In Martha Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire (1994), Chapter 1:
In short, there is in this period broad and deep agreement that the central motivation for philosophizing is the urgency of human suffering, and that the goal of philosophy is human flourishing, or eudaimonia. Philosophy never ceases to be understood as an art whose tools are arguments, an art in which precise reasoning, logical rigor, and definitional precision have an important role to play. But the point of these devices, and of philosophy insofar as it is wedded to them, is understood to be, above all, the achievement of flourishing human lives. ...
In Robert Nozick's Philosophical Explanations (1981), Chapter 5.iv:
Even if a person were able to maintain his level and rate of (spiritual) advance and development unperturbed by others around him, not dragged down by them no matter what their state, he still would lack the benefits of associating with others who are equally or more developed. First, there is the benefit of being helped along by good examples and good companions. We all know people, I hope, who bring out the best in us, people in whose presence we would be embarrassed to speak or act from unworthy motives, people who glow. In their presence we feel elevated. We are [not] pushed or lured or nudged further along a path of development and perfection; rather, we are inspired to move ourselves along, in the direction shown.
Second, there is the joy in encountering a like person, in the experience of the other and in the mutual recognition of the mutual joy. The most intense delights, surely, are those experiences, at least as they combine with, enrich, and transfigure other delights more frequently listed. One awful psychological deformity is the resentment of excellence, not merely the inability to delight or take pleasure in it --- bad enough --- but the envious desire for its absence. To avoid being the object of such envy, people will hide their own excellence and camouflage their delight in it. Not only does this deprive others of the encouragement of an example, and of the opportunity for happy mutual recognition, it also alters the person's own experience. She does not simply feel the same delight only without expressing it; an unexpressed delight is not as delightful. ...
There is a third reason for wanting other equally or more developed persons around: their appreciation is especially worth having. In a loving relationship with another adult, the worth of what they give, including themselves, depends partially upon their estimation of themselves --- whether they give something they hold precious and valuable. ...
And later in the same chapter, Nozick concludes:
The developed person will want to help perfect others; this is the most important aid he can give them. We want to find a way of living whereby our best energies and talents are poured out so as to speak to and improve the best energies and talents of others. We want to utilize our highest parts and energies in a way that helps others to flourish.
Like part of the Boy Scout Oath: "... to help other people at all times ...".
(see also Christmas Faith (23 Dec 2000) and Good Will (25 Dec 1999))
- Tuesday, December 25, 2001 at 17:18:52 (EST)
Why? Nobody wants to fail; nobody sensible wants compatriots to fail; nobody with any large-scale perspective wants other nations to fail. It's too dangerous to live in a neighborhood (local, regional, or global) with crazed and potentially violent folks nearby. So how come some groups never achieve anything near their potential?
A couple of big reasons come to mind. First, learning. Successful societies have figured out that good schools, libraries, and other avenues of education are a stellar investment. Youngsters who spend their first couple of decades as scholars pay huge dividends in productivity and creativity. Older individuals who keep studying become great leaders in all areas of life. Not everybody has to be an egghead. But if a civilization drops below a critical fraction (maybe 10% or so?) of thoughtful, well-educated members, then it's in serious trouble.
The second key to success, paradoxically, is acceptance and encouragement of good losers. Not everyone can be top dog; in fact, hardly anyone can. If those who don't win are scorned, if they seethe with hatred, if they expend their energies on revenge --- then they lock themselves and their fellows into a deadly spiral of defeat. Consider the countries that are still obsessed about battles that they lost literally centuries ago. Are any of them healthy? Would a "victory" today make them so? The obvious secret: learn from your losses, congratulate your opponents, and come back another day to try again. (see On Failure, 13 July 1999) And for society as a whole, applaud good sportsmanship and creative compromise, console those who fall short, and offer lots of alternative paths --- so that anybody who keeps trying can eventually make it.
- Sunday, December 23, 2001 at 05:45:38 (EST)
When it was finished, I marveled at the magpie's nest of components around the base of each vacuum tube. Why were they there? At 10 years of age I had no conception of bias voltages, Ohm's law, RF filters, and the like. I recall thinking that perhaps all those tiny devices had been put there by quasi-chance, as people experimented and gradually came up with patterns that worked. It seemed improbable, even to me then --- but I didn't have a mental model of how circuits could be designed.
This memory surfaced again the other day, in the context of Genetic Algorithms (GA), sometimes called Evolutionary Programming. GA is a new-ish part of computer science, though elements of it have been around for decades. The basic concept is analogous to evolution by natural selection, though for GA the selection is more than a bit unnatural. Begin with a bunch of random, crummy attempts to solve a problem. Mutate them, mix elements of them together, and otherwise come up with new random attempts to solve the problem. Test them, get rid of the worst ones, and make more copies of the relatively better performers. Then repeat.
It works --- sometimes, kinda, sorta, maybe. In realms of low dimensionality, where there aren't too many choices to make, there's a chance that blundering about will find a good method. When there's a smooth slope up to the optimum answer, and not a lot of local hills and valleys, there is hope. (see Multidimensional Mountaineering, 13 Dec 1999) If a task can be factored into relatively independent sub-tasks, each of which can be worked on simultaneously, the odds improve. And above all, given eons of time and myriads of competing entities, success becomes more likely, maybe even inevitable.
