Monday, December 28, 2020

Men, Age, Novels

 In Chapter II of Olga Tokarczuk's Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, one finds

With age, many men come down with testosterone autism,  the symptoms of which are a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication, as well as a reduced ability to formulate thoughts. The Person beset by this Ailment becomes taciturn and appears to be lost in contemplation. He develops an interest in various Tools and machinery, and he's drawn to the Second World War and the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains. His capacity to read novels almost entirely vanishes; testosterone autism disturbs the character's psychological understanding.

Well, that's one way to forestall objections by the grouchy old fellow in the neighborhood book club who doesn't like the novel.

In reviewing Eric Partridge's etymological dictionary Origins, Jacques Barzun put the matter differently when remarking on the taste for works of reference that grows with age:

This is not so crabbed and fossilized as it sounds. It does not mean that one is incapable of enthusiasm for a new novel or book of poems. What it means that it has taken forty or fifty years to pursue and possess the great works of world literature, to discover the no less great works that by accident or perversity only a few recognize, and to pick out from the confetti of one's own times the few precious pieces that define not so much one's mind or taste as one's direction. What more is one offered? In spite of all generous illusions to the contrary, it is not true that a masterpiece in every genre is published every seven days. Only a weekly reviewer believes that, and even he believes it only on the seventh day. From which it follows that in privileged lives, free from reviewer's cramp, the intensity of response to new fiction, new poetry, new philosophy, new criticism, and new histories cannot help being tempered with the years. In compensation, the judgment grows stronger, buttressed as it is by the great piles of octavos incorporated into one's fabric. To have a library of 25,000 volumes under one's belt is a sobering cargo, even if most of them are mere bulk. The eye of the seasoned reader, without being lackluster, is generally hooded, and the mind, if could be seen, would betray as regards the last sweet published thing a daunting serenity.

("A Search for Roots", collected in A Word or Two Before You Go.)

 I have been reading for about sixty years now, and must say that I have never read anything like the 400 volumes per year that would be required to approach the 25 thousand mark. Still, I recognize something of the tendency in myself.


Monday, December 21, 2020

Henry Ossawa Tanner

Yesterday, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Gospel reading was from Luke 1:26-38. Msgr. Ronald Jameson, rector of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, mentioned in his homily an Annunciation by the African-American painter Henry Tanner, on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is a very striking painting, not in the manner of any European Annunciations that I recall:

Tanner's portrait of his mother, also at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is worth a close look as well. I don't remember seeing Tanner's work elsewhere. I find that the National Gallery of Art has three of his works, two in the recently acquired Corcoran Gallery of Art, and none on view.

The National Gallery of Art does give an interesting account of Tanner's life.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Story Unknown or Not

 Today's New York Times Book Review includes a review of The Lenin Plot: The Unknown Story of America's War Against Russia by Barnes Carr. I would not have called the story unknown, but the reviewer seems to consider it so. The second paragraph of the review says

But one would be hard pressed to find anything about this conflict in official United States documents, or even American military history books, ....

Having read George F. Kennan's The Decision to Intervene, I thought that simply wrong. I find that the select bibliography to this work includes several volumes of The U.S. State Department's Documents Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, notably three volumes covering the relations with Russia in 1918, all available for viewing on-line:


And it took little time to discover that in 2019 the U.S. Army's Center for Military History brought out The Russian Expeditions: 1917-1920, a concise pamphlet, freely downloadable.

 Carr's book may be excellent, and the subtitle may be the work of his publisher's marketing department. Still, I think the reviewer was incautious in accepting its premise.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Colloquial Philosphy

 In the essay "The Law of Mind", C.S. Pierce gives a couple of examples of "hypothetic inference", or "an induction from qualities". The first describes how he might tell that a chance stranger met on a train is a "mugwump". The term "mugwump" has as far as I know been obsolete for a century and more. In the late 19th Century, it meant someone who thought himself above party politics. One conjecture traces it back to an Algonquin word or expression meaning something like "a great man". A jocular etymology spoke of a bird with its mug on one side of a fence and its rump on the other. I doubt that the term appears in Santayana's explicitly philosophical work, or in William James's.

In the essay that preceded "The Law of Mind", "The Architecture of Theories", Pierce wrote of John Stuart Mill giving a "socdolager" to some theory. This term I remember seeing in print once before, where it appeared to mean something like "a great product". The OED gives it as originally meaning a knock-out blow. It is American, and the OED could offer early references but could not suggest its derivation.

I suppose that many works of philosophy must include similarly colloquial usages. Unfortunately, I know no language other than English (American English) well enough to detect them. Some, if one goes far enough back, must be lost to history for want of contemporary comments.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Meeting Programs

By now, I have software installed on this machine for four on-line meeting programs: AT&T GoToMeeting, Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom. There is also Google Meet, but that runs in the Chrome browser and does not require separate installation. On Monday I managed to use three of them, starting at 9:00 a.m. with Zoom and ending a Webex meeting at about 7:30 p.m. How did I miss out on Google Meet and Microsoft Teams?

Yesterday the count fell off to just Zoom and GoToMeeting. To make up for that, there were three Zoom meetings at work, followed by ESL over Zoom in the evening.

Sunday, December 6, 2020


One of Novalis's dialogues begins

A. The catalogue from the book fair?
B. Still damp from the press.
A. What a mass of letters--what a monstrous birth of the times!
B. You appear to belong to the sect of Omarists, if I may call it after its most efficient adherent.
A. You really wish to be the eulogist of this epidemic of books?
B. Why the eulogist? But really I am pleased by the annual increase in the trade--the export brings only honor, the import sheer profit.

"B" gets the better arguments, and clearly speaks for Novalis, who after all was an author. "A" does get the specious argument that

A whole made up of sorry parts is itself sorry, or rather no whole. Now, if it were a thought-out progress? If every book filled a gap somewhere--and likewise every fair was a systematic part in a chain of learning? Then every fair would be an epoch, and finally there would arise in appropriate steps a complete path to the ideal education. A systematic catalog of that sort--how much slimmer in volume and heavier in weight!

 Many of us have felt as much, but the desire for a systematic catalogue can hinder one. The reader who waits for a guarantee that the next book is the right book will miss a lot of interesting reading. I think that I did too much of that, holding off on reading book x because I had heard book y was better, and then finding some other excuse for not reading book y. It is better to take up the book and read, to the limits of one's interest and patience.

(I have read that Omar is wrongly blamed for destroying the contents of the great library of Alexandria: there is no sound evidence to say when they were lost.)

Friday, December 4, 2020

Alison Lurie, RIP

 Today's New York Times carries an obituary of  Alison Lurie, who wrote the novels The War Between the Tates and Foreign Affairs, among other books, and who died Thursday at the age of 94. The War Between the Tates I read long ago, not long after it came out in 1974. Foreign Affairs I read within the last few years. The War Between the Tates is set among academics and their families in upstate New York, Foreign Affairs shows American academics in London. Both repay the reading.

I would have supposed from The War Between the Tates that Lurie was somewhat younger; but on reflection that was careless reading. The book is set about 1967, and the main characters are about 40. Foreign Affairs is set about 1980, and the leading character is fifty or in her early fifties. That character, Vinnie Minor, is an academic and authority on children's literature, as Lurie was.

The obituary says that the obnoxious literary critic Leonard Zimmern turns up in The War Between the Tates, though I remember him only from Foreign Affairs; he turns up also in a couple of other novels that I have not read. On reflection, I knew which minor character he must have been in The War. But he gave Vinnie Miner a bad review shortly before the beginning of Foreign Affairs, and in a memorable scene she sits in the London Zoo and imagines one of the polar bears repeatedly dunking him. Given how writers have dealt with obnoxious critics, Lurie/Miner left him off easy.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Philosophers and Planets

 In German Philosophy: A Dialogue, Alain Badiou says

I like Hegel, really. I like him even in all those moments of madness that you mention. He even tried to deduce the exact number of planets as an attribute of the absolute. That was a big risk, which was immediately rewarded by the discovery of an extra planet. Normally, you would expect that to cause the collapse of the whole system, because there are no purely local parts in the Hegelian system; there is a general interlinking of these parts, and if Hegel was wrong about the number of planets, he was perhaps wrong about many other things, too.

I have read what at the time seemed a fair chunk of Hegel. Still, what I read must be well under ten percent of his output, and the deduction of the number of planets will have been somewhere in that other ninety-plus percent. But Hegel must have gone to his grave believing that there were seven planets, for Uranus was discovered a few years after his death.

 Badiou's remark interested me also because of a curious passage in W.V.O. Quine's essay "Reference and Modality" (collected in From a Logical Point of View), where "According to the strict sense of 'necessarily' and 'probably'"

9 is necessarily greater than 7

is among the statements counting as true, and

The number of planets is necessarily greater than 7

among those counting as false. Quine introduces 7, 9, and the number of planets into Word and Object also. Did he have Hegel's argument in mind?

