Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Very Moral Tale

Fellow Christians,

Now that Sister DeWitt has gone amongst the cloven-hoofed Mohammedan horde, to convert their numbers by main force should the light of reason fail, it is up to her brothers and sisters in Christ to continue preaching the Good News. It is with profound humility that I answer the call of true Christian service and undertake this mission by offering this moral tale of a teacher and his Joynob.

Yours in Christ,
Fr. Francis Xavier Mithridates

Last year, about this time. I was teaching Introduction to Prose Fiction. As though I were free.

On the first day, I read through the list of names on the attendance sheet and came to a difficult one: Joynob.

I thought: Joynob. Suffering Christ, how am I going to say this without laughing?

Joynob came to the rescue. Seeing that I had difficulty pronouncing her last name - I read last names first, I don't know why; probably a stodgy distancing technique - she told me to call her Joy.

Joy. That's easy. I can manage Joy.

Still, I thought this pretty amusing. I would tell my friends about this name and they would say, So what? and, I don't get it. And I'd say: Joynob? JOYNOB? This doesn't suggest anything to you? No.

Awkward; immaturity reconfirmed.

Anyway, weeks go by. Imagine a mild autumnal montage. Images fade in and out; music plays, violins, cellos; pages turn, leaves fall; shots of me trying to find slaves on the Internet, to buy drugs from the homeless dude on my corner, to not burn my landlady alive. Typical fall.

I notice that Joynob is good friends with another student. Always chatting, laughing. It doesn't bother me at first. But gradually it does - I stop lecturing, give them looks, square my jaw, ask them to please stop.

One day they're at it again, talking and tittering. Suddenly there's a loud slapping sound. Sort of like a giant bag of meat had been slung onto linoleum. I'm just about ready to yell - which I never do in my college-level classes - and I notice that Joynob's got her head on the desk.

Friend o' Joynob: Don't get mad.

Me: What? Why would I get angry? What's the matter?

FoJ: She isn't drunk.

Me: OK. What's the matter then?

FoJ: She'll be OK in a minute. She isn't on drugs or anything.

Me: Uh, OK. But WHAT'S the MATTER?

FoJ: She has this rare medical thing.

Me: Like narcolepsy?

FoJ: No it's--you're going to be freaked out when she wakes up because she heaves and gasps for air for a while.

Me: . . .

FoJ: It's not narcolepsy. It's like vasobagel or something.

I've never heard of bagels having such an adverse effect on an undergraduate.

I think she means vasovagal, but this isn't the time to hairsplit.

FoJ: When she wakes up you're going to freak out. But just act normal. Don't let her know you know because she'll get embarrassed. And you're not supposed to move her either, you just need to let her be.

Me: Is she breathing? We need to call the EMT. Now.

FoJ: Trust me, this happens every day.

I start to hear echoing snippets, at this point, of the prosecuting attorney's opening and closing statements: Negligent-gent-gent. Callous-llous-llous. Stupid-upid-upid. Evil-l-l-l. Ten to fifteen years-ears-ear. Full extent of the law-aw-aw. Negligent-gent-ent-nt-t-t. Prison-ison-ison-son-son-on.

I start thinking: I'm not so sure I'm interested in getting routinely sodomized for the next fifteen years. Although I could write a good prison memoir. And it would give me more time to read. And it would get me out of this PhD thing. But getting shivved in the intestines?

That does it.

Me: No, I'm sorry, I'm calling the EMT.

I call the medical center. They say they will be here in ten minutes. Fine.

Then I think: What are they on bicycles? Ten minutes??

FoJ: Please please please just act normal. Just continue the class.

Me: Uh, OK, class. Sorry, but uhhh. OK. So Frederick Douglass. Right. Uh. We were talking about how he represents the passage of, uh, time. Right. Soooooo.


Me: I'm sorry. I can't do this. I need to do something.

FoJ: NO! You can't move her, it's too dangerous.

Me: How does Douglass represent the slave's experience of time in this passage? How --

At this point, Joynob suddenly comes out of her brief coma. She sounds as if she is hyperventilating or suffocating. Whichever one sounds like someone trying to breathe gravy. There I am asking the class about word-choice and such against background audio of someone being garroted. Lucca Brazzi's final moments. Instant dada.

I tell her friend that this is ridiculous, that I need to do something, but she insists I do nothing. Joynob is still in a state of unawareness, a sort of twilight state. She's going to be very embarrassed if she wakes up and sees that all our attention is on her. So I go on, pausing every once in a while to accommodate a particularly loud choking sound, until she fully regains consciousness. She shivers and cries so I go over and try to make her feel less afraid and less embarrassed. Joynob's friend looks at me disapprovingly.

EMT arrives.

Me: I called you twenty minutes ago.

EMT Guy: There was a line.

I don't say: A line where?

They ask her some questions and take her off to the hospital.


In the all walnut-wood office of the Head of Undergraduate Studies. The HUS looks like an animated bag of flour. He doesn't have any knuckles. He's perpetually smiling, even when listening to unpleasant news. It's as if his permanently plastered smile was some kind of punishment, some kind of spell he had to suffer.

I tell the story of Joynob to his sympathetic face.

HUS's first response: Well did she disrupt the class?

Here's what I don't say. I don't say: Well, uh, a.) obviously: have you been listening? and b.) that's not the POINT, you knuckleless baloney-sausage! You blotterbrained cankle, you!

It might seem superficial and indeed fat-ist to hold someone accountable for not having any discernible bone-articulation at the base of the fingers, but it seems to me that, in interactions between adult human beings, both parties should at least have knuckles. In the rapidly thinning category of things that separate infants from adults, knuckles are an imperative in my view.

I say: Yes.

HUS: Well, we can't have this. Did she show you a doctor's note?

I don't say: You mean when she was passed out or when she was choking?

I don't say: You dumb smiley-faced abortion, you.

I say: No.

HUS: Well [every sentence, it soon becomes clear to me, begins with Well; this is probably the other part of his punishment] you just let me handle this: I'll take care of it from here. [Smile, or rather an intensification of already smiling face, a further warping of the fool's mask; awkward silence]

HUS: Oh, by the way. Forgot to mention. How's she doing?

Coming soon to paperpools...


Hello, hello? Is anyone there? *posts blog entry, checks if it's there, goes back to edit it* Haha, this is so cool! I'm actually writing a blog on paperpools! One of my very own! Which will be read by countless individuals, upon which a virulent swarm of memes will be unleashed from my sentences, infecting readers worldwide with my thoughts. Soon enough, everyone will be doing my bidding. And then finally... an end to undotted fretboards on classical guitars! *shakes raised fist*

Ahem. (But this is still so cool!)

So, where were we... Yes, right, I might as well start off by introducing myself. I'm Hassan, a recent graduate from an over-rated west coast university (well actually, it wasn't so bad but it suffers from the general malaise that probably all brand-name universities have but that's another story), and I'm trying to think through how best to solve the problem of secondhand sales through some sort of an online platform.

How to find a system that involves readers and writers in a mutually beneficial system of exchange outside of the publishing norm isn't a trivial problem, and it is something that I think will be solved after many iterations of refinement. So, I set out to write what I thought would be a fairly straightforward version 1.0, and realized that doing so wasn't quite as trivial as I thought.

What this piece of software will do:

It's a little webpage interface where you can see a little goggle map at the top of the screen, and a webform at the bottom, where you fill in some information in fields. Not sure what exactly, but the basics would be name, e-mail address, and physical address. On the google map there will be a pointer that you can slide around, and after placing the pointer at where you live in the world and filling in the form, you click the save button.

Then, that saves your info into a database, after which you're taken to a page with another google map, where you can see the locations of all the readers of The Last Samurai/paperpools readers (sorta one in the same, right?) yourself included as multicolored pointers, with associated info, perhaps name and address alone at this point, not sure. Feel free to put in a fake name and/or a partially complete address if you're anxious about that, specifics aren't really essential.


First off, Helen and I think it'd be kinda cool to see where all the readers of the blog and the book come from, like for instance, I myself read the book back when I was in Ghana before leaving for college, and I'd be curious to see if there any other readers of that British Council Library copy that ended up here as well, not to mention a wonder of where else The Last Samurai has managed to find itself. But apart from that, since I'll have e-mails stored in a database, via me, users could potentially get in touch with one another for things like asking questions, setting up secondhand exchanges of books, or just whatever, who knows. I mean after all, we all read the book and liked it enough to either find our way here or just be the one that plain wrote it, so chances are we are a collection of similar-minded individuals, and this application should lend us probably welcome extended possibilities of interaction.