So depending on one's viewpoint and the problem to be solved, a Genetic Algorithm is either a scam or a certainty. Like Darwinian evolution....
- Friday, December 21, 2001 at 06:01:15 (EST)
The location was interesting: the Diplomatic Reception Rooms on the top floor of the US Department of State. These rooms are ritzy (to put it diplomatically!) --- they're dominated by Chippendale furniture, antique clocks, huge paintings, and Corinthian columns ... Hudson River School landscapes opposite pictures of famous dead dudes ... Bombay style cabinets of teak or mahogony, with rosewood inlays ... the Walter Thurston Gentlemen's Lounge on one side and the Martha Washington Ladies' Lounge on the other ... gilt plaster decorations and cut-glass chandeliers ... the John Quincy Adams State Drawing Room and the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room ... and on and on.
Among the more striking artifacts on display:
Also striking about the reception rooms: they were entirely paid for by private, voluntary contributions --- like the Roman Empire's architectural memorials (see quotes from Edward Gibbon, Chapter 2).
Other notes of the day:
(for another perspective, see Infra Structure, written a year ago in the basement of an old Georgetown mansion)
- Wednesday, December 19, 2001 at 05:46:27 (EST)
But thus far, I haven't seen any commentary on the most serious question: What's the Ring of Power for our Age of the world? What's the attractive force around which our society revolves? What offers infinite rewards but inevitably corrupts all who grasp it? It's not science, in spite of the astounding technological progress we've made. It's not totalitarianism, in spite of the past century's unspeakable horrors.
Our Ring is money. Look at the driver behind the wheel of politics. Study the educational system. Analyze the allocation of national resources. Observe the heirs of the Tolkien estate, the Martin Luther King Jr. estate, the Chaplin estate, etc. See who is admired, envied, praised, and emulated in our society.
Thankfully, there are exceptions: people and organizations that refuse the Ring, step out of the limelight, and retain their honor. Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame, for instance, comes to mind. He had to fight his own comic-strip syndicate to keep his creations from appearing on millions of schlocky promotional products. He won; so have others, many unknown to us.
It is as was described in LotR (Book II, Chapter 7) when Frodo offers to give the One Ring to Lady Galadriel. She responds:
'And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!'
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
'I pass the test,' she said. 'I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.'
(see also Noblesse Oblige)
- Tuesday, December 18, 2001 at 12:21:41 (EST)
He was right. A lock is primarily a symbol: an indication that something is private, or expensive, or hazardous, or otherwise needs to be left undisturbed. No lock can stand against a determined assault. At most, a lock buys time --- enough time, if other measures are in place, for responsible people to arrive and stop mischief from happening.
Locks, like all other "security" technologies, are part of a multidimensional trade-off among cost, convenience, aesthetics, reliability, and a host of other parameters. Doing that trade-off intelligently is the art of risk management.
- Monday, December 17, 2001 at 16:44:30 (EST)
from Chapter 18, concerning The Ring and the Book:
It was a literary shibboleth just then that no man could write sincerely, convincingly, of any character without partaking to a considerable degree of that character's nature. Yet how, the poor puzzled devotees of this creed demanded, could Browning partake of so many and such diverse natures? Granted their premises, the obvious deduction was that he possessed a mind of such devious and tortuous complexity that normal men could not hope to understand. The truth, of course, was that Browning was an unpretentious, completely natural person, so unassuming that he did not know learning such as his was unique, so free of any perplexing dogmas of his own that he could reflect with photographic accuracy the most varied characters and yet absorb nothing of them. His own complete simplicity made it possible for him to portray more subtle natures. With all his masterly gift for words and for interpreting the workings of any human mind, he remained quite set in his own sober ways, cautious of innovation and so satisfied with his own make-up that he never bothered about introspection.
and later in the same chapter:
The booksellers of Oxford and Cambridge reported gratifying sales of Browning's works. Youths gathered eagerly around the poet at balls and dinners. The rising generation wrote him long and gushing letters. He found their homage charming, for he had reached that most delightful of all ages, the age of reminiscence. Here was a new audience for him, and he made the most of it.
The young, however, only supplemented the audience without which he could not have been happy, a select group of intelligently sympathetic women to whom he could talk as he could to no man, not even to Dommett when "Waring" came back from New Zealand after thirty years to resume the old friendship as easily as though it had never been interrupted. To Isa Blagden, Anne Smith, Lady Marion Alford, the aged Lady William Russell, Browning freely poured forth the thoughts that were kept hidden from the men he knew --- his fears and hopes for his son, the rare doubts that all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds, his occasional fits of boredom, his stories of days so happy that the unsubstantial memories were strong enough to remove all flavor from the present triumphs. The listeners soothed him, flattered him, lectured him prettily and sent him back to the world with his faith in life restored and reenforced so that in arguments over whether good or evil predominated in this world, he was able to apologize for his determined stand for good by saying in humble tones:
"Well, I can only speak of it as I have found it myself."