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Ninebark, Again

Before they started to file, the leaves of the ninebark out front, the color of a red wine all summer, turned to a brighter red:

This was a couple of weeks ago. The leaves have largely fallen now, and the leaves on the tree behind are fewer and redder.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Invasion

Having heard over the years that Janet Lewis's novel The Invasion is worth reading, I decided to buy it and find out. It is worth reading. I did find a second reading useful to sort out the considerable number of persons and places.

The subtitle of The Invasion is A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnston Family of St. Mary's. St. Mary's is the Sault Ste. Marie, the rapids discharging Lake Superior towards Lake Huron. The Johnstons were the descendants of a John Johnston of Port Rush in Ireland, a member of the Protestant Ascendancy, who moved to Canada, took up the fur trade, and rather promptly married into an important Ojibway family, espousing Ozhah-guscoday-wayquay, "The Woman of the Glade", later called Neengay, "My Mother". The Woman of the Glade and John Johnston appear in 1791, the one a girl, the other a trader in the prime of life; the book closes with the death of their granddaughter Anna Maria Johnston in 1928.

The book explains its title about halfway through:

For the Ojibways were not to be deported, like the Potawatomis, exiled into unfamiliar and hostile territory; they were to stay where they were, in their own country, to be gradually obliterated by the inevitable tide of settlers. There was  one person at the council who realized the fact powerfully if dimply, and this was Neengay. She had done what she could for her people, but her heart was sad.

During most of the book, the Ojibways find themselves on the losing side: for the French against the English at Montreal in 1759; with Pontiac against the English in 1763; with the English against the US in the War of 1812; and with the English and Americans at peace, alone against the steady pressure of the American government and settlers. In the end, their claims to the land are paid off, and they cease to be a nation.

The Johnstons maintain themselves, mostly. John Johnston, having started life as a son of a not especially prosperous Anglo-Irish family, dies as the father of a not especially prosperous American one. His sons do well enough one way and another, as officers of the Canadian navy or as businessmen in a small way. His daughters marry a scholar,  a clergymen, and a rounder.

Nothing especially dramatic happens in the direct narration. Johnston's house is burned by American troops, a son-in-law is murdered. We hear of battles--Ojibway against Sioux, British against American--and massacres, as at Fort Mackinac. Mostly, though, men and women trade, trap, hunt, marry, and farm. 

Janet Lewis published the book in 1932, four years after the death of Anna Maria Johnston, whom she had known from her family's summers at Neebish Island, a little downstream from the Sault.  One can find an account of how Lewis came to write the book in an interview conducted as part of the Stanford Pioneering Women Oral History Project in 1977.

Michigan University Press reprinted The Invasion in 1999. The book remains available, but as far as I can tell the only way to get a new copy is directly through the press itself. It is not hard to find a used copy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Classified Ads

 Recently I took down a book and found in it a cartoon I had clipped out something over thirty-five years ago. The cartoon remains mildly amusing. The other side of the paper, of no interest then, is of more interest now: it is all classified ads for used cars. The columns don't quite align with the edges of the cartoon, making estimation less accurate. Still, I think that 4.25" x 3.5" is the equivalent of twenty-eight or thirty classified ads. The sheet that held the ads would have had a printable area of 20" x 12", roughly sixteen times the size of the cartoon. That would give around 450 classifieds on that page.

I haven't placed a classified ad in The Washington Post in many years. My recollection is that a small classified cost something around $10 per day in early 1980s dollars. If so, each such page of classifieds would have been worth around $4500 then: multiplied by 365 days, call it $1.6 million. The newspapers used to carry an awful lot of pages of ads, but given the revenues of newspapers in those days, that still seems low.

 The classified ads are gone to the web, and the revenues have dried up. Twenty-odd years ago, a week's worth of The Washington Post and The New York Times would fill two grocery bags tightly when I bagged them for recycling. Now many weeks I fill one bag, or could if I cared to take the chance of it splitting. Some of the old volume was the ads themselves, some was the content it paid for.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Maps, Again

 Having read The Invasion by Janet Lewis, I wished to get a clearer idea of some of the geography. Most of the action of the book takes place within a few miles of the Sault Ste.-Marie, and for that there is a detailed map in the end papers. Yet there are important chapters set around the western end of Lake Superior, around Chegoimegon and La Pointe, and for that there is no map.

I looked for such a map in the two volumes of the Library of America edition of Parkman's France and England in the New World, thinking that I recalled detailed maps of Lake Superior in them.  This is not quite so. Most of the maps show country farther east. The map marked "Countries Traversed by Marquette, Hennepin, and La Salle" following page 909 in La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West, does show the west end of Lake Superior; but it also shows the northeastern tip of Cuba, so the details are sparse. With a magnifying glass, or perhaps just young eyes, one can see there "St. Esprit", the name of the mission at La Pointe.

 The household Rand-McNally road atlas is more satisfactory, showing one Chequamegon Point and Bay in Wisconsin, a little west of the Michigan line, and facing them the island of La Pointe. Of course the US Geological Survey has topological maps of the area, but unfortunately it splits the details among several. On the whole Google Maps might serve one best.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

A Socially Distant Halloween

 Halloween decorations went up in this neighborhood in early October, if not before. There was much discussion of putting up a map of households that would welcome trick-or-treaters, and there was discussion of devices for handing off candy while remaining some feet away. We did not bother to sign up for the map. I meant to ask the neighbors with children whether they would trick or treat, but I forgot.

Instead, on Saturday, I hurried to carve a jack o'lantern at 5 pm, and we found a bowl for the candy. The jack o'lantern went on the steps just as some neighbors were coming by with their daughters, and I tossed the girls a couple of pieces each, hitting the baskets three of four times. After that, the bowl went on the steps, and the children were left to serve themselves. They took modestly, for we still have some left.

 Our neighbors fastened a cardboard tube to the handrail of their steps, creating a "candy luge". They also agreed to tell their visitors that there was candy for the taking at our house--they had a fire pit, and could sit out fairly comfortably. 

I hope that next year we will be back to handing out candy at the door. I got to see the costumes of four children from our blocks, but wouldn't have minded seeing more.

Friday, October 30, 2020


 This year's weather favored mushroom growth. Now and then I would see a bit of mushroom on the walk, but I never considered how it got there. Then, a few weeks ago, I saw a mushroom stalk on a porch rail

and went to the computer to enquire whether squirrels eat mushrooms. Apparently they do.

I have never seen a squirrel eat a mushroom, but I knew that they had a diet that extended beyond nuts. During the last couple of summers, I would see squirrels in a holly tree along the fence, eating green berries. I'd prefer to see the berries saved for the birds, but I see that plenty have been left to ripen.

Monday, October 26, 2020

A Terrible Fate, No Doubt

 Late in the novel The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha, a character considers his options:

He couldn't return to spending all day in a cubicle, punching lines of Python into an IDE...

Now, I have written a fair bit of Python over the last twenty years, but rather little of it in an Integrated Development Environment or IDE. Generally I have used emacs as my editor, and found that worked well enough. Such VB.NET and C# as I have written I have written in the Visual Studio IDE, and could not have written without it.

I wonder what IDE the man used in his cubicle days. These would have been in the few years before 2009, and I'm not sure what the choices were. Visual Studio Tools for Python didn't come out until 2011, and my impression that NetBeans supported Python seems to be just wrong. Let's say that it was IDLE, the Independent Development and Learning Environment. IDLE is a fine tool, if not especially flashy as IDEs go, and it has been around since 2000.

And I find the expression "punching lines of Python" curious. Long ago in college I punched lines of Fortran IV into cards, and had the option of punching them into paper tape. But never since have I thought of my typing as punching. I have heard at least one person talk of "slinging COBOL". Still I think most coders just say "write".

Sunday, October 25, 2020


When we first moved into the neighborhood, there were three Orthodox church festivals each year within walking distance: at Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church, then at St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral, then at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. The first had hands down the best food, the second had an excellent used book table, the third was just the place if you needed a bilingual Arabic-English New Testament (I have bought two, for friends). 

 But Sts. Constantine and Helen followed its parishioners to the suburbs a few years ago. Neighbors who went to the festival in Olney said that the food had fallen off sadly. Whether or not this is so, we never went to find out for ourselves. 

St. John the Baptist held its fall festival yesterday, from 8 am to 2 pm, a mile and half west on the grounds of a school on Connecticut Avenue. The decision to move the festival makes perfect sense: the cathedral has no parking lot, and only limited space for people to gather. The terraces around the church are always jammed at festival time, just what one doesn't need now. I suppose that the shorter hours were set by the school. And they would not have been able to have much of an outdoor festival this afternoon, with cool raw weather, drizzly through early afternoon. 

