Sunday, December 29, 2019

Monday, December 23, 2019


Today I saw on the side of a Metrobus an advertisement reminding the young of their duty to register with the Selective Service. It seemed to me that the last men drafted into the US military must have been born in 1953. On getting back to a computer, I looked it up, and found that
  • Some men born in 1952 were inducted into the military in 1972. No men born in 1953 or after were drafted.
  • The draft lottery continued through 1976 even so. I imagine that few men born between 1954 and 1956 could tell you the order in which their birthday was drawn; many of those born between 1950 and 1953 must still remember it. Certainly it was a matter of conversation.
Those due to register next year are therefore fifty years younger than the last men drafted. The Pentagon has been quite clear for many years that it has no interest in expanding the military to a size that would require a draft. Yet the young must still register, and penalties attach to a failure to do so. The Selective Service's FAQ says that
Registration is a way our government keeps a list of names of men from which to draw in case of a national emergency requiring rapid expansion of our Armed Forces. By registering all young men, Selective Service ensures that a future draft will be fair and equitable.
Well, maybe. The WW II draft was more or less fair and equitable, but then the US military had something around 14 million in uniform from a much smaller population--the 1940 census counted 132 million persons.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Amazon Web Services

Monday's New York Times has an article on Amazon Web Services (AWS), its ubiquity, and its effect on software providers. It writes of Amazon in the tone which twenty years ago people wrote of Microsoft. I did not see "embrace, extend, extinguish" in the article, but maybe I didn't look closely enough.

Amazon has identified a soft point in "open source" software: it is in general freely available for anyone's use, it is in principle freely available to be modified and extended; but this can mean that the advantage goes to the user with the most hardware, and the one with the most money to fund the adaptation and enhancement of existing products. These days, Amazon might well have the most hardware and the most money. Those who developed MariaDB, MongoDB, and Redis get a smaller share of the revenue generated from their work than Amazon does.

Yet for one who has followed this for some years, there are omissions in the picture. IBM has run Linux virtual machines (VMs) on its mainframes for many years, and has recently purchased Red Hat, which makes one of the most popular Linux distributions. During the years before the purchase, did Red Hat or IBM make the most money from this? Nor are IBM and Amazon the only companies that have made money off Linux: Google, Oracle, Facebook, and these days Microsoft run a lot of Linux. Does anyone consider any of these corporations more benevolent than Amazon?

Google based its Android operating system on Linux. If you set up an application on the Google Cloud Platform and need a database, one of the options you will have is MySQL, from which MariaDB is derived. (To be sure, at the moment the entities most scared of Google in the cloud world are its customers, who believe that it has considered abandoning GCP and could do so if it can't outdo AWS.)

I find Amazon's tactics troubling, and not only in cloud computing. Still, I thought the article could have used some nuance.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


A few times, over the years, I have been passing by Carter Barron when the carillon at the Presbyterian church opposite was working. The first time, I was nearly out of earshot before I recognized the tune as that of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God". The next time, I quickly recognized "Faith of Our Fathers". Now, I don't know what a classically Presbyterian hymn would be, but I was interested that they drew on the Lutheran and Catholic traditions.

My interest in this really began years ago, when happening to be in a Lutheran church, I noticed that the hymnal, and maybe the service, included a text by Peter Abelard. Since then, whenever I happen to be in a strange church, or near a new hymnal, I have a look for ecumenical borrowings. Owing to a falling off in weddings and graduations, I seldom have a chance to look now. It seemed to me that
  • The Catholic hymnals reliably carry Charles Wesley, and Martin Luther. John Newton's "Amazing Grace" will almost certainly be there, Calvinist though it clearly is.  Alexander Means's "What Wondrous Love Is This" will be there. You will also find "We Gather Together", and a number of hymns by Isaac Watts.
  • In a Protestant hymnal you will likely find Aquinas for "Adoro Te Devote", but of course not for "Pange Lingua"/"Tantum Ergo". Probably you will find Frederick Faber's "Faith of Our Fathers", and you may find the Jesuit martyr Brebeuf's "In the Moon of Winter". You can count on finding the "Come Holy Spirit" of Rabanus Maurus.
This weekend, in a Methodist church for a concert, I had a chance to browse the United Methodist hymnal. It was about as I expected: Brebeuf and Faber were there, also Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux though not Aquinas. At the end of the list of sources, I was interest to see "Wotyla, Karol: see John Paul II"--a litany for peace.
(Is it cheating to count as Catholic the hymns from before 1517? I think not, at least in the case of Abelard and Aquinas: both did a great deal to fit Aristotelian thought into Christian theology, and Martin Luther did not approve of Aristotle.)
On the other hand, the (Catholic) International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) does take only so many Protestant hymns. In Worship, there are seven by Charles Wesley, six by Isaac Watts, and three by Martin Luther, one by Alexander Means. By comparison, Richard Haas, who must be known mostly to choirmasters and the obsessives who read the matter in the back of Worship and Gather, has something like 30, as does Rory Cooney, though some of these must be psalm settings.

One sees, in looking through the hymnals, that there are only so many periods that have produced great hymns. There are notable Latin hymns from the high Middle Ages and before. The Reformation, particularly the Lutheran portion, produced some remarkable hymns, as later did the early Methodists and the American "Great Awakening". But  there are long periods that produced nothing memorable. In the United States, the later 19th Century produced a lot of Protestant hymns that one charitably might call "indifferent", and I don't know that the English contributions of that day were consistently better. A Catholic friend, an amateur of musicology, says hard things about the St. Louis Jesuits, who produced some of the hymns that linger on in American Catholic churches. Nor are they the only offenders in Gather and Worship.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Over the Door and in the Pews

'This is the door of the Lord', they wrote on the lintel of a church in Numidia, 'the righteous shall enter in.' 'The man who enters', however, wrote Augustine, 'is bound to see drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, people wearing amulets, assiduous clients of sorcerers, astrologers. . . . He must be warned that the same crowds that press into the churches on Christian festivals, also fill the theatres on pagan holidays.'
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, Chapter 19, "Ubi Ecclesia?"

The chapter concerns the beginnings of Augustine's controversy with the Donatists. As Brown remarks, the Donatist concern for purity of the church had somewhat less to do with the present behavior of the congregation than with the previous behavior of clergy during a persecution.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Beyond Coveting

According to a recent article in the New York Times, German scholars are working steadily away on a Latin dictionary, the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (T.L.I.) and hope to be done by 2050. I don't think that an actuary would advise me to subscribe. The dictionary aims to catalogue every way that a word was used between the earliest recorded Latin and about 600 A.D.

If the current eighteen volumes average three inches in thickness, that would amount to four and a half linear feet.  I wouldn't mind having a better Latin dictionary around the house--I regret one not bought a few years ago at a sale. But this is so far beyond any use I might have that I can admire the project but can't covet the product.

Saturday, November 30, 2019


Long ago, I used to read John Simon's movie reviews. Given his reputation, and given the movies, I must have read many savage put-downs. Yet curiously the only two reviews I remember were favorable: one of The Lacemaker, one of an Italian comedy. I did see a number of hard things said in Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline. It was something for Simon to have been thought to be the model for the obnoxious critic in Wilfrid Sheed's Max Jameson, and something to have acknowledged or boasted of the rumor, even if Sheed was in fact his own model.

(The Strand Books website places Paradigms Lost on the third of eight pages if one searches for "John Simon" as author. I can't but think that the late critic would have admired the title of a book on the first page, Filth-diseases and their Prevention, and might have supposed his endeavors to have some relation to those of the earlier John Simon.)

I started to read Clive James much too late, a few book reviews apart. I was hooked a few years ago when I opened Cultural Amnesia to the essay on Margaret Thatcher, which opens with the word "Solzhenitskin", a Thatcher coinage. I am slightly embarrassed to find that of the references in the book, I have followed up at most three: Nirad Chaudhuri, Sergei Diaghilev, and Egon Friedell. (Diaghilev, by visiting the National Gallery of Art's exhibit on the Ballets Russes a couple of years ago.) I have given copies of Cultural Amnesia and Latest Readings to friends, and have read Cultural Cohesion.

Both Simon and James died on Sunday, November 24.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

At the Airport

On Tuesday afternoon, we had a two-hour layover at the Philadelphia airport. When we arrived at the B concourse, we were amazed to find that most of the seats in view--bar stools or seats along tables--had tablet computers in front of them. The tablets' size was about ten inches by six, their manufacturer Initio. One could buy merchandise or services, play games, I suppose watch shows. The one thing one could not obviously do was to sit down without a bright display shining at one.

