookshelves. As it happens, we have no room above the one bookshelf in our kitchen, and only a foot or so of books one counter. But there are stacks of books on two tables in the living room, and before the doors of a china cabinet in the dining room. I suppose that we could with more discipline thin the shelves to make room for the four or so feet stacked on tables. But how long would that last us?

We do not measure on a Jamesian scale, though. In looking through Latest Readings, I was constantly reminded that the man who reads an hour or two per day will never catch up with the man who reads six or eight hours per day. At twenty or twenty-five this reflection might have made me want to rearrange my life to manage that six or eight hours. Now I shrug: I have accumulated more compelling causes of regret.

I wonder about some of James's judgments in the book and have no way of evaluating others. I do agree with him on Ford Madox Ford and Parade's End:
Tietjens, as a character, is the merest wish fulfillment, the  self indulgence of a mendacious, chaotic, casually womanizing author who would like to project himself as a pillar of integrity and self-sacrifice, the honest master of his feelings.
 Yet he immediately follows this with
(In this respect, Tietjens is a prototype for Waugh's Guy Crouchback, the author's daydream about what he would like to have been, instead of a portrayal of who he was.)
Probably Waugh would have liked to have come from old Catholic gentry.  But in other respects it is hard to see how Crouchback could represent Waugh's wish fulfillment.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A co-worker brought me the print-out of some email traffic: somebody had been unable to send email to a government office. The email gateway of this office said that our domain did not exist. Well, it did and does.

The rest of this post requires some knowledge of domain name service (DNS). Briefly, DNS is what turns symbolic names such as into numeric addresses, and lets us all send email, browse web sites, etc., without needing to have many four-octet physical addresses memorized. You could think of it as the equivalent of a system for turning "The White House" into "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW" or "Carnegie Hall" into "881 Seventh Avenue". The internet has a number of "root servers". These know where to forward queries for different domains: "", "", "". In every case, there will be a server or servers responsible for providing the authoritative information. Other servers hold and supply the information, looking up the information at the authoritative source, caching it for some period, and responding to inquiries.

Evidently the government email gateway looked up the mail exchanger (MX) record for our organization, could not find it, and rejected the email. We could not imagine why. The authoritative name servers for our domain are at Cloudflare, the mail exchangers are at Google. Hundreds if not thousands of other organizations must have the same arrangement. During the period that we could not send to this domain, we sent email to dozens or hundreds of other domains.

It was not clear how we could follow up. The government web site had no technical reference listed. The server rejecting our email was in the domain, for which I could find no information at all. The physical address belongs, ARIN says, to the Department of Defense: but the persons I spoke to at the number ARIN gave could do nothing to help me, though they tried. The co-worker's contact in the government said that he would inquire. A technical manager I found through LinkedIn asked a few questions.

About a week after we discovered the problem, the email started to go through. The last change that we made on our side was to make to set our  preference10 MX records according to Google's recommendations. It seemed implausible that this change could have removed the difficulty, since
  1.  Our preference 1 and preference 5 MX records were according to Google's recommendation, and the lower the preference number, the higher the priority.
  2. The preference 10 MX records that we had used were the names of machines owned and operated by Google, and accepting email.
But after at least a week of inability to send email, we were relieved to have email go through, and closed the help desk ticket.

Were the rejecting domain one used for private email, we would not have gone to the lengths we did in trying to troubleshoot this: we would have sent an email through another domain to the recipient, suggesting steps that the recipient's system administrators might try. In this case, that response was not good enough, and we kept up our (futile) troubleshooting. Ten minutes logged in to the government server, or five minutes' conversation with a system administrator might have resolved the difficulty, but neither was possible.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Carpe Librum Is Closing

Carpe Librum, on 17th Street NW between K and L Streets, will close on December 21.  The building where it now is will be torn down or at least renovated. I believe that it was only the prospect of this that made it impossible for the landlords to find paying tenants and so induced them to give away the space to Carpe Librum. It had a good four-year run here. Before 2013, it was a "pop-up", and a week was a good run for it.

Until it closes, the prices are halved: a hardbound volume or trade paperback goes for $2.00. If you can get to 17th and L Streets, you might find something you want for ridiculously little money. And that little money will go to a good cause, Turning the Page, an organization that promotes the engagement of parents in their children's education.

During these four years, it has served as a fine place to browse at lunchtime or after work, and the $4 maximum price has encouraged me to buy quite a few books, in quite a few categories:
  1. Diaries: of Evelyn Waugh and of Count Harry Kessler.
  2. Dictionaries: of French, Italian, and German, the first two fat and the last skinny; and dual-language dictionaries of English and each of French, German, Latin, and Spanish.
  3. Essays: on education by Diane Ravitch, on literature by Henry James.
  4. Histories: Die Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit by Egon Friedell.
  5. Memoirs or autobiographies: of Anthony Burgess, August Fruge, Henry James, George Kennan, Wright Morris (both Will's Boy and A Cloak of Light, the latter twice), and Wilfrid Sheed.
  6. Novels: by Benjamin Constant, James Fenimore Cooper, Michael Frayn, Henry James and Dawn Powell
Those are the books that I remember. No doubt there were others.

I would not be surprised to see Carpe Librum reappear in May in one of the open spaces at George Washington University. I hope that they will come back, and hope that they will find another space to use for a long stay.

Monday, December 4, 2017


Noticed this weekend in Chateuabriand's memoirs:
Incompetence is a freemasonry that has its lodges in every country; and this brotherhood has dungeons of which it springs the trap doors, and in which it causes governments to disappear.
Chateaubriand had just been visiting the court of exiled Bourbons in Prague, and the grand master of this lodge may have been the Baron de Damas or the Prince de Polignac.

Daniel Halévy's The End of the Notables ends, as I recall, with the refusal in 1871 of the titular Henry V to accept the throne of France unless the tricolor were replaced with the Bourbon lily. Halévy observes that this refusal had no relation to the essentially realistic approach of the French kings; he refers to Henry V as a nostalgist, a reader of Chateaubriand. Certainly Henry V was a nostalgist, and certainly Chateaubriand knew how to sound the nostalgic note; but from all that I can tell, Chateaubriand was far more realistic than that.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Elsewhere in Genoa

I knew that Daniel O'Connell died in Genoa, but I had not thought of him, or of looking for a marker. Then, down by the old harbor, we noticed this

in Via al Ponte Reale.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Monday, November 20, 2017

At the Beach

On Sunday afternoon, we arrived in Genoa. After unpacking, we followed the suggestion of taking a bus to the Corso Italia, and walking to Bocadessa. The wide sidewalk was filled with locals coming and going. Once at Bocadessa, we settled down at a cafe table for drinks, at the edge of a narrow cove. The terrace there was about four feet above a tongue of rocks running down to the sea. Children aged about five to nine, mostly girls, would run to within a few feet of the water and throw stones into it. The throws showed that baseball has made little impression on Italy.