I guess what would happen is, if you want to get in touch with someone you see in an interesting part of the globe, e.g. say you're Helen, and you're, I dunno, wondering whether the Italian translation of the book used italics for the parts that are actually in Italian or some such thing, I'd shoot the Milanese user an e-mail, ask if they don't mind me giving their e-mail address to her, and they'd hopefully be like naturalmente. This is of course not a very graceful way of doing things, and ideally, I'd like an instant messaging system so people could self-regulate their privacy, but my current coding skills would make a mountain out of the activation energy required to do that. Hold that thought, because we're coming to why we haven't seen anything yet. So yeah, if people in general are uncomfortable about handing over their e-mail address over to human eyes, do let me know and I can figure something else out. Of course I'd say so, but rest assured I'd have no bad designs upon your e-mail addresses. If this does turn out to be a concern, along with the instruction manual on the page, I'll give you a dummy or proxy e-mail address you can use, because I'm using e-mail addresses as the unique identifiers for people. I guess I could log your IP address instead, but then what about a situation where two people use the same computer or internet router, I guess I could be clever and use an encrypted hash of IP + e-mail address, I dunno, we'll see.

So, you said something earlier about this being straightforward, right? So what gives? Where is this webpage?(!!):

As it turns out, I'm actually not technically a computer scientist by training. I did something called symbolic systems, which is essentially the approaching of cognitive science from all directions. These include philosophy of both the logical atomatism and white Greek-robe variety, psychology, linguistics, statistics, in my particular focus music cognition, as well as several others. Because we now like to think of the mind as of a computer that gets input from the senses, processes it, and outputs in the form of information, those several others would be artificial intelligence theory, computer science in the pure sense, and last but not least, three mandatory computer programming classes.

These three classes are not your average programming classes. Apart from the fact that OK, well, fine, the school is Stanford, where software development is pretty much how we got where we are, these three classes are designed to cover everything, in fact, even the Computer Science majors themselves don't take much more than those 3 in terms of purely programming classes. But that's just it. They're programming classes, not programming language classes. So while I can come up with algorithms for most problems, I was too busy doing random other things to bother learning web development languages not covered in class. Like PHP/mySQL. The precise tools needed for the job, it turns out, for what will come out is actually more of a version 1.1 than a 1.0.

PHP/mySQL at this level really isn't hard. It's just that learning a new language is such an effort. I'm mostly done with understanding how it works, and now it's actually time to write it. Which again. Is such an effort. Each time you test it and it doesn't run it's like a mini-heartbreak, and the average day can see maybe 200 failed test-runs... sigh.

Don't get me wrong, no, I'm dying to see this thing up and running. It's just that coding for me on a given day is a matter of having the right sort of chi*. And being in the post-graduation ether all caught up with things like finishing up the last bits of paperwork, wondering where to move, move at all?, working at my fake job, applying for real ones and interviewing but then should I just stop all that and apply to grad school like I originally planned, etc. etc., so when one does get free time, it's hard to decide to use it up on coding, never an easy choice at the best of times. But I'll definitely get around to it, though. Sooner still if perhaps I heard from you guys with questions, comments, suggestions that sort of thing. Anything that makes the coding seem less of a solitary activity. So yeah, please do give me some feedback. Google maps thing, good idea, bad idea? Ideas for improvement either in the short-term/long-term, what is secondhand sales exactly?, etc.

But yeah, that's what I've been kinda up to, and also what there will be to look forward to on paperpools.

* The right sort of chi: Many things contribute. For instance, on the days when I'm being productive, if I manage to seize the moments before the point where I become self-congratulatory after which I stop doing any work, I may code then. Coding is also likely after a good game of chess. There are others. But most predictably, I will have all the right sorts of energy to code when there is a fire underneath me, such as a good old-fashioned hard deadline. Oh, see me go! I've turned unviewed homework handouts into limping bits of submittable code in record time when told on a Friday that the submission date was moved forward to next week Tuesday, before the 5-day Thanksgiving break instead of after it. I tried to make this work for me; I would have liked to have unveiled the working webapp in time for Helen's birthday, alas, all the best intentions didn't get me past merely setting up a database, maybe a table as well. So I guess that's that for deadlines... Although if I do move from Palo Alto, I'd like to finish it while I'm sure where all the internet is. We'll see...

ps: What a long post!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

off radar

In Morocco using a keyboard that deletes everything i type as fast as i type it; staying at the hotel foucauld; have asked a few loyal readers to send in guest posts so i can see read the news in my blog when i get back

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Your Job in Germany

directed by Frank Capra and written by Theodor Geisel ("Dr Seuss")
[HT Ken McCracken,]

Meanwhile a certain Anatol Stefanowitsch is lulling the suspicions of the unwary with an extremely interesting post in English on the death of languages. Readers whose unfamiliarity with German has kept them from checking out Bremer Sprachblog can see what they have been missing. (Yes, it was worth interrupting my vacation in Morocco to bring the glad tidings.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I saw a peculiar film last week.

The story: A group of boys attend a New England prep school. Their English teacher uses poetry to teach the dangers of conformity; in one lesson, he stands on his desk, then insists that members of the class also stand on his desk.

The boys find an old yearbook with a description of the teacher, an alumnus of the school. The teacher had once been a member of a club, the Dead Poets Society. The boys find a book of verse, take it out in the woods to a cave, and attempt to revive the Dead Poets Society.

One boy wants to be an actor. He auditions for the part of Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and gets it. He accepts the part, knowing his father would disapprove. The night before the play is to open his father finds out and forbids him to take part. The boy tells the English teacher about his passion for acting. The teacher tells him he must tell his father. The boy claims to have told his father; acts in the play; the father appears, outraged at this defiance; takes him home; tells him he will be sent to a military academy and will then go to college and be a doctor. The boy says that is 10 years. The father wants no more arguments. The boy shoots himself.

The boys' parents hold the school to blame, and, in particular, the English teacher. One of the boys tells the authorities that the English teacher had encouraged the dead boy to rebel and had also encouraged the boys to revive The Dead Poets Society. He tells the other boys they should do the same; the school needs a scapegoat, if it gets the teacher the boys will be left alone. One boy punches him and is expelled. The others are taken to see the head. The last to go finds a typed statement setting out a fabricated account of the teacher's corruption of the boys. At the end are signatures of 5 other boys and a space for his own name. He signs.

The boys are in English class, which has been taken over by the head of the school. The disgraced teacher comes in to get his things. He goes to his office, returns through the class. The last boy to sign stands up. He says he did not want to sign but they made him. He stands on his desk. Several other boys stand on their desks. The teacher smiles.

In some sense the film was terrifyingly true to life. There is a type of American, well-educated, pleasant, comfortable, who would be perfectly capable of letting a teacher lose his job as a result of actions undertaken without the teacher's knowledge -- and then showing the jobless teacher that he had learnt the lesson of nonconformity by, um, standing on a desk. There is a type of American who would be capable of destroying a man's career, standing on a desk and expecting a pat on the head for his defiance of authority. What's odd is to see such an ending offered, as it seems to be, as an example of moral growth. One can imagine it used, and used well, with savage irony, but that seems not to have been the intention.

Old Worthless

Lawrence Aller:

After school, on the dreary afternoon of November 22, 1928, I went down to the Seattle Public Library to seek some forbidden books, i.e. books on astronomy. There I found the second volume of Russell-Dugan-Stewart Astronomy, with the tantalizing title of "Astrophysics and Stellar Astronomy." I checked it out and read it with great enthusiasm; the text was always fascinating if not always intelligible to a high school sophomore. My elders were annoyed, so I had to read it surreptitiously, at school or at home. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do in life but did not yeet appreciate the obstacles that were to be cast in my way. There was no surer road to ruinm than to have followed the advice of my elders, particularly that of my worthless old man.

In the autumn of 1928, I was living in Seattle with my oldest brother, Leeon. The old man had parked my mother and me there until he deemed me old enough tow ork as a slave laborer on his crackpot mining venture.