This was not true of all seats without exception. Along the windows there were the standard low seats one is used to find at airport gates. I suppose that some of the tables in restaurants must be without them, but I'm pretty sure I saw most with. A fortnight before, we saw no tablets in the concourse from which international flights leave.

The good news, we found, is that one can remove the tablet from its stand, and lay it face down on the bar or table. My wife and I did so. Our son simply opened his laptop in front of it so that it could not be seen. Still at least two of us found their presence obnoxious.

Many of the tablets are at long tables. The tables have the merit of offering power outlets, which can be scarce in airports. The tables are tall, about bar height, and the chairs in front of the tablets are bolted to the floor. One could defend both choices: the height of the table, to reduce shoulder surfing, i.e. keep the passers by from reading over one's shoulder; bolting down the chairs to keep the restless or careless from toppling a chair and injuring themselves or others.

It is hard not to see the motive for installing the tablets as a combination of the old human need for distraction--Pascal judged that eighty percent of the world's trouble arises from the inability to sit quietly in a room--and modern business's lust for our data and our dollars. Still, some may find the tablets useful. As long as we can place them face down, I won't resent them that much.

Monday, November 11, 2019

A Joke Lost

In the movie of The Accidental Tourist, there is a scene in which Macon Leary's boss, visiting the home of the Leary siblings, watches them all look at a ringing phone without making a move to answer it. They consider who might be calling--not the brother who is off on an errand, for he would know to call a neighbor instead. The boss becomes more and more nervous as the phone goes unanswered. The scene got a good laugh in the theater where I saw it.

Would anyone under twenty-five understand it? I'm not sure how many under thirty remember the days when a phone readout did not show who was calling (or purporting to call). Few enough live in a household with a landline and a telephone in a common area. Phones these days ride in the pocket and display the caller, or at least the purported number.

Though I grew up with landlines, I can sit peaceably and ignore a phone as once only eccentrics did. I'm sure no movie script would contain such a scene today. But it was funny then.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Dates and Databases

A co-worker of admirable initiative is learning SQL in what is probably best way there is: to meet an immediate need. I have offered a clarification or two when asked, but as far as I can tell she has been mastering it quickly.

A while ago, though, a query that should have produced some rows produced none, and it was not clear why. I had a look at the query provided, where the final restriction was something like
ImportantDate BETWEEN 2015-01-01 and 2017-12-31
meaning "the important date occurred in 2016, 2016, or 2017".

Now, not all database engines will accept this. Oracle will reject it as an attempt to use a number where a date belongs. SQL Server, though, and evidently MySQL will happily read 2015-01-01 and 2017-12-31 as arithmetic expressions reducing to 2013 and 1974 respectively. Now, there is no number that is larger than or equal to 2013 and less than or equal to 1974, so such a condition will never allow rows to be returned. She dropped single quotation marks around the dates, and got what she needed.

Monday, November 4, 2019

On Borrowed Words

Ilan Stavans's On Borrowed Word: A Memoir of Languages turned up here, though I don't quite remember buying it. I must have bought it, and that was the right decision. Stavans is tremendously interesting. I have little or no first-hand knowledge of most of what he writes about: the lives of Mexican Jews (of the generation about to turn 60 and their parents), Mexico in general, or life in Israel. But Stavans gives an interesting picture of his worlds, and of his parents' worlds.

The languages he writes of are Spanish,
I never learned to love Mexico. Instead, adoro the Spanish language. It is far easier for me to think of my birth as having occurred in the tongue of Quevedo, Cervantes, Borges, and Octavio Paz than to perceive myself as un mexicano hecho y derecho.

 Yiddish, a language for which
the number of speakers, whose average age was around fifty, made it a less used language than Serbo-Croatian .... [but] the mother tongue, whereas Spanish, the street language, the one I most often used, was the father tongue. The duality was not artificial; Jewishness (though not Judaism, at least not then) was in my heart and soul.

English, in which at first
 I could, indeed, make myself comfortable in English, but I could not dispel the sense of inhabiting a rented house, of bothering another person's suit.
Hebrew enchanted me. .. But language alone does not make the man, and when I exhausted my curiosity toward Israel, I also let go of the Holy Tongue and gravitated toward Europe.
By the time of writing the book, 2002, he had been resident in the US for a dozen or so years, as student and then as professor, and as journalist explaining the US to Latin America and vice-versa. He was quite at home in the rented house. Few enough born to the tongue write so well.

There are oddities in the book. Stavans's description of his Mexican passport seems to be badly copied from Robert Graves's description of his own in Goodbye to All That. Stavans says that the passport gives his height as 1.58 meters. This is about 5'4", but one can transpose the last two digits to get 1.85 meters, which matches Graves's 6'2". Stavans gives his weight as 170 kg., where Graves stated that he weighed 170 lb. Now 170 lb. is a lean 6'2" and a hefty 5'4". But 170 kg. is a weight for the occasional NFL lineman (generally 1.9 meters tall) or the morbidly obese.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Math Input Panel

Today I wished to calculate a little nearer a value I reckoned at around 1500. I brought up the Start menu on my PC, opened Windows Accessory, and found not Calculator but "Math Input Panel". I had seen this under an earlier version of Windows, had made nothing of it, and hoped that it had been discarded by the time Windows 10 shipped. It had not.

I clicked in the window, started to type, and saw nothing in the panel. The keystrokes were going to the window previously visited, which was not what I wanted, of course. I therefore tried to draw the first term of the calculation with the mouse. That turned out worse than I'd have imagined.

I did once manage to trace a "4" that the panel accepted as a 4. Most times it read my 4 as the Greek letter phi. Out of curiosity, I kept on going, to draw 47000 as best I could. The panel interpreted it as phi to the delta E something-something. (E backwards, the symbol logicians use for "there exists").

The program strikes me as a tour de force, a case of programmers seeing what ingenious notions they can implement without considering what the users will make of it. I find it odder in that I never supposed programmers as a class to have good fine motor skills in general or good handwriting in particular. I generalize from my own experience, but am I wrong?

As it happened, I was also working on a Linux system, so I used its calculator. That accepted keyboard input, did not interpret "4" as phi, and gave me the answer I was looking for. One never really expects Linux to have friendlier tools than Windows, but in this case it did.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

To Mars, and Also to Armonk

On Wednesday afternoon, I passed a man wearing a tee shirt that read "Open Source Took Us to Mars", a reference to the use of various open source software in processing the data from the Curiosity rover. Of course I then had to look back to see what the back of  his shirt said, which was "Red Hat". Red Hat is one of the oldest and most successful providers of Linux distributions, so this wasn't a surprise.

But IBM recently purchased Red Hat. That also is not astonishing, for IBM has supported the use of Linux virtual machines on top of its systems for a long time. Yet when one thinks of open source software, one thinks of young coders, casually groomed, and in casual clothing. That was not at all the IBM style. It is said that many years ago the way one established one's genius at IBM was to grow a beard: if one was not fired, the world saw that one was too intelligent to fire. And a salesman once employed by IBM told of the shock a co-worker produced by wearing a dress shirt that was blue rather than white.

Sunday, October 20, 2019


Noticed in Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Chapter 16, "Cultural Revolution":
For the rest, there is no part of the past we know so little about, for all sorts of reasons, as the three to five decades between our own twentieth year and that of our fathers.
One's own first twenty years offer an intimate view of the times, though neither a broad nor an impartial one. Why our view of the preceding decade or so should be so obscure, I don't know. Do we take our parents' words for how things were? And one can only suppose that Musil has in mind a deep understanding, not a knowledge of facts. During the last decades of the 19th Century the press relentlessly collected and published facts, and the rate of this has only increased since.

(Also, "three to five decades"? The governing classes of the Dual Monarchy seem to have married late.)

Monday, October 14, 2019


Yesterday, October 13, 2019,  the Roman Catholic Church canonized John Henry Newman.

In his John Henry Newman, Ian Ker quotes his subject, who "Amused as well as embarrassed by a lady who called him a saint... remarked"
I may have a high view of many things, but it is the consequence of education and of a peculiar cast of intellect--but this is very different  from being what I admire. I have no tendency to be a saint--it is a sad thing to say. Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales. I may be well enough in my own way, but it is not the 'high line.' People ought to feel this, most people do. But those who are at a distance have fee-fa-fum notions about one. It is enough for me to black the saints' shoes--if St. Philip Neri uses blacking, in heaven.
(Chapter 8, Controversy and Satire, section 4)

One might raise various objections here: St. Jerome was troubled in conscience about his love of the classics; St. Thomas More is remembered for his tale Utopia; etc. But now one can use an argument Newman steadily returned to: Securus judicat orbis terrarum.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Quality Control

Earlier in the year, my brother remarked that the toilet in the basement would run. It appeared to me, when I looked at it, as if the flapper where not centered on the ears of the flush valve, and so did not close properly. I centered the flapper, and it appeared to be OK. It was not.