I could have taken in the festival on my run yesterday, but did not. Though I have stopped for book sales while running, and carried a book or two home with me, the notion did not appeal yesterday. I hope that next year the festival will be back on the cathedral grounds.

 It is not clear whether St. George's will attempt a festival this year: no signs were up yesterday or today on 16th St. NW. St. George's does have a parking lot, ergo room to spread out a bit, and a somewhat larger parish hall than St. John's.

Sunday, October 18, 2020


Cynthia Haven posts pictures of assorted messy desks over at The Book Haven. Having occasionally maintained such a desk myself, I am perhaps more apt to remember reading of them. There is Hugh Kenner in "The Untidy Desk and the Larger Order of Things", collected in Mazes:

There are clean-desk people--you know them, you may even be one--whose working space always looks scrubbed for surgery. They make a virtue of handling no paper twice---"Do something with it right now. Don't dither. 'In doubt? Throw it out.'" Any time the clean-desker takes down a book, it's no sooner snapped shut than back with it to the shelf. Each paper summoned from the files is rebounded instantly to the files again. The steady stream from the In-Basket get deflected just two ways: to Out-Basket, to trash. Promptly at five, the clean-desker  departs from a place where the only hint that anything happened all day is an overflowing wastebasket.
 Off-duty, clean-deskers measure their vermouth with an eyedropper, walk their dogs by the clock, succor their spouses by the calendar. Such people exist, and some of them ask fees for training decentered souls to be just like them.
 But there are also souls like mine, content amid what clean-deskdom calls unholy clutter. Cleaning up the room I'm sitting in at the moment, to the extent of meeting clean-desk standards would take a week. The few times I have tried it, useful things have invariably vanished forever: things I routinely laid hands on without fail, back when they were integrated with the mess I fondly manipulate. I am, to put it mildly, an untidy-desker.

The context is a review of G.K. Zipf's Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort, which appeared to justify the preferences of the untidy-deskers. Unfortunately, according to the prefatory note in Mazes, Zipf's reasoning was not really satisfactory, a point that Benoit Mandelbrot brought to Kenner's attention.

 Nor are the untidy-deskers limited to the world of literature department. In the classic Transaction Processing: Concepts and Techniques, Jim Gray and Andreas Reuter compare memory buffering in databases to a desk:

The main idea behind buffering is to exploit locality. Everybody employs it without even thinking about it. A desk should serve as a buffer of the things one needs to perform the current tasks.

They then qualify this with the footnote

Andreas's desk probably doesn't, but that's a different story.

 For the last seven months, my desk has been a corner of the dining room table.  This makes clutter impractical, for come seven o'clock a table setting will supplant computer and monitor. The clutter is to some degree transferred into small text files in the Documents folder of my computer; but there one has the timestamp to sort on and, with luck, a meaningful filename.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

As Any Astute Student of German Knows

Noticed in the editor's introduction of Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings, the footnote:

That intrepid explorer of of the time continuum--the cartoon character Alley Oop--relies on just this principle. (Furthermore, he explores the continuum utilizing a time machine invented by Dr. Wonmug---and as any astute student of German knows, "wonmug" is a translation of "Einstein," which in English means "one mug" of beer.)

In the 1980s, I used to see the Alley Oop comic strip now and then. I remember that it sometimes involved time travel,  but I don't remember seeing the machine. And I'm afraid that such German as I know might not have been up to translating "Wonmug". I am grateful to Edward C. Moore for his explanation.

Thursday, October 8, 2020


 Colleges and universities advertise in the Washington, DC, area a good deal. This is not necessarily a tribute to our passion for learning, since

  • Employers can reimburse employees for training that "maintains or improves job skills" for the job then held. The IRS does not count this reimbursement as taxable income.
  • Many of us work for government contractors.
  • Contractors can bill the government more for the time of an employee with a higher degree than for the time of an employee with a lesser or no degree.
  • Some of that billing rate may be passed along to the employee, and in any case the employee becomes more attractive for work at the current employer and its competitors.

Among the media the universities use are the sides of Metrobuses. Today I noticed a bus advertising the University of Maryland Global Campus. After a moment, I understood that this must be a new name for the University of Maryland University College, the school's continuing education arm. A closer look showed wording that confirmed this.

I'm not sure why the school thought it well to use a new name.  In this area, University of Maryland University College was well known. I imagine that it was well known on US military bases across the country and the world. One of its alumni, General John Vessey, rose to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I will say one thing for the new version: it took a very little clicking to find the tuition rates at The last time I looked at the University College website, I simply could not find the rate per credit hour.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

A Useful Reminder

 Noticed this evening in "Preface to an Unwritten Book", collected in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings:

... there will remain over no relic of the good old tenth-century infallibilism, except that of the infallible scientists, under which head I include not merely the kind of characters that manufacture scientific catechisms and homilies, churches and creeds, and who are indeed "born missionaries," but all those respected and cultivated persons who, having acquired their notions of science from reading and not from research, have the idea that "science" means knowledge, while the truth is, it is a misnomer applied to the pursuit of those who are devoured by a desire to find things out.

 I presume that "misnomer applied" should be something like "misnomer for that, and properly applied".

Saturday, September 26, 2020


Of course, another observation cannot be suppressed at this point: the habit of considering the texts from an historical and text-critical perspective has somewhat impeded the spontaneity of the listening approach. I would not go as far as Rudolf Borchardt, who, in his letters to Hugo von Hofmannsthal, speaks --with regard to Pindar--of a certain kind of irreverence as of an "organic error committed even by subtle philological minds": "even the best philologist" believes in other ways of experiencing the divine, "for instance of shaking the divine by the hand and thanking it for its outstanding achievements."

Josef Pieper, "The Equitable Interpretation" (of Plato), collected in Tradition as Challenge.

"Susan, you can't possibly know that this is the second best Uruguayan novel," a challenge that [Susan Sontag] always rose to, hotly defending her choices. Her attitude reminds me of something Leon Wieseltier says of another top student, Harold Bloom. "Harold feels that all literature should pass before him and get a grade," Leon said.

Larry McMurtry, Literary Life: A Second Memoir.

The great business of Bostonians was to place values upon everything in the world, with conscientious accuracy. Professor Norton once said to me on the steps of Sanders Theatre, after a performance of Beethoven's "Eroica Symphony," that, after all, the "Sentiment" of the funeral march was a little "forced."

John Jay Chapman, "Mr. Brimmer", collected in The Selected Writings of John Jay Chapman.

Monday, September 21, 2020


 This morning, when I went to walk a little after seven, I wore a light jacket over a long-sleeved shirt, and found myself putting my hands in my jacket pockets. I remembered to have encountered the expression "finger-cold" in Thoreau's journals, and this evening located the entry for October 14, 1856, which begins

A sudden change in the weather after remarkably warm and pleasant weather. Rained in the night, and finger-cold to-day. Your hands instinctively find their way to your pockets.

 The Oxford English Dictionary includes "finger-cold" under "finger", and cites Thoreau, but from what the Gutenberg Projects lists as Excursions and Poems.

 It is getting to be finger-cold of mornings, something it certainly was not two weeks ago.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Back Downtown

 Yesterday I went south of P St. NW. for the first time in sixth months. The occasion was a visit to the dentist, scheduled right before the quarantine. A dentist's office sounds like the perfect place to spread airborne viruses, given that the patients have their mouths wide open, and often enough spraying out aerosols as high-speed tools clean, polish or drill. On the other hand, it is well to make a visit, and who can say that the winter will be a better time?

Downtown is relatively empty.  There are people on the sidewalks and parks, just not that many. Windows are boarded up on the two blocks that border 16th St. NW immediately north of Lafayette Square, but from 17th St. west I saw no more plywood. Some businesses that are in operation had closed early. After the appointment, I noticed that Second Story Books had closed much earlier also.

The receptionist at the dentist's office took my temperature with a sensor that operates from six inches or so. Given that it showed my temperature as 97 F, I wonder how accurately it detects fevers. She next had me clean my hands with hand-sanitizer, then put on latex gloves. I kept my mask on until I was in the hygienist's room.

The cleaning was different in three ways:

  • I declined the dark glasses, preferring to keep my own on.
  • The procedure did not end with polishing, something I can certainly understand.
  • Before the hygienist went to work with the high-speed tool, she brought in a device meant to capture aerosols. She warned me that it was loud, so I waited for the sound with some interest. I thought it about equivalent to sitting in a window seat near the wing when an airliner is taking off.
The streets seemed busier, though not that much so, north of M. I found that my mask diverts exhaled air onto my glasses, so that I walked home with a bit of mist on the lower lens. Most of the people I saw on the streets had on masks.