Presently we noticed two young women in elaborate pink dresses, filmy over the shoulders, sleeveless, very full skirts, carrying each a bouquet of pink flowers, accompanied by two photographers and what was probably a brother. All three of us had the same thought, "quinceañera". We had never heard of such a custom in Italy, but who was to say that the girls were Italian? The photographers went to work with the girls, first separately, each in turn standing on the beach or sitting in the angle of the wall. It was clear, as each walked carefully the ten yards of beach, that the girls were in high heels

My wife noticed that several of the little girls found this much more interesting than throwing rocks. They stood still, a little behind the photographer. Once the photographer was done with the first girl's standing pictures, they ran up, and a mother took a photograph with her phone.

As we were looking for a place to take a photo of our own, a photographer and one of the girls passed us, heading for another location, and we heard him say "quindici anni". So the girls were twins, quinceañeras. Where they were from, who knows. The brother could certainly pass for Latin American. I trust that they will have a good set of photographs to show their daughters and granddaughters.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Gingkos, Again

We are staying in the Brera district of Milan, a short walk from the Pinacoteca di Brera, and the botanical garden next to it. In the latter are a couple of gingko trees

brought from China in 1775, the year after the garden's founding. The silhouette of a gingko leaf appears on the sign at the entrance to the garden.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


Sometimes at this season, gingko trees will drop showers of golden leaves. I haven't had a chance to put my self on the sun side of one of these showers to take a picture. I tried today, but the leaves were coming down in tens rather than hundreds. Still, they make a good show, on the tree

or on cars

 or on the ground

I noticed a tree or two that dropped its leaves still green

or yellow-green

Mostly, though, the leaves are golden before they fall.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


The neighborhood listserve has an invitation to help plant lurid sedge, a native plant, in wetland nearby. The description of the plant, from New Moon Nursery, reads
Carex lurida is a large tufted wetland sedge. The narrow leaves are a bright yellow green and about 1’ long. In late spring stiff triangular culms rise above the foliage to 3’ bearing chartreuse bottlebrush shaped spikes. Attractive warm brown seed spikes follow. This bold sedge flourishes in sun or part sun in damp or wet sites. Carex lurida and other wetland sedges host caterpillars of Eyed Brown Butterflies and several species of Skippers and moths. Many wetland birds feed on the seed. The Sedge Wren feeds and nests in sites dominated by wetland sedges.This sedge has numerous common names. It is sometimes called lurid sedge due to the shockingly unexpected yellow color of the foliage and seed spikes. Some references call it sallow sedge again due to its yellowish “complexion”. Others call it shallow sedge perhaps in error or perhaps due to its ability to grow in shallow water.
Now, this was not my understanding of "lurid", but Skeat's Concise Dictionary of English Etymology says
Lurid, wan, gloomy. (L.) L. luridus, pale yellow, wan. Perhaps allied to Gk. χλωρός, green; see Chlorine.
The OED gives "pale and dismal" the priority, with citations beginning in the 17th Century. For "Shining with a red glow or glare" , the first citation is from the end of the 18th Century, and the figurative sense in which I have always known it to be used has a first citation from 1850.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017


Last month I took our car to the dealership for "A Service", which amounts mostly to changing the oil. Mid-morning, the agent called and listed some additional work the agent suggested. I agreed to all, until she got to replacing the battery, which would have cost $200. That I thought exorbitant.

On Saturday morning, returning from another errand, I stopped at AutoZone. The battery prices suggested that my savings would be less than I thought. I left with a $140 battery. Still, ignoring the time standing in line, and the time spent changing the battery, I figured to clear $60. Replacing the battery did not take long.

However, this model of car has anti-theft logic for the sound system: wholly removing power will leave the readout with an "enter code" display. This requires that one enter a five-digit code with the presets. One has ten tries to get it right, after which one must take the car to a dealership. We could not find the code. We found one for the previous car, which I tried on the ground that it was in with some other material for the new car. Of course it did not work. With no better ideas left, we went running.

While running, both of us thought where the card might be. It was there, and I tried it. It also did not work. I went to the company website to confirm it: it was correct. Yet it did not work. I suspected a bug in the technology.

On Sunday morning, a bit of looking on the internet suggested that interference from the FM radio might prevent recognition of the code. The remedies suggested were to disconnect the antenna, or to enter the code in an underground parking garage. The antenna work did not sound like something I could do cleanly. We drove to Columbia Heights first, where the garage wasn't deep enough, but where my wife picked up a shower curtain. Then we drove to a lot in Friendship Heights, where we continued to the fourth level underground. There the code worked the first time.

From the $60 savings, I deduct $3.70 in parking garage costs. There was also the matter of a couple of hours spent looking for the card and driving to the garages. On the credit side, we got rid of a certain amount of useless paper from the glove compartment--old registrations and insurance cards, etc. Still, next time I think we'll have the dealership change the battery.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Philip Levy, RIP

Last week, The Washington Post carried an obituary of Philip Levy, founder and proprietor of Bridge Street Books. Levy founded the store in 1980. It remains one of a handful of independent, general-interest bookstores in Washington. Its philosophy and literary criticism shelves look more extensive and more interesting than those of the others, and its poetry section looks as good as any. It has been able to order books for me that another store hasn't.

The other independent bookstores I know have obvious constituencies. At Kramerbooks, the customers tend to be young, and live or work nearby. At Politics and Prose, the customers run more to the thirties or older, and their children. I was never at Bridge Street enough to guess what its constituency might be. Judging from the obituary, Levy developed to store to suit his own tastes, letting the customers find it if they would.

Monday, October 23, 2017


About a month ago, I noticed that the Polish Embassy on 16th St. NW had many posters displayed along its fence. Last week, I got around to walking by for a closer look. These are reproductions of posters from the Poster Museum in Warsaw. Placing them along the embassy fence struck me as an odd way of showing them, but then I considered that the originals were made to be pasted to walls.

One item sets out the theme of the exhibition:

A couple of long stretches:

One understands why in 1919 Poland felt the need for an army:

On the other hand, I find the martial image odd in a poster promoting education:

And the invitation to subscribe to a government loan is dramatic:

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Numbers Games

A while back, somebody asked me whether it was possible to do a task, but without describing that task very clearly. I said, Yes, probably, let me know. Eventually it turned out that the task was to produce and transmit a list of checks recently written. This seemed entirely possible.

After some back and forth between our Accounting Department and our bank, I learned that the file to be sent required a fixed-length record. The amount of the check was to occupy ten spaces, zero-filled on the left, and with no decimal point between the dollars and the cents. (The absent decimal point I take to be a COBOL idiom. It must have made sense in the dawn of data processing: if the average transaction was in the hundreds of dollars, omitting the decimal point gave one roughly a 16% savings in space; with the expensive storage of the day, that was considerable.)

Anyway, I generated sample files, which looked OK. I generated and sent a file of checks not yet cleared. Then I looked closely at a smaller file. It was pretty good, but a transaction of 5218.94 showed up as 0000521893. An examination at the file of checks not cleared showed that one out of forty was a cent low. Now, I am not one who will quibble over one cent in a five thousand dollar transaction. But accountants will, and I am glad that they will: I want the people who watch the money to be serious and precise. And I would not care to explain to some we paid why his check was held up by the bank for a discrepancy of one cent.