Old Worthless had spent his youth in the late nineteenth century amid the dying embers of the Old West, while his elders spun marvelous tales of a frontier golden age that never was. ... His father had had good luck in the California Gold Rush of 1849. The old man thought (or professed to think) he could do the same with identical, archaic 1849 techniques in 1929, in an area that had been exhaustively mnined by such primitive methods many decades before.

The old man's real ambition was to regress to the life-style of the 19th century frontier, complete with log cabin, water hauled in buckets from the river, and minimal comforts, but with the horse replaced reluctantly by a model-T Ford, and with candles replaced by a gasoline lantern. To implement this chimerical scheme he staked out some gold-mining claims at the very nortern edge of California. He had inveigled my brother Louis to assist and from time to time also enticed various gullible people to help him. These assorted n'er do wells, drifters, boobs, and klunkers were not reliable enough. He needed real subservient slave labor: That is where I came in.

The gold-mining enterprise was based on three fallacies: 1. Gold was there and could be extracted by archaic, crude, mid-19th century methods; 2. the place was ours -- actually it was a mining claim for which no valid title was ever held, either by Old Worthless or by anyone else; and 3. it would provide a splendid refuge when the social order collapsed. No religious fanatic believed more fervently in the Second Coming than Old Worthless believed in the imminent collapse of the social order. I was puzzled that I was the only one at "camp" who clearly understood that the whole crackpot enterprise was nothing but backbreaking nonsense, certainly doomed to catastrophic failure. That I was able to escape was little short of a miracle. It came about by a remarkable confluence of circumstances.

Basically, my quarrel with Old Worthless was not really about my studying the despised subject of astronomy; it was about getting an education. Although the old man would not put himself on record as being opposed to an education for me, he was gung ho to see that I did not secure one. After all, who needed a lot of book learning if the complete collapse of the social order was coming any day now?

A grade school friend of mine in San Francisco, James Fidiam, told me about the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) and had loaned me a stack of their leaflets. Especially after getting a glance at Russell's book, I was eager to join up. The opportunity came in 1929 when my brother Paul gave me three dollars for my birthday. I was severely chided for squandering such a previous gift to join that "crazy society in San Francisco," rather than spending it on socks to be worn while wading in icy water with leaky boots tending a sluice line. In one of the first issues of the ASP publications that I received, I saw an article by Donald H Menzel on the interpretation of the spectrum of Jupiter and wrote him about it. The idea I suggested turned out to be quite incorrect, but we struck up a correspondence. ...

Lawrence H. Aller, An Astronomical Rescue, Annu. Rev. Astrophys. 1995. 33: 1-17.

(The Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics includes an autobiographical sketch each year of an eminent astronomer; available online only to subscribers, but worth seeking out if you have an affiliation to an institution that subscribes or access to a library that has the journal.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mind the GAAP

Tim Annett has a post on MarketBeat, the WSJ's blog, on a practice that gives new meaning to the term 'creative accounting':

Jed Horowitz explains how an accounting rule helped Wall Steet earnings reports shine a little brighter this week:

Wall Street firms are teaching investors another lesson in alchemy by turning distrust of their creditworthiness into a little gold.

Thanks to a relatively new accounting rule, firms like Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs last quarter booked hundreds of millions of dollars in gains based on worsening perceptions of their own creditworthiness.

How does that work? If the market decides a company is a bigger credit risk and starts demanding fatter risk premiums to buy its debt, the value of its existing debt falls. Under a rule being phased in throughout corporate America known as Financial Accounting Statement No. 159, that same logic applies to a company’s own debt. Companies that mark their liabilities to a market price, as Wall Street usually does, thus record as revenue a drop in the value of their own debt obligations.

In essence, they make money because they owe less.

Just the one

Christopher Caldwell has a review of Philip Cook's Paying the Tab in the Financial Times:

As laws against smoking and drugs become more draconian, the relative regulatory neglect of alcohol appears a mystery. Much of this mystery -- at least in the US context -- has recently been dispelled in Paying the Tab (Princeton University Press), a gem of social science by the Duke University economist Philip Cook. Today's regulation of alcohol has its roots not in the reaction against the Prohibition years (1920-1933), Mr Cook shows, but in a more recent development: the spread of the "disease theory" of alcoholism over the past half century. Promoted by researchers at Yale and by Alcoholics Anonymous, the disease theory held that alcohol was a selectively addictive drug. Alcoholism describd a small group of people congenitally unable to "handle" it.

The disease concept was socially useful. It removed the stigma for problem drinkers seeking treatment. It made addiction counsellors look less like bluenoses and more like experts. And it was a godsend to liquor companies, which could now maximise sales with a clean conscience.

Paradoxically, the more Americans worried about alcoholism, the more readily available alcohol became. Regulating alcohol's harms at the level of the product, through taxes and licensing, looked like an unnecessary imposition on the undiseased. Instead alcohol policy involved stigmatising identifiable classes of lawbreakers -- primarily drunk drivers and teenagers.


Mr Cook considers the work of the French demographer Sully Ledermann, who showed in 1956 that the distribution of alcohol consumption in any large population follows roughly the same distribution curve. Alcohol abuse is a dependent variable. If you want to cut down on alcoholic drinking one effective way to do so is to reduce general consumption -- average drinking. In fact, because of the steepness of Ledermann's curve (a third of Americans do not drink; 10 per cent drink three-quarters of the booze) small decreases in average drinking will bring relatively large decreases in pathological drinking.

The rest of the article is available here (though unfortunately only to FT subscribers or those willing to take out a 15-day free trial subscription). The book (going by a quick Look Inside on Amazon) looks extremely interesting, though at $35 it does have me wondering whether I should set up my own book rental scheme.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Let's! Go! Fly a Kite!

Took a break from carrying 100 kilos of coal up from the cellar: read the Weekend FT. Chris Giles and Peter Thal Larsen have an extraordinary piece on the Northern Rock débacle:

On Monday evening Mervyn King believed the first real crisis of his Bank of England stewardship had - as he put it to friends - been sorted.

Beset by images of customers rushing to withdraw their money from Northern Rock, Alistair Darling, the chancellor, had offered depositors a blanket assurance that their cash was safe.

But within five days, Mr King's optimism had been proved comprehensively and humiliatingly unfounded. In one of the most extraordinary weeks in British banking history - one which saw the global credit squeeze spill on to the nation's streets - the Bank had on Wednesday performed an abrupt volte face. It had decided to extend emergency lending against mortgage collateral to all banks - a step that just 24 hours earlier the governor had -privately ruled out.


By early [Tuesday] evening, when the heads of Britain's banks came to Threadneedle Street for a meeting with Mr King, executives, including Sir Fred Goodwin of RBS and HSBC's Mr Geoghegan, one by one urged him to follow other regulators and take action in the money markets. Mr King responded with a lecture on the importance of avoiding moral hazard. Nevertheless, he also hinted that the Bank might be willing to alter its stance.

The following morning at 11am the extent of his change of heart became clear: the Bank would conduct a series of weekly auctions to inject liquidity into the three-month money markets by lending against a wider range of collateral, including mortgages. At the first auction it would supply about £10bn. The move was the direct opposite of Mr King's stated public position, and ran contrary to everything he had been saying in private as recently as 24 hours earlier.

At Northern Rock's headquarters in Newcastle, the news was greeted with disbelief. Executives erupted with fury as they realised that the Bank had agreed to a move that, if it had only come a few weeks earlier, would probably have saved Northern Rock, and its depositors, from the crisis they had just suffered.

But the £10bn question remains: what triggered Mr King's U-turn?

the rest here

You say Pace and I say Pace

Language Hat asked readers this morning how they pronounced the preposition 'pace' ('-- PAY-see or PAH-che -- and has already had 60 comments, including minority votes for PAH-ke and (I think) pace-to-rhyme-with-space. I don't think I have ever uttered the word.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Emoticons & the Vienna Circle

25th anniversary of the first emoticon. Language Log:

On September 19, 1982 at 11:44 a.m., Scott Fahlman posted this electronic message to a computer science bulletin board at his home institution, Carnegie Mellon University:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use


This calls to mind an account I once read of Otto Neurath's response to Wittgenstein's Tractatus (this in the Rowohlt monograph on the Vienna Circle):

In den frühen Diskussionen des Wiener Kreises, die sich eingehend mit dem 'Tractatus' befaßten, wandte Neurath immer wieder ein, daß hier reine Metaphysik erörtert werde. Als Schlick ihm vorhielt, diese viele Unterbrechungen seien störend, erbot sich Neurath jeweils einfach 'M!' zu sagen, wenn die Diskussion metaphysische würde; dann schlug er aber bald eine Verbesserung vor: "Ich glaube, es würde uns allen Zeit sparen, wenn ich jedesmal 'Non-M!' sagte, wenn hier einmal keine Metaphysik getrieben wird!"