Men could not bolster up that faith, even the wisest of them. Browning was one with his contemporaries in setting women upon a higher plane of goodness and purity than was attainable by the stronger sex, battling, as they believed, amid so many more temptations than ever beset a lady. Besides, he had recognized the normal need of men to turn to women as their confidantes, and he was glad that it was so. ...
from Chapter 19:
He was getting arrogant, almost as opinionated as he had been in his brash 'teens. At seventy he could not adjust himself to the idea of being a great man, just as at eighteen he failed to realize that he was not a great man. He was not prepared for the part any more. He resented contradictions; they offended his dignity so much that he once forgot himself and threatened during a dinner to throw a decanter at Forster's head. The critic had ventured to cast some doubts upon the veracity of a woman Robert quoted. The poet believed such doubts amounted to questioning his own veracity, and he was quite prepared to fight.
Despite these rare outbreaks, he did not lose his charm of manner. His pride did not carry with it contempt of others, and already such a great punctilio as he had learned when Victoria was a girl had become a little old-fashioned. In a dignified, handsome, white-haired old man the amenities of which he was so prodigal were much admired, especially as they provided a pleasant contrast for his works. These were not old-fashioned. Younger readers were finding Browning's dramatic monologues much more intoxicating than the daintier froth of less thoughtful poets.
His ostentatiously robust health accounted for this ability to enjoy a life that other men, no less vain, found exhausting. He could stand for hours, shaking hands with all comers and conversing with them volubly about anything. When it was over, he felt no weariness, rather a pleasant exhilaration at having been the center of attraction. He attended every big dinner of the season, and many that were not so big. No theatrical opening, no concert, no private view of an artist's latest works could pass without Browning's helpful presence. He became the greatest first-nighter as well as the greatest diner-out of his age.
and later in that chapter, commenting on his Parleyings With Certain People of Importance in Their Day:
Undoubtedly his wide reading of obscure authors had been largely responsible for the scholarship which was his outstanding quality, and the new book was merely a recognition of it. But much more than reading had gone into the making of the Browning mind. His friends, his love, his health, his calm and happy life, his unusual, zestful, lusty joy in just being alive and that indefinable something which the world hails as genius were surely of as much importance as Bob's [his father's] library. ...
from Chapter 20, discussing the Browning Societies which sprang up:
The disciples agreed on only one thing, that Robert Browning was a great philosopher. They were quite wrong, for they confused scholarship with philosophy. Browning was a poet --- the fact seems almost to have escaped the Browning Societies completely --- and he used the philosophies of other men as a matter of course without even subscribing to them himself, much less originating them. If he ever had a strictly new thought of a kind to qualify him as a philosopher, he kept it to himself, and he was not a man to practice that sort of intellectual reticence. It is safe to say that every time he was called a philosopher he was libelled. As a scholar he probably had no equal in England after his father died, and of this there is plenty of evidence in his books. But such distinction was not enough for the Society members. They insisted that "the Master's" poetry must contain all things for all men, even qualities that would prevent its being poetry.
and concluding that chapter:
Many critics considered it unwise and a little ridiculous to start such an institution as the Browning Societies while the poet was still alive. But in fact the Societies owed their lives to his vitality and they did not long survive him. The little cliques, each pretending to comprise all those who could understand the poetry of Robert Browning, honored him in his lifetime. But after his death they performed the greatest disservice that any writer can suffer. They effectually repelled the young, to whom the living man had made such a strong appeal, and with every paper they published, the alienation of public affections was carried a bit further. By fostering the legend that Browning wrote philosophy, not poetry, his too serious adherents insured for him the apprehensive, deliberate neglect of casual readers and turned all that was best of his long life out to die in the arid wastes of public indifference. His was a tragedy, although he did not live to see it, well captioned by the title of his own poem, "A Death in the Desert."
In America the Browning rage continued as long as the craze for culture. But when women began to take up golf and politics and business, they had no more time and less inclination to linger in the desert. The social life of dozens of communities shifted from the Browning Society to the country club, and soon only a few students were left to penetrate into the unknown in pursuit of the elusive Browning meaning. And like all desert rats, they were rather silent people, speaking a language of their own when they did speak. They could never describe to others the really splendid relics they had found buried in the sands of oblivion, and the literate world, if it thought of Browning at all, thought with the parodist:
"Ah, did you once find Browning plain, And did he seem quite clear, And did you read the book again? How strange it seems and queer!"
(see also The Brownings1 and The Brownings2, plus Barrett And Browning and Judy Re Sonnetsfromthe Portuguese)
- Saturday, December 15, 2001 at 05:55:17 (EST)
Such a zone of niceness apparently gave offense to some, especially hard-boiled "Goths", a subculture famous for their dark outlook, their harsh language, and their piercings (real and metaphorical). The story is told that, sporadically, roaming bands of irate Goths would launch an assault on alt.cuddle, raining down message threads of ridicule and scorn. The Cuddleniks replied with sweetness, joy, love, and lots of their trademarked *cuddle* *hug* *snuggle* *tickle* *wave* *hugga* *nuzzle* plus :-) smileys --- and thus they invariably won, driving their negative opponents from the field within a few days.