Friday, September 11, 2020

The Equitation Field

 In Rock Creek Park off Glover Road just off its intersection with Ross Road, there is an equitation ring, a loose oblong maybe sixty yards in the long direction. In years of running past it on the road, I have seen horses in it almost never. Thursday morning, I saw a horse and rider in it, but I don't know that I've seen a horse and rider before. Generally, I see families with small children playing in it. It is true that yesterday morning's rider was hard to see, owing to a rise in the ground.

By last week, the National Park Service had started to replace the fence around it. The old posts and rails were of weathered gray wood, the new ones are fresh, yellow-brown. The replacement is mostly completed on what I take to be the north and east sides: some stretches need a top rail yet.

 I don't remember to have seen the fence worked on before, in about forty years of passing it now and then. There have been large gaps in that passing by, when I lived out of easy running distance. Yet I know that a well-built fence can last many years.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Late Summer

 This morning, in passing through Carter-Barron, I noticed that last night's rains had brought down most of the flowers from the crape myrtles to the west of the tennis center. The asphalt pavement was patterned in tiny petals of pink. Crape myrtles resemble cherry trees in having small-petaled flowers that look elegant when fallen. Magnolias are splendid in bloom, but the fallen flowers turn brown while still conspicuous.

 Crape myrtles bloom after many flowering trees, then hold on to their flowers for most of the summer. The rain didn't wash off all the flowers in this neighborhood, for this afternoon I saw a number still blooming. The ones I saw were white, not pink, but I didn't go out of my way to search.


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Red Hair, Relation, Extension

 In forty-odd years of looking into works of philosophy now and then, I don't remember to have encountered any remarks on red hair. Then yesterday, in Note B, "Relation and Quality" in the appendix to F.H.  Bradley's Appearance and Reality, I encountered

Two men with red hair for example, it may be urged, are either not related at all by their sameness, or when related by it are not altered, and the relation therefore is quite external. Now if I suggest that possibly all the red-haired men in a place might be ordered to be collected and destroyed, I shall be answered, I presume, that their red hair does not affect them directly, and though I think this answer unsatisfactory, I will pass on.

Beginning on the facing page, the case of the red-haired men, and their relation or not, gets another three paragraphs, amounting to more than a page.

This afternoon I took up The Structure of Appearance by Nelson Goodman, a work published a half century after Bradley's and in a wholly different tradition. On page 4, Goodman discusses the notion of extensional identity:

 We do not require that the definiendum and the definiens agree with respect to all cases that 'might have been' as well as to all cases that actually are. For example, if all and only those residents of Wilmington in 1947 that weigh between 175 and 180 pounds have red hair, then "red-haired 1947 resident of Wilmington" and "1947 resident of Wilmington weighing between 175 and 180 pounds" may be joined in a a constructional definition (assuming, of course, that all terms in the expression taken as definiens have been previously introduced into the system).

I can see that I will have to be on the watch for red-haired men when I read philosophy.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Independent Bookstore Day

Both Powell's and The Strand inform me that today is Independent Bookstore Day. I prefer independent bookstores, and usually buy from them, but don't think I had ever heard of this day.

The way to celebrate Independent Bookstore Day would be to buy a book or books from one or more such bookstores. This I'm usually happy to do. However, a book purchased from an independent used bookstore (Common Crow Books, of Pittsburgh) via Alibris arrived on Thursday and will take a couple of weeks to get through. The next purchase may be mid-September.

Powell's has also declared its independence in another sense, stating that it will no longer sell through Amazon. Given all that has come out about Amazon's business practices, this makes perfect sense to me. I hope that it will not harm Powell's revenues.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Working from Home

 Since the third week of March, I have worked from the dining room table. I have told a few persons that with computers it doesn't matter that much whether one is three yards from a computer or three miles. For the most part, that is the case.

A couple of weeks ago, though, the network connection at the house dropped for several hours. I was able to use a "personal hot-spot" from my phone and continue to work. On the other hand, our chief network administrator lost his home connection later in the week, and found it harder to work.

And one needs electricity. The power in our neighborhood is much more reliable than it was when we moved in. Then an outage of minutes to hours was not unusual; now power cuts out just long enough to reset the clocks and the cable modem. But in the case of a power loss extending to hours, such as we had from Hurricane Sandy, I could work only until my phone and my PC ran out of battery. Back then it was possible to imagine relocating to a city outside of the storm zone. But now one might be suspected to be fleeing quarantine as much as network failure.


Monday, August 10, 2020


 When first I read the Meno and The Anabasis, the identity of Socrates's interlocutor in the first and the mercenary general in the latter escaped me. However, this summer I reread the Meno , and this time paid attention to the editor's foreword, where Meno's subsequent adventures and death are mentioned.

Having done so, I took a look at The Anabasis. The picture of Meno that Plato paints is not especially flattering, somewhere around the average for Socrates's second bananas. The picture that Xenophon paints is considerably nastier:

As to Menon the Thessalian, the mainspring of his action was obvious; what he sought after insatiably was wealth. Rule he sought after only as a stepping-stone to larger spoils. Honours and high estate he craved for simply that he might extend the area of his gains; and if he studied to be on friendly terms with the powerful, it was in order that he might commit wrong with impunity. The shortest road to the achievement of his desires lay, he thought, through false swearing, lying, and cheating; for in his vocabulary simplicity and truth were synonyms of folly. Natural affection he clearly entertained for nobody. If he called a man his friend it might be looked upon as certain that he was bent on ensnaring him. Laughter at an enemy he considered out of place, but his whole conversation turned upon the ridicule of his associates. In like manner, the possessions of his foes were secure from his designs, since it was no easy task, he thought, to steal from people on their guard; but it was his particular good fortune to have discovered how easy it is to rob a friend in the midst of his security. If it were a perjured person or a wrongdoer, he dreaded him as well armed and intrenched; but the honourable and the truth-loving he tried to practise on, regarding them as weaklings devoid of manhood. And as other men pride themselves on piety and truth and righteousness, so Menon prided himself on a capacity for fraud, on the fabrication of lies, on the mockery and scorn of friends. The man who was not a rogue he ever looked upon as only half educated. Did he aspire to the first place in another man's friendship, he set about his object by slandering those who stood nearest to him in affection. He contrived to secure the obedience of his solders by making himself an accomplice in their misdeeds, and the fluency with which he vaunted his own capacity and readiness for enormous guilt was a sufficient title to be honoured and courted by them. Or if any one stood aloof from him, he set it down as a meritorious act of kindness on his part that during their intercourse he had not robbed him of existence.

In the Meno (70e), Meno suggests that being good includes

 ... having what it takes to handle your city's affairs, and, in doing so, to help out your friends and hurt your enemies (while making sure they don't do the same to you)...

Xenophon says of Cyrus that

The prayer has been attributed to him, "God grant I may live along enough to recompense my friends and requite my foes with a strong arm."

Cyrus might well have lived long enough to recompense Meno, but he died of a head wound at Cunaxa. Meno seems to have intrigued with Artaxerxes's agents. Whether for this reason or not, he was not immediately beheaded with the rest of the Greek leaders at Canae; for his pains he got another year of life and maltreatment.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Back to the Park

 On the fourth Sunday of March, we concluded that Rock Creek Park was not a good place to run. The closing of sports leagues, museums, movies, etc. had made Beach Drive even fuller than it usually is on weekends. We had hoped to find room for social distance, but we found crowds for jostling.

Today we went back for another look, figuring that many households leave Washington in August. There were many fewer persons on Beach Drive, but there were still plenty. Few, walking, running, or bicycling wore masks. (I did not wear a mask except on the way down, for wearing it while exercising fogs my glasses.) Still, there was usually room enough to pass or be passed at reasonable distance. It was good to be able to run up Ross Drive from near the police station to equitation ring again. Will we go back tomorrow? I don't know.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

CSIRO and the Golden Age

Among the features of the renewed Golden Age predicted in Virgil's fourth eclogue is pre-dyed wool: the sheep will grow it colored, apparently by managing their diets. Now the Commonwealth Industrial and Scientific Research Organization (CSIRO), Australia's national research organization, has discovered how to grow colored cotton. (No, cotton is not wool; but white must be much the best color for a sheep in an Australian summer.) Will CSIRO show how to produce honey from oaks next?

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Controlling Events

Happening to browse in Peter Green's Alexander to Actium, in the chapter "The Road to Sellasia", I noticed
[Cleomenes] pressured Argos into accepting a garrison and an alliance; he captured Corinth and seemed all too likely to capture the Acrocorinth as well. When he demanded its surrender from Aratus (it still had an Achaean garrison), Aratus replied, and afterwards recorded the reply in his Memoirs, that he "did not control events, but rather was controlled by them," a response that Cleomenes regarded as frivolous, and that angered him into further aggression, this time against Aratus's own home town of Sicyon.
 In the end note, Green refers to Plutarch's lives of Aratus and Cleomenes.