In the early discussions of the Vienna Circle, which dealt thoroughly with the Tractatus, Neurath objected again and again that pure metaphyics was discussed here. When Schlick reproached him, saying that these frequent interruptions were annoying, Neurath offered to say simply 'M!' each time the discussion became metaphysical; he then soon suggested an improvement: 'I think it would save us all time, if I said 'Non-M!' every time, if for once no metaphysics is thrust in here!'

[yes, another flatfooted translation; my good German dictionary is in storage]

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Another Country

Getting ready for winter. Clearing the apartment. In winter Berliners with Kohlheizung -- coal-burning ovens -- wear 5 layers of clothes indoors. They quit smoking in September (the windows won't be opened for 5 months).

I had a small suitcase full of books that I had wanted to get rid of, and a small stack of books on a chair. I hate going to secondhand bookshops with books to sell, so I had cleared the books off the shelves months ago and then left them. Today I went to Another Country, a secondhand bookshop in Riemenstraße that sells English books. It operates partly as a bookshop, partly along the lines of a video rental store: if you buy a book you can bring it back and they will give you what you paid for it, minus €1.50 -- the difference from a video rental store being, of course, that you can keep it as long as you like and still pay only €1.50 for the rental. While Alan went through the books Tim said the good thing about the system was that it meant they always had good books in stock: in other 2nd hand shops all the good books go as soon as they come in, and then sit on a shelf in someone's room. I said yes, these were books I did not expect to read again, or not any time soon, so I would rather they were available to other people; when I lived in South America we were dependent on the supply of cast-off paperbacks that people had happened to bring with them and leave behind, and though there were more English-language books in Berlin it was still better to have them in circulation.

Tim (or possibly Tom) said they showed films; they were showing Blow-up on Friday, Georgie Girl next week. Alan offered me 40 euros for the books; I said I would be happy to take a credit, so he offered 45. He then showed me a room in the basement full of science fiction, and recommended two books by M. John Harrison, Viriconium Nights and Travel Arrangements. They had a large selection of books by Ballard. He said Ballard had been made a figurehead of New Wave science fiction; Michael Moorcock had taken over the editorship of New Worlds, previously a traditional sci fi magazine, and turned it into a magazine with very innovative writers, getting funding from the Arts Council (for science fiction! unheard of!) and Ballard was one of the writers he had published extensively in the magazine -- though not necessarily a writer who could live up to the expectations placed in a figurehead.

This looked like a good system. I felt I was not being as vivaciously thrilled as the excellence of the system and recommendations of Alan deserved -- my mind was taken up with the business of getting ready for winter, and the question of whether I might finish another book in the month before winter set in, and the question of whether it might be possible to sublet the apartment to someone recently returned from Antarctica and so spend the winter in Morocco -- so I greeted each new amazing feature of this innovative bookstore with faint Wows and Greats, feeling that the really important thing was that I had transferred books that had been in a small suitcase for 6 months to the custody of professionals. But it is a good system. Another Country has a website, here. If you're not in Berlin, you could recommend the system to your local source of secondhand books.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

search engines and such

On Language Log, Barbara Partee comments on a counter-intuitive set of Google search results:

Google peculiarities: When I tried to get a rough Google comparison of "biggest * of any of the other" vs. "biggest * of any of the", I actually seemed to get a much bigger number for the first, though it should be a subset of the second. I got 106,000,000 for the first and just 12,800 for the second! But then with some help from Kai von Fintel and David Beaver, it was discovered that Google behaves very strangely with some ungrammatical strings. Closer inspection of the return from the search that seemed to give 106,000,000 hits shows that it returns only 3 pages of results, with the number 106,000,000 at the top of pages 1 and 2, but the number 21 on page 3, and in fact it only returned 21 hits.

David sleuthed out the phenomenon; here's his report.


Unfortunately, the numbers given as results of google searches have become less meaningful over the last few years rather than improving in any sense relevant to us. The numbers google gives in response to a query are not counts of the number of pages with the given string. Rather, they are estimates based on a formula that, so far as I know, is not public. For simple searches, the estimate is presumably based on a calculation of the probability of the page having all the search terms based on the number of pages in the google caches for each of the component terms. But once you start doing string searches, this sort of approach becomes very unreliable.

I assume that the oddity of the result for "biggest * of any of the other" occurs because Google doesn't have any smart way to calculate the likelihood of strings for which the number of responses appears too large to simply count them. That is, I guess the algorithm works by first putting some bounds on the likely number of hits based on e.g. how rapidly various google network nodes appear to be sending responses, and if that number is sufficiently small, then google uses some fairly accurate algorithm for estimating the total, like counting every single response. But if there appear to be loads of responses, then the algorithm makes an estimate based on, well, who knows what. In the case at hand (and similarly for "smallest * of any of the other", "largest * of any of the other"), the estimate assumes some distributional properties that just don't hold for semantically or syntactically anomalous strings. Then, as you start going through the hits, Google is forced to self-correct as soon as you force it to actually enumerate all the results.

Hmm. So, if I'm right, then Barbara has stumbled on a rather interesting test for grammatical anomaly (though only relative to Google's bizarre assumptions about normality). Lets try another case: "* who thinks that is happy". This one has pretty damn ordinary set of words in it, but suffers from an unfortunate case of a missing subject. Here Google initially estimates 10,900 results. But then it rapidly revises down to 16...
[article with the questison that started this off here]

Meanwhile Joel Spolsky has a prophetic post claiming that Gmail will be the WordPerfect of e-mail here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

NYT website free for all

The NY Times will stop charging for parts of its website starting at midnight tonight (Tuesday) -- good news for those who have tracked a link to the NYT Archive only to be asked for a subscription or one-off payment of $4.95. More on the great circulation vs. advertising debate here.

Monday, September 17, 2007

whatever happened to the war on tea?

Heartened to learn of signs of success in the war on drugs in Afghanistan (Afghanistan has cornered 93% of the world opium supply), Matthew Engel comments on how the US war on drugs got started in the first place:

The first anti-marijuana law in the US, according to Charles Whitebread, a law professor at the University of Southern California, was passed in the Mormon stronghold of Utah. The Mormon church had been forced to end its historic tolerance of polygamy to get statehood for Utah in 1896. The clampdown was far from universal at first, but eventually many of the devotees of what was called "the traditional way" felt pressured enough to move to Mexico.

Most of the die-hards eventually drifted back, having failed to convert the locals to their religion. But in the meantime they had themselves been converted to the use of this interesting local substance, and they brought it back to Utah with them. The church's leaders - opposed even to tea and coffee - were far more horrified by the marijuana than by the polygamy, and in 1915 both the church synod and the state legislature banned it.

The ban spread, but for a different reason. Then, as now, the west had many itinerant Mexican labourers quietly enduring prejudice and enjoying their dope. So neighbouring states fell over themselves to copy Utah's ban. "Give one of these Mexican beet field workers a couple of puffs on a marijuana cigarette," said the proponent of Montana's law, "and he thinks he's in the bullring at Barcelona." Or, as one Texan legislator put it: "All Mexicans are crazy, and this stuff is what makes them crazy."

Eastern states followed, and in 1937 Capitol Hill moved in and instituted a national ban. The debate on this was so brief and farcical that Whitebread, while researching for his academic paper "The Forbidden Fruit And The Tree Of Knowledge: An Inquiry Into The Legal History Of American Marijuana Prohibition", discovered the thin volume recording it had slid down the back of its shelf at the Library of Congress.

Expert witness William C. Woodward told a hearing: "The American Medical Association knows of no evidence that marijuana is a dangerous drug." One congressman replied: "Doctor, if you can't say something good about what we're trying to do, why don't you go home?"

Saturday, September 15, 2007

sarko bleu!

Sarkoland, sarkostique, sarkoshow, sarkofrance, sarkoblog, sarkospam, sarkophobie, sarkocirque, sarkonazi, sarkononmerci, sarkorama... just how sarkosaturated is the français de nos jours? How many of these coinages are there? If Google isn't up to the job, could some other search engine be the secret weapon? And if some of the hits are in fact words in good standing unconnected with le petit Nicolas, is there a way to find out?

