Thursday, July 19, 2007


Bad news, bad news, bad news.

I went to the Staatsbibliothek yesterday to pick up Potocki. I got there at 9; the Buchabholbereich doesn't open till 10. So I killed time reading a book on corrosion.

I wish I had been an engineer.

I spent some time wondering whether it might be possible, if I couldn't be an engineer, to find a job working with engineers. Could I get a job as a PA in an engineering firm? An engineering department?

I then went online to look at Language Hat. He had a post about Celtic sites. One offered an etymology for the word 'leprechaun' which commenter John Cowan promptly trashed. I went to Cowan's blog and found a shell script mini-clinic, which begins:

On one of the mailing lists I subscribe to, someone posted the following Unix shell script as a wrapper for a program which unfortunately littered the current directory with temporary files which it did not remove. (Because this post is not about the faults of that program, I've replaced the reference to it in the fourth line of the script).

pushd . > /dev/null
cd /tmp
some-program $@
popd > /dev/null

The author added, "I'm sure there's a better way to write the script, but this would do the trick." So it does. However, the code exhibits a number of misunderstandings of how shell scripts work that I think are worth clarifying.

The first and fifth lines are used to preserve and restore the current working directory. However, a script (or any Unix process) always has its own working directory; changing the working directory in a script does not affect the caller of the script in any way. This is not true for shell startup scripts like .login, .profile, and .bashrc, or for Windows .bat and .cmd files, all of which should be careful not to permanently change the current working directory.

So the first improvement is to remove the first and fifth lines entirely.

This too looks so much better as a profession than the one I have ended up in.

I got a Guggenheim Fellowship last year to explore ways of representing mathematical thinking about chance in fiction. I thought the way forward was to use the ideas set out in Edward Tufte's Envisioning Information, Visual Presentation of Quantitative Information and Visual Explanations. Unfortunately I had to deal with a succession of people in the publishing industry who were unable to see the usefulness of quantification in thinking about risk, so most of the time was spent exploring ways it is impossible to write a book exploring ways of representing mathematical thinking about chance if dealing with people incapable of thinking mathematically about chance. How nice it would be to turn up for work every day and spend a solid 8 hours with a team of engineers.

Well, well.

I had an idea for a book a while back. I think it had some of the savagery of Jane Austen, which I like. It had a character who generated $47,397 a year for Jack Daniels from a customer base of 10. (Sorry, I have just checked my notes: in the original version the character generated $49,295.60 a year for JD.) As I thought about the book it seemed to go in the direction of the savagery of Chuck Palahniuk, which I also like. The character was the human counterpart, I now see, of a program which unfortunately littered the current directory with temporary files which it did not remove.

How late it is, how late.


"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

1. chance: if I walk one station further, which I usually do, fro Schönlein to Kotbusser Tor and do or do not buy an U-Bahn ticket to then ride a kurzstrecke I wonder... what my chances are. Friends of ours who always buy the proper U-Bahn tickets and have been riding several times a week for 4 months have YET ro come across a ticket-checker. I have been riding for 10 months or so (several times per week) and have been checked perhaps 10-12 times (at least).

2.Hip-Hop artist (oer are we talking manistream pop?) implant quite a bit of profuct placement, I attribute this to having started with Busta Rhymes "Pass The Courvoisier" which seemed to be followed by a lot of songs including "Hennessey" and more recently "XBOX" even...

3. On that note I ordered a "Hemingway" drink at a resteraunt and it was the froofiest coctail I had ever seen. I was expecting something with a bit of dirt added to the bottom of the glass or a shotgun shell floating in it somewhere (as it served at a place called "the Hideout" in Seattle), but no- NO NO NO- it was pink with a parasol and a slice of watermelon added to the edge of the glass. I guess that is the sort of irony you could potentially get for ordering a chauvenistic cocktail...

hassan said...

(On a somewhat tangential note, I've been thinking about math and literature(?) a little myself, but before I go on, I have a confession to make.

Jay-Z's Roc la Familia Album changed my life.

See, I'd been a hip-hop fan long before my generation caught onto it. As a kid, I'd steal the tape player from the desk of my sleeping older brother, and with pencil, paper and flashlight transcribe lyrics off tapes of rappers like Domino and Kris Kross from underneath the quilt. I can still remember a surprising amount to this day. And then it got cool, and so we both did.

But then there was the beginning of the end. The Jay-Z album above. Apart from the fact I think he's a pretty crappy rapper, the Volume IV was a new unprecedented low. And yet, thanks to expensive music videos, a big promotion push and thousands of guillable consumers, it still went platinum. As wide-eyed record industry execs began to take notice, I realized that hip-hop had changed forever.