Which brings to mind a memorable line from an underappreciated movie, The Golden Child:
"Do not underestimate the Power of Good."
- Friday, December 14, 2001 at 08:19:36 (EST)
Douglas Hofstadter wrote a short fantasy piece ("A Person Paper on Purity in Language", reprinted in Metamagical Themas) several years ago on a related note, about a hypothetical world's language in which names and pronouns revealed not gender but race. Alas, Hofstadter reported, his experiment in social commentary was widely misunderstood; he was accused of racism by readers who didn't pick up the ironic intent. Perhaps some thorny issues are too deeply-embedded to touch, at least not without causing pain....
(see Our Stonehenge and Women And Men)
- Thursday, December 13, 2001 at 09:16:43 (EST)
No, the big challenge is coming up with productive clues --- ambiguous suggestions from the edge of the obscure, promising probes into the darkness. Yeah, it's tough, working on the ragged boundary between the obvious and the inscrutable. But that's where discoveries are made.
(see Good Mistakes)
- Wednesday, December 12, 2001 at 05:56:31 (EST)
A new lion was on exhibition at the most elegant London houses in the Spring of 1862. He was an ideal society lion, so gentle a child might approach him, yet preserving all the regal dignity of his untamed, unpredictable, temperamental and unmannerly colleagues. That part of the world of fashion was a little touched by the naive eagerness with which Mr. Browning plunged into the wearying, unexciting frivolity of dinner parties, receptions and teas.
Before he had committed himself to the task of making a new career as different as possible from the old one, his marriage and its end had begun to pass into the legends of romance. Society was pleased to see that the hero of the story looked his part. Robert Browning was fifty now, and the years had added to his good looks. His white beard was trimmed in a more orderly style than he had affected when it was black. His thick gray hair contrasted most becomingly with his large dark eyes, and because his eyes were dark men and women, especially women, murmured to each other with an awed respect that the shadow of Ba's death still clouded them. Women who, Ba thought, had adored him too much for decency while she was alive now set out to remove the shadow. Robert enjoyed their efforts tremendously. Grief had nothing to do with the color of his eyes. His sorrow went much deeper than that, but he kept it in the private places of his mind. He did not permit it to interfere with his genuine delight in feminine attentions and sympathy.
He had not remembered how pleasant for a bachelor existence the formality and rigid etiquette of England's better homes could be. He had gone away a young man of promise. He came back with the promise more than fulfilled. The city was willing to give him the reward of his honesty --- considerable praise, a loudly vocal respect and an indifferent reading.
... The sense of loneliness and bereavement which had almost smothered him in Florence just after Ba died had given way to a steady sadness which, strangely enough, was not unpleasant. He recovered old habits of thought --- optimism is a weed not easily destroyed --- and although an occasional cry of bitterness might escape him or a fit of mourning for the past overwhelm for a moment the solid satisfactions of his new life, they were passing phenomena in an existence devoted to proving that a great peace and a great, zestful energy were not incompatible.
For the British public there remained only Art, the races and the growth of Empire as hobbies for a man's idle hours. A few eccentrics busied themselves with queer scientific and industrial experiments, but such topics could hardly be introduced into a polite drawing-room, and practically all drawing-rooms were polite. Most Englishmen found the races a sufficient interest, with patriotism as a convenient side line when the conversation took a lofty turn. But a considerable minority felt strange aesthetic stirrings which seem hardly credible to future generations which know them only by their photographs, their furniture and their architecture. Nevertheless, a faint urge after beauty did survive and struggle in those unlikely surroundings. It had to find an outlet somewhere, and literature, as the most fashionable of the arts, was the favored choice of the aspirants to culture.
He [RB] managed to keep his afternoons and evenings thus comfortably filled with happy distractions which he was able to believe were solemn duties. The true Victorian always knew that he owed certain such pleasures to his Position in Society. But the mornings remained, and at fifty Browning was discovering a use for the time between breakfast and lunch. Work could be done in the mornings.
Never before had he permitted himself regular hours of labor, although Ba had often told him that he owed that much to his Position in Literature. He had been sceptical about his Position in Literature, but no modesty could be proof against the obvious evidences that it was improving. He had written nothing in the last few years to account for his increasing prestige. His wife's death had led romanticists to pick up the books by the man she had loved, but Browning's sentimental appeal was never strong enough to keep such readers. He gave them headaches where they looked for heartaches.
The true explanation of his improved Position lay in the uninterrupted play which London afforded his gregarious nature. He had taken his place in the first of literary societies, and was no longer just a name and a reputation for incomprehensibility. Authors, critics and the patrons of both saw him so often that they could not forget his existence, so they spoke about him, wrote about him, even read some of his poetry. He came in quite naturally for that pleasant give and take in the reviews which writing men find so valuable and at which the envious outside the friendly circle snarl with the bitterness of men whom there are none to praise.