On April 4, 1864, Abraham Lincoln wrote to Albert Hodges a letter concerning the course of his policy toward emancipation, and including the sentences
In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.
Had Lincoln encountered Aratus's statement in Plutarch? Apparently he secured and read a copy of Plutarch's Lives after a campaign biography stated that he had read it. (The author made his statement on the grounds that "almost every boy in the West in the early days did read Plutarch"--but did they read all of Plutarch's lives or just the lives of the biggest names?) If in fact Aratus was in the back of his mind, I must say that Lincoln improved on him.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Some So Marginal That Are They Mine?

Over the last few days, I read through Chapters IX and X, "The Meaning of Self" and "The Reality of Self" of F.E.Bradley's Appearance and Reality, which make a case against the self's claim to be part of reality, not appearance. I found myself thinking of Poem 15 in J.V. Cunningham's sequence "To What Strangers, What Welcome":
Identity that spectator
Of what he calls himself, that net
And aggregate of energies
In transient combination--some
So marginal are they mine? Or is
There mine? I sit in the last warmth
Of a New England fall, and I?
A premise of identity
Where the lost hurries to be lost,
Both in its best interests
And in the interests of life.
Did Cunningham read Bradley? I'll leave that to the scholars.

Monday, July 20, 2020

At All Events There is Change

The second-last paragraph in the Introduction to F. H. Bradley's Appearance and Reality runs
(c) And that is why, lastly, existing philosophies cannot answer the purpose. For whether there is progress or not, at all events there is change; and the changed minds of each generation will require a difference in what has to satisfy their intellect. Hence there seems as much reason for new philosophy as there is for new poetry. In each case the fresh production is usually much inferior to something already in existence; and yet it answers a purpose if it appeals more personally to the reader. What is really worse may serve better to promote, in certain respects and in a certain generation, the exercise of our best functions. And that is why, so long as we alter, we shall always want, and shall always have, new metaphysics.
 I first read of Bradley in T.S. Eliot's Collected Essays. In "The Perfect Critic", collected in The Sacred Wood but not in Collected Essays, Eliot seemed to take a cool view of personal appeal as a factor in judging writers or philosophers.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Even Though He Be the Great King

The last dialogue considered in John Sallis's Being and Logos is The Sophist, which earlier in the month I read through for the first time in years. Some parts of it I had quite forgotten, including the binary search after the sophist that leads it off. Others were familiar, for example the section beginning at 229C
STR. I at any rate think I do see one large and grievous kind of ignorance, separate from the rest, and as weighty as all the other parts put together.
TH. What is it?
STR. Thinking that one knows a thing when one does not know it. Through this, I believe, all the mistakes of the mind are caused in all of us.
And the section beginning at 230B in which the stranger explains the method of removing this ignorance:
STR.  They question a man about the things about which he thinks he is talking sense when he is talking nonsense; then they easily discover that his opinions are like those of men who wander, and their discussions they collect those opinions and compare them with one another, and by the comparison they show that they contradict one another about the same things. But those who see this grow angry with themselves and gentle toward others, and this is the way in which they are freed from their high and obstinate opinions about themselves. The process of freeing them, moreover, affords the greatest pleasure to the listeners and the most lasting benefit to him who is subjected to it....
 For all these reasons, Theatetus, we must assert that cross-questioning is the greatest and most efficacious of all purifications, and that he who is not cross-questioned, even though he be the Great King, has not been purified of the greatest taints, and is therefore uneducated and deformed in those things in which he who is to be truly happy ought to be most pure and beautiful.
To judge by Socrates's account in The Apology, cross-questioning did not invariably make the patients gentle toward others, at least not toward Socrates. The pleasure given to the listeners, though, he does speak of.

(Quoted from the Loeb Classical Library, translation by H.N. Fowler.)

Friday, July 17, 2020


Last Saturday morning my plans were interrupted when I noticed an email saying that a certain system was down. After some work, I was able to infer the cause of the failure and to work around it in part. The name server used on our internal network was not accessible, nor were some other systems, suggesting the failure of a VMWare host. By editing files on a couple of servers, so that they resolved names locally rather than through a query, I was able to get a couple of outward-facing systems working again. With the help of another techie, I identified the host that was not working, establishing that it was not connecting to the network. He restarted it, and presently we were back in business.

Today I heard from a co-worker that a system was down. I switched to that tab in my browser and confirmed that in fact it was running. Knowing that, it took only a few minutes to infer that Cloudflare,which manages DNS for our organization as for much of the internet, was not answering queries. I told the co-worker that connecting to work over VPN would allow the use of our internal nameserver, and so access to the system. But within half an hour, Cloudflare was answering queries again.

DNS, the domain name service, is what turns symbolic names such as into the numeric addresses that computers use. Everyone on the internet depends on it, relatively few know of it, vanishingly few think of it when it is working properly. But when it does not work, many things fail. The best comparison I can think of for those not engaged with it is GPS: imagine what would happen to travelers, Uber drivers, or others traveling in unfamiliar areas who supposed they could count on GPS and suddenly discovered they could not.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Like Beasts of the Field or Forest

On July 5, 1814, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams, including
Having more leisure there than here for my reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato's republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue. While wading thro' the whimsies, the puerilities, and unintelligible jargon of this work, I laid it down often to ask myself how it could have been that the world should have so long consented to give reputation to such nonsense as this? How the soi-disant Christian world indeed should have done it is a piece of historical curiosity. But  how could the Roman good sense do it? And particularly how could Cicero bestow such eulogies on Plato? Altho' Cicero did not wield the dense logic of Demosthenes, yet he was able, learned, laborious, practised in the world, and honest...
  It is fortunate for us that Platonic republicanism has not obtained the same favor as Platonic Christianity; or we should now have been all living, men, women and children, pell mell together, like beasts of the field or forest.
 Adams's reply, on July 16, was no more favorable:
I am very glad you have seriously read Plato: and still more rejoiced to find that your reflections upon him so perfectly harmonize with mine. Some thirty Years ago I took upon me the severe task of going through all his works. With the help of two Latin translations, and one English and one French Translation and comparing some of the most remarkable passages with the Greek, I laboured through the tedious toil. My disappointment was very great, my Astonishment was greater, and my disgust was shocking. Two Things only did I learn from him, 1. that Franklins Ideas of exempting Husbandmen and Mariners etc. from the depredations of War were borrowed from him. 2. That Sneezing is a cure for the Hickups. Accordingly I have cured myself and all my Friends of that provoking disorder, for thirty Years with a Pinch of Snuff.
  Some Parts of some of his Dialogues are entertaining, like the Writings of Rousseau: but his Laws and his Republick from which I expected most, disappointed me most. I could scarcely exclude the suspicion that he intended the latter  as a bitter Satyre upon all Republican Government, as Xenophon undoubtedly designed by his Essay on Democracy, to ridicule that species of Republick.
Being and Logos: The Way of Platonic Dialogue by John Sallis considers The Republic among other dialogues. In the course of reading it, I have re-read or read the dialogues considered, most recently The Republic. I can see how little it would have appealed to men of the Enlightenment. Of course Sallis belongs to a school that considers that Plato was playing a much deeper, often comic game in his dialogues. But I don't suppose that either Jefferson or Adams would have cared for a sentence such as
This circumstance is of utmost importance for understanding properly what is said in The Republic about dialectic; it is especially important as a warning against making too much of this discussion, and on the other hand, against taking it too seriously.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Wasted Time

In The Diary of John Quincy Adams, 1794-1845, the entry for October 7, 1833 reads in part
The summer is gone, and I have done nothing of what I intended. My time is now absorbed--1. In the mornings, minutes of Thomson's translation of the Septuagint Bible. 2. In teaching my granddaughter to read; a task to which I devote from two to three hours of every day. 3. In the exercise of my garden and nursery, an average of two hours more. 4. My diary, one hour. 5. Correspondence, two hours. 6. Miscellaneous reading, two hours. There are twelve: seven in bed, three at and after meals, and two wasted. This wasted time I have found by constant experience to be as indispensable as sleep. It cannot be employed in reading, nor even in thinking upon any serious subject. I must be wasted upon trifles--doing nothing. The string of the bow must be slackened, and the bow itself laid aside.
 Adams was then, and through the rest of life, a member of Congress; but Congressional sessions were much shorter than they later became, and he was at home in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Thursday, June 25, 2020


On the radio today, some historian was saying cold things about the military abilities of Braxton Bragg. This could be well the first time Bragg was mentioned on NPR since its founding. Of course the program was discussing the proposal to rename a number of US military installations named for generals of the Confederate army, Fort Bragg in North Carolina being one. My own reading on the matter is quite limited, but none of it has contradicted this historian's poor ranking of Bragg.

