Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Ten Words

 Some time ago, I discovered ten words that work nicely to make persons hang up when they call to sell me warranties, lower my interest rates, or warn me that my social security number is being used from fraud, etc.: "Is there a number I can call you back at?" Some years ago, I found that "What company do you represent, and in what state is it incorporated?" shortened calls nicely.

 In something like five years of asking for a call-back number, I think that I've hit one naive fellow who actually did give me his employer's number. Unfortunately, I lost it before I could find someone to complain to.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Larry McMurtry, RIP

Today's papers carry obituaries of Larry McMurtry, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and bookseller. I have read a couple of McMurtry's novels, a couple of his books of essays, a couple of memoirs. But I probably spent more hours browsing the shelves of Booked Up than I have spent in reading his books.

He was a good novelist, generally a good writer, and a good bookseller. I wish he hadn't taken Booked Up to Archer City, Texas, but really I don't see how he could have managed Washington rents much longer. A smaller used bookstore a few blocks away moved out to Bethesda about then, and closed a few years later: the proprietor's website said that he was tired of gambling his retirement money in a game with losing odds. I wonder how profitable Booked Up was in Archer City.

 I suppose that the best way to remember him is to acquire and read his books. Many of them are in print, or you could buy them used or rare.

Sunday, March 21, 2021


In the second of The Meditations on First Philosophy, Descartes wrote

I shall nevertheless make every effort to conform precisely to the plan commenced yesterday and put aside every belief in which I could imagine the least doubt, just as though I knew that it was absolutely false. And I shall continue in this manner until I have found something certain, or at least, if I can do nothing else, until I have learned with certainty that there is nothing certain in this world.

Charles Saunders Peirce was not convinced:

We cannot begin with complete doubt. We must begin with all the prejudices we actually have when we enter upon the study of philosophy. These prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things that it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial scepticism will be a mere self-deception, and not real doubt; and no one who follows the Cartesian method will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs that in form he has given up. It is is, therefore, as useless a preliminary as going to the North Pole would be in order to get to Constantinople by coming down regularly upon a meridian. A person may, it is true, in the course of his studies, find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it, and not on account of the Cartesian maxim. Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.

 ("Some Consequences of the Four Incapacities") Not that Peirce disregarded the uses of doubt:

The Critical Common-Sensist will be further distinguished from the old Scotch philosopher [Thomas Reid, or those of his school] by the great value he attaches to doubt, provided only that it be the weighty and noble metal itself, and not counterfeit nor paper substitute. He is not content to ask himself whether he does doubt, but he invents a plan for attaining to doubt, elaborates it in detail, and then puts it into practice, although this may involve a solid month of hard work; and it is only after having gone through such an examination that he will pronounce a belief to be indubitable. Moreover, he fully acknowledges that even then it may be that some of his indubitable beliefs may be proved false.

 ("Issues of Pragmaticism")


Thursday, March 18, 2021

Willows, Poplars, Aspens

According to the translation of Psalm 137 preferred by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Jews in Babylonian exile hung up the harps on aspens. This surprised me. The Septuagint, the Vulgate, and King James Version all say that it was on willows. The Jerusalem Bible says poplars; the Revised Standard Version says willows but footnotes that with "or poplars".

The National Audubon society says that willows and poplars are two genera of the willow family. The American aspens are in the genera Populus (Latin for poplar). In the notes to his edition of The Odyssey, W.B. Stanford says of Book VIII, line 106

'Like the leaves of a tall poplar-tree': the comparison is between the continuous motion of the lightly hung leaves (probably of the aspen, Populus tremula) and the busy hands of the women [busy at weaving and spinning]....

So there is warrant for taking what are called poplars to be aspens. But then The Odyssey's word is αἴγειρος, poplar, and the Septuagint's is ἰτέα, willow.

 I suppose that my surprise on Sunday derived from the supposition that the aspen is a tree of the mountains. My first recollection of them is on the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a much cooler and drier area than Babylonia.  And all aspens do seem to prefer cooler climates.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Shari, Chelsea, and the Bot

 We seldom get a telephone call worth answering on our land line. Most of them are faked to have our area code, sometimes our exchange. I pick them up less in expectation of a useful message than to keep them from going to the answering machine, which will then beep until somebody goes to hear and clear messages.

Automatic dialing machines, whether for anticipated dialing with live operators or for recorded messages, are programmed to hang up if one does not speak within some seconds of picking up. (I think the term is "voice energy detected"). This makes it sensible to pick up and just say nothing. If a friend, or a simply a person who has entered your number is calling, that person will probably say something--"Hello?"--after a few seconds of silence. An automatic dialler will drop the call, for there are thousands more to make.

Some of those with recorded messages economize by starting the message at once. One that I hear a couple of times a week runs

Hi, yeah, this is Shari, and I'm a senior executive with our

 Sometimes Shari goes on to "mortgage team" before disconnecting. Less frequently, I hear

 Hi, this is Chelsea. I'm in sales with

 I forget with what: something automotive, I think.

It is my impression that there is a also a Carly, but I haven't heard from her lately.

Then, and this seems to reach my cell phone more, there is

Hello. I am an AI bot, and...

 I suppose that the AI bot will speak its message through without hanging up, though I have never verified this; it goes on well past the point where Shari or Chelsea would have disconnected. It speaks to the prestige of artificial intelligence that someone should have recorded the message so. There may be some sophisticated programming behind the message, but it sounds to me as if it is coming from an interactive voice-response (IVR) system, such has been around for a long time.