Such discrepancies arise because modern computers do their calculations with binary arithmetic, and powers of 2 map only so well on to powers of 10. Eventually, I was able to come up with a minimal demonstration of the problem. Running a Perl script with the text

#!/usr/bin/perl -w-

use strict;

my $original = '5218.94';
my $x100 = $original * 100;
my $x100_sprintfd = sprintf '%010d', $original * 100;
my $sprintfd_no_x100 = sprintf '%010d', 521894;

print <<EOF;
Original -> $original
Times 100 -> $x100
Times 100, sprintfd -> $x100_sprintfd
Sprintfd, not Times 100 -> $sprintfd_no_x100

Original -> 5218.94
Times 100 -> 521894
Times 100, sprintfd -> 0000521893
Sprintfd, not Times 100 -> 0000521894
This happens with Perl 5.10, 5.16,  and 5.22, I find. Oddly enough, the format specifier '010.0f' does not round down. No doubt the mechanics of it are there to find in the source code, which is available on the internet. But I don't know that I could track this down, and I do know that I haven't time to try. The workaround, which I arrived at before coming up with this script, is to do the multiplication within the database query, rather than outside.

William Kahan put a lot of thought into the many edge cases of floating-point arithmetic, and certainly deserved his Turing Award. After Wednesday afternoon, I better understand why he called his test suite for floating-point implementations "paranoia".

Saturday, October 21, 2017


According to Thursday's New York Times, some Italian schools will teaching their students to identify fake news, beginning on October 31. It's well to be prepared, of course. But is the need new? In Luigi Barzini's The Italians, chapter "The Pursuit of Life", I find
Very few then are the rules which can help an Italian plot his course and steer a safe line in a country which has never really accepted the moral teaching of feudalism, and in which society, the law and State have feeble powers. He must defend himself. He begins early by being his own school-teacher (most schools are inadequate) and professor (universities are poor, backward, and badly run). Later he must be his own journalist (published new of internal affairs can be so biased that to rely on them is to court disaster), his own literary, film, art, and drama critic (reviews rarely reflect the worth of the film, book, or drama, but a number of factors, the personal relation between author and critic, their respective political parties, relative ages, philosophical bias, and so forth), his own strategic expert in times of war (nobody will tell him who is winning and when to run until too late), and his own fiscal expert (to distinguish which are the taxes to be paid fully, which only in part, and which to be ignored altogether). He must at times be his own lawyer, policeman, and judge. In short, his security depends not on the combined exertions of his countrymen to which he should add his own but mostly on his individual capacities and native shrewdness.
(My italics.) The Italians was published in 1964; the edition I have was printed in 1996.

Sunday, October 15, 2017


In what follows, I have changed a personal name and an agency name and acronym. Otherwise the conversation took place as I give it.

A few minutes before eight this morning, the telephone rang. I got it on the second ring. A woman began speaking:

"Hello, I'm calling from the NOC. Alistair is locked out of the database and can't work."
"I'm sorry, what? (My employer strictly speaking doesn't have a network-operations center (NOC). It has a couple of network administrators with offices a few doors down from mine.)
"Alistair is locked out of the database. You're on the DBA team right?"
"Well, yes, I am a database administrator." (One who could not just then recall any Alistair among the users of those various databases.)
"So you'll take care of this?"
"Well, give me his telephone number, and I'll see what I can do."
"I only have his work number."
"That's OK". I wrote it down.
"Oh, and give me his email address," I said.
"His CBFC email?"
"Wait, Chesapeake Bay Fisheries Commission? I don't work for them."
"Oh, who is this?"
"George ...."
"Oh, I'm sorry, I have a wrong number."

At that point I gave her the number she had reached, she apologized again, and we hung up.

Now, I can imagine mis-dialing many numbers in this town, and getting the wrong person of the right trade: lawyers, lobbyists, and policemen come to mind. But though I do know several database administrators whom I did not meet in the line of work, I don't think that there are so many of us. On the other hand I know of two men who became friends when one mistakenly called the other and asked a question about Filemaker Pro, which the other was able to answer.

The agency I have called CBFC does important work, though I don't know how much requires developers or analysts to be logged in on a Sunday morning. I hope that the other DBA was able to get Alistair's login squared away.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Last weekend, a dog within earshot spent much of the day barking. I suspect that the owners were gone for the day and had left it out.  I noticed this summer, while reading The World As Will and Representation, a passage in Volume II, Chapter III:
Actually, I have long been of the opinion that the quantity of noise anyone can comfortably endure is in inverse proportion to his mental powers, and may therefore be regarded as a rough estimate of them. Therefore, when I hear dogs barking unchecked for hours in the courtyard of a house, I know what to think of the mental powers of the inhabitants. ... We shall be quite civilized only when our ears are no longer outlawed and it is no longer anyone's right to cut through the consciousness of every thinking being within a circuit of a thousand yards, by means of whistling, howling, bellowing, hammering, whip-cracking, letting dogs bark, and so on.
Years ago, we lived in an apartment that looked out on a yard where a dog was left out all day to bark at strangers, trains, leaves blowing down the alley, etc. It was my impression that the owners simply didn't hear the dog, because they were inside with the windows down and the TV on. On the other hand, their tolerance for noise must have been high. One Saturday morning we were awakened when the man of the house propped a skillet on the porch steps and buffed the rust from its bottom with an attachment on an electric drill. That sounded as if a spoon had gone into a garbage disposal, only much louder.

Washington will not be civilized by Schopenhauer's standard anytime soon. It is difficult to walk many blocks in any direction downtown without passing a construction site. The other day at lunch time, I saw a shredder truck operating on I St. NW opposite Lafayette Square: I don't know who can manage concentrated thought within a block of one of those.  Musicians play wind instruments and electric guitars on busy corners. Yet a co-worker has said in response to my complaints that Washington is much quieter than Taipei.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Adjectives He Keeps

In the chapter "Clio: A Muse" of Teacher in America, Jacques Barzun wrote that
An historian is known by the adjectives he keeps, and textbook writers would become better historians if they got rid of most of theirs, or at least replaced them with more strongly felt ones.
A book that I have just read brings this to mind, The Epic of Latin America  by John A. Crow. It weighs in at a bit more than nine hundred pages, and I kept thinking that an historian with better discipline as a writer might have brought it in nearer five hundred. Really, though Crow overdid the adjectives, the weakness is a general lack of feeling for the language. Every dozen pages, I found a passage such as
When the century drew to a close it left a maze of overlapping institutions, race fusions, social classes, architecture, feelings, and thought, all hammered together into a single frame. Generally speaking, this framework did not change greatly in succeeding years.
On page 910 there appears the paragraph
"The English language itself," [Américo Castro] add sadly, "is being impoverished in the cultural circle of the United States, because the university man, caught by the spirit of the masses, does not dare avoid triviality." He might have added that widespread radio and television broadcasts and high pressured business dealings have lowered considerably the level of American speech because the best examples are no longer held up before us, and because a correct knowledge of the English language is no longer considered necessary for success.
Fair enough: but after nine hundred pages of the book's prose, this is like being lectured by Falstaff on clean living and body-mass index.