I had another look this week. My first thought was to reorient the flush valve, so that the flapper should settle cleanly on the drain. This required something that would turn a nut that was more than 3" across. I bought 4.5" channel lock pliers, which worked nicely. Reorienting the flush valve did not. I therefore bought a replacement valve, for something less than the cost of the pliers. This morning I installed the replacement, and it works properly.

The part I replaced surprises me. I also don't see how it could have made it past quality control at the factory. I don't see how a competent installer could have supposed it would work. The flapper is simply not big enough to cover the drain:

A properly fitting flapper would be closed. Nor could the flapper simply be replaced. As the next picture shows, the arms do not simply hook over the "ears", they enclose them:

I am glad to be rid of the worse product.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

September and October

During the summer when I come home from work, I change into tee shirt and shorts, and walk around the house barefoot. Most Septembers, I try to maintain this routine. Some years I find myself very cool about the equinox, tempted to go to bed early to warm up. On October 1 of such years, I put on jeans and a flannel shirt with satisfaction

This year there has been no such challenge. The high on October 2 was above the 90 Fahrenheit, and it isn't much cooler today. On Wednesday, I noticed a hibiscus still in bloom on 16th Street NW about Riggs Place:

There was only one flower, down from about ten two weeks ago:

Still, I am not used to hibiscuses in a Washington fall.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Production Values

Owing to my careless in reading an account of what was and wasn't in a book, I decided to order yet another book. This was a hundred or more years out of print, having been assimilated into later versions of a predecessor. But it was my impression that a university press offered it still. I did not recognize the name of the publisher when a clerk at the local bookstore looked it up, but I ordered the book even so.

It arrived last week. I had a look on Friday, and found it to have been reproduced from bad photocopies. The machine used apparently had a flat platen, and in much of the book anything from a letter to a word or two is missing on the inner margin of the page--sometimes obscured by shadow, sometimes just not there. I declined to take it. After the second call from the bookstore, I decided that the store should not suffer for my stupidity, and I bought it. I will recycle it, I think. Donating it to Carpe Librum might lead to some unfortunate buyer getting mostly frustration for his $5.

Enthusiasts for the abolition of copyright sometimes seem to imagine the body of literature to exist in a digital, marked-up format. That is so for some works, for a few because they were produced that way, as with much government product, for others, such as one finds at the Gutenberg project, because dedicated volunteers have worked hard to enter, prepare, and check the works. But all of this is hard work, done for love, or for decent money. Too many of the publishers of works out of copyright are happy to pay minimally to have a work scanned, then print it on demand, without anyone having checked the work.. Nobody could have checked this work and imagined it readable.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Lost City Books

If you place book carts in front of your store, you can distract the habitual reader from noticing what is written on the windows. It was when I received an unfamiliar bookmark with my change that I glanced at the front door, and found that I was in not Idle Time Books but Lost City Books. I gather from the staff that the sale took place about the first of the year, and that it took a while for the new owners to change the name and the signs.

Idle Times sold only used books, and so does Lost City.The layout and much of the stock are familiar from the Idle Time days. This is comforting in a sense, though more turnover would be better for the store's health. Still, on Saturday afternoon, when I stopped by to pick up a book held for me, I was behind a young man who bought eight or so books.

Lost City Books is at 2467 18th St. NW, about the fourth property downhill from Columbia Road in Washington's Adams-Morgan neighborhood.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

A Whole New Game

For about a month, my bus reading has been Wittgenstein's The Blue and Brown Books, which he dictated in the 1930s, before starting on Philosophical Investigations. A 16th Street bus is not the best setting for reading philosophy: there are cell phone conversations, couples flirting, flirtations carried on over cell phone, ninth-grade boys talking tough among themselves, etc. But The Blue and Brown Books are perhaps easier to follow in a noisy environment than, say, The Critique of Pure Reason, and definitely easier on the shoulder and the bag than The Critique and other works one could name.

In The Blue and Brown Books, Wittgenstein uses the notion of "language games" to explore the relation between words and meaning. He spends a good deal of time questioning the notion of mental states accompanying recognitions, recollections, "seeing as" and so on. In the course of all this, there are examples of drawings--the square with diagonals, that interrupted slightly at the corner might be seen as a swastika; the figure of seven lines that might be a rhomboid or a plane figure; circles with dashes or curves inside that might be a face, and as a face expressing something.

It was the last example, in section 23 of the Brown Book, that surprised me. There is a series of three "faces", circles having within them dashes, curves, and dots. The first two one might take as having closed eyes invisible under the strokes for brows, varying only in that the second has a diagonal dash above the left brow--for irony, perhaps? The third has dots under the brows, presumably as open eyes. I looked at that, and thought, "Good grief! Emojis?"

Wittgenstein was a couple of decades in the grave before the first "emoticons", typographical ancestors of the emojis, appeared. Do the Wittgensteinians in philosophy departments now discuss the language games that might be played with emojis?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Beach Drive, Almost Ready

Sometime around the first of August, the contractor finished the paving work on the stretch of Beach Drive between Joyce Road and the Maryland line. In late July, the last layer of asphalt was not down, then in August I saw the asphalt down and pedestrians and bicyclists heading down. The cyclist I stopped told me that the road was now open all the way.

In fact, signs remain up saying that pedestrians and cyclists may not enter. At the transition points of Joyce Road, Wise Road, West Beach Drive, and the Maryland line, it is more or less inconvenient to pass through the barriers--only the skinniest pedestrians can pass two abreast, and only the most practiced cyclists can pass through at speed. But bunches of people go through them.

I suppose that the road remains closed for some work on bridges, and perhaps for the removal of some equipment. Last weekend there was  a small road roller at the foot of Bingham Road, and a compressed gas tank, with some other material, on the bridge over Pinehurst Branch. The roller and gas tank are now gone, but some material remains on the sidewalk of the bridge.

The practical effect of the closure is now negligible for weekend runners, walkers, and cyclists. The area between Joyce Road and picnic grove 10 is closed off, as it otherwise would not be on weekends; but there is little enough motor traffic on that stretch then. Of course the practical effect of the closure is substantial during the week for drivers who wish get into the park above Military Road and still can't.

The pavement is vastly better than it was before the work began. One had to run carefully to avoid potholes, then, now any irregularities are trivial. Will Morrow Road up to Carter-Barron be next? The pavement is pretty bad on it in places.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Weekend Reading

One long weekend forty years ago, I read Isaac Asimov's autobiography. This was a fat book--the listing at Powell's says 732 pages--that took him to the age of about thirty-five and to his first adultery. Asimov wrote well, but I think that I was propelled by my wonder at how many pages he made of a moderately interesting childhood and youth. The obituaries quoted him as saying that he had never suffered from writer's block, and remembering that weekend I could believe it.

On Friday, I happened to look in at Second Story Books. The clerk was handing me my change when it occurred to me that
  • Dave Eggers is not David Foster Wallace.
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is not Infinite Jest, and
  • I had already read two of Eggers's books without finding a need to read a third.
In the end, I found myself thinking of a passage on Rousseau from Burke's "Letter to a Member of the Constituent Assembly":
He has not observed on the nature of vanity who does not know that it is omnivorous; that it has no choice in its food; that it is fond to talk even of its own faults and vices, as what will excite surprise and draw attention, and what will pass at worst for openness and candour.
Not that the faults and vices recounted in A Heartbreaking Work are especially awful--the recounting just drags on. It is true that there are amusing bits in the memoir, and perhaps were I forty years younger I'd enjoy it more. I read it in a weekend, all I think except the passage in very small type in the afterword, which says something for the book. But I won't be keeping it to read again.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Any organization abandons some of the projects it begins. An organization the size of the United States government need not abandon a large proportion of its projects to leave many abandoned. Nor is there necessarily blame attached to leaving work undone, for events may have overtaken them. One hears of great quantities of materiel left behind at the end of WW II.