The United States Army before the Civil War, the "old army", was quite small, and opposing generals commonly had known each other for a dozen or twenty years. In his memoirs, U.S. Grant writes of Bragg that
Bragg was a remarkably intelligent and well-informed man, professionally and otherwise. He was also thoroughly upright. But he was possessed of an irascible temper, and was naturally disputatious. A man of the highest moral character and the most correct habits, yet in the old army he was in frequent trouble. As a subordinate he was always on the lookout to catch his commanding officer infringing his prerogatives; as a post commander he was equally vigilant to detect the slightest neglect, even of the most trivial order.
 I have heard in the old army an anecdote very characteristic of Bragg. On one occasion, when stationed at a post of several companies commanded by a field officer, he was himself commanding one of the companies and at the same time acting as post quartermaster and commissary. He was first lieutenant at the time, but his captain was detached on other duty. As commander of the company he made a requisition upon the quartermaster--himself--for something he wanted. As quartermaster he declined to fill the requisition, and endorsed on the back of it his reasons for so doing. As company commander he responded to this, urging that his requisition called for nothing but what he was entitled to, and that it was the duty of the quartermaster to fill it. As quartermaster he still persisted that he was right. In this condition of affairs Bragg referred the whole matter to the commanding officer of the post. The latter, when he saw the nature of the matter referred, exclaimed: "My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarrelled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarrelling with yourself!"
In his memoirs, Sherman touches on Bragg's irascibility:
I knew that Bragg hated [Jefferson] Davis bitterly, and that he had resigned from the army in 1855, or 1856, because Davis, as Secretary of War, had ordered him, with his battery, from Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, to Fort Smith or Fort Washita, in the Indian country, as Bragg expressed it, "to chase Indians with six-pounders."
Sherman had just resigned as head of the Louisiana Seminary of Learning and Military Academy--the ancestor of Louisiana State University--upon Louisiana's secession from the United States. At the time of the conversation this recollection was attached to, he was in New Orleans about to leave for Ohio.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Thoughts and Birds

In The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth gives a cameo appearance to a Count Sternberg, a cavalry officer
through whose brain thoughts would would shoot one at a time like lone birds through empty clouds, without brethren and leaving no trace
In  the Theatetus, Socrates uses the metaphor of knowledge and birds:
Now see whether it is possible in the same way for one who possesses knowledge not to have it, as, for instance, if a man should catch wild birds--pigeons or the like--and should arrange an aviary at home and keep them in it, we might in a way assert that he always has them because he possesses them, might we not?
And yet in another way that he has none of them, but that he has acquired power over them, since he has brought them under his control in his own enclosure, to take them and hold them whenever he likes, but catching which ever bird he pleases, and to let them go again; and he can do this as often as he sees fit...
... so now let us make in each soul an aviary stocked with all sorts of birds, some in flocks apart from the rest, others in small groups, and some solitary, flying hither and thither among them all.
Should Count Sternberg have hired a bird-catcher? The profession can hardly have died out with Papageno.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Two Books, Two Presses

Some years ago, I bought a copy of The Idea of a University, edited by Frank M. Turner for Yale University Press. Within the last year, having read Ian Ker's biography of Newman, I looked into it for some of the lectures on university subjects: Newman first published the Lectures and Essays on University Subjects as a separate volume, but then incorporated them in later editions of The Idea of a University. I found that the volume had four of the ten, with the remark that
Publication of the entire text of the Lectures and Essays on University Subjects would have been economically prohibitive.
A bit of looking about showed that Notre Dame Press still has available Martin J. Svaglic's edition of The Idea of a University, which gives all ten of the lectures. The series in which the volume came out is I believe discontinued, but Notre Dame Press will still sell you the book.

Having bought Notre Dame's edition, I have to say that Yale's made a judicious choice among the lectures on university subjects. Among those it omits, the essay on University Preaching, taken to heart, might much improve Roman Catholic homiletics in the United States; but it is far more about preaching than about the university.  The essay on Christianity and Medical Science is worth reading; but again, hardly bearing on the university. Though the essays on Elementary Studies are amusing, they aren't ones that I'm likely to reread. "Discipline of Mind: An Address to the Evening Classes" is worth reading, yet the meat of its argument is found in "Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning" in The Idea of a University proper.

On the other hand, Yale does give one a good hundred pages of "interpretive essays" of varying interest. One or two I could happily spare for one of the omitted lectures or essays by Newman.

It it to Yale's credit that it carries its end notes through to the end of the essays. Notre Dame Press pleads want of space in ending the notes after The Idea of a University proper.  If you want a translation of
nova frondes, et non sua poma
a line from Virgil that appears in the second lecture on English Catholic Literature, you will need the notes of Yale's edition ("strange leaves and fruits not their own").

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Snodgrass, Again

Having taken Heart's Needle from the shelves to verify the lines from April Inventory, I noticed a stanza in the poem Ten Days Leave:
But no; it seems just like it seemed. His folks
Pursue their lives like toy trains on a track.
He can foresee each of his father's jokes
Like words in some old movie that's come back.
Well, as my brother says, there are no jokes like Dad jokes. But I wonder whether the daughter addressed in the sequence Heart's Needle grew up to quote those lines back to him. I hope so.

Saturday, June 6, 2020


Long ago, probably in an anthology, I read the opening lines of W.D. Snodgrass's poem April Inventory:
The green catalpa tree has turned
All white; the cherry blooms once more.
I had not then seen a catalpa, for I grew up outside their range. I was considerably older when we moved to this neighborhood, where catalpas grow here and there.

The Audobon Society's field guide to eastern trees says that catalpas bloom in late spring. In Washington, this seems to mean late May. The cherries here bloom about six weeks before that. I suspect that Snodgrass wrote for the meter and not for the calendar.

But Snodgrass was correct to suggest the striking look of a catalpa in bloom. Here is a southern catalpa a block away, in pictures from different years:

Snodgrass included April Inventory in  Heart's Needle,  a collection that won him the Pulitzer Prize. It appears that one can still find those poems in Not for Specialists, the title of which consists of the last three words of April Inventory.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

A Tag for our Times

At least the first clause of Aenas's question seems curiously apposite for the season of COVID-19:
                      Cur dextrae iungere dextram
non datur, ac veras audire et reddere voces?
(Aeneid I, 408-409). Theodore Williams renders it as
Hast thou no hand-clasp true, nor interchange
of words unfeigned betwixt this heart and thine?
(Having appeared in indifferently poor disguise, Venus has given Aeneas some useful information, and is disappearing just as he recognizes her.)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Chinese Elms

Over the last few weeks, I noticed some trees that might have been doing poorly. The bark was mottled and irregular, and there were fallen leaves around them. Last year was hard on some local trees, for the year began with a stretch of very wet months, followed by a dry late summer. I wondered whether these trees might still be suffering,  but apparently they are fine. The Audubon book says that they are Chinese elms, called lacebark elms for the patchy bark, and they do drop their leaves as new growth comes in.

I can't say the bark much reminds me of lace:

They must have looked like this most years since the city planted them. That I now have noticed them owes to my restricted travel this spring: I pass the stretches where they are a couple of times most days, when other years I might have passed them once or twice a month.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Price of Wisdom

Today it occurred to me that I might soon wish to read The Structure of Appearance by Nelson Goodman, a fairly well known and well thought of work in the Anglo-Austrian-American tradition of analytic philosophy. Strand Books did not offer a copy. Powell's did, but at $363, a price I really don't understand.  Comparable works that quote Goodman go for perhaps $40 new. I mentioned this to a friend, who said that he had seen a book of Jaako Hintikka's on Amazon for over $1000.

In 2011, there was the curious case of The Making of a Fly, a work of developmental biology that dueling pricing bots bid up to the price of $23.7 million for a copy. Eventually someone noticed, and the price dropped to $135. The bots belonged to a couple of sellers on Amazon. I suppose something like that could have happened with Hintikka's book.

But as far as I know, Powell's sells only its own stock. My friend supposes that the Goodman book--printed long ago--could have come in as part of an odd lot, and that a Powell's employee might have gone to Amazon to see what it ought to cost. That makes as much sense as any conjecture I can come up with.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Cicero, Scott, and Friends

In Naming and Necessity, Saul Kripke writes that
The average person, according to this [theory], when he refers to Cicero, is saying something like "the man who denounced Catiline" and thus has picked out a certain person uniquely. It is a tribute to the education of philosophers that they have held this thesis for such a long time. In fact, most people, when they think of Cicero, just think of a famous Roman orator, without any pretension to think that there was only one famous Roman orator, or that one must know something more about Cicero to have a referent for the name.
In Chapter 4, "Vagaries of Reference", of Word and Object, W.V.O. Quine does discuss Cicero, Tully, and the denunciation of Catiline by one or both. Quine argues that names in (for example) belief clauses are not referentially transparent,  positing Tom, who is willing to affirm that Cicero denounced Catiline but not that Tully denounced Catiline. Evidently Tom was not a philosopher. But then one of the two epigraphs to Word and Object is the quip "Ontology recapitulates philology."