The Epic of Latin America is published by the University of California Press. The sometime director of that press, August Frugé, wrote in his memoir A Skeptic Among Scholars of drastically cutting back on the copy editing of the manuscripts. I was ready to blame Frugé's policy for the bagginess of the work, which might have made a better book at half its size. But I find that Frugé had barely started at Berkeley when the first edition came out in 1946.

The book will serve well enough for reference for one wishing to remember the progress of the Spanish colonization of the Americas, or of the succession of governments in the Latin American countries since. I don't think anyone will read it for the cultural insights, though they are there to be found: it is just too much work to find them, and it is not clear to me that the author recognized the difference between communicating insights and passing on current cliches. A reader comfortable in Spanish might make a good thing of the references, though she will have to locate them in the notes.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Flat Feet

In Heinrich Mann's novel Man of Straw (in German Der Untertan), the eponymous anti-hero Diederich Hessling manages to get out of his compulsory year of military service as having flat feet. In the first letter of Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900-1949, Thomas Mann describes to his brother the progress of his scheme to get out of the army on the same plea. A dozen years later he summarized this for Heinrich Mann, then writing Man of Straw. Hessling got his disqualification from a medical officer who had belonged to the same student society, the Young Teutons. Thomas Mann got his through a medical officer who was friends of the family physician.

It seems unlikely that the German army lost greatly by Thomas Mann's early release from duty in 1900. No doubt he would have been on the old side to have been recalled for duty in 1914.

It is not clear to me whether Penguin keeps Man of Straw in print, but the book does not seem hard to come by. As a satire on Wilhelmine Germany it is powerful. As a picture of that society, one wonders whether it isn't exaggerated. The University of California Press has put Letters etc. out of print. I found it used, and haven't read far in it.

Sunday, September 24, 2017


While running in Rock Creek Park on Saturday, I saw a couple of young men in blue tee shirts standing at the foot of Bingham Road. I'd have liked to have been able to read their tee shirts, but I couldn't. Then in the parking lot of a picnic grove I saw an easel set up, and near it nine or a dozen camouflage packs laid down. A young woman stood in Beach Drive with a clipboard, so I asked her.

It was a ROTC field exercise, she said. Her blue tee shirt read "Hoya Battalion" on the front, and she had on camouflage trousers. I went on my way. On the return leg of the run, at Wise Road and Oregon Avenue, I saw a young man in the same outfit. He had a five-gallon jerrycan on the trunk of his car.

Thirty and more years ago I would see the Georgetown University ROTC contingent in full camouflage utilities, getting their coffee at near campus before their duties began. On reflection, I am a  bit surprised that I never saw them out in the woods then, for I ran a lot more in those days.

I hope that the camouflage trousers went straight into the wash after the exercise. Rock Creek Park has a great deal of poison ivy, and the oils from the leaves can remain effective on unwashed clothes.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Beach Drive

Since we moved to Crestwood in July, 2004, on most weekend days we have walked down Mattewson Drive to Blagden Avenue, and followed that to Beach Drive. From that point we have gone running, sometimes together, usually separately. That won't work for the next several months.

At the end of August, the contractors finished repaving Beach Drive from Tilden Street down to Cathedral Avenue. The National Park Service then blocked off the next stretch of Beach Drive, from Tilden up to Joyce Road. The barriers, as I encountered them that Wednesday, were nothing one could not step over or around. On September 3, the barriers had been pushed aside, and Beach Drive above Broad Branch was full of runners, walkers, and bicyclists.

Last Saturday, we walked down Blagden as usual, but found a construction site at the bottom. There were workers with jackhammers taking up pavement, and there was a policeman, polite but very definite that we might not pass through. We walked back uphill to Argyle Terrace, after which my wife ran around the neighborhood, and I ran up to get into the park near Carter Barron.

Now Carter Barron, the next obvious access point north, is a good route into the park. The difficulty arises with access from the south. The nearest way is along Piney Branch Parkway. The right side looking downhill  is mostly all right, in having a place to run out of the roadway. However, it has about twenty yards where a chain link fence comes right to the curb, and there one must run in the gutter while cars go by at what seems high speed. On the other side of the road the ground is less satisfactory, and there is an equal or greater stretch of chain link. After that, one ends up at Klingle Road, which is farther down the park than I'd prefer to get in, or, on a route that started upstream, out.

The neighborhood in general is unhappy, though more about vehicle access, or so I judge from the email traffic To cross the park one must go north to Military Road or south to Park Road. In the best case this adds ten or fifteen minutes to the time needed to drive to Chevy Chase or points west. A family on our block determined to sell their house this year because of the road work: the husband's commute to Tyson's Corner needed no lengthening, they thought. They now live in Chevy Chase.

I should add the bike trail replaced over the past year is very smooth, and I gather that the roadway is too. The pavement above Tilden is not smooth, but rather much patched. When running on it I aim to compromise between avoiding the worst bumps and cavities on the one hand and intruding on space the bicyclists suppose to be theirs on the other. I look forward to that work being done, if not to the detours we shall have to make around it in the meantime.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Friend of My Copier

This past week, I received a request to connect on LinkedIn from a person whose name I did not recognize. This happens regularly, but in most cases I can guess a connection: the person is in a technology business, or is connected with someone else I know. This person had no obvious connection.

Then I looked more closely at the mail, and saw that the email was addressed to scanning@myorg.tld. Then I understood, or thought I did. Somebody in our organization had used one of the Xerox Multifunction Copiers to scan a document to be emailed this person. At some later date his person had signed up for LinkedIn, and clicked on the button that allows LinkedIn to see her email address book. LinkedIn had immediately sent emails on her behalf to every address in it, whether that address belonged to a person or a machine.

I suppose that someone with time to waste could create a LinkedIn profile corresponding to the address--Steven or Susan Canning, maybe. But the minor amusement to be derived from prank doesn't seem to me to be worth the multiplication of junk emails.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Troubling Thought

Noticed last week in The World as Will and Representation:
Thilo (Über den Ruhm) also observes that  usually there belongs to the vulgar herd one more than each of us believes.
(Supplements to the Third Book, Chapter XXXI, "On Genius")

I am not sure that I ever considered myself as not vulgar--I remember too much evidence to the contrary. It is true that I seldom consider myself as mistaken. Yet an acquaintance with the history of reputations keeps me from believing too much in the lasting value of my judgments of any given work of art.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Unexpected Reading

On Friday, I had more or less a notion of what I would read Friday evening and Saturday: one book until it wore me out, then perhaps another. That might have worked had I not stopped by Second Story Books after work, and had I not found there The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith. Late Saturday afternoon,  I was able to think that I had probably read enough Smith for the week and might go on to other matter.