Since Jean Véronis of Technologies du Langage had any number of urgent pieces of business to attend to, it comes as no surprise to find that an e-mail from Louis-Jean Calvert was enough to send him off on a quest for the sarkogréal...

Seulement voilà : comment établir une telle liste? Interroger le dieu Godgle n’est pas une bonne idée, car comme la Pythie de Delphes,
il ne comprend que les questions fermées (et de temps à autre fournit aussi des réponses confuses...). Pas besoin d’offrir un sacrifice sanglant, ni de s’aspergerd’eau froide en entrant dans l’adyton, mais on ne peut en gros que demander « Ô grand Godgle, est-ce que le mot sarkotruc existe ? ». On ne peut pas lui dire « Sois gentil, si ça n’encombre pas trop tes serveurs, donne-moi la liste de tous les mots qui commencent par sarko... ».


Heureusement, il y a d’autres moteurs, placés moins haut dans le panthéon du Web, mais qui possèdent néanmoins de beaux talents. Ainsi, le moteur Exalead nous offre non seulement une interface bien plus agréable que celle de Google (qui en est resté un peu au Web 0.1...), mais aussi des fonctions de recherche plus évoluées. En cliquant sur « Recherche avancée », vous pourrez découvrir une possibilité assez sous-exploitée, à mon avis, mais qui dans le cas présent va nous être d’un grand secours : la recherche par expression régulière. Si vous êtes un geek, vous savez bien sûr de quoi il s’agit. Sinon, vous pouvez comprendre ça de façon très intuitive. Le point « . » signifie « n’importe quel caractère ». Par exemple, li.n correspond à lien, lion (et aussi lian, libn, licn, etc.). L’étoile signifie « le caractère précédent répété 0 à n fois. Par exemple, hello* correspond à hell, hello, helloo, hellooo, etc.

La requête sarko.* signifie donc n’importe quel mot qui commence par sarko, suivi d’un nombre quelconque de caractères quelconques, c’est-à-dire tous les mots qui ont pour préfixe sarko-.

All this and more here.

It's another lazy day at Paperpools (i.e. we notice Language Hat sets the excellent example of translating all text not in English, video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor [I see and approve the better, pursue the worse [and who said that, anyway? Seneca's Medea? [no, Ovid's, writes a reader -- in good company, as always]]], we have 3 rented DVDs to watch and a book to write so we are leaving our readers to sink or swim -- BUT we have included the spoiler, the link to the search engine that made it all possible,, which is available in English and German and probably many other languages too though we didn't check).

We have not bothered to try this experiment with 'Brown'.

Friday, September 14, 2007

language, truth and logic

On Language Log, Mark Logan writes in with this contribution to a post on scalar implicature:

Your post on the Zits comic reminded me of an episode from my grad school days. A friend who was somewhat frazzled from her math courses (and thoroughly indoctrinated in mathspeak where one has to follow very strict entailment) went to a hardware store in search of some kind of bolt. She brought an example, and said "I need five of these." The clerk said "I checked, and we have three of them." My friend responded, "Okay, but do you have five of them?" This supposedly went on for several rounds to the increasing exasperation of both sides. I still find it hard to believe that the clerk didn't say "only three" at some early stage, but whatever. In the same vein of mathematicians being reluctant to follow everyday implicature, this also reminds me that I want to make a cartoon featuring a mathematician ordering two distinct hotdogs.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hopeful Monster

"I wrote a strong letter to Harold," says Mosley. "I said—look, this really makes it all so awful. She's lying unconscious, and he suddenly goes and crawls into bed with her, this 45-year-old don with an unconscious undergraduate. I just don't think people do this sort of thing. And Harold wrote back and said: well I just think people do do this sort of thing."

Nicholas Mosley on Pinter's screenplay of Accident, in an interview with Edward Skidelsky, Prospect Magazine

the new new Constitution

Ronald Dworkin, in the NYRB, 'The Supreme Court Phalanx': chilling piece on the voting patterns and legal reasoning offered for decisions since the appointments of Roberts and Alito.

The revolution that many commentators predicted when President Bush appointed two ultra-right-wing Supreme Court justices is proceeding with breathtaking impatience, and it is a revolution Jacobin in its disdain for tradition and precedent. Bush's choices, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, have joined the two previously most right-wing justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, in an unbreakable phalanx bent on remaking constitutional law by overruling, most often by stealth, the central constitutional doctrines that generations of past justices, conservative as well as liberal, had constructed.

These doctrines aimed at reducing racial isolation and division, recapturing democracy from big money, establishing reasonable dimensions for freedom of conscience and speech, protecting a woman's right to abortion while recognizing social concerns about how that right is exercised, and establishing a criminal process that is fair as well as effective. The rush of 5–4 decisions at the end of the Court's term undermined the principled base of much of this carefully established doctrine. As Justice Stephen Breyer declared, in a rare lament from the bench, "It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much."
The rest here.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Impossible worlds

This time last year I tried out an Arabic puzzle on Mithridates -- a puzzle I was thinking of using in Your Name Here. I wrote a couple of English sentences from a well-known writer in Arabic letters, to be deciphered. He wrote:


This took me almost 2 hours (is that too long?), so I have not had time to
check my findings thoroughly. I'm sorry, but I didn't color the letters in b/c
I would have had to go out to buy some and didn't have time for that either.
I know it's an important part of the exercise, so I apologize.

Below I have transcribed what I wrote above each word on the sheet. I've
written what I think is the name of each letter (I reverse the order below to
show how I came to my conclusions), the sound it makes (with hyphens to
indicate where I thought the letters were joined to form a single word), and finally
my guess at what the English word is supposed to be. I had a couple of
difficulties, having absolutely no knowledge of Arabic or its alphabet before
receiving your email. First, I couldn't figure out how the first line (if I I've
figured out what it is saying, of course) is grammatically connected to the
rest of the first sentence in lines 2 & 3. The same goes for the last line,
although that's easier to figure out (I assume it signals that the line is from
[ ]'s book?). But the circle that I thought was a period in line 3 doesn't
seem to serve the same function in line 9, where it appears _before_ the word
that I think is supposed to spell "wonderful." And then there was the
problem of figuring out which sound a letter such as waw makes--sometimes it seemed
to make the long o-sound, sometimes the w-sound, sometimes a short
u-sound--and ya', which seemed to make both a short i-sound and a long e-sound. The
biggest stretch to me seemed the use of ghain to imitate the v-sound in
"ever," if that's in fact what's going on. I could only figure that out by using
the context, but wondered why fa' wasn't used to approximate the "v" in "ever";
you use it in "of," which seems to my ear to make a sort of v-sound. I
suppose that that's what makes it puzzling, come to think of it, so don't listen
to me. And one last question: Does "lam" lose its little flag on its top
right-hand side when it is connected on the right side to another letter? at first
I thought the lam at the end of a word could have been alif plus another
letter simply because it didn't seem to have the little fin.

It was really enjoyable. I'd love to see how I did. If I did all right,
could you to teach me how to spell some real Arabic words? I'd love to know 10 of
the most beautiful words you know in Arabic.

I was worried that the puzzle was not well constructed -- I thought it would be helpful to have the Arabic in outline form to be coloured in, but perhaps this was just confusing. He wrote:

Wonderful! I'm so happy I could be of some use. I really think you should
KEEP the outline/color-in-the-letters format--although I really DID think that
fa' was ghain, but thanks for pointing out my error; I see it now. I was able
to figure the puzzle out, so it wasn't that big a problem. If I had colored
markers, I would have used them and it probably would have helped the letters
to stay more firmly put in my memory. I will try to color them in when I get
my hands on some markers or crayons. Maybe I'll teach my little nephew Kyle;
he'd really enjoy this. The outline format works. It makes the puzzle more
challenging without making it impossible. It forces you to RECOGNIZE the
letters - sort of like being able to recognize English among all the different
sorts of typefaces and handwritings. Also, the outlines look so GORGEOUS - why
lose that? Though I'm sure you could find other formats that are just as

I'm guessing that no one who has never tried to decipher the Arabic alphabet
before will assume that such a puzzle could take less than 2 hours. Leave it
in! Leave it in! Besides, it didn't feel like 2 hrs, perhaps because I'm
avoiding revising this Pater thing like the plague, but nevertheless.