Some years back, the government decided that it would be an excellent idea to provide information freely on-line, the starting point to be There is an astonishing volume of data there, of varying freshness and quality. My impression from a brief visit to the Department of Homeland Security's section is that it provides the data to map pretty much anything you'd like. The shape files probably do not include ones for every manhole cover and fire hydrant in the US, but on the other hand I wouldn't be surprised if they did.

On the other hand, there are traces of projects begun with hopes, then abandoned. The links on the Local Government section have dates in 2014 and 2015. Clicking on some of the links for Department of Labor's website brings up error pages stating that the linked server,, does not exist. Then Friday many other links returned a server error message.

It would be wonderful if had lived up to the hopes of five or six years ago. Much of it, though, is like a used bookstore run by someone who is overwhelmed--anything could be there, but one has no way to tell.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Various Newmans

In John Henry Newman, Ian Ker quotes Newman steadily throughout, as who would not:
I have quoted generously from the letters, only for the literary reasons I have already implied [that he was "one of the most remarkable and prolific letter-writers in the English language"] but because my object has been to write the life of Newman rather than a book about him.
Occasionally Ker gives the impression of unnecessarily prompting the reader to admire an irony or pointed sentence. Still, he holds the attention through 750 pages, excluding front matter and index. The book is long, but Newman lived to be 89 and actively taught, preached, and wrote through more than sixty years: Ker cites thirty-six works of Newman's, some running to several volumes. One can read through the book in a couple of weeks, though no doubt prior acquaintance with some of the major works helps in this.

Ker edited and introduced the Penguin edition of Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which takes Newman through early middle age. The autobiographical element of the Apologia bears almost entirely on the development of Newman's theological opinions, which of course constituted most of Newman's interest to the world, and really much of Newman's occupation.

Avery Dulles, like Newman a convert, theologian, and cardinal, wrote a handy short account of Newman's work, John Henry Newman, with a foreword by Ker. Dulles gave about a tenth of his book, fifteen pages, to the biographical element, and otherwise concentrated on Newman's thought. He wrote that he aimed "to survey Newman's teaching about the classical theological questions in a comprehensive and systematic way."

The order in which I encountered the books was accidental, but seems good to me: Apologia Pro Vita Sua, then Dulles, then Ker. The writing in the Apologia is such to make one wish to read more by and about Newman. Dulles gives a concise account of Newman's thought, extracted from the matrix of biography. Ker fills out the picture of Newman's Anglican years, and provides an account of the Catholic half of Newman's life, something hardly glanced at in the Apologia.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Beneficiary

My wife's book club read The Beneficiary, by Janny Scott, for their July meeting. This left the book available when I was in between books, so that I read most of it. I found it moderately interesting, but more depressing.

The Beneficiary traces the fortunes of the Montgomery and Scott families, who over about a century made a fair bit of money in railroads, investing, and banking in Pennsylvania, and hung on to a good deal of the money for some years more. The details of their work are not much fleshed out, but one learns a lot about some of their marriages and about their drinking. The marriages were not always happy or enduring, and the drinking had something to do with that.

The author is of a generation that left the Philadelphia Main Line. Her father necessarily takes up a great  deal of the book. He seems to have been a more than competent museum executive, but what a museum executive does, other than scramble for money, one does not learn. One learns a great deal about his drinking, which shortened his life and helped to alienate some of his family. Robert Scott routinely consumed three liters of wine a day, often with cocktails as well. Montaigne in his essay "On Drunkenness" mentions a nobleman who routinely consumed "scarcely less than ten quarts" at a meal, without losing his acuity: but was his acuity mentioned against that of the sober? Robert Scott apparently was not fit for business after lunch many days.

I ended the book not entirely sure why I should care about the fortunes of the Montgomerys and Scotts, including Robert Scott. That his daughter should is natural. The rest of us need a reason, which I didn't quite find. Yet the book is short enough, and well enough written  that I didn't resent reaching this conclusion.

Friday, August 9, 2019

White-Shoe Boiler Rooms

The other evening I happened to be near the phone when it rang. The display said "Covington Burling". Now, Covington and Burling is a well-known law firm. I would expect it to communicate with such as me via registered letters or process servers. I didn't really believe the display. Still, I picked up the phone..

The voice on the line was looking for "senior homeowners", a class I belong to. But as far as I could tell, this was a cheesy AI voice-response system. Its responses to my questions were inconsequent, and when I said, "Are you telling me that you are calling from Covington and Burling?",  there was silence on the line. I hung up.

I have encountered such calls before, ones that talk right past "Are you a robot?" or will not answer when asked, "Who is the majority leader of the Senate?" But I have not run across any from a source so bold as to pretend to be a white-shoe law firm. I doubt that Covington and Burling can avenge itself on the callers; but I'd pleased to hear that it did.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Summer Class

This summer I spent a number of evenings in a class in Spanish as a Second Language (SSL). This was offered through St. Matthew's Cathedral. As is usual in such classes, volunteers taught, and most of the cost went to the textbook. I learned a certain amount of Spanish, and hope to retain much  of what I learned.

Over the last several years, I have taught English as a Second Language (ESL) one night a week through a parish program. A number of contrasts were obvious:
  • The texts our ESL program has used, most recently the Cambridge Ventures series, are aimed at immediate practical use. The SSL text proceeds in the order familiar from school: here are the conjugations, here the declensions, let us proceed from the present indicative.
  • Those seeking instruction in Spanish are on the whole more prosperous and longer schooled than those seeking instruction in English. Our class included three engineers, a lawyer and a law student, and an employee of the IMF.
I think the text, Complete Spanish Step-by-Step by Barbara Bregstein, pretty good, with some reservations. It lacks a vocabulary of any part of speech but verbs: for a forgotten noun or adjective, one must guess the chapter in which it might have been defined and look through the word lists there, or resort to a dictionary. I encountered a number of words in the exercises that I'm fairly sure never appeared with a translation. The book does not consistently alphabetize the verbs in its lists of regular and irregular conjugations, which is not positively an obstacle, but still a nuisance. It lacks completeness in its lists of exceptions: apparently one is supposed to infer that  the participle for "poner" is "puesto" because the participle for "volver" is "vuelto". And it refers to the subjunctive and conditional as tenses.

The text does have many exercises, with proposed answers in the back of the book. It is meant to be used over a semester or a year, I gather, for it returns to many topics--the subjunctive, the preterit, the imperfect. I find that useful.

Many of us found the pace a bit overwhelming. One man, married to a woman of South American birth, said that he would go home and vent to her. His interlocutor, who may have been one of the students with a Spanish-speaking boyfriend or family, felt much the same. Around the Fourth of July, I found myself thinking of the fellow mentioned in the newspaper for winning hot dog eating contests. Can one suffer indigestion from learning the conjugation of too many tenses too quickly?

I also found myself thinking of The Caine Mutiny, a book I haven't opened in nearly fifty years. Early on, the protagonist, an officer candidate in a Navy program, encounters a lesson on the "frictionless bearing". It means nothing to him, but he reads and reviews the material until he has all but memorized it, and he passes with high marks the test on the bearing. This does much to give him grace when he piles up many demerits later on. But I infer that Willie Keith knew nothing at all about the principles of the frictionless bearing, and that in six months if not six weeks would have had no idea about it.

Willie Keith lacked context for understanding the bearing, which physical intuition should have provided--physical intuition available to the naturally gifted or the well trained. I lack context for Spanish: I guess I will have to get it through the newspapers, radio, and conversation.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Commonest and Most Primitive Kind of Competition

A visit to the outside carts at Second Story Books yesterday, mostly in hopes of getting change for a $20 bill, succeeded beyond expectation when a volume on the last cart turned out to be The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 by Edmund Wilson. There are a number of very good essays--on the Holmes-Laski correspondence, on books by Dawn Powell and George Kennan, one on "My Fifty Years with Grammars and Dictionaries". But what I must quote is from "Donsmanship", a review of Stephen Potter's Supermanship, or How to Continue to Stay on Top without Actually Falling Apart. Having given a sketch of Potter's work, Wilson moves on to a matter Potter had so far neglected, one-upmanship in academic circles.
The commonest and most primitive kind of competition that goes on among American professors is to top one another in reading. I was once told of a conversation between Irving Babbitt and someone else of equal competence in the field of romantic literature which soon reduced itself entirely to an exchange of the titles of books. In this game, the opponent is supposed to show by a brief appropriate comment that he has read the book named by the other. Of course it is easy to cheat if the opponent does not press too far. One may actually know something about the book without having actually read it, and so risk a  non-committal response that cannot be to far wide of the mark. But if the question is cleverly put and searchingly followed up, it may reduce the opponent to a confession of his ignorance. One of the high scores is driving one's opponent--this is quite difficult to do--to a confession that he has not only not read the book but has not even heard of it. The highest points of all--and I have heard of this happening at Harvard--are scored by inventing a non-existent book and getting the other man to pretend that he has read it. The most reliable way, I should say from my own experience, for the non-academic person to counter a well-equipped scholar, who has scrutinized and read more than he has, is to cut in with some opinion, offhandedly and freely expressed, which is quite outside the scholar's gambits and will cause him to gasp and sulk.... I now exploit these shock tactics deliberately.
 The Library of America offers three volumes of Wilson's work, but so far they end with the 1940s. I suppose it will get around to the 1950s and on someday.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019