I've gone on for this for a bit, you can see I'm still bitter. But yes, after that, hip-hop nosedived to the point I couldn't even listen to it anymore. I had to fill the void somehow, so then I found jazz, and then classical music, and then the rest is history.

But I still get into arguments over hip-hop. I'd say it died a long time ago, 2002 maybe, and they're like, no it never did, and then the fun begins. But perhaps it might be possible to prove that I'm right? I've been toying with the idea of taking the Billboard top 40 songs in hip-hop over the last 15 years, reducing them to IPA, and then tagging similar similar-souning phonemes with letters in the manner of poetry analysis. Then I could calculate things like distances between rhymes, the distribution of that, rhyme density over different time intervals, complexity of markov chains of rhyming variations. Even better, I could look at something like the Kullback-Leibler distances across the rhyme distributions of songs within a given year, to finally, definitively, QED prove that, yes, all hip-hop really sounds the same these days. See how excited I am? I will append this to the end of a long list of things to do while being sans boulot post-graduation.)


I'm very curious about the mathematical models of street-level probabilistic thinking, and writers and maybe artists in general have a very poetically just way of thinking about life and fate. It's interesting to wonder what exactly would that would mean. If you're up for sharing your references and maybe even preliminary findings, would be very much obliged.

ps: You know, I sometimes wonder about being an engineer myself too. But please. Do NOT envy the computer people. It is not worth it, you're safe now, but anything could happen if you continue to think about it any further. There is absolutely NO joy to be found in being awake at at 3AM, wired-up with enough caffeine to cardiac-arrest an ordinary person, staring bleary-eyed at a computer screen that gently, but firmly tells you that it won't compile for the one-billionth time. Hello junior year summer, how are you?

(oh, and will be in touch soonish about secondhand sales)

Edit (tar art rat got there first as I previewed the post):

Hip-hop product placement actually started much much earlier with Run DMC's "My Adidas". They actually got a deal with Adidas thanks to it. Pretty lucrative too, was it 7-figures? Can't remember. Oh, but before I ducked out, it was bad. It was like an airline duty-free magazine: off the top of my head I can think up Cristal, Belevedere, Dom Perignon, motorola two-way pagers, Roberto Cavalli shoes, Breiling watches, and let's not even talk about sports cars, etc.

Ithaca said...

Tar Art Rat - (not an answer to the question of how likely one is to get caught) I read a great story about bus tickets in Italy. In Italy people never buy tickets because the buses are so packed it's impossible to check them -- by the time the inspectors have worked their way through the crowd everyone has left the bus by the back door. So they introduced a system whereby you could redeem validated bus tickets for prizes (radios, watches, this sort of thing). The value of the prizes was well below the cost of the tickets it took to redeem them, but sales of tickets skyrocketed.

On cocktails. The Dos Piranhas, a bar on Yorckstrasse, has a Tyler Durden: bourbon, Southern Comfort, Bailey's, rum, creme de cassis, coconut cream, coconut milk, Tabasco, fresh lemon juice, cherries and cream. (I see it as a sort of YOUR NAME HERE among cocktails.)

Hassan -- As so often, the comment is better than the blog. As for the horrors of IT, that doesn't sound so bad -- at least that is a world that accepts the idea of fixing things that don't work.

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

ugh, pardon:
1. the atrocious spelling errors above, that is what happens: can't type without lookign + german keyboard chaos.
2. the invasion of Helen's comment space-
anyhow, not to get tooo far off topic, but it might be said (or I might say) that hip-hop died around the late 1990's-
just for fun let me throw out a few amazing (shouldn't live without) albums relesed at the pinnacle in no particular order:
A Tribe Called Quest - Midnight Marauders
Mos Def - Black on Both Sides
AND Black Star - Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
(both of the above being highly influnced by Eric B. & Rakim - Paid in Full, which would also be on the list)
Snoop Doggy Dogg - Doggystyle
The Digable Planets Reachin' (a new Refutation of Time and Space AND Blowout Comb
Wu-Tang Clan - Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
Pharcyde - Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
De La Soul Buhloon Mind State AND Stakes is High...
DEL tha Funkee Homosapien any of his-
however, to dispute the complete death of Hip-Hop there is evidence in such groups as The Roots, Lifesavas, Crown City Rockers, Mr. Lif, Dangermouse, MF DOOM, Cee-Lo, Outkast (sometimes), Blackilicious (sometimes), the Grouch, Living Legends, the Heiroglyphics, and more recently RIOW ARAI + NONGENETIC- who show promise... hope I didn't forget anyone-

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

I forgot Jay-Z, Hove.- most any but havn't heard/am afraid to listen to Kingdome Come...