And later in Chapter 17, Loth comments on RB's thinking when offered the editorship of a magazine:
True, Browning knew nothing of the techniques of editing, but no one has ever refused an editorial job because of conscious ignorance. Every man, especially every writing man, is quite sure that he can do such work with his left hand. Browning was no exception. Indeed, he thought, it would be very pleasant to show the world for once how articles should be selected. He also had a very great curiosity about the mechanics of the medium which he had always scorned for his own works.
(some other clippings are in The Brownings1 and TheBrownings3; see also Barrett And Browning and Judy Re Sonnetsfromthe Portuguese)
- Tuesday, December 11, 2001 at 06:11:49 (EST)
What grabs me and pins me down about that image is Ocean itself --- such a marvelous, overwhelming, incontrovertible fact --- unchanged and ever-changing, bounded and semi-infinite --- like life. Oceanic metaphors are among the most powerful I know. Among my favorites:
Charles Dickens's comment in A Christmas Carol, about human duty:
"Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!""
Beethoven's words about Johann Sebastian Bach (punning on JSB's surname):
"This is not a brook, this is an ocean!" ("Das ist nicht ein Bach, das ist ein Meer!")
Albert Schweitzer's thoughts on humanitarianism:
"Of all the will toward the ideal in mankind only a small part can manifest itself in public action. All the rest of this force must be content with small and obscure deeds. The sum of these, however, is a thousand times stronger than the acts of those who receive wide public recognition. The latter, compared to the former, are like the foam on the waves of a deep ocean."
Isaac Newton's modest self-description:
"I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
(see also My Business, Foam On The Ocean, and Absurd Juxtaposition)
- Monday, December 10, 2001 at 06:25:59 (EST)
So many jobs never get finished, or go worse than they should, because of interpersonal rivalry. So many connections are never made because of parochialism and turf-consciousness. So many nascent good ideas are never brought forth because of fear that somebody else will take advantage and steal the credit.
A group made up of people who genuinely like each other, who aren't selfish, and who work together effectively --- such a group will be a lot more productive than a pseudo-team of prima donnas ... especially in the long run, and when attacking complex problems beyond the scope of any individual glory hog.
- Saturday, December 08, 2001 at 20:56:12 (EST)
... In their lives the Brownings gave evidence that the romance of which they and the other poets of their generation wrote, was actual and substantial.
Given the opportunity, lives forced from their natural courses, and warped for a time by stronger wills and unhappy accident, inevitably spring back to fulfill themselves. So it was with Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, both of whom were living persons predestined to understand the fulness and warmth of life. Confronted with the most improbable and difficult circumstances, they met, fell in love, and were married. It is good to be reassured once again that life has a pattern to which it will return to complete itself, even after years of irrelevancies.
A sampler of Loth's prose:
from Chapter 2:
Bob Browning [RB's father], whose friends envied him the serenity of his disposition, the quiet excellence of his taste, the unassuming virtuosity of his talents and the happiness of his home, had never been able to get rid of his memories.
from Chapter 4:
Meanwhile Robert returned to the discarded Italian poem. All through the winter he piled obscurity upon obscurity, burrowing deeper and deeper into another poet's soul and closing the tunnel behind him. The style was growing on him. He wrote long letters to his publishers which they could not understand; his most casual correspondence became a maze of intricate phraseology that frequently defied analysis and which his unique ideas on punctuation did nothing to untangle.
from Chapter 9, commenting on the final letters exchanged between EBB and RB before their elopement:
So to the end the spirit of their courtship was maintained. The ardor of a lover, expressed by poets terrifyingly articulate on paper, the confiding trust in the future, the regrets for their impropriety, their abandonment of everything for each other, and at the very end the tag of philosophy! Even in love they never quite lost the ability to think, and to express their thoughts.
from Chapter 10, on the Brownings' initial encounters with Italian life:
Ba [Elizabeth] did not even see the shadows of the coming events. The apathy of the people, the resigned cheerfulness with which they bore their poverty, the absence of such an assertive band of artists and scholars as almost deafened London, the indifference to politics, the circulating libraries that did not lend books, the "refined and cultured Italian society" that never read books, the existence of modern literature only in translations --- these were her first impressions of Italy.
(from Chapter 12, on actress Fanny Kemble's observations of the Brownings:
... She also admired greatly the atmosphere of domestic bliss that pervaded the house so perpetually that some guests thought it a little too impeccable to be real. But not the accomplished Fanny.
"He is," she said of her host, "the only man I ever knew who behaved like a Christian to his wife."
After the first few years of marriage, he and Ba had both become articulate enough with either tongue or pen to give expression to their love on the slightest provocation. Both were sentimental romanticists, never tired of speaking endearments or listening to them. ...
from Chapter 13, quoting Thomas Carlyle's letter to RB concerning his collection Men and Women:
"My friend," he told Robert, "it is what they call 'unintelligibility!' That is a fact; you are dreadfully difficult to understand; and that is really a sin. Admit the accusation; I testify to it. God knows I too understand very well what it is to be 'unintelligible' so called. It is the effort of a man with very much to say endeavoring to get it said in a not sordid or unworthy way to men who are at home chiefly in the sordid, the prosaic, inane and unworthy."