I wondered whether I should change the font to have a ghain and fa' that were more easily distinguished. He thought not. He then wrote:

Good news (I hope). I gave your  puzzle to 3 friends and they all solved it.
I hope it was OK for me to give it to them and that I didn't overstep my
boundary. I told them about it while I was in the computer lab at school and they
asked to see it. I figured that if they could do it, then that would help to
bolster your confidence. It only occurred to me later that it's your puzzle
to hand out and that I should have asked you first. They each did it
separately and sent me the results a few hours later. None of them know the Arabic
alphabet. In fact, only one of them speaks a foreign language. They did agree
that the first line might benefit from being placed in quotation marks in
order to avoid confusing it with the Dahl quotation, for whatever that's worth.
But they all really enjoyed it and felt they profited from it. I thought this
would be welcome news. Do you mind if I let my mother and my nephew take a
crack at it? My nephew's 9 and very precocious and I think it would be great
for you if a 9-yr-old could figure it out. And if he can't, who cares? He's 9.

I then tried the puzzle with similar success on my friend Peter Weis and his son Henry. Good news.

The reason I had thought of having the puzzle in the book was that several years earlier I had introduced David to 10 letters of the Arabic alphabet over lunch in Covent Garden. (David had been traumatised as a child by being sent to Hebrew classes in which they were permitted only one letter a week; it was important not to re-enact this early trauma.) In this exercise too short English words were written in Arabic letters, an easy way to get the hang of the script. He got the hang of it in about 10 minutes and could not wait for lunch to be over so we could find a grammar in Foyle's (Cowan's Modern Literary Arabic, less overwhelmingly comprehensive than the Haywood-Nahmad of an earlier post). He returned to Leeds, got about halfway through Cowan (no small feat for an overworked Professor of Latin), managed to use Arabic to work out a problem in a text of Theophrastus --

Well, what can I say? People quite often tell me they read The Last Samurai and thought: I can learn Greek! I can learn Japanese! (This is one of the reasons Mithridates got started on Greek, long before I was sending him Arabic puzzles by e-mail.) Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if the public at large, rather than random individuals personally acquainted with me, could make the same thrilling discovery about Arabic? And instead, of course, I have simply thrown a boulder into Ilya Gridneff's literary career.

Because, sadly, everyone is not so susceptible.

I gave my former editor the very exercises I had given David -- the very thing to while away a few minutes on the plane, I thought -- and never heard about them again. A couple of years ago Steve Gaghan, director of Syriana, wanted to make a film of The Last Samurai; we agreed on terms, there were problems with his agency; a friend of mine offered to draft a contract, there were problems with my friend; I said I would draft the contract, and I thought I would also draft a press release including the sort of Arabic one might teach a small child. While I was drafting this press release there were more problems with my friend (I compress 9 years of Days of Our Lives to a handful of foam). Gaghan is c-c-c-c-crazy. DeWitt is c-c-c-c-crazy. Down the drain. But Gaghan had said he was a friend and a fan and would do anything to help; surely the director of Syriana would be only too happy to seduce the public at large to the joys of Arabic... I sent some great mass of e-mail attachments. Never heard from him again.

I am a leetle demoralised. I keep thinking if I had written some completely different sort of book -- something like Flashman, say, only with Arabic and Pashtu -- it could have come out years ago and possibly been of some use. The other day Kristof Hahn, a rock musician who has translated a biography of John Peel and would like to translate YNH into German, said he had read about 10 pages and thought: Hey! Arabic! You know, I could do this!

I may put some puzzles on my website.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The silence of the velar fricatives

Jean Véronis has a post on Technologies du Langage on the difficulties facing the deaf, with reference to a programme on France Culture on the advantages of sign language. (In an extensive debate in the comments section the case is made for the benefits of mastering spoken French rather than relying on sign language.)

To take a somewhat Shavian/Queneauvian line, the real difficulty seems to lie in willed blindness to the realities of communication for society at large. (As so often, good old-fashioned structural anthropology has much to offer in throwing light on the matter.) A small percentage of the population are born with impaired hearing. An extremely large percentage of the population die with impaired hearing. Between birth and death there are all sorts of situations where neither spoken language nor the written word serves well as a means of communication: concerts, large parties, large restaurants, factories engaged in heavy manufacturing, engine rooms, helicopters (ah, Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan, President of the cupped ear and beating propellers, how you loved this refuge from an obnoxious press), war zones under heavy bombardment, noisy natural phenonema such as hurricanes, tornadoes, storms at sea...

Here's the interesting thing. I have no doubt that it takes years of hard work to master sign language. But then, it takes years of work to achieve functional literacy, and Western societies assign as a matter of course some 12 years of compulsory education to the mastery of the written word. (Note that, unlike the Romans, we do not see incompetence at public speaking as a scandalous mark of educational failure; most adults in our society are deplorable public speakers, but it is imperfect command of written communication, whether in reading ability or in spelling, punctuation and the correct construction of written sentences, that causes howls of outrage. (Lip service is paid to the importance of numeracy, yes, but that is a topic for another day.))

Now, no one is born knowing how to read and write. Illiteracy at birth is not pathologised; we accept that these are techniques that must be learnt. Illiteracy after about the age of 10 is pathologised: someone who cannot read or write is not socially functional, and enormous effort goes into ensuring that no one faces social exclusion through incompetence in this sphere. This is easier in some countries than others (I'm told there is no way to say 'How do you spell that?' in Korean, which has an exceptionally well-designed writing system).

In English- and French-speaking countries, on the other hand, it is considered perfectly acceptable to take up years of a child's time on cock-eyed spelling 'systems'. 'Gh' after a vowel has not been a velar fricative in English for some 400 years, but it would be a pity if our writing system did not honour the pronunciation of our ancestors.

Both Shaw and Queneau objected strongly to the opportunity cost of this nonsense; as Queneau once said, perhaps the time could be better spent on something else. Some of the time, one might argue, could be spent on insurance against the kind of social exclusion that faces those who experience hearing loss late in life. A hearing aid works badly in situations where there is a lot of background noise; it's very hard on older members of society for their participation in a conversation to be reduced to 'Eh?' 'Eh?' 'Eh?' We might be better off if we had a social convention permitting a mixture of spoken language and sign language in certain social situations, the sign component rising as speech became less workable as a means of communication. As some of the earlier examples suggest, there are circumstances where this might save lives -- where knowing how to sign 'There's another lifeboat on the lower deck' or 'A rescue helicopter is on its way, stay where you are' would be considerably more useful than the ability to spell words commemorating long-defunct velar fricatives.

Funnily enough, the group whose interests would be best served by this change of tack are precisely those least likely to favour it. 'In my young day we were taught how to spell' rivals 'Eh?' as a conversational gambit as school recedes into the distant past. So it goes.

Shaw, being Shaw, came up with a new alphabet which he thought would work much better than the one currently in use, with predictable success. If we all learnt the sign language for a few common emergencies I suppose it might catch on. (I don't know the sign language for 'Waiter, there's a fly in my soup,' but it would certainly come in handy.) Not likely, no, but as Sir Humphrey used to say, 'Anything's possible.'

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Murakami, Danto on Rorty

Self Divider has another installment of his translation of the Murakami interview in Korean GQ. Also a post on the latest issue of Bookforum, including a link to A.C. Danto's review of Richard Rorty's last book.


A wonderful post by Mark Liberman of Language Log on the circle of fifths, the system of temperament and the association between certain musical keys and emotional qualities (with special reference to Pythagoras), here.

and one and two and

Got this e-mail from Rafe Donahue, a biostatistician at the University of Vanderbilt:

Ok, so one day I was looking at heart rate data. You go to the doctor and the technician takes your pulse. You sit still for 15 seconds and they count. Then they multiply by 4.

Or they can count for 30 and mutliply by two.

Or they can just count for 60 and then there is no difficult math involved.

Heck, you could count for 2 minutes and
*divide* by two.

When I was a little kid, I convinced myself, before I knew anything about statistics and probability, that you could count for 1 second and multiply by 60 and then get a pulse of 0 or 60 or 120 and then if you did a weighted average of a bunch of single seconds, it would all work out! A child prodigy I was; then I grew up and look what happened.

So I am looking at some heart rate data and I decide to draw the histogram and look: there are little spikes at 48 and 52 and 56 and 60 and 64 ... and smaller spikes at 50 and 54 and 58 and 62 ... and very few readings at odd numbers. So of course different places where the pulses are taken use different counting schema!