The volume is "Edited, with an introduction, by W.H. Auden". Auden justly remarks that
 As a general rule it is the fate of the polemical writer to be forgotten when the cause for which he fought has been won or is no longer a live issue, and it will always be difficult to persuade a later generation that there can be exceptions, polemical writers, journalists if you will of such brilliance and charm that they can be read with delight and admiration by those to whom their subject matter is itself of little interest.
Indeed so. I would not have said that the changes in Church of England benefices under a Whig administration a century and a half ago could hold the least interest for me. But Smith, a canon of St. Paul's, though probably at that point in his life not much dependent on such revenue, fills pages that I couldn't stop reading. One might call his arguments worldly--
I object to the confiscation [of livings from the deans and chapters of the cathedrals] because it will throw a great deal more of capital out of the parochial Church than it will bring into it. I am very sorry to come forward with so homely an argument, which shocks so many Clergymen, and particularly those with the largest incomes, and the best Bishoprics; but the truth is, the greater number of Clergymen go into the Church in order that they may derive a comfortable income from the Church. Such men intend to do their duty, and they do it; but the duty is, however, not the motive, but the adjunct. If I were writing in gala and parade, I would not hold this language; but we are in earnest, and on business; and as very rash and hasty changes are founded upon contrary suppositions of the pure disinterestedness and perfect inattention to temporals in the Clergy, we must get down at once to the solid rock, without heeding how we disturb the turf and the flowers above. The parochial  Clergy maintain their present decent appearance quite as much by their own capital as by the income derived from the Church.... So that by the old plan of paying by lottery, instead of giving a proper competence to each, not only do you obtain a parochial clergy upon much cheaper terms; but from the gambling propensities of human nature, and the irresistible tendency to hope that they shall gain the great prizes, you tempt men into your service who keep up their credit, and yours, not by your allowance, but by their own capital.
.. when every atom of power and patronage ought to be husbanded for the Crown. A Prebend of Westminster for my second son would soften the Catos of Cornhill and lull the Gracchi of the Metropolitan Boroughs. Lives there a man so absurd, as to suppose that Government can be carried on without those gentle allurements? You may as well attempt to poultice off the humps of a camel's back as to cure mankind of these little corruptions.
--but I at least kept reading.

One can find the Peter Plymley letters on-line at Gutenberg, and they make a good introduction to Smith. The abuses the letters address, in the treatment of the Catholics of Ireland, were largely resolved within twenty-five years after the writing, and I think that I could canvass a fairly literate acquaintance of two dozen without finding three persons who could identify most of the persons that Smith wrote against. (Castlereagh and Canning, maybe; Spencer Perceval, George Rose, and Lord Eldon, probably not.) Still the letters are readable. They offer among other things an example of what political polemics can be in the hands of the literate. Perceval is a favorite target, but Canning gets his share:
It is only the public situation which this gentleman holds which entitles me or induces me to say so much about him. He is a fly in amber, nobody cares about the fly: the only question is, How the Devil did it get there? Nor do I attack him for love of glory, but from the love of utility, as a burgomaster hunts a rat in a Dutch dyke, for fear it should flood a province.

Thursday, August 31, 2017


At work, we have switched email systems for the second time in eight years. This transition, like the last, called to some users' attention just how much junk is in their list of contacts. In four hundred weeks, one can build--one's mailer can build for one--a remarkably long list of email addresses.

The last time, I set up some scripts to de-duplicate contact lists. The machine I ran them on was shut down and removed years ago, so over the last week I had a look to see what was involved in rewriting them. It wasn't difficult to write something that actually winnowed the junk. On the other hand, the number of the addresses was amazing.

How is that the list has the email addresses of forty persons at the Ford Foundation? I have never, that I know, exchanged an email with any of them. Why a handful of persons at this or that university where I have never had dealings? I suspect that I have the slightly misspelled email address of one of our department heads because somebody's fingers remembered "i before e" when it was not applicable. I know why I have the email addresses of persons who left our organization in 2010 or 2011, but do I really want to cull them one at a time?

Rather than grapple with these questions, I've set up a simple web page where the help desk techs may, if they wish, submit a comma-separate variable (csv) file, and get back three files:
  •  The better, meaning that every record is no worse than any other for the same email address, where "better" has to do with whether the name fields look like names, or like something split automatically from an email address.
  • The worse, meaning that every record is no better than at least one other for the same email address, using the definition of "better" given above.
  • The bad, meaning that there is no email address, or that it is in a less useful format such as an LDAP path.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


We have pickets around our front and back porches. They show well, but require a fair bit of maintenance. Those in the back get almost no sun, so that every now and then we suddenly notice that they have mold on them. Those in front get sun for much of the day, so that the paint peels and cracks; but they still get mold on, just less. The rails of both are apt to rot. In general, if you wish to know what sort of mold spores are in the air in your neighborhood, white pickets seem to serve well.

During the last couple of weekends, we have scrubbed what we could of the mold off the back pickets and about half of those in front. Once the scrubbing is done, we will next have to scrape away the peeling or cracked paint, and then, probably in October, we will paint them, either all or as needed.

Painting pickets is a remarkably tedious job. The difficulty of any given task of painting seems to me to depend on the ratio of surface to edge or corner work. Pickets are all edge, unless one finds it convenient to paint with a brush narrower than one inch. A contractor we knew said that he always quoted such work very high for just that reason.

Once in Martha's Vineyard, I noticed a couple of men painting pickets. One sat on one side, one on the other, and the work seemed to go very efficiently that way. Probably that is how we will paint ours. The men we saw seemed to be painters by trade, and no doubt did a good, professional, expensive job. We are not painters by trade, but we suit our own budget.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


I think of the noun "stuff" as colloquial. Years ago, when our son was in his mid-teens, and like most men of that age informed his parents on a need-to-know basis, we were returning from a neighborhood party. Those of middle age and college age had been out on the lawn, the young had been in the basement. My wife asked about the basement:
Wife: Who was down there?
Son: People.
W: What did you do?
S: Stuff
 Colloquial, perhaps, but not modern, for happening this week to open George Cavendish's The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, I found
"Sir, then," quod I, "will it please your grace to move the King's majesty in my behalf to give me one of the carts and horses that brought up my stuff with my lord's, which is now in the tower, to carry it into my country?"
Well, what would one have said in place of stuff? "Property" or "belongings" would serve now. The OED gives several pages to "stuff", with citations going back to the 1400s in the sense of personal property.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Concepts and Perception

In Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman tells of winding up a sabbatical year  in Rio de Janeiro with a lecture stating that no science was taught in Brazil. As a demonstration of his point, he stated that he could flip to a random page in the elementary physics textbook and find not science but memorization:
    So I did it. Brrrrrrrup--I stuck my finger in, and I started to read: "Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed..."
     I said, "And there, have you got science? No. You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven't told anything about nature--what crystals produce light when you crush them,  why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can't.
     "But if, instead, you were to write, 'When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called "triboluminescence"'. Then somebody will go home and try it. Then there's an experience of nature.
The previous pages had examples of students who knew all the rules for polarization and refraction, without having it occur to them that light off a bay is polarized, or that glass has an index of refraction. (This would have been in 1951.)