Kripke mentions Sir Walter Scott a couple of times in Naming and Necessity.  Rudolf Carnap, setting out his language S1 in the first chapter of Meaning and Necessity, includes the constants s and w, designating Walter Scott and Waverly, and predicate Axy, meaning that x is the author of y. I suppose that the popularity of the example traces back to Bertrand Russell's 1905 essay "On Denoting."

Sunday, May 17, 2020


I don't know that I had ever seen a ninebark (physocarpus opifolius) before one of the staffers at Behnke's sold us one, and certainly I had not heard the name. Last year, the weather when it bloomed was too rainy to offer many chances to take a picture. But this May is a bit drier, so here is the ninebark:

It does not bloom for long, but the wine-colored leaves remain handsome.

Saturday, May 9, 2020


On March 13, I walked home from work via Dupont Circle, so that I might pick up a book proposed for the neighborhood book club. I considered and rejected the notion of a couple of other stops: at Second Story Books or Lost City Books for quarantine reading; at Pacers for new running shoes. I was carrying a laptop, a couple of pound bags of coffee, and a book, and didn't care to add to the load.

What I did not consider getting that day was a haircut. I don't know that I could have made an appointment, but I wish I had tried. Books you can have delivered, and I think we have had eight delivered by mail (one from Second Story) in the last two months. You can have shoes delivered, and Pacers sent me a very comfortable pair. But you can't have UPS or the USPS deliver a haircut, and I could use one.

Thursday, April 30, 2020


The epigraph to W.V.O. Quine's Word and Object is from Otto Neurath. Quine gives it in German; in English it is roughly
We are like sailors who must repair their ship on the high seas, without ever having a chance to take it apart at the dock and build it anew from the best parts.
The analogy seems to me suitable for many efforts less exalted than philosophy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020


After reading another article about the economic prospects of the young just leaving school or having recently left it, I thought of Heyday by W.M. Spackman, a novella set in 1931 through 1938:
Actually, I suppose Mike's trouble was the universal one, the Depression, which by 1931 was deepening and spreading around us like an Arctic twilight everywhere. Mike's firm had been losing accounts as early as June of 1929; by June of '30 it had been mortally hit and Mike was unemployed, and by the summer of 1931 it was down to the original partners and one stenographer. ... They were still editors of the Prince [the Princeton College newspaper] even when their wives had found jobs in dress-shops on Madison Avenue (even on Lexington) and the kids had been sent (where else was there) to some grandfather's farm in Indiana; the Prince being a monopoly couldn't possibly get in a jam; or if it had, the College always stood there gothic and protective; and had anybody ever heard in any economics course anything to the contrary? Was there in short anything other than an editor of the Prince for a man to BE?
And now, from that warmth, that youth, that careless confidence, to be plunged (and how soon) in to this long frost of the human spirit! Abruptly, and for reasons there was certainly no professor to explain, everything we had been bred to and trained for, everything the College had polished us to attain--the easy good manners, the charm, the intelligence, the stations in life hereditary to the ruling caste whose blossoming generation we had been told we were--all this vanished under a mountainous rubble of avalanching quotation from a thousand chattering stocktickers; and suddenly nothing  remained to us at all--our training and competence nothing, our intelligence with nothing to be applied to, our lives with nothing they could return to or think of as their own.

Heyday follows the fortunes of a handful of Princetonians of the class of 1927, mostly employed in advertising or journalism in New York, and the women (graduates of Bryn Mawr or Vassar)  they sleep with or don't, mostly employed in the same trades. It is slight, it is short (about 80 pages), it is gracefully written. Though its tone toward the characters is gently ironic, as a whole that tone says that the class of 1927 (or at least the part that served on the editorial board of the Prince) did constitute a superior caste. Not long after publishing Heyday, Spackman left a post at the University of Colorado to return to Princeton (the city).

Dalkey Archive Press brought out The Complete Fiction of W.M. Spackman in 1997, but seems to have let it go out of print. Spackman must not be to everyone's taste, or perhaps to anyone's taste always. Still, he wrote gracefully. The blurbs included in the Dalkey Archive edition include ones from Stanley Elkin, Edmund White, and Herbert Gold.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Around and Around

Most weekends when I am home and healthy I run in Rock Creek Park. Now I am not running there. On March 22, we went down to the park to run, and found it much more crowded than usual. After that, I saw no point in staying home Monday through Friday, working from my dining room table, then running along roads or paths as full as downtown sidewalks during a normal rush hour. Beginning with the following weekend, I have run around my neighborhood.

It is a handsome neighborhood in general, and spring shows it--shows the Potomac valley generally--at its best. The eastern redbuds are just past their peak, the dogwood, azaleas, and laurels are flowering. Depending on the time of day and the weather, there be will more or fewer families out walking, children playing. The scene is pleasant and interesting. Still, to run a distance that might take me to the National Zoo and back requires three or four laps of the neighborhood, and eventually reminds me I'm restricted.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Terrible People, Those Greeveys

When "my most grievous fault" returned to the liturgy after forty years' absence, I noticed that more than one person pronounced it as if it were spelled "grievious". So pronounced, it seemed to me to name a class of faults committed by the Greeveys. I thought the pronunciation the quirk of a handful of persons, and expected it to disappear. In fact, "grievious" has not gone away, and now, after about ten years, it seems to be here for the long run.

This past weekend it occurred to me why this is so. Over forty years, the word must have been used almost exclusively in the court system, by those discussing "grievous bodily harm". Meanwhile, the word "previous", "previously", "devious", etc. remained in steady use. When "grievous" came back to the missal, they were waiting as the pattern for pronunciation.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Something Like That for Baseball

In the course of the week, I have watched via YouTube three solemn liturgies carried out with fewer than fifteen persons in churches built to seat a thousand or so. Not counting the video and sound technicians, who remained out of sight, ordained clergy seemed to outnumber the laity each time. The experience of watching this on a screen brought to mind a story of my father's from fifty-odd years ago, probably apocryphal.

The story says that the manager of a baseball team, happening to be awake in a hotel room on Sunday morning in New York, turned on the television, and saw the end of a Mass for Shut-Ins such as was broadcast in those days. At the end, as usual, there appeared the notice stating that watching this program did not fulfill the Sunday obligation for those well enough to make it to a church. The manager said, "Gee, we need something like that in baseball."

Friday, April 10, 2020

Confirm My Choices

While attempting to look up the availability of high-speed networking for a relative, I opened my browser to the CenturyLink website the other evening. A panel across the bottom of the screen offered me the choices to accept all cookies or (apparently) refine what I'd accept through "Cookie Choices". I had a look at Cookie Choices, and found that this listed quite a few cookies under the categories Targeting, Performance, Functional and Strictly Necessary, but did not appear to give me any way to indicate that I would decline to accept some or all. It did give me a big blue button to Confirm My Choices. Through the browser's Developer Tools window, I looked to see what I might be missing. I could not tell, though I saw various warnings and an error or two about elements that couldn't be loaded.

The links for the cookie providers did not point to those providers' own websites, but to Cookiepedia, a site based in the United Kingdom. For one of the links I tried, this site appeared to let me decline a vendor's cookies, for couple of other links it did not.  It would have been tedious to click through the long list to decline one out of three cookies.

I have since had another look. Using Inspect Element showed that the different cookie entries were defined as checkboxes, though I could see nothing to check.  In the Chrome Developer Tools console, a check with JQuery showed that there were 67 such entries, though the first seemed to be the element enclosing all the named cookie providers. I experimented with setting the supposed checkboxes to "off", though as far as I could tell without effect. In practice, whether or not I visited the cookie page to try to refine my choices, or chose Accept All Cookies, the site seems to serve up four or five cookies by the time I have gone a couple of pages in.

So I don't know what the whole "Cookie Choices" business is all about. Do the elements appear as checkboxes simply owing to careless reuse of some code? Is there back end logic that renders the checkboxes functional if one arrives with an IP address indicating that one is in the European Union and therefore entitled to GPDR protections? I don't know. But given all this "Confirm My Choices" seems like a taunt.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Numbers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention post statistics on the pandemic, including new diagnoses in the US by date. The numbers are presented readably here, and in a manner more suited to processing here. I have been looking at the web page most days of the last ten, hoping to see the rate of new diagnoses slowing. It does seem to be slowing. In the four-day interval beginning March 19, the new diagnoses increased 2.9 times, and the same for the interval beginning March 20. But the rate for the interval beginning March 26 was under 2, and for the periods beginning March 29 and 30 it was around 1.7.