We spent about a week in Belgium and the Netherlands, and had a constant feeling of awkward familiarity. Dutch is similar enough to German that I feel I should be able to read and follow it, but of course I can't really. The Antwerp cathedral provides a liturgical pamphlet, and there I was able to spot cognates in the readings: "terug" = "zuruck", "dienaar" = "Diener", 'deel" = "Teil" (and is related to the English "deal"; it is odd to think for a moment that one read that Mary has chosen the better deal). The straight narratives, Genesis and Luke, were almost readable; Paul, with theological reflections, definitely not.

And then there are physical resemblances. Quite a bit of the population of Amsterdam looked like second cousins or shirt-tail relatives that I really should remember. Well, a lot of my ancestors lived in northwestern Germany, not far from the modern border.

The bicycling culture interested us, with persons everywhere on  bikes, sometimes with a dog in the basket, children in a tub, or goods in a locking container. I think it more practical for a city such as Amsterdam,which has no visible grades, than for one like Washington, where one has the flat and fill, then a steep grade up to piedmont. I have not in many years seen so many of what we called "girls' bikes", with the lower crossbar to accommodate a skirt.

It was unusually hot in Amsterdam. It occurred to me one night that the last time I regularly slept in hot weather without even a fan would have been the summer of 1980. Then, though, I was in a suburb under tall trees, not in a built up city. I slept, but would have slept better with a fan.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Airport Experience

On the way off a KLM flight today, I noticed a screen stating that KLM offered "the aiport experience." It seemed to me that the copywriter, ad agency, and marketing department must all be out of touch to suppose that anyone enjoys "the airport experience". We had worried about making our flight while in the baggage-check and security lines at Schiphol. Then at Dulles, after seeing KLM's offer, we took thirty-some minutes to get through passport control. The queues wound enough that I came to recognize a dozen families or couples as we passed and repassed each other. Our luggage was off the belt before we arrived to look for it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Buried Under the Path

Yesterday we visited the Begijnhof in Amsterdam. We saw the small Catholic chapel, and the outsides of residences and the English Reformed Church. We did not see, at least I did not, the marker for the grave of Cornelia Arents, a beguine who arranged for burial under the path to the church, as penance for the conversion to Protestantism of certain relatives. An alternative version says that she considered the church as desecrated by the English Reformed takeover.

An early Catholic bishop of New York supposedly asked to be buried under the pavements, though as a reproach to his flock. The churches of Europe are full of grave markers in the pavement--perhaps the point was to be buried outside.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Blackberry Lilies

These turned up as volunteers in the side yard:

Evidently the flower is a member of the iris family. We suppose these were planted by one or more of the birds that perch in the holly tree above them.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Trends and Harm

Cynthia Haven has noticed an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on the tyranny of trendy ideas. The article is amusing, the trendy ideas are properly silly, but some of them have little relevance for those of us outside the academy. Some of them make me think of a summer thunderstorm--underneath there is violent weather, two miles away one hears the sound and gets a bit of wind, and twenty miles away nobody knows that it happened. I'm sure that Project 2021 was a big deal in Austin, but did anyone outside the academy hear of it in Norman or Baton Rouge?

On the Fourth, we had friends over for dinner. At some point one of the conversations turned to reading. One man's sister has been fighting with her son's school districts over reading instruction. The sister finds that "whole-language" instruction is not teaching her son to read, and pushes for phonics. A woman in the conversation had been through the same quarrel as a teacher in Brooklyn, almost fifty years ago. This surprised me. I don't follow trends in elementary education, and the last time I noticed, phonics seemed to be making a comeback. But it appears that the contention between "whole-language" and phonics never really ends, just has one or the other on top for a while.

What is taught in the schools of education affects large numbers of children. It could be a child's chance, as it was mine, to arrive in sixth grade just at the New Math does. Or as it was my brother's chance, to arrive in the parochial schools when they set phonics aside for whole-language. Some of those children will take no harm, as we took none. Others will be promoted without mastering the skills said to be taught, or just alienated by busy work that teaches them nothing.

 The tyranny of trendy ideas that should be overthrown, and probably never will be, is the tyranny of trendy ideas about elementary education. Americans are simply too willing to believe that there is something other than tedious, painstaking work that will teach their children to read, write, and reckon. I know that I say this often; but those who disagree needn't worry--many more qualified, many famous persons have said this for years with no effect.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

There Must Be a Better Way

Raymond Hettinger, a core contributor to the Python language and a frequent speaker at Python conferences, has a routine he uses in talks: he will bring his fist down on the podium, and the audience is to exclaim, "There must be a better way!" I thought of that last week, with Python only part of the context.

Suppose that you, or your employers, take an interest in the data collected by the U.S. Office of Idle Inquiries, or its private-sector cousin, General Information, Inc. It would be good to get hold of quantities of this data, summarize it, total it, analyze it. But you don't have it. What then?

The data held by the government office may be somewhere on if you know how to find it. Otherwise, it may well be available under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In theory, you can "FOIA it": put in a FOIA request, and eventually get back a DVD or a thumb drive with the data you want. In practice, you may get nothing but explanations about why FOIA does not apply; or a mass of metadata with no data; or data in a format that nobody still in the workforce has ever seen. And it may take a while. General Information, Inc., as a private company, is certainly not putting its information out on and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

But the data that you want is published in some fashion or another on the web. You can go to or https/, use a search box, and get the data a record or a dozen at a time. What will you do?

Well, you might put together a script or two to retrieve and parse the data. If the site is amenable to the treatment, you can use Python's urllib.request module to retrieve the data a page at a time. If the site is heavy with JavaScript and wants you to click on a "Next" button for every score of records, you can use the Selenium module to drive a browser. And you can extend html.parser.HTMLParser to take apart what you have retrieved and reshape it. This works well enough.

On the other hand, you may run across a government website that has a few thousand records of much interest. To get what you want, you will have to use Selenium to drive a browser to retrieve the records ten at a time. Each set of ten records you will have to parse, and each of the records will require another retrieval and parsing. About then, you will say "There must be a better way!" As you do so, though, you probably will not pound your fist. More likely you will sigh.

The work is not especially difficult. A task such as I speak of might require a couple hundred lines of Python--emphatically not  counting what's in the libraries, only what I'd have to write. The weariness comes from the reflection that
  • A team of programmers has defined a database to hold structured data.
  • Many persons, whether as their sole duty or as an aspect of it have populated that database with information about the agency's findings.
  • Another team of programmers has taken pains to write programs that will display the data in a format humans can conveniently read when they go to the website.
  • And here I come to pick the presentation format apart into data to load into a database.
  • Can't somebody just send me the database?
But until someone tells we when I'll get the databases, I'll keep on writing scripts.

(For those who use Python and have not heard of Raymond Hettinger, I strongly recommend going to YouTube and watching his presentation "Beyond PEP 8 -- Practices for beautiful intelligible code". I will not say that my code is beautiful, but I will say that it is less ugly than it was before I saw the presentation.)

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


The Monday Washington Post has an article on the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), the continuing-education arm of the University System of Maryland. The article takes up about half a page. It appears to me that the burden of the story is that
  • The administration wishes to increase revenue, which comes primarily from tuition.
  • The administration supposes that the students are looking primarily for credentials, to be gained as quickly as possible.
  • The administration infers that students prefer online courses.
  • The administration considers that students who cannot get the credentials as quickly and conveniently at UMUC will enroll with competitors instead.
  • The faculty thinks that it would be good to get paid better to teach.
  • The faculty thinks that it would be good to see the occasional student face to face, and for more weeks per class than eight.
I think it is well if students can learn quickly and conveniently, and I know it is the case that UMUC's students are mostly employed full time and otherwise busy.  But the faculty may be the better judge of the pace of learning than either students or administration. And I think that courses taught in a classroom are preferable to online courses, even those taught by an instructor online as the class proceeds.

