Saturday, March 31, 2018

Being Told at Dictation Speed What He Knew

About two thirds of the way through Kingsley Amis's novel The Old Devils, the leading character, Alun Weaver, is being lectured by a stranger in a pub:
"Yes, I know." Alun's life was coming to consist more and more of being told at dictation speed what he knew.
I first read this in my early thirties, and enjoyed it. I did not then guess how often I would have occasion to think of it in my fifties and sixties. Conversations are not the worst for this, for there one sometimes has the chance to talk back, to clarify or cut the explanation short. The stores are full of books that assume that the reader knows nothing of the subject, and then get everything from details to the premise badly wrong.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Red Notice

Some of the last chapter of Peter Pomerantsev's Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia is set in London, in a world of Russian expatriates. There are hustlers and presumed crooks, there are the polished children of wealth come by dubiously. In this setting Bill Browder is an anomaly: an American, and a man not out to get more money or to swap some of it for status, but out to find a measure of justice for Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer murdered by the Russian legal system for exposing the frauds committed against Browder's companies. Pomerantsev gives a respectful picture of Browder and his lawyer Jamison Firestone, but they come off as a bit obsessed.  Pomerantsev's producers found the segment about them did not fit into the narrative of a TV show on Russians in London

Browder's own book Red Notice gives his story and Magnitsky's in great detail. He is in fact obsessed, and one cannot blame him. Rather than summarize the book, let me say that it is inexpensive--$17.00 US before tax--readable, and quickly read. If you have read newspapers or perhaps just listened to NPR, you may remember many of the details of the story. I did, but apart from the details I had never heard or had forgotten, I found it well worth reading..

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Barnacles and Ships

At Kramerbooks this week, the name in the subtitle of On The Decay of Criticism: The Complete Essays of W.M. Spackman made it worth a look. A passage on one of the first pages I opened it to shows why I had to buy it:
... I have not yet grown used to a kind of intellectual asthenia and rooted habit with which Latinists, for example, tackle reform. The data seem plain as daylight. Latin's working vocabulary is extremely small, its irregular verbs nearly nonexistent, its grammar point for point our own (except that Latin is far more regular), and the reading-matter could hardly be more literal-minded--in short, I cannot think of an Indo-European language easier to learn. On this simple structure, there merely happens to have been raised some of the most hair-raising Wissenschaft in the history of man--imperfects of dephlogistication, subjunctives of discontinuous contingent speculation, and every  kind of ablative we can crowd on the point of a pin. But surely there is not the slightest mystery possible about what is wanted--or does someone propose we expound the nature of barnacles when our students have come to us to learn about a ship?
("The Menace to Curriculum Reform")

Perhaps; but I'm not sure that a commitment to philology has been the true weakness of Latin instruction, then or now. A couple of generations have been born and passed through school since the essay was written seventy years ago, and of such as studied Latin, many understood it as punishment or at best discipline, one more thing to be got through to get out of school. It seems likely that Spackman was one of those with the knack for instruction,  and prevented by his own gifts from understanding the common case.

How the book came to be published by Fantagraphics, which describes itself as "Publisher of the World's Greatest Cartoonists", I cannot guess. But I am grateful to Fantagraphics for making an exception for Spackman. Dalkey Archive Press seems to have let Spackman's Complete Fiction go out of print.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Auxiliary Forms

Once, after teaching a session on auxiliary verbs to an ESL class, I remarked to a friend on the construction "might could", which I take to be a southern idiom for what another might express as "maybe could" or "might be able to". The friend, who grew up in Virginia, came back with "used to would". I had never heard this, but another ESL teacher, a native of Tennessee, said that she had. I take to "used to would" to be a slight modification of "used to"; but whether it strengthens or weakens it, I don't know.

This past week I was interested to find to "used to could" in The Pioneers. I suppose that "could then" or "once could" would convey the same meaning. Natty Bumppo, who uses the expression, is represented as a native of New York, therefore distinctly a northerner. I think that Mark Twain was mostly correct about Cooper as a novelist, but I imagine that Cooper knew how people spoke in upstate New York as 1800 approached.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Predictive Policing

It appears that for the last five or six years New Orleans Police Department has been experimenting with "predictive policing", using technology developed by Palantir. Meanwhile, the People's Republic of China has taken predictive policing farther than (we know) New Orleans has, making preemptive arrests.

In Lichtenberg's The Waste Books, item 91 of Notebook F reads
If physiognomy becomes what Lavater expects it to become, children will be hanged before they have perpetrated the deeds that deserve the gallows; a new kind of confirmation will thus be performed every year. A physiognomic auto-da-fé.
 "Big Data" or "Data Science" has the modern sound that "physiognomy" has lost.