In the absence of sufficient testing, it is hard to know what to make of these numbers. If testing becomes available at a rate to cover enough of the population, there will be many diagnoses of the asymptomatic, and a sudden jump in the number of new diagnoses and, for a few days, the four-day rate of increase. In the meantime, I know nothing to do but guess that the testing has been consistently spotty over the last month, and that the ratio of diagnosed to undiagnosed cases is more or less steady. If so, it appears that the social distancing is having an effect.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Social Distance

In my three weeks of working at home, looking out the dining room windows when I look up, I have seen many of the persons and dogs of the neighborhood go by. I already knew at least by sight most of the people on my block, and have been surprised at the number of passersby that I do not recognize. I notice again that the neighborhood is much younger than we moved in.

Now and then I have watched the small children of the block running about together, and it has occurred to me that children have no notion of "social distance". I suppose that their parents might, but find it too much strain to try to enforce it, given that those under fourteen seem immune to COVID19. I do not blame the children for their ignoring social distance: in my childhood none of us had any such notion. In fact, in watching them run about, I remembered a story from fifty-five years ago or so.

On our block there were many households that had children--it was the baby boom--and mostly those children played together. One summer, a girl of four from household A came down with the mumps. A boy of four from household B  went down to see why she wasn't out and about. They leaned their head against opposite sides of the screen door as he asked, "Judy, why can't you come out to play?", and she answered, "Because I've got the mumps." Presently he too had the mumps. His father, though very affectionate towards his children, kept clear of that little boy until he was better.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Plague Duty

In Kinglake's Eothen, Chapter X, one finds
My old friends of the Franciscan convent at Jerusalem some time since gave proof of their goodness by delivering themselves up to the peril of death for the sake of duty. When I was their guest they were forty I believe in number, and I don’t recollect that there was one of them whom I should have looked upon as a desirable life-holder of any property to which I might been entitled in expectancy. Yet these forty were reduced in a few days to nineteen. The plague was the messenger that summoned them to a taste of real death; but the circumstances under which they perished are rather curious; and though I have no authority for the story except an Italian newspaper, I harbour no doubt of its truth, for the facts were detailed with minuteness, and strictly corresponded with all that I knew of the poor fellows to whom they related.

It was about three months after the time of my leaving Jerusalem that the plague set his spotted foot on the Holy City. The monks felt great alarm; they did not shrink from their duty, but for its performance they chose a plan most sadly well fitted for bringing down upon them the very death which they were striving to ward off. They imagined themselves almost safe so long as they remained within their walls; but then it was quite needful that the Catholic Christians of the place, who had always looked to the convent for the supply of their spiritual wants, should receive the aids of religion in the hour of death. A single monk therefore was chosen, either by lot or by some other fair appeal to destiny. Being thus singled out, he was to go forth into the plague-stricken city, and to perform with exactness his priestly duties; then he was to return, not to the interior of the convent, for fear of infecting his brethren, but to a detached building (which I remember) belonging to the establishment, but at some little distance from the inhabited rooms. He was provided with a bell, and at a certain hour in the morning he was ordered to ring it, if he could; but if no sound was heard at the appointed time, then knew his brethren that he was either delirious or dead, and another martyr was sent forth to take his place. In this way twenty-one of the monks were carried off. One cannot well fail to admire the steadiness with which the dismal scheme was carried through; but if there be any truth in the notion that disease may be invited by a frightening imagination, it is difficult to conceive a more dangerous plan than that which was chosen by these poor fellows. The anxiety with which they must have expected each day the sound of the bell, the silence that reigned instead of it, and then the drawing of the lots (the odds against death being one point lower than yesterday), and the going forth of the newly doomed man—all this must have widened the gulf that opens to the shades below. When his victim had already suffered so much of mental torture, it was but easy work for big bullying pestilence to follow a forlorn monk from the beds of the dying, and wrench away his life from him as he lay all alone in an outhouse.
The notion that fear of the plague contributed to one's prospects of contracting it was a hobby-horse of Kinglake's. Perhaps his confidence helped him through a fever that he contracted in Cairo when the plague was killing hundreds there every day. The final chapter of Eothen tells how Kinglake and a Russian diplomat bluffed their way through a quarantine at Antalya. He began the travels recounted in 1834.

Saturday, March 28, 2020


In The Italians, Luigi Barzini writes of Mussolini that
In one of the first months of his government, in 1923, an old ambassador returned from Geneva where he had represented Italy at a meeting on the control of poison gases. As the venerable gentleman entered the younger man's room, Mussolini did not look up from his desk and went on writing. Finally, after long minutes, he lifted his eyes from the paper and, jutting his chin forward, asked disdainfully: 'What are the most dangerous gases, ambassador?' The ambassador gravely answered: 'Incense is the most lethal of all, your excellency.'
A friend to whom I showed the passage at first did not understand it, and then at the mention of incense in churches, was slightly shocked. He was highly educated, he had I think largely fallen away from the Protestantism he grew up in, yet the notion of incense in a Christian church troubled him.

This occurred to me the other day, when happening to pick up Morte d'Urban by J.F. Powers, I noticed in Chapter 4, "Gray Days",
What troubled them was the hocuspocus that went on in Catholic churches. And Harvey Roche, as a boy, didn't blame them. Wasn't it all very strange there, in that place, at that time, the fancy vestments, the Latin, the wine? What if Catholics were Protestants, and Protestants were Catholics, and they worshiped in such a manner? What would Catholics think? Could you see Dr. Bradshaw, of Grace Church, burning incense and throwing holy water around? ... You could not.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Plague Stories

Books, Inq. notices a mention in the Texas Monthly of Katherine Anne Porter's novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a fictional treatment of her bout of the Spanish influenza of 1918. It is an excellent novella, one that I have read more than once. Yet my complaint against considering it as a novel of the pandemic is that it shows the delirium of the patient and the bereavement of one who has lost a loved one; but the caregivers, those who administered medicine, changed the bedclothes, and generally tended to hygiene, is absent. I say the same of the few pages given to the same epidemic in Ivan Doig's Dancing at the Rascal Fair.

This may simply be a matter of what makes for better reading or more interesting writing. The eponymous protagonist of Roderick Random gives a more memorable account of his own sufferings from yellow fever than of his tending to the sick as surgeon's mate before he fell ill. (To be sure, this is quite in character: somewhat later, Random complains of the hard duty of serving as physician on a slave ship on a voyage from West Africa to Argentina.) In War and Peace, one reads gathers that Natasha Rostov was an assiduous nurse. One reads rather more--not that I would omit a line--of Prince Andrei's thoughts, delirious and otherwise, while under treatment.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Social Distance

A book that Hugh Kenner reviewed in 1987 quoted Marshall McLuhan to the effect that North Americans "may well be the only people who go outside to be alone and inside to be social." It did not occur to me when I first read the review that McLuhan was a Canadian, and that for some months of the year Ontario weather does not lend itself to outdoor socializing, rinks apart. Still, on the whole, the generalization seems to hold from what I see. I do enjoy solitary walks and runs.

Most weekends we run in Rock Creek Park. The stretch between Broad Branch and Ross Roads, which is then closed to motor vehicles, usually has plenty of people in it. Last weekend and this it seemed to have fifty percent more than usual. I take it that the extra fifty percent were all the families that would have been at children's sport, movies, or restaurants. In any case, it would have taken some work to plot a course over that mile and a half that did not bring one within six feet of another person. Actually, one might have had to run in the creek.

I ran downstream towards Klingle Road and so skipped the crowded stretch of Beach Drive. Certainly I passed walkers, runners, and cyclists closer than is recommended. But I did what I could to keep my distance, running in the street, sometimes in the bike lane once I was out of the park. On the return leg of my run, I found the sidewalks along 16th St. less crowded than Beach Drive.

(The book Kenner reviewed was Talking Tombstones and Other Tales of the Media Age by Gary Gumpert. As "The Media Culture's Counterfeit  World", it is collected in Mazes: Essays by Hugh Kenner.)

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


In several of his novels, Walker Percy mentions the unhealthy appeal of disasters, as lifting one out of the everyday. In a couple at least of the novels--The Last Gentleman, Lancelot--the disasters are hurricanes. Percy spent most of his life in Louisiana, where hurricanes  regularly arrive. I grew up in Ohio and Colorado, where they never do. In the Midwest and Mountain West, blizzards break into the everyday, but are allowed for--generally they slow, but do not much disrupt one's routines.

In the Potomac valley, where I have lived many years, snows do disrupt one's routines. Schools and offices close. On first arriving, I found this amusing, then enchanting--a week to do nothing, because of snow that would hardly be noticed three hours drive north! Eventually, I noticed that the charms of a city-wide shutdown were more than balanced by the inconveniences that followed, as the snow sat or slowly melted.

The pandemic has disrupted life in this region. Schools, restaurants, churches, and many offices are closed. I have been working from home for three days now, and will be somewhat surprised if I'm back in the office on March 30. At 25 or 30, I might have found this novel and amusing. Now, I'd just as soon be back in the office with people about, even though working at home has been reasonably productive.