(more snippets to follow in TheBrownings2 and TheBrownings3; see also Barrett And Browning and Judy Re Sonnetsfromthe Portuguese)
- Friday, December 07, 2001 at 06:04:31 (EST)
If a man speaks in a forest, and there's no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?
(see also Women And Men ... I found this jest particularly striking, since I overheard it from a conversation taking place nearby between two carpenters doing some interior construction work ... quite philosophical of them!)
- Thursday, December 06, 2001 at 05:38:11 (EST)
and best of all, a meta-proverb:
- Tuesday, December 04, 2001 at 05:52:42 (EST)
Certain strange symbols just captivate me, and have for years. They carry an extraordinary feel, a mysterious attraction, an exotic air --- but I can't quite figure out why.
Is it some particular groupings of letters (e.g., "IA") that they often seem to share? But "diary", "crucial", "mathematician", etc. don't move me, or at least not much.
Is it the way some words look on the page, like they should spell something backwards? But they don't, usually, and the special words catch my attention as much when heard as when read.
Is it a particular linguistic history? But I don't (consciously) know their background.
What is the source of these words' magic?
(I remember hearing, years ago, of somebody's theory that all language could be analyzed based on letter patterns using a particular 4 x 7 matrix derived from ancient Arabic or some such occult source. Sounded nutty at the time, especially in its claimed application to free-text information retrieval and relevance-ranking. On the other hand, N-grams do sometimes seem to offer an information-theoretic way to cluster related terms ... and hashing is a well-known and productive approach to some kinds of data manipulation ....)
- Sunday, December 02, 2001 at 15:26:55 (EST)
I am struck by a recent cartoon --- for humor will always emerge from tragedy --- depicting U.S. diplomats speaking to members of the Taliban: "Give us Osama bin Laden or we'll send your girls to college!"
And in a short note on the Society's planned 225th anniversary celebration at Williamsburg, Virginia in December 2001:
The weekend's highlight will be at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, when a formal debate is staged in the House of Burgesses. Varsity debaters from William & Mary will confront an issue that the Society's founders discussed in the spring of 1777: "Whether a wise State hath any Interest nearer at Heart than the education of the Youth."
- Saturday, December 01, 2001 at 17:01:02 (EST)
From "Questionnaire No. 2", some of the questions for a young man to answer:
(See Check Mate1 for questions which a bride-to-be should ask herself about her intended. And note a severely dated riddle from a 1920's joke book: "Why do girls kiss other girls, but men don't kiss other men?" The answer: "Girls have nothing better to kiss, but men do!")
- Friday, November 30, 2001 at 05:36:20 (EST)
Weird! (I've only observed it a couple of times, decades ago; fortunately I haven't had many migraines over the years. If you see such an aura and wish to preempt a headache, you may want to try taking an analgesic, caffeine, and/or lots of water. Good luck!) Perhaps the illusion reveals a spreading biochemical reaction in the visual cortex, a diffusion of blood vessel constriction, or something else. In any case, it's a striking example of the physical nature of perception: the material substrate that underlies and forms the basis of thought. That's something easy to forget about when discussing "mind" in the abstract world of philosophy.
- Thursday, November 29, 2001 at 18:53:55 (EST)
Many benefits flow from memorizing great symbol-sequences. There's a simple pleasure in having lovely language at one's tongue-tip, just as there is in mentally replaying a nice tune or envisioning a pretty picture. Well-wielded words, internalized, help one write and speak better: quotation, allusion, and more subtle riffs on successful patterns all become easier. And a bit of rote study can strengthen the old bean, as Arnold Bennett noted in Mental Calisthenics (see Zhurnal Anniversary2).
What to learn "by heart"? Obviously there's no one answer; it's a choice every individual has to make, depending on interests, background, sophistication, native abilities, and time available to invest.
My own list? Thus far, it reflects a mental attic that's embarrassing in its dust and disorganization. Like many, I've got potshards of historic political speeches rattling around the cranial cavity: Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; the Preamble to the US Constitution; and the initial sentences of the Declaration of Independence. From Shakespeare I can summon a few spirits from the watery deep, including most of the Henry V "Crispin's Day" speech, much of Hamlet's soliloquy, the final lines with which Puck ends Midsummer Night's Dream, and the "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" sonnet. In other spheres poetic, Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" coexists peacefully with Shelley's "Ozymandias". Richard Wilbur's clever "Mind" vies with fragments of Barrett, Browning, and Bible verses. Silly limericks and double dactyls sporadically surface into consciousness like annoying background music, as do catchphrases from Monty Python and Douglas Adams, or lyrics from Beatles and Bob Dylan.
But the first poem I learned under my own initiative? It was the summer of '69, and I was a high school soon-to-be senior, away from home for the first time, at a National Science Foundation mathematics enrichment program (see Bookhouse Boy). I picked up a poetry textbook left behind in a dusty classroom at Southern Methodist University, and it fell open to Robert Graves's "The Naked and the Nude". Needless to say, with a title like that a teenager was going to read on ... but what I found was funny intellectual wordplay along with some philosophical musings on death and destiny. No regrets --- it was worth memorizing.