Elsewhere Feynman speaks of listening to and intervening in talks in Japan:
He thinks I'm following the steps mathematically, but that's not what I'm doing. I have the specific, physical example of what he's trying to analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the thing. So when the equation says it should be have so-and-so, and I know that's the wrong way around, I jump up and say, "Wait! There's a mistake!"
  Chapter VII of the Supplements to the First Book, in the second volume of The World as Will and Representation, has the title "On the Relation of Knowledge of Perception to Abstract Knowledge". Schopenhauer writes that
On the other hand, to perceive, to allow the things themselves to speak to us, to apprehend and grasp new relations between them, and then to precipitate and deposit all this into new concepts, in order to possess it with certainty; this is what gives us new knowledge. But whereas almost everyone is capable of comparing concepts with concepts, to compare concepts with perceptions is a gift of the select few. ... Even writing and speaking, whether didactic or poetical, have as their ultimate aim the guidance of the reader to that knowledge of perception from which the author started; if they do not have this aim, they are bad. For this reason the contemplation and observation of everything actual, as soon as it presents something new to the observer, is more instructive than all reading and hearing about it....
    With most books, quite apart from the really bad ones, if they are not entirely of empirical content, it is true that the author has thought but not  perceived; he has written from reflection, not from intuition. .. I will introduce the difference here touched on by a quite easy and simple example. Every commonplace writer will describe profound contemplation or petrified astonishment by saying: "He stood like a statue"; but Cervantes says: "Like a draped statue; for the wind moved his garments" (Don Quixote, Bk. vi, ch. 19). In such a way have all great minds always thought in the presence of perception, and in their thinking kept their gaze steadily on it. We recognize this, among other things, in the fact that even the most heterogeneous of them so often agree and concur in detail, just because they all speak of the same thing which they all had before their eyes, namely the world, the actuality of perception.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Uses of Email

At the office, we have moved from Outlook to GMail. Mostly the process went smoothly. I doubt that I will ever like the GMail interface as well as the Outlook web interface or fat client. (Yes, I know that one can use the Outlook client with GMail; but it isn't supported, and I have better things to do with my time than fight through that.) However, I grudgingly moved from GroupWise to Outlook some years ago, and got used to the latter, so I suppose I will forget Outlook almost as thoroughly as I have GroupWise.

There was some difficulty with moving certain shared mailboxes to Google groups, though. The network admin sent me a link to Google's page on automatic posting. The Python sample worked nicely once I had Python 2.7 installed on a virtual machine. Then it was a matter of reading the Outlook object documentation. Presently, I had a script to take messages from an Outlook inbox and post them to a Google group. It turned out that the messages in the box in question all had attachments, which meant a longer look at the Outlook and Python documentation. But presently that worked, too.

Then I had a close look at the Outlook inbox: about 1200 messages, all with attachments. I raised a question with the manager concerned: shouldn't this all be in a database? A simple table of administrator, employee, subject, date, and document could be easily searched, sorted and presented. We could in a matter of days put up a web interface to allow submission of the documents and allow her staff to see them. The answer was roughly: We are used to this, and people can check it on their phones. Well, they could on the interface I proposed, too. I pushed the messages.

For about twenty-five years I have seen people use email as a database, generally with some ill effects. In the old days, it slowed the shared minicomputer, for simply keeping track of thousands of files in one directory slowed such systems. Now it simply leads to important information being lost, or hard enough to find that it might as well be lost.

I do use email too much when I should write things down, or keep a computerized log of discussions held. It serves well enough as a journal, if one is reconciled to a journal that lasts only so many months. Now and then this does catch up with me.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


Schopenhauer sets forth the requirements for understanding The World as Will and Representation  in the preface to the first edition:
  1. Read the book twice.
  2. First read On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Philosophical Essay.
  3. Be acquainted with the principal works of Kant.
  4. For preference, be acquainted with Indian thought.
  1. That will take a while: the two volumes comprise about 1100 pages, and I have only started the second.
  2. I didn't, but perhaps will take up the book this fall.
  3. I thought that I was acquainted with Kant's work. However, the appendix to the first volume, "Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy", disabused me.
  4. I am a bit weak on this point.
It would be fascinating to see the copies of Kant's works that Schopenhauer used, I imagine: what annotations must he have made? I can see that after setting Schopenhauer aside I should probably go back and read through The Critique of Pure Reason again.

The second-last paragraph of the preface runs
I am afraid, however, that even so I shall not be let off. The reader who has got as far as the preface and is put off by that, has paid money for the book,and wants to know how he is to be compensated. My last refuge now is to remind him that he knows of various ways of using a book without precisely reading it. It can, like many another, fill a gap i nhis library, where, neatly bound, it is sure to look well. Or he can lay it on the dressing-table or tea-table of his learned lady friend. Or finally he can review it; this  is assuredly the best course of all, and the one I specially advise.
In the Austrian movie "Das weite Land", based on Arthur Schnitzler's play of the same name and released in the US as "The Undiscovered Country", the doomed admirer of the industrialist's wife gives her a copy of The World as Will and Representation shortly before he shoots himself. I find that this cannot have occurred in the play, for when it commences the admirer is already dead and buried; whether the book turns up as a prop, I can't say, lacking the patience to find my way through many pages of Fraktur.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Back from Oregon

After a quick trip to Oregon, I have decided that it is best to vacation to the east of one's place of work. Difficulties discovered when everyone gets to work in that time zone will occur when one is awake, alert, perhaps ready to take a break from hours of sightseeing. Those discovered in the afternoon can be dealt with in the morning, when the workplace is still dark.

Corvallis was hot, by local standards. To us it felt comfortable, with temperatures around what we had left in Washington, DC, but with very low humidity. The air cooled quickly after sunset, and there was a breeze. Newport, which we visited on Friday, was foggy and cool. I walked into the ocean water just far enough that my feet were wet and my ankles not, and considered that this was enough.

A large swath of Oregon will be in the path of totality during the eclipse of August 21. Everyone is preparing for an immense influx of tourists. A friend in Salem has rented out her apartment for one night at $1000. Oregon State University is putting tourists up in its dormitories, and letting them camp out on its fields. Smaller towns are wondering how everyone will get home--gas stations have only so large a tank, and small towns may have only one gas station. (People are thinking of calculations such as 1500 gallons/tank divided by 500 cars multiplied by 25 miles per gallon minus 100 miles to the average next stop. One hopes that the tourists will arrive with a fair bit of gas in the tank.) Everyone expects the worst traffic jam in the history of the state.

I would not mind seeing the eclipse, but I don't envy those who will have seen it and wish to get home. In 1999 we happened to be at Neuschwanstein during an eclipse. We hadn't known of the eclipse until long after we made our travel plans, and we thought little about it after the sky brightened. Having seen the castle we left, heading west in fast-moving traffic. Then, about Ulm, the traffic slowed considerably. In my recollection, we were in a traffic jam from Stuttgart to Mannheim. The cars traveled at about walking pace between rest stops and went stop-and-go past them. We got to our hotel in the Hunsrück very late.