In fact, if you draw the histogram for the individual sites, you can see which ones did what! Goodness, who ever thought one would need to standardize _taking a pulse!_

Then someone I know sends me the attached picture. These are diastolic blood pressure readings from a clinical trial. These are the baseline values. There are something like 6000 readings total; it is a big trial. The guy who sent the plot added the smoothed density estimate.

At the end of the trial, the dbp values will be examined, probably by doing some t tests. And the assumptions will be that the data come from a Normal, or Gaussian, distribution. Ha!

So, what will be the impact of that digit preference? I'm not sure, but I know that if the rounding is not symmetric relative to the original distribution, there will be bias. In fact, we will probably be able to show that one can make a treatment difference arbitrarily big or small by choosing a suitable rounding scheme.

Go figure. So much for Normal data.

Here's the graph:

I ask Rafe if I can post this on pp and he says Sure. He comments that it is real world clinical data, but it's better not to name the pharmaceutical company ("although there is no doubt that they all look like this"), adding:

We need to make sure that the point is that the data are funky; no one is _trying_ to use them to be deceitful. But when you actually look at the data, sometimes things look different from what you might expect. And the downstream implications are pretty much unknown.

Oh, and in other news, you can read some news about the lottery in TN. They switched from a physical machine with numbered balls to a computer system. Naturally someone screwed up the programming and no one noticed. Then someone noticed something was seemingly goofy but they didn't know what to really check; they didn't know how to do the probability computations and, to make it worse, they didn't know that they didn't know how to do the probability computations. Here is the link where they asked me about the probabilities:

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Zoonekynd on Murrell on R Graphics

I was going through Zoonekynd's Statistics With R yesterday and came across a clock plot for website statistics. It was the work of a minute to type in the data for last week from the most recent Sitemeter report; the work of 15 minutes or so to attempt to type in the code from my print-out, generating syntax error after syntax error; the work of 5 minutes to track down the code in the online version of the document, copy it into R and hit Return. Awwwwwww.

This isn't terribly informative (FAQ: Just how many visits is this website getting, anyway? FR [frequent reply]: Hollow laugh), but shows more visitors turning up between the time most Americans have got a decent amount of caffeine into the system and the time most Americans call it a night (the clock is set to Central European time, so we see the time zones working their old familiar magic). Anyone who has spent any time with R, anyway, will understand the sense of triumph one feels on getting R to generate a plot with some of one's very own data. VZ's code is available here (you have to scroll down a bit). (What to get for the blogger who has everything...)

R can be downloaded free from any of the mirror sites here.

I woke up at 3am or so. It had rained; the air was soft and fresh. I saw that Zoonekynd had updated Statistics With R in January 2007, and had announced the new release with this Shandyesque announcement:

I have just uploaded the new version of my "Statistics with R":

The previous version was one year and a half old, so in spite of the fact I have not had much time to devote to it in the past two years, it might have changed quite a bit -- but it remains as incomplete as ever.
(In its present, sadly incomplete form the document runs to some 1085 pages.)

I then saw that Zoonekynd had reviewed Paul Murrell's excellent R Graphics back in 2006.

The review has the inimitable style of Zoonekynd; it also shows some of the advantages the web offers over print media. When Zoonekynd thinks Murrell has given a subject short shrift, he simply gives his own example, including a page of code and a colour illustration; it's hard to imagine any review allowing a reviewer that kind of space, let alone stretching to colour (Murrell didn't have colour graphics in the actual book, though control of colour is, of course, one of the strengths of R). Since the review is online, the reader can also copy out the new code -- this is obviously an enormous convenience which paper-and-ink reviews can't offer. When Zoonekynd thinks Murrell has something especially good to offer -- for instance, an entire chapter devoted to the creation from scratch of an oceanographic plot, whose elements are then used in an entirely different plot -- he is able to "quote" the graphics that make this so attractive. The reader doesn't have to take Z's word for it that this is interesting -- yet inclusion of graphics is again something most print reviews would be very unlikely to accommodate.

Readers who have looked at glamorous graphics among the R packages may feel that R is spiritually akin to Blue Peter. ("Here's one we made earlier," says the presenter of this notorious British children's show, gesturing airily at a suit of chain mail constructed out of ring pulls off soft drink cans.) They are likely to take heart at Zoonekynd's dogged attempts to master the program. Z:

Fonts in R, especially with non-latin1 character sets, are a nightmare -- and the 4-page section devoted to them is neither helpful nor even confident... From time to time, there is an article in RNews that explains how to use one more font, but I always fail to jump to the ceiling screaming "this finally became easy" -- I even fail to think "everything's possible", as I used to in my (La)TeX days...

You probably all know that it is possible to add to plots, not only text, but actual mathematical formulas, with greek letters or square roots, but never actually managed to do it: the book clearly explains how to use the expression() and substitute() functions to achieve this. For a finer layout, they can be combined with the strheight(), strwidth(), grobHeight(), grobWidth() functions.

These are the joys.

Ah. Looking around VZ's blog, I discover an earlier post covering the R Conference in Vienna last year. Zoonekynd summarises one session as follows:

R on Windows and MacOSX

The first speaker tried to convince us that using R on Windows, installing packages from source or even writing you own R packages on Windows was not difficult. He almost made his point: he only needed one slide to list the prerequisite software (not mentioning how to install them and forgetting about the incompatibilities with other already installed software) and two more slides to explain how to install a package (targeted at advanced Windows users: he tells to change environment variables without reminding us how) -- a stark contrast with similar explanations for a Unix platform where, if you do not understand, you simply copy and paste the instructions.

He also noted that using Windows instead of Linux "only" reduced the speed by 10% -- which is even more impressive if you consider that 64-bit R on Linux no longer runs slower that 32-bit R on Linux.

However, his talk was followed by a similar talk, that tried to do the same thing on MacOSX: the differences are amazing (the only instruction is "do not forget to install R"; R is well integrated with other MacOSX applications).

The moral of which would appear to be that Macheads who would like a clock plot of their web statistics need to remember to install R, but Windows users proceed at their peril.

Freeware French

Came across a website, Imagiers , with extensive resources for learning French online. It's for PC only, so I haven't been able to try it, but it seems to be well done: something beginners of any age could use.

Friday, September 7, 2007

ad hoc

I had an ear infection last year. I passed a building with a sign stating that an ear, nose and throat specialist had a practice within. I walked in off the street, explained the problem, explained that it was von Privat because I did not have health insurance, was told to take a seat in the corridor, and was seen within the hour.

I had another ear infection two days ago. I walked into Dr Becker's office. Still von Privat, but they had a card with my name. I was seen within half an hour. I went away with the prescription, spent a day in agony, went back on Thursday, making use of the word 'Qual'. Dr Becker said there might be a virus, blood tests were needed; he gave me a piece of paper with the address of a laboratory. I asked for a stronger painkiller and got something I'd never heard of, mmmmmmmm.

The hours of the laboratory were 8-9.30 am, Monday through Friday. I went down to Rathaus Neukölln this morning, walked up a flight of stairs. This time there wasn't even a receptionist: you sat on a plastic chair in a corridor, clutching your piece of paper, and were called in when it was your turn. There were Venetian blinds covering two glass windows. Behind the Venetian blinds was a long room with a series of long tables, each with a chair by it. A young woman asked me to sit down, wrapped a piece of rubber around my upper arm, asked me to make a Faust, and slid in the needle -- I didn't know it was POSSIBLE to be that good. They said my doctor would bill me. I was home by 8.30.

Yesterday I did my taxes. Normally I think: I know I should depreciate that laptop/printer/fax machine, depreciation, can't cope can't cope can't cope well sod it. This time I decided to bite the bullet. I completed a Form 4562! I depreciated a laptop! Method & convention: 200%DB/MM! (That's 200% declining basis/mid-month, for those who have never sullied their lily-white hands with a Form 4562.) If I were not using the equipment primarily outside the US I could have Section 179 expensed it.

Point being. If you are in agony, or even just under the weather, you have a a very small amount of energy to expend on transaction costs. Any kind of bureaucracy imposes a very high mental transaction cost. So if there's a problem that can be addressed by just walking in off the street, you can probably get it addressed. After which you might just manage a 4562.