But my bottom line: not much to report from several decades of lackadaisical study. Better get to work, eh? The list to learn is long ...
- Wednesday, November 28, 2001 at 06:15:35 (EST)
From "Questionnaire No. 1", a sampling of the issues for the young woman to consider:
(See CheckMate2 for some tests which a groom-to-be may wish to apply to his fiancee.)
- Monday, November 26, 2001 at 06:02:58 (EST)
When I was a boy "discovering literature," I used to think how wonderful it would be if every other person on the street were familiar with Proust and Joyce or T. E. Lawrence or Pasternak and Kafka. Later I learned how refractory to high culture the democratic masses were. Lincoln as a young frontiersman read Plutarch, Shakespeare and the Bible. But then he was Lincoln.
Later when I was traveling in the Midwest by car, bus and train, I regularly visited small-town libraries and found that readers in Keokuk, Iowa, or Benton Harbor, Mich., were checking out Proust and Joyce and even Svevo and Andrei Biely. D. H. Lawrence was also a favorite. And sometimes I remembered that God was willing to spare Sodom for the sake of 10 of the righteous. Not that Keokuk was anything like wicked Sodom, or that Proust's Charlus would have been tempted to settle in Benton Harbor, Mich. I seem to have had a persistent democratic desire to find evidence of high culture in the most unlikely places.
There are a (at least!) two bits of subtle wisdom to note here:
And this doesn't just apply to towns --- it's true for any organization, big or small, serious or social, charitable or corporate.
- Saturday, November 24, 2001 at 08:04:02 (EST)
But on the happy side, in spite of the usual middle-age presbyopia that set in several years ago I find that I don't need reading glasses or bifocals. I read comfortably with one eye, and see distant objects sharply with the other. The brain has adapted over the years so that (except sometimes when I'm tired or ill) there's no double vision. (But maybe I should get a monocle, so that I can look like a Prussian officer, or a scruffy version of the New Yorker's annual "Eustace B. Tilley" cover twit?)
In the next generation, there's a fascinating phenomenon to report: all three of PD's and my children are, like their father, nearsighted in one eye and normal-to-farsighted in the other. But strangely enough, they're mirror images of me --- for every one of them the right eye is myopic, and the left is built with a nearly normal focal length. What genetic or evolutionary reason could there be for such a flip-flop? I'm mystified....
- Friday, November 23, 2001 at 19:25:36 (EST)
- Thursday, November 22, 2001 at 06:50:08 (EST)
At a Philosophy Breakfast not long ago, one of those present (BD) remarked:
"The big revolution of the 20th Century was capitalism and technology --- but I believe that the big revolution of the 21st Century will be women's equality."
We were talking about terrorism, Islamic societies, African tribalism, and so forth. (See Worth Remembering2 re turn-of-the-Millennium thoughts on related issues.) The surface debate was politics, justice, economic efficiency, and social progress ... but the undercurrent was still the delicate one of women and men.
So how deep into this swamp may one venture? The classic caricature draws men as impatient and inept non-conversationalists ("OK, get on with it!" ... "Your point?" ... "Well why didn't you say so?" ... "What's the problem you want me to solve?" ... "Can we shut up and go to bed?", etc., etc.) and women as catty chatterboxes, emotional and hyper-judgmental. Men are driven by physical stimuli (their "lizard-brains" as PD says at times), especially visual ones; women are moved by expressions of love and loyalty. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology offer to explain the differences in the sexes via natural selection. Or perhaps these are mere just-so stories, post hoc rationalizations for what has come out of history and human social systems. Perhaps....
In a more literary vein, Lucinda Ballantyne wrote an thoughtful and self-revealing essay, "If a Man Answers", that wrestled with this issue. It appeared in the Washington Post on 8 October 1999. She tells of how uncomfortable she is in talking with her friends' husbands --- a reversal from when she "... 25 years ago yelled at her mother's knowing smile, 'It is too possible to have a real friendship with a guy!'" Ballantyne says that she now fears "... the kind of Midsummer Night's Dream-like romantic anarchy that starts with a power walk with a friend's husband. Maybe sex does lurk beneath the surface as we stand next to each other at backyard birthday parties, pushing small bodies on swings." But, on the other side, Ballantyne sees "... a wry stoicism about some husbands that book-writing therapists might call emotional shut-down but which I, knowing the details (via the wives), have come to admire." She ends her article ambiguously, with her mother's current story: retired, alone, taking long walks along the beach with an old man whose wife is dying --- friends, and more.
Ballantyne was smart enough not to reach a conclusion in her essay ...
- Tuesday, November 20, 2001 at 19:42:07 (EST)
An archetypal example: during one scene with some fast-and-heavy banter an actor posed the riddle, "If a light sleeper sleeps with a light on, what does a heavy sleeper sleep with?"
He then whacked himself on the forehead, as though he had flubbed his line ... but in subsequent scenes appeared with a prepared sign hanging albatross-like around his neck. The sign labeled him "HEAVY SLEEPER". The crowd roared....