About thirty years ago I took classes at UMUC, for I wished to learn about computers, about programming mostly. I think it was only the last class I took there that was supposed to have a distance-learning component, for the benefit of students at other sites; but it didn't work well and may have been dropped. The classes I took were all at the campus in College Park. I did not in fact acquire a credential--I think I could have with one more class. But I did learn a certain amount about programming and generally about computers.

A few years later I taught one course there several times. These were not online classes. I discovered, as most adjuncts must, that the payment for the first class or two, reckoned against the hours one spends, amounts to something less than minimum wage.  I enjoyed the teaching even so.

The only persons I ever met, not heads of departments, that I knew to make or have made a living as UMUC faculty were a couple of accountants, who had previously taught for the school in Europe at US military bases. The instructors for my classes were working engineers or programmers, with the occasional graduate student. Generally they were good to very good. Most must have made far more at a day job than they did teaching. I sympathize with the adjuncts there now; but as far as I know the reliance on adjuncts is not new at UMUC.

The last time I thought about UMUC before the Post's story was some months ago. Out of curiosity to see where ESL students might advance their education, I looked up the tuition and fees at some local community colleges. I tried to look up the tuition for classes at UMUC also and could not find the information--the school site offers a "Time and Tuition Estimator" for the cost of a degree program, but does not make it easy to find the price per credit hour. Thirty years ago, UMUC was not so coy.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Father's Day Books

I have come to think of a certain range of books as "Father's Day books", namely volumes one can safely get Dad if he doesn't golf or need new ties. I complain of them only because now and then I must read one. Otherwise, I think they serve the public by keeping publishers and printers solvent.

Such books tend to involve history, generally American history. Military history, the history of exploration, or both (Lewis and Clark) serve well. There are a number of authors who have made something of an industry of these books. The reader who has received or read some will recognize the style. At worst it combines the didactic and the sloppy, giving one lessons to be learned with misstated facts to illustrate them. At the not quite worst it reads like a junior high school history pageant, where the greats come on stage, say a piece, bow, and make way for the next. At almost best it tends to bury the reader in details.

Now, the matter of the books largely overlaps with many books I think well of and re-read. I admire Henry Adams's history of the US during Jefferson's and Madison's administrations, which heaven knows has plenty of battles and some explorations. I have Parkman's histories on my shelves, and some of Samuel Eliot Morison's. On the shelves is Elkins and McKittrick's history of the Federalist era. There are memoirs of war service by Grant and Sherman, and by some who never achieved a commission.

Why do I find Adams, Morison, to a lesser degree Parkman fascinating, and some of their would-be successors tiresome?  I think that it must come down to perspective. The historians I admire master the details, but in service to a larger scope: the US coming into possession of what it had possessed on paper; the European discovery of America; France and England contending for North America. If a small-unit engagement is described in detail, it will be at Fort Defiance or Fallen Timbers--it will matter in some way. Above all, the masters know what to omit: when they quote, they quote for a purpose.

Anyway, Happy Father's Day to any father who may read this. If your offspring give you one of these books, consider the possibility that you may have failed to let them know your preferences clearly enough. Remember that it's the thought that counts.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

No Thirty-Seconds

Partly because I work with computers, the number thirty-two has often been on my mind. With thirty-two bits one can address about four billion locations in memory, or express a positive signed integer as large as about two billion. Going on forty-five or fifty years ago, the computer industry discovered that it needed thirty-two bits in an address. Tracy Kidder's book The Soul of a New Machine tells how Data General made its 32-bit computer. (Now and for some years, sixty-four bits has been standard, but quite recently I've heard from techies who couldn't process a file of size larger than two gigabytes.)

And the compass has thirty-two points. In "boxing the compass", one recites them in order clockwise from North to North by West. Any high school geometry student should be about to make a compass rose with the points using only compass and straight edge.

The other day, though, I discovered a property of thirty-two that hadn't occurred to me: it is the smallest positive integer that cannot be a day of a month. I was looking to validate some input to a script we use, and discovered that JavasSript will happily parse '2/31/2019' as a date, but not '2/32/2019'.  The former becomes March 3, 2019, the latter is not a valid date. The script was to run under the Microsoft Scripting Host (cscript.exe), but I found that this works the same in a browser console. In what follows, the output in in italic:
for (var i = 29; i < 33; i++) {
    var dateString = '2/' + i + '/2019';
    var d = new Date(dateString);
    console.log(dateString + ' -> ' + d);
2/29/2019 -> Fri Mar 01 2019 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/30/2019 -> Sat Mar 02 2019 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/31/2019 -> Sun Mar 03 2019 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/32/2019 -> Invalid Date
I'm not sure what to say about this. Obviously, JavaScript has "thirty days hath September" worked out, and it is not saving time or space by skipping leap year calculations:
for (var i = 29; i < 33; i++) {
    var dateString = '2/' + i + '/2020';
    var d = new Date(dateString);
    console.log(dateString + ' -> ' + d);
2/29/2020 -> Sat Feb 29 2020 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/30/2020 -> Sun Mar 01 2020 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/31/2020 -> Mon Mar 02 2020 00:00:00 GMT-0500 (Eastern Standard Time)
2/32/2020 -> Invalid Date
I know how to work around this without much effort. I'm just a little surprised that I should have to.

[Edit: changed "two million" to "two billion"]

Friday, June 7, 2019

Information Wanted

Working as I do near Lafayette Square, I see demonstrations from time to time. Some I see marching to the square with banners up, some I see only when they are gathered in the park or on Pennsylvania Avenue. It is not always convenient to walk across the park to see what they are demonstrating for or against. Neither the National Park Service nor the Metropolitan Police Department makes it easy to find out who has permits for such demonstrations. I wish that someone would.

Demonstrations are not tied to a time of year, but graduations occur about the beginning of June. Many of them take place at Constitution Hall, at 17th and D NW, and sometimes at lunch time or after work I will see graduates in or carrying gowns and mortarboards, and wonder from what school. Last week one day there was green garb in the morning and red in the afternoon. The Daughters of the American Revolution quite reasonably do not include private events, including graduations, on the Constitution Hall calendar.

Now, one can go to the websites of local school systems and find some of the graduations. For example, last Thursday morning's graduation  in green was apparently Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Yesterday's in black was apparently Walt Whitman. So far, so good for Montgomery County. But what of the Virginia schools? Do the Fairfax or Arlington County schools cross the river? Maybe I should make a guide to the graduations. But who else would want it?

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Reading by Phone

Earlier in the year, I saw started to see persons standing, looking at their phones during the Gospel reading at St. Matthew's. After the first astonishment, it occurred to me that they were probably following the reading, from an app or a website that gives the readings of the day. Now, I think that the official view is that one should listen rather than read during Mass. However, there can be bad acoustics, soft or heavily accented voices, leaf-blowers or other machinery outside, and other reasons one can't follow by ear. And the Worship (hymnal plus missal) in the pews gives the text of the readings for Sundays, feasts, and holy days only. (In any case, it weighs a good deal more than a mobile phone.) So, odd though it looks, I can understand why someone would do this.

Today I chanced to see someone kneeling in a pew and and looking at her phone. The text was far too small to be read from my distance, but there was at least one illuminated capital. Apparently some in fact do their devotional reading on the phone.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

So Many Confessions

The other week I wished to quote a passage from St. Augustine's Confessions. I copied it out of Garry Wills's translation, but then wondered whether "semaphorings" was really the word I wanted. A Catholic store on K St. had no copies, but Kramerbooks at Dupont Circle had several translations: Wills's, Boulding's,  and Pine-Coffin's. I settled on Boulding. This week in addition they have Ruden's and Constantine's translations. I'd have been curious to see Frank Sheed's translation, but that Kramer's did not have.

The holdings in philosophy and religion are not especialy deep at Kramerbooks, it seems to me.Why it should have so many versions of the Confessions, I don't know.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Reading Emile

Somewhere in Book V of Emile: Or, on Education, I found myself remembering an obiter dictum of W.M. Spackman's from The Decline of Criticism:
Historically, the poème en prose is one of those accidents of French rhetoric, like Bossuet and Chateaubriand, that the French take to be literature.
But all things end, even a first reading of Emile.