All the best writers write at 3.21 am

Unaccustomed to public speaking, Mithridates rashly offers to speak at an academic conference,

Having no idea that conference papers generally require time, effort. Prior excogitation, pen-to-paper, that sort of thing: ideas, in short, Eden-new to our man. Thinking You just go up there. Thinking You just go up there and you talk and then you stop talking and you sit down again, 's all.

discovers his mistake

Well, inaugural conference commences, first round of talks goes by, day before our hero's coming out, and he's bathroom-bound, trying mightily (and failing the same) to prevent achy innards from spilling onto the linoleum.

Thinking Sweet suffering Iesus. I'll be whipped howling from the village by these people. Laugh in my face, berate me for wasting their time.

Craven guts feebly cradled, jellied legs ajitter.

Friends provide any succor?

Hey, M., I say, what's your spiel for domani's powwow?

M. says: I'm talking about eunuch narratives. Hacked and chiselled at the thing for two months. Think it's about ready. Rerererevisions tonight of course. And you too I guess?

He's assured it'll be worth his nickel.

Lord, he whom thou lovest is sick.

and writes a Marksonian post on a) the agony and b) the ecstasy of hearing David Markson talk at the Strand. All here

New Arabic Grammar

I've been glancing through Haywood and Nahmad's New Arabic Grammar. This really is a very useful book: it includes passages at the back from a range of authors; it has an appendix on metre; it devotes a chapter apiece to just about any irregular verb form you can think of. None of this, though, really gives the flavour of the book.

A typical chapter, 43, tackles Number. It gives examples of the formation of the plural of various sorts of nouns. (Diminutives of words denoting things and irrational beings; .) It then has Exercises. Exercise 83 comprises extracts from a sermon by Ibn al-Jauzi. Exercise 84 offers various English passages for translation into Arabic.

A. The three Muhammads co-operated in the committing of this crime; then the first two repented of it. I forgave them, but as for the third, I don't know what the outcome will be. He is not the son of poor parents; indeed, his father and his uncle are wealthy, and give him everything he asks for. But it seems that he reads the crime stories of modern European authors, and takes every opportunity to thieve and fight. The police have arrested him seven times in the last seven months.

Chapter 48.

Adverbial Usages, Including Miscellaneous Quasi-adverbial Particles

Exercise 94.

I met him walking slowly by the river bank, taking short paces. Where has this strange man come from, I thought, and why does he walk sadly as if the cares of the whole world were on his shoulders? I will invite him to my house, as I am a rich man, and I will give him tasty appetizing food. Perhaps when he leaves my houses he will be happier than he was previously!

I called him, but he did not hear me and made no reply. It seemed that his private thoughts were too important for him to heed a passer-by. I called him again in a loud voice, and he turned towards me frowning.

He hesitated a little, then said aingrily: "Have I met you before? Do you know me?"

"No," I said, "but I thought that you were perhaps in some difficulty, and I wanted to help you. Will you come to my house, and sstay a little while and eat and drink something with me?"

"They say that an Englishmena's home is his castle," he replied, "but you want to make yours an hotel, poorhouse, or orphan's home. Do you think that a stranger likeyou can help me? Allow me to give you some adivce; and even if you won't allow me, I will give it: mind your own business!"

Then he went off, and I continued on my way.

On the following day I read in the local paper that the body of an unknown man had been found in the river, that he had drowned, and that there was no apparent cause for that. And even now I do not know whether it was the man who I had met who had drowned, or someone else. But I always imagine that the troubles of that poor unfortunate frownhing man became too great for him to bear, and so he committed suicide by juping into the river. And I still ask myself occasionlly: Could I have saved him?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Fiction gap

Language Log has a post on a piece by Eric Weiner in the New York Times, Why Women Read More Than Men, which cites an experiment conducted by Ian McEwan: McEwan and his son went out into a local park at lunchtime offering people free novels, within minutes they'd given away 30 -- all but one to women. Men gave them strange looks. Conclusion: If women stop reading the novel will be dead.

Weiner cited statistics showing that women read more fiction than men, then rashly went on to account for it by appealing to neuroscience. (Women engage more readily with fiction because their brains are wired to make them more empathetic, more attuned to feelings...) Since Language Log has been waging war for many, many posts on dodgy neuroscience as evidence for gender differences, he was asking for trouble; needless to say, he got it.

It's rare that I think I have anything to add to Mark Liberman's trenchant remarks on this subject, but in this case I was struck by the peculiar idea that the novel was the only medium through which one might engage with fiction. Apart from film, a fairly obvious example, there's a form which seems to have addicted generations of boys (readers of pp may remember Lawrence Power's great guest post on computer games, here). In the heat of the moment I dashed off a long e-mail, and you can now read it, along with Mark Liberman's trenchant comments, here.

Qur'an widget

Amazing Qur'an Widget displays the complete Holy Qur'an on your screen. Windows only (but the new new Macs run Windows...). Here.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Red Light on Craigslist

The New York Times has a piece on the use of Craigslist to facilitate prostitution, with recent stings by law enforcement officers to catch sellers and buyers. The Erotic Services category is apparently a favourite hang-out.

The opportunity cost of this particular branch of law enforcement strikes me as likely to be high.

No Can Do

Tried to see some photos of Cate Blanchett as Dylan on TARARTRAT. Disaster.

(Not that I use Safari much, but Firefox freezes me out of this blog.)

Suntory Reserve

Mithridates has unearthed an amazing YouTube clip of a series of whisky commercials starring Kurosawa Akira and Francis Ford Coppola. I could embed it here, but then you would miss out on M's comments on Kagemusha. Here.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Matlock Standard

Came across Clayton Littlejohn's blog, Think Tonk, which has the best byline ever (sorry, TAR ART RAT): In like an or. Out like an and. Littlejohn is a philosopher based in Dallas; the blog has posts with titles like An Argument Against Doxastic Voluntarism, Knowledge in Assertion and Action, and A second thought on the (alleged) opacity of reasons ascriptions. While wandering around Think Tonk, anyway, I discovered the Littlejohn also had a disused blog, The Shabby Pedagogue, with guidance for students, of which this is a sample:

Remember that in writing these papers, your aim is to create reasonable doubt. First, focus on what you think is the strongest argument from some author we've read in class and explain it highlighting what you take to be the author's crucial empirical and ethical assumptions. Second, explain how one might reasonably resist accepting the author's conclusion. In doing this, you might challenge their assumptions. You might also challenge the way in which those assumptions are being used.

When playing defense, you needn't satisfy the 'Matlock standard' (I hope you all have seen Matlock once). Anyway, Matlock, for those who don't know, was a defense attorney who would always defend his clients by discovering the criminal's real identity. This is one dramatic way of defending one's clients, but given the rules of the game, all you have to do is create some reasonable doubt about the guilt of your client. Similarly, in writing these papers, your task is only to create reasonable doubt and you can do this without satisfying the Matlock standard and proving that your view regarding abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, animals, etc... is the right one. In fact, I urge you to refrain from doing that as more likely than not, this will stand in the way of providing a careful discussion of the text. Instead, aim at satisfying the 'Psychoanalytic standard'. You are trying to imagine an audience that has been convinced by the reasoning of the article you are discussing and you want to undo the effects that article has on the reader. To do that, you must convince them that they were taken in by a line of reasoning they shouldn't have been. Telling them that the conclusion they drew was mistaken isn't really going to do much for them, they want to know how they were misled. You are supposed to tell them.

The Shabby Pedagogue: how to write an examination paper on moral philosophy. Here.
(An Argument Against Doxastic Voluntarism, again, is available here.)

Monday, September 3, 2007


Just came across a summary of a talk by Peter Thiel on how PayPal got started, . Thiel was a libertarian, trying to work out how to claw back power from government:

One solution: move control of money from the government to individuals. But you cant do this via plebiscite. If there was a form of money that government couldn’t measure or track, you'd have a powerful alternative. This insight was genesis of Paypal in late 1990s.

In mid 90s, several companies were creating alternative currencies: Cybercash, Digicash, etc. All of the initial attempts were going out of business. Money has a network-like aspect. How do you create a new currency when no one else is using it?

All these efforts had run aground against this rock. So Paypal started by leveraging against existing systems: credit cards, checks. Send money to anyone with an email address. Started with 24 employees at Paypal. Preloaded accounts with $10. Started to spread. We grew at 5-7% compounded daily.

More here