(If you don't get it, don't ask! It's a meta-joke on a bit of naughty sophomoric word-play.)
- Monday, November 19, 2001 at 06:10:44 (EST)
Of course, an hour later the Leonids erupted in a blitzkrieg of activity, with many hundreds or even thousands of meteors visible per second --- a spectacular downpour unmatched in recorded history. The newspaper boys and other early risers witnessed it; I didn't.
So this year (and in fact for the past couple of years) I've tried to recover from that mistake. The 2001 forecasts for a meteor storm predicted 5 a.m. in my time zone. I rose this morning at 0300, threw on a coat, went out, saw a couple of fast bright streaks in five minutes, and crawled back to bed. But this time I set my alarm. At 0400 I was up again, but was rewarded with only one meteor for my troubles. At 0500, it was better --- maybe a dozen Leonids shot by during my time outside. By 0600 a thick fog moved in, and my observations were over.
Maybe next year? Or perhaps 2033? I'm patient ...
- Sunday, November 18, 2001 at 17:29:22 (EST)
Squirrel trembles like an autumn leaf, nut-brown And hesitating on the curb; his eyes Gleam in the headlights of a car that grows Too fast for rodent reflexes to judge.
The Driver lifts her foot. Squirrel gauges range, Decides to dart ... but pauses in the lane, Looks back, and twitches tail. Now tires squeal As Driver winces, waiting for a thump To signal the descent of death's sharp scythe.
But no! --- Squirrel summons magic, dodges, leaps, Evades, and gains the farther shore. He sits As taillights dwindle ... sniffs the air ... and then He turns around to cross the road again.
Meanwhile, a block downstream our Driver spies Another glimmer by the asphalt's edge. Heart still aflutter from the last near-miss She taps the brakes, slows almost to a crawl, So when the pre-dawn runner swerves in front He lives: Squirrel sorcery protected him.
- Saturday, November 17, 2001 at 17:15:34 (EST)
Don't try this at home, kids!
- Friday, November 16, 2001 at 05:50:07 (EST)
The last small credits fade as house lights rise. Dazed in that radiant instant of transition, you dwindle through the lobby and out to curbside, pulling on a glove with the decisive competence of the scarred detective
or his quarry. Scanning the rainlit street for taxicabs, you visualize, without looking, your image in the window of the jeweler's shop, where white hands hover above the string of luminous pearls on a faceless velvet bust.
... and on --- evoking the magical aura of heightened awareness that one sometimes gets after reading an exceptional story or glimpsing the perfect picture at the perfect moment.
Later in the same poem, Taylor's metaphors of rippling light and water recall lyrical parts of some Counting Crows songs ... and resonate with a haiku that I saw a few decades ago in, believe it or not, an undergraduate physics textbook (Waves --- a volume by Frank S. Crawford in the Berkeley series):
Brightly colored stones Vibrating in the brook-bed --- Or the water is.
- Thursday, November 15, 2001 at 05:57:30 (EST)
There were many not-unexpected choices: MOM for instance, occurred several times. So did adjectives like HAPPY. And there were some less predictable words: BARITONE sticks in my mind for one colleague whom I only knew as a computer scientist.
I thought for a while about labeling myself BOOKISH, or CODER, or some such. But then felicity struck, and I suddenly wrote META on my tag.
Why? Well, it was different ... it was Latinate ... it had a bunch of anagrams (TAME, MEAT, TEAM, MATE) ... it suggested something a bit beyond or outside the box ... and it reminded me of the old saying, "Anything you can do, I can do meta!"
(see Do Meta (8 May 1999) & Meta Hominidae (7 February 2000))
- Wednesday, November 14, 2001 at 05:55:06 (EST)
This poem is a breathtaking tour de force: a sonnet based on a vision of the mythological rape of Leda by Zeus as he takes the form of a gigantic bird. Yeats's words are so violent and overpowering that one feels, with the victim:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
... and on, to conclude with deep questions of the transcendence that may come when God and Human meet in that most intimate of all contacts.
Science-fiction author Vernor Vinge raises the same issue at one point in his novel Fire Upon the Deep. A protagonist suddenly realizes that the passionate encounter she had the previous night was, in fact, with an artifact --- an agent of a hyperintelligent alien mind.
Did she put on his knowledge with his power Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Terrifying to contemplate....
A coincidental discovery: this note was already titled and almost ready for posting when I happened to glance at a copy of Islam by John Alden Williams (1961). The inside jacket flap begins: "Islam is much more than a formal religion: it is an integral way of life. In many ways it is a more determining factor in the experience of its followers than any other world religion. The Muslim ('One who submits') lives face to face with Allah at all times and will introduce no separation between his life and his religion, his politics and his faith...."
- Tuesday, November 13, 2001 at 05:49:13 (EST)
Admit Nothing --- Deny Everything --- Make Counter-accusations
This might go well with one of my wife's t-shirt mantras, e.g.:
Snap Out Of It!
- Monday, November 12, 2001 at 06:45:35 (EST)