In the preface to his translation, Allan Bloom wrote that Kant thought the appearance of Emile as remarkable an event as the French Revolution. I find that astonishing, given that Kant's pedagogical methods were hardly that of the narrator, that Kant lectured (it is said) splendidly on London Bridge without ever having been west of East Prussia. I suppose that a message of liberation from constraint particularly appealed to those who had grown up under French etiquette or Prussian schoolmasters.

A part of Rousseau's program, making the direct connection between experience and learning, is unexceptionable, and needs to be repeated constantly, for it is constantly forgotten. Yet he carries it beyond reason. When Emile is learning to smelt metals or turn spindles, I think of Samuel Johnson on Peter the Great's time as a shipwright--it makes no sense. Still the notion persists into Thoreau and beyond. Thoreau knew a great deal about the practical life, was a good surveyor and worked in the family's pencil factory, but even so could write in Walden
Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month, -- the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this -- or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meantime and had received a Rogers' penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?
 (I vote for the second boy--there is more likely to be an edge on his knife.)

The anti-feminism of Book V is amusing in its way. The passage
All these women of great talent never impress anyone but fools. It is always known who the artist or the friend is who holds the pen or the brush when they work. It is known who the discreet man of letters is who secretly dictates their oracles to them.
recalls a phrase in Nancy Mitford's introduction to her translation of  The Princess of Cleves:
this constantly recurring Branwellism of male critics
In the end, I agree with Wittgenstein on thought experiments. To argue for systems of education is well and good. To have managed a school and to report ones observations--as Samuel Johnson, John Dewey and others have done--is better.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Jean Vanier, RIP

A friend invited me to the "Heart of L'Arche" breakfast last Wednesday. That morning the newspapers carried obituaries of Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche. The slides shown at the breakfast included one of Vanier with a resident of one of the local homes.

Vanier enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 13, resigned a commission in the Royal Canadian Navy at 21, and studied and taught philosophy before deciding that he was called to set up home in which those with intellectually disabilities might live with dignity. L'Arche is not an especially large organization--it houses about ten thousand person all told. What it does, it appears to do very well.

Vanier's career has resemblances to that of Leonard Cheshire: service in WW II,  followed after a while by the discovery of a charitable vocation. Like Vanier, Cheshire began with a couple of residents under his roof, and built from there.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Reading Cooper

A friend's email mentioned James Fenimore Cooper. Solemn in all things, I mentioned the views of D.H. Lawrence and Yvor Winters, but confessed that mostly I agreed with Mark Twain. It turned out that she had not been reading Lawrence or Winters, but thinking back to Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans. Even so, this reminded me that I had not read all of the Leatherstocking novels: I had to look at the Library of America entry to see that the one remaining was The Pathfinder. Over the fortnight just ended, I have read it.

I still agree with Twain, and still think Cooper wrote inferior Scott. However, I now suspect what I had not for fifty years, that Twain in middle age reacted against the interest and confidence with which he read Cooper when young. He might in another time and mood have written of the books in the manner of S.J. Perelman's "Cloudland Revisited" pieces. But Twain, I think, considered that he had been fooled, and took his revenge. The Pathfinder has a couple of the items that Twain complained about--the shooting match at Oswego, and the anchoring of a ship in undertow off ta lees shore along Lake Ontario.

Twain was probably ten or twelve when he first read Cooper. That seems to me about the best age for Cooper, when a boy has not developed a sense of the probable, or much interest in women. That is the age to identify with the Pathfinder, hiking off into the wilderness with Chingachook, and not with Jasper Western settled down with Mabel Dunham. That is also the age not to roll the eyes at the courting scenes.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

John Lukacs, RIP

The newspapers have just carried the obituaries of John Lukacs, historian and memoirist. He lived to be 95. In his youth he had been imprisoned by the Hungarian state, then allied with Germany, for disaffection, and perhaps for having a Jewish mother; he had sheltered from Allied air raids; he had deserted the Hungarian army and lived in hiding. He survived, and in the United States he flourished. The bibliography appended to the the collection Remembered Past runs to thirty-six page, the first six of books; and he published at least one book (The Future of History) after Remembered Past, six years after .

Those who have not read Lukacs would do well to start with Confessions of An Original Sinner or A Thread of Years. The Last European War (World War II before Japan entered) , and At the End of an Age are well worth reading. Budapest 1900 and Five Days in London are more narrowly focused; yet though I was never aware of an interest in Budapest at the turn of the last century, and would have said I had read enough books about 1940, I found them absorbing.

Lukacs had an excellent eye for the telling quotation--Confessions of an Original Sinner particularly shows this. His interests were broad, though Europe and North American interested him most. His judgments, to the extent I can judge them, seem generally sound. I don't really share his Anglophilia, but I believe I understand how one who lived through 1940 and 1941 in Central Europe--when England seemed a lone hope for Europe--might develop it.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Seen at Lafayette Square

I had never before spotted the metal tags on the trees along the west side of Lafayette Square, yet clearly they have been there for a while. This is not a "wow" oak, it is a willow oak, but the growth of the tree has bent the tag:

On the tree beside it, the folding has gone farther, so that the tag is barely visible:

On the young, slim gingkos next just up from the oaks, the tags are still flat and wholly legible.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

I'd Buy a Ticket

In 1996, Clive James wrote that
The twentieth-century philosophers whose names are inseparable, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, were such a great double act that there simply has to be a buddy movie sooner or later. At last, the material is all set to be licked into a script. Ray Monk has now matched his justly lauded biography of Wittgenstein with a fat and equally enthralling first volume wrapping up the earlier half of Bertrand Russell's long life--Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude 1872-1921--and is sitting on the hottest Hollywood prospect since Paul Newman and Robert Redford signed on for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
James predicted that all the A-list male stars would wish to play Wittgenstein, but that
Nobody bankable--not even Steve Martin, a philosophy wonk who can actually explicate Principia Mathematica while wearing a plastic arrow through his head--will want to play the physically unappealing Russell, so the way should be clear for the perfect choice: Gene Wilder. Fluctuating uncontrollably between idealism and disillusion, forever persuaded that sexual fulfilment is at hand in the form of a luscious girl in a red dress, Wilder's person, like his appearance, exactly fits a part that should revive his career. The only strike against Wilder is that even he has too much gravitas for the role.
In the postscript attached to the essay in Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays (2003), James added
My idea for a movie about Russell and Wittgenstein was meant to depend for its effect on its manifest absurdity. But a Hollywood producer was on the the phone the week after the piece came out, talking large talk about writing a treatment. Since then I've heard nothing, which I suppose is a relief, because it was evident that he wanted to make the kind of comedy that says it's a comedy up front, like Nuns on the Run. I probably put him off when I told him the truth: as Russell proved, it isn't funny unless you play it straight.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Its Minor Key

Chapter XXXV of Volume II of The World As Will and Representation concludes
Now when I see how this unbelieving age so diligently finishes the Gothic churches left uncompleted by the believing Middle Ages, it seems to me as if were desired to embalm a Christianity that has expired.
Schopenhauer did not much care for Gothic architecture, "the negative pole of architecture, or  even its minor key." He offered his reasons for the judgment, summarized by
For only the ancient style of architecture is conceived in a purely objective sense; the Gothic is more in the subjective. We have recognized the real, aesthetic, fundamental idea of the ancient architecture to be the unfolding of the conflict between rigidity and gravity; but if we try to discover an analogous fundamental idea in Gothic architecture, it will have to be that the entire subjugation and conquest of gravity by rigidity are there to be exhibited.
He did grant that the Gothic looks better from inside than the the classic does, and suggested obliquely that it was better suited to a northern climate that encourages one to go indoors.

Monday, April 15, 2019

After the Cherry Blossoms

The cherry blossoms peaked probably about the first of April this year. But more trees have been and are in flower.

About a week ago, I noticed that the serviceberry trees near the Kennedy Center were in full flower:

 On our street, and in many places around town, the eastern redbuds are in flower:

And the dogwoods are not yet at their peak:

On Saturday I noticed a virburnum in flower near the Potomac above Reagan National Airport. The one in our yard looks to be about a week from flowering.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Behnke's Is Closing

Behnke's is closing. For as long as I can remember, it has had the reputation of being the best nursery in the Washington area. My own direct acquaintance with it is fairly short; but for a while we have gone out once or twice a year to buy plants. I can point out a couple of plants that we have bought there, and my wife could point out many more.

The Behnke Nurseries Company has operated since 1930. The family has decided to close it, for reasons not given. I suspect that a large one is that the property will earn more when sold for development than it will as a nursery. I shouldn't care to commute to anywhere in particular from the Behnke's site, nor live quite so close to Route 1 and a busy train track; but there are many jobs in that direction.