I did not take many pictures this time, but here is a thistle on one of the streets near the OSU campus:

And here are some items to keep yourself entertained in the Interzone cafe across from campus:

I wonder whether mediocre ukulele playing is tolerated as calmly as bad chess.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017


Last night, I happened to read Les Murray's poem "Upright Clear Across", about floods that would cover the Pacific Highway when he was a boy. The children would earn pocket money guiding motorists across causeways then flooded:
Every landing brought us ten bobs and silver
and a facing lot with a bag on their motor
wanting us to prove again what we
had just proved, that the causeway was still there.
Today, I heard from a co-worker of difficulties during her recent vacation at the shore. They began when her sister's car was flooded during heavy rains a couple of weeks ago. The local mechanic told them that the insurance company would write the car off as a total loss, for the electronics in modern cars don't tolerate flooding. He mentioned among the possible consequences the sudden deployment of an air bag. And in fact, the insurance company did write off the sister's car. Insurance companies will presumably have to write off some rental cars as well, for the car the sister rented to go home in sloshed on starting and stopping. The sisters returned it, and returned in a tightly packed car.

I  am grateful for many of the electronics in modern cars. I would not care to go back to the days before there were air bags. But cars did once stand more abuse. Every summer in Denver, thunderstorms would flood I-25, otherwise the Valley Highway, and some cars would get water on their spark plugs and stall. They started well enough when the plugs were dried off, or so I remember it. And evidently the cars Murray wrote off tolerated a bit of water, maybe with some salt in it.

Monday, July 31, 2017


When I run, I find that bicyclists now and then startle me. Some announce "on your left" from a couple of feet back. Others suddenly appear without a sound as they speed by my elbow. Once in a great while there is cyclist who will repeat "on your left" as if he thought of the pavement as all his to use, and of pedestrians as intruders. Commonly they are moving at three times my speed or more; I don't blame them--why else use a bike?--but it can make them hard to dodge and would make for a forceful collision if one didn't manage to dodge. I am wary of bicyclists as a class.

On Sunday, a couple of young bicyclists passed on the other side of the road, bantering. They were far enough away to be perceived neutrally, and I noticed them only by the woman's light green top. Probably I would have forgotten them by the end of the run as thoroughly as I forgot the rest of the day's  bicyclists apart from the "on your left" fellow on the upstream leg.

But half a mile on, they were stopped beside a motorized wheelchair. They had found the young man in it complaining of a sudden pain in his hand, and stopped. They had removed the ant that was biting him between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. They assured him that he was not bleeding. At his request the male cyclist raised the young man's arm enough that he could see where he had been bitten. The young woman assured him that she had often sustained briefly painful bites but suffered no consequences from them. I could see that they were going to remain until they had restored the young man to peace of mind, and I went on.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Means of Instruction

In looking again at St. Augustine's Confessions, I have been noticing how tough a school he learned in when young:
... as our parents mocked the torments which we suffered in boyhood from our masters? For we feared not our torments less; nor prayed we less to Thee to escape them
Among his sincerest boyhood prayers seem to have been that he might not be beaten at school. And later he mentions "the masters' canes" as one end of a scale reaching to "the martyr's trials".  St. Augustine wrote his Confessions when in his early forties, but he had not forgotten the troubles of elementary schooling.

It recalls Flann O'Brien, in the  "Waama, etc." section of The Best of Myles:
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 schoolboy is crazy about Latin and cannot bear to be away from his dictionary.
Someone suggested that the decline of classical studies was brought on by the end of corporal punishment. I can't think who that was: my inclination to say Ford Madox Ford probably derives from a sentence of his about having been taught by stick how to write Latin hexameters; but I don't think it was Ford. And such inducement was not limited to Latin. Henry Roth's Call It Sleep shows instruction in Hebrew, as practiced in New York about 1910,  proceeding with a lot of slaps.

Corporal punishment had largely gone out of fashion by the time I reached school. My own worst memories are of dullness that was just not quite enough to numb. Would I have learned more under the threat of the stick?

Perhaps, or perhaps not. I think that it is Fowler who mentions the men who left Eton not knowing Greek or Latin, but with a firm conviction that there were such languages. Anthony Trollope claimed to have received a good deal of correction to little effect in his dozen years of schooling:
I suppose I must have been in the writing master's class, but though I can call to mind the man, I cannot call to mind his ferule. It was by their ferules that I always knew them, and they me. I feel convinced in my mind that I have been flogged oftener than any human being alive. It was just possible to obtain five scourgings in one day at Winchester, and I have often boasted that I obtained them all. Looking back over half a century, I am not quite sure whether the boast is true; but if I did not, nobody ever did.
And yet when I think how little I knew of Latin or Greek on leaving Harrow at nineteen, I am astonished at the possibility of such waste of time.
St. Augustine, though conscious of having deserved his punishments, suggests that the painless instruction of nurses and friends taught him Latin more efficiently:
No doubt, then, that a free curiosity has more force in our learning these things, than a frightful enforcement.
Nor did all the beatings inflicted for the overcome his distaste for Greek, for when older he found himself studying Platonism and then the New Testament without being able to read the texts in the original.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Disinclination for Mathematics

I have always had my doubts about writers who boasted, or seemed to boast, of their incompetence in mathematics. Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, and Robertson Davies come to mind. A passage in the first section of James's Notes of a Son and Brother runs for example
 I so feared and abhorred mathematics that the simplest arithmetical operation had always found and kept me helpless and blank--the dire discipline of the years bringing no relief whatever to my state...
Ford I recall as putting it more whimsically, Davies more plainly. But the message is the same. I was therefore struck by a passage noticed the other day in The World as Will and Representation, Third Book, Section 36:
The disinclination of men of genius to direct their attention to the content of the principle of sufficient reason will show itself first in regard to the ground of being, as a disinclination for mathematics. The consideration of mathematics proceeds on the most universal forms of the phenomenon, space and time, which are themselves only modes or aspects of the principle of sufficient reason: and it is therefore the very opposite of that consideration which seeks only the content of the phenomenon, namely the Idea expressing itself in the phenomenon apart from all relations. Moreover, the logical procedure of mathematics will be repugnant to genius, for it obscures real insight and does not satisfy it; it presents a mere concatenation  of conclusion according to the principle of the ground of knowing. Of all the mental powers, it makes the greatest claim on memory, so that one may have before oneself all the earlier propositions to which reference is made. experience has also confirmed that men of great artistic genius have no aptitude for mathematics; no man was ever very distinguished in both at the same time. Alfieri relates that he was never able to understand even the fourth proposition of Euclid.
Well, perhaps. On the other hand, in the first book, section 15, Schopenhauer writes that
In our view, however, this method of Euclid in mathematics can appear only as a very brilliant piece of perversity.... We see that such a method is like that of a wanderer who, mistaking at night a bright firm road for water, refrains from walking on it and goes over the rough ground beside it, content to keep from point to point along the edge of the supposed water.
Would Alfieri have made more progress with a better text?