Jenny Davidson said...

I once listened to "Black on Both Sides" pretty much every day for about 3 months, don't know what was up with that--was related to gym-heavy quest for physical fitness, lots of elliptical, most interesting thing on my iPod words-wise. Minor obsession with the Roots also--how can you resist an album called "Phrenology"? (I think my preferred Tribe Called Quest album is "Low End Theory" though.)

Re: engineering. My dad trained as an engineer, worked as one for a long time, now in IT stuff; definitely an appealing intellectual skillset; but I believe you end up with the dilemma of all professions, which involves bureaucracy and paperpushing. If you are good at it, you get promoted upwards to where you're not allowed to do it any more; if you're good at it but not good at working in a corporate environment, you get laid off.

In college I had an insane temp job that basically funded my entire last year of school, working as a secretary at a big engineering firm in Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass. (The kind of engineering where they're designing oil refineries for Mobil in Singapore.) It was interesting. They keep very early hours--not sure what's up with this. The stereotype that there are a lot of Scottish engineers (a la Star Trek) is true--my father also is Scottish...

It is one of the depressing things in life that people who love novels are not also overwhelmingly in love with mathematical thinking.

Jenny Davidson said...

p.s. Did you read A. L. Kennedy's "Paradise"? If not, I highly recommend it--something about your description of your Jack Daniels book & savagery reminded me of it.

Ithaca said...

My tangential comment (I think we are up to second derivatives now) is that this is exactly what makes me beg agents (with no success) to give me information about editors. It's not simply a question of whether an editor is a perfect fit for things I happen to know about; maybe the editor knows about things I don't know about. Maybe the editor can tell me things that make up for the time spent waiting about for editorial comments. I know more about the commenters on this blog (especially the ones who have blogs of their own) than I do about any editor in the biz. Why would I want to take comments from someone I know nothing about?

Jenny, I don't know, maybe I should move to Scotland and infiltrate an engineering department. I haven't read Kennedy's Paradise. I will see if I can track down a copy.

newt said...

tar art rat said however, to dispute the complete death of Hip-Hop
hope I didn't forget anyone

Mike Ladd. Especially his collaboration with pianist Vijay Iyer, In What Language?.

And Subtle. And the new Pharoahe Monch isn't bad either. AND being the good patriot that I am, I cannot omit local heroes WWW.

hassan said...

And now, to complete the Hessian matrix with tangents on yet more tangents...(Nice quip Helen, btw)

Oh, tar art rat, I assume you left out the following because there was simply no point in doing so, they are undisputable classics which undoubtedly EVERYONE owns (:-)):

Nas's Ilmatic and It was written, BIG's ready to die, Wutang's Wu-Tang forever, Big Pun's Endangered Species, Canibus' Can-i-bus*, Ludacris' Back for the First Time, Jadakiss' Kiss the Game Goodbye and perhaps others.

But yeah. Agreed - 2002 was cited to be generous, but the party was over long before then. Mos Def, Outkast, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Pharoah, Lupe Fiasco and others are great artists still around doing their thing to day, but are a unfortunately a shrinking minority.

* Hmm. I assume your silence on our collective hip-hop tangent is due to your musical tastes being found elsewhere, but if you have ever listened to a hip-hop song and thought, huh!, or would be willing to give yet another album that chance, I highly recommend Canibus' first album, Can-I-Bus. Canibus is like the Helen DeWitt of hip-hop. I mean, how cool is a guy that talks about John Von Neumann, optic fibres, chiropractory, and CAT scans in just one song?

Jenny Davidson said...

But also I am surprised nobody has mentioned De La Soul, of course "Three Feet High and Rising" is a delightful crowd-pleaser (I am exactly the age to have listened to it very much as a Young Person--named Jenny...), "Stakes is High" another favorite of mine tho too, I think that also is a very Helen DeWittish album, no?

Johanna said...

I would just like to add, that I recently heard a promo for the new Aesop Rock coming out in August and I think it's quite promising....although his collaboration with Nike in March came as a surprise...
I think nobody has mentioned anyone from Def Jux at all, can it be nobody knows?

Ithaca said...

Hassan, It's not really a question of musical tastes lying elsewhere, the decade you are talking about represents a block of time when i was working full-time and using all the time outside work to try to finish, well, one book after another, so there are all kinds of things I know nothing about. This is one of them. I'd like to more, it's good to have all these suggestions. HD