There are other nurseries in the area, though the Johnson's Garden Center south of Tenley Circle closed last year. None have the space and selection of Behnke's, that I know of. The nearest comparable nursery that I have been to is  in the Harrisburg suburbs, about a hundred miles from here. We may end up driving there rather than to Beltsville.

In the meantime, everything is considerably discounted, until Behnke's closes in June.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Tiresome Bias

In Word and Object, section 36, W.V.O. Quine makes the curious remark that
  Our ordinary language shows a tiresome bias in its treatment of time. Relations of date are exalted grammatically as relations of position, weight, and color are not. This bias is of itself an inelegance, or breach of theoretical simplicity.
And for the purposes of his canonical notation, he drops all tenses but the present, using "before now" and "after now" as useful.

In the former of The Blue and Brown Books, Wittgenstein writes
And when we are worried about the nature of thinking, the puzzlement  which we wrongly interpret to be one about the nature of a medium is a puzzlement caused by the mystifying use of our language. This kind of mistake occurs again and again in philosophy; e.g. when we are puzzled about the nature of time, when time seems to us a queer thing.
And a few pages farther on,
It was such a "contradiction" which puzzled Saint Augustine when he argued: How is it possible that one should measure time? For the past can't be measured, as it is gone by; and the future can't be measured because it has not come. And the present can't be measured for it has no extension. The contradiction which here seems to arise could be called a conflict between two different usages of a word, in this case the word "measure". Augustine, we might say, thinks of the process of measuring a length: say, the distance between two marks on a traveling band which passes us, and of which we can see only a tiny bit (the present) which passes in front of us.
Locke writes, without naming St. Augustine,
The answer of a great man, to one who asked what time was "Si non rogas, intelligo', (which amounts to this; the more I set myself to think of it, the less I understand it,) might persuade one, that time, which reveals all things, is itself not to be discovered. Duration, time, and eternity, are, not without reason, thought to have something very abstruse in their nature.  But however remote these may seem from our comprehension, yet if we trace them right to their originals, I doubt not but one of those sources of all our knowledge, viz. sensation and reflection, will be able to furnish us with these ideas, as clear and distinct as many other, which are thought much less obscure; and we shall find, that the idea of eternity itself is derived from the same common original with the rest of our ideas.
(An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book II, Chapter XIV, Section 2.)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Character Sets

It has occurred to me that some confusions would never mislead a couple of classes of programmer: the one who started about 1970 and retired about 1995; the one who will start in 2025. The first will have spent a career in a world where every character may be represented in an 8-bit byte, most of them in only 7 bits, in so-called US ASCII. (Yes, I'm ignoring IBM and the world of EBCDIC.) The second will have a career in which Unicode is everywhere, and nobody confuses bytes and characters. But perhaps I should date the latter's career from 2025, or later

For the first programmer the bit pattern 01000001 (decimal 65) meant 'A'. It was the sole representation for 'A'. For the second programmer, code point 65 is 'A', but code point 65 may be represented in many ways: identical to US ASCII if the Unicode representation is UTF-8; with an all-zero byte preceding or following in the UCS-16 representations; for all I know, whistled on a bosun's pipe or carved on a rock. The second programmer knows that always and everywhere there is a distinction between bytes and characters, even if a particular encoding maps them one-to-one.

I live in the uneasy world betwixt and between. I know that a string is made up of characters, and a byte sequence of bytes, but the distinction is not generally in my thoughts. Most of the time, I can pretend strings and byte sequences are the same. Now and then, I can't.

Recently I have been helping a co-worker by pulling data from the internet and using scripts to transform it. Today one of the scripts failed with an error: it encountered the character 0x95, which is not valid within UTF-8. As it happens, 0x95 represents a bullet in the code set CP-1252. I had a look at the headers of the web page, and was not greatly surprised to discover that they included "charset=UTF-8". Changing the script to read the page as CP-1252 resolved the difficulty.

This was not the first time that I have encountered such a difficulty. The word has gone out among developers--of web frameworks, at least--that one should always announce the character set. The users of the frameworks, though, haven't always heard that one should ensure that the data provided is in the character set announced.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Thought Experiments

Noted in Wittgenstein's Philosophische Grammatik,  Part I, section VII, 106:
A  thought experiment amounts to an experiment that one does not carry out, but rather sketches out, paints, or describes. And the result of the thought experiment is the imaginary result of the imaginary experiment.
In Book I of Emile, or On Education, I find
I have chosen to give myself an imaginary pupil, to hypothesize that I have the age, health, kinds of knowledge, and all the talent suitable for working at his education, for conducting him from the moment of his birth up to the one when, become a grown man, he  will no longer have need of any guide other than himself. This method appears to me useful to prevent an author who distrusts himself from getting lost in visions. He will soon sense, or the reader will sense for him, whether he follows the progress of childhood and the movement natural to the human heart.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Older Programmer

Blake sent along a link to a posting by a man who noticed that there weren't any programmers older than forty due to present at the PyGotham, a Python conference he was organizing. It had caught Blake's eye, for he is over forty, and I read it with interest, for I am over sixty. A number of points occur to me.
  • Many of us over fifty likely work with applications considered to be "enterprise" software, which is seldom glamorous or even much publicized, but keeps organizations running. There must be conferences at which one might speak about Microsoft Dynamics "integrations", ways of pulling external data into an accounting system. I don't know what those conferences might be, I doubt even those in attendance consider the work glamorous, but organizations using Dynamics for accounting need those integrations to work; they can be set up better or worse; and the difference between better and worse directly affects the work of those in the accounting department.
  • In general, our work may be useful but not exciting. Probably nothing of what I do with Python would excite the folks who attend PyGotham. Yet, I can think of a few small systems using Python that I put together, or had a hand in, that we use regularly, and that quite a few people rely on.
  •  We may have other things to do than present at conferences. As I recall, the last time I did a presentation (at a regional Oracle users' group meeting--see, enterprise and unexciting), it was about a year and a half before we purchased a house needing a great deal of work. Did that have to do with the lapse in presenting? It could have.
Would I care to be out looking for a job at my age? I would not. But I think I have some productive coding in me yet.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Dan Jenkins, You Should Be Living at This Hour

My first reaction to the news of the indictments for fraud involving college admissions was weariness. The scale of the the fraud was a mild surprise. Yet over the years there has been plenty of reporting on efforts to rig admissions for the well to do.

By the evening, though, I wished that Andrew Lelling could have announced the indictments in time for the late Dan Jenkins to have had a good laugh. Jenkins  tended--or so I read him--to regard universities as founded to be the marketing, facilities, and operations arms of football and basketball teams. He had, I thought, a distrust for any institution that might try to assert academic priorities. He was not wrong to see hypocrisy in NCAA rules. Whether the changes he had in mind would have removed the hypocrisy yet preserved college sports, I don't know.

I do think that Jenkins would have enjoyed this. The schools involved are mostly not the big Football Bowl Subdivision powers, unless Clemson, Alabama, and Ohio State are buried in the footnotes. Instead we have Stanford, Georgetown, and Yale. The sports are not the revenue sports of football and basketball--where it would be hard to hide an inferior athlete--but tennis, rowing, water polo. I wish I could have read his column on this.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Empire of the Steppes

Some years ago, friends gave me a copy of Rene Grousset's The Empire of the Steppes. Over the years, I looked at this or that bit of it, but didn't really read it. This month, I sat down with book and bookmark, and read through it.

The Empire of the Steppes is thoroughly informative on the peoples of the steppes: Scythians, Alans, Cumans, Huns,Turks, and Mongols, from pre-history through the 18th Century. Its weakness is maps. It does have maps, but for anyone not already acquainted with the geography of eastern Eurasia, it doesn't have enough at the right level of detail. There was hardly a chapter that did not refer to places that required checking a couple of the maps. By now I do know where the Black Irtysh, the Lob Nor, the Issyk Kul, the Koko Nor, and Kashgaria are; but learning all that took a good deal of flipping back and forth between maps. I suspect that that the maps in the book do not identify all of the sites of archaeological discoveries mentioned in the first chapter. And I noticed that the river is always called "Amu Darya", not "Oxus", but the region immediately to its east is always "Transoxiana".

If you are not sure how the Hungarians and Bulgars ended up where they are, or about the travels of the Torguts, the fortunes of the Jenghiz-Khanites or the Timurids, this book will tell you. But I recommend that you read it with a good, large-scale map of Asia at hand.