There are writers I prefer to Ford and Davies, if not necessarily to James, who were competent in mathematics. Stendhal was briefly fond of mathematics in his youth. Novalis wrote some pages in praise of mathematics that might or might not reflect considerable knowledge. I suspect that Tolstoy, as artillerist, and Chekhov, as physician, must have picked up at least the rudiments, and likewise Eliot and Stevens as businessmen. Still, perhaps I should not roll my eyes the next time I encounter the anti-mathematical writer.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Reading Aloud

One night last week, I read the first three chapters of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet aloud. My wife's book club is to discuss this in a couple of weeks, and her eyes were bothering her. I noticed a number of things, some owing to reading aloud, some owing to this being a second reading.

First, about myself. I was unable to read the first chapter, a difficult childbirth, unmoved. One of the women in my wife's book club was not sure about going on with the book after the first chapter. I did not understand this when I heard of it; I do now. I wonder whether I would have read it the same way at 20 or 30, before I had been in a delivery room (save as the one delivered). I wonder what I made of it when our (shared) book club read it some years ago.

Second, about a detail. In the second chapter, an troublesome character on board the American ship Shenandoah is restrained by marines. But if this ship is an American ship of war, what is it doing carrying wares for the Dutch Overseas Company? And if it is not a ship of war, how does it come to have marines? Discipline, and often harsh discipline, was enforced in the American merchant marine from early days; but not by marines in the military sense.

Third, about another detail that I had noticed in rereading later chapters: David Mitchell does not seem to distinguish between cross and crucifix. As far as I know, the Anglicans of 1800 did not go in for crucifixes, nor did the Calvinists of that day. But in this novel they do. The Georgian captain of the Shenandoah seems to have plenty of crucifixes and rosaries for the Japanese customs service to secure and impound. Yet though Catholics were never unknown in the US merchant marine and Navy, were they that prevalent?

My wife has since purchased the audiobook. She says, and I believe, that the reader does better than I did. He uses different voices for the different characters; I might have tried that, had I been able to settle on what they should sound like. If I listen to the audiobook at all, though, it will be to see how the reader renders Dutch names--what does Vorstenbosch sound like, or Oost, or Gronigen?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pelikan, Newman, the University

During the academic year 1990-1991, Benno Schmidt, the president of Yale University, invited the scholar Jaroslav Pelikan
to deliver a set of public lectures together with a seminar durng the academic year 1990-91 on "The Future of the University," as the first in a series of events in preparation for the observation of Yale's tricentennial.
Those lectures, extensively revised, became The Idea of the University--a Reexamination, a volume that I recently purchased and read.

Pelikan professed himself, as the title of the first chapter reads, "In Dialogue with John Henry Newman". Elsewhere (for example in  The Vindication of Tradition and in The Melody of Theology) he has written of Newman's influence on him as historian of doctrine and as theologian. In this book he took Newman's Idea of a University as presenting ideas to agree with and argue against. The chapter titles all incorporate quotations from Newman.

Where Newman assumed and expounded the English (and Anglo-American) collegiate system, Pelikan's heritage was that of the German university as it developed during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. This is to say that he places much greater weight on the work of research, publishing, and the direction of graduate studies relative to the instruction of undergraduates. He makes a compelling case for the importance of research and publishing, so that among other considerations the matter of instruction shall not become static and dead. He considers the role of the university press and the libraries in disseminating knowledge.

Pelikan of course argues well. He exemplified the scholar as writer during his career. Yet I would argue that it  is never the case that all or even a majority of the works that come out of the universities are important. I think of Jacques Barzun's objection to the
further absurd assumption that when a man writes a scholarly book that reaches a dozen specialists he adds immeasurably to the world's knowledge; whereas if he imparts his thought and reading to one hundred and fifty students every year he is wasting his time and leaving the world in darkness.
Pelikan does acknowledge the objection to many such works:
 Yet is distressing to see how many scholarly books are still being written more with the reviewer than with the reader in mind.... Therefore scholars must learn "contemplata aliis tradere" beyond the charmed circle of other professors. if scholars are to carry out this publishing responsibility, they have the obligation to give a lot more attention than they now do to the question of how we are to publish lest we perish.
(Contemplata aliis tradere: to communicate to others the fruits of one's contemplations, the motto of the Dominican Order, as Pelikan helpfully explains on the previous page.)

There is also the question of the suitability of German model to American conditions. John Jay Chapman wrote long ago in his essay on President Eliot, referring to the elective system he had introduced to Harvard College:
Now in Germany, where every student is already a highly educated person, who knows what he wants and knows how to work, such a system is admirable. But in America, where the boys come up to college with broken sets of rudimentary reminiscence, and without knowing what they want or how to get it, the great need in any University is the need of good teaching.
 Do the boys (and girls) now come up to college with better preparation than in Chapman's day? I suspect in the sciences and in mathematics they do; in modern if not classical languages they may also. Pelikan does consider the question of secondary schools, and the university's duty to shape their instruction and materials, and to prepare their teachers. This is something that I have not often seen mentioned in my (spotty) reading of works on universities. Jacques Barzun does mention it in passing in Teacher in America, and Richard Feynman's Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman has a curious few pages on textbooks for elementary instruction.

And? The book requires a second reading, which I have hardly begun. The bibliography runs to almost seventeen pages: it includes about a dozen works I have read through, half a dozen I have looked into, many more that I should read, and a couple that I will.

Friday, June 30, 2017


At a retirement party the other day, I spoke to someone who had been my boss's boss. He thanked me for pointing him some years ago to a passage by Tom DeMarco in Peopleware:
In my early years as a developer, I was privileged to work on a project managed by Sharon Weinberg, now president of the Codd and Date Consulting Group. She was a walking example of much of what I now think of as enlightened management. One snowy day, I dragged myself out of a sickbed to pull together our shaky system for a user demo. Sharon came in and found me propped up at the console. She disappeared and came back a few minutes later with a container of soup. After she'd poured it into me and buoyed up my spirits, I asked her how she found time for such things with all the management work she had to do. She gave me her patented grin and said, "Tom, this is management."
He had stopped by our department on some minor errand, and this brought the story to mind.

Our conversation the other day brought another bit of reading to mind, this from Herbert Simon's memoir Models of My Life. The passage is from Chapter 9, "Building a Business School: The Graduate School of Industrial Administration" (at Carnegie Institute of Technology, which later merged with the Mellon Institute to become Carnegie Mellon University). It concerns the first dean of that school, Lee Bach:
When I try to describe his style, it always seems too simple, too obvious. It's like saying of a tennis ace, "He always hit the ball squarely and with force, placing it precisely where he aimed." If you you can do that, you can be a great tennis player. But is the advice worth teaching? What do you do with that information?...

I warned you that I would say little about Lee that would tell you how to be a good manager, and I have made good my warning. The principles of good management are simple, even trivial. They are not widely practiced for the same reason that Christianity is not widely practiced. it is not enough to know what the principles are; you must acquire deeply ingrained habits of carrying them out, in the face of all sorts of strong urges to stray onto more comfortable and pleasant paths, to respond to provocations, and just to goof off. Lee had the self-discipline actually to apply the principles, to behave like a good manager and a leader. Not many of us do.
I am grateful to have worked for a few persons who had that self-discipline.