Thursday, May 30, 2019

Drugs and other decadent indulgences: Ian Rankin's Hide & Seek

     Ian Rankin. Hide and Seek (1990) The second Rebus tale, and a dark and troubling tale it is. Rankin knows how to create ambience and character, and to tease out a plot that convinces. This one starts with Rebus called to the apparent overdose of a junkie, but niggly little weirdnesses hinting at witchcraft bother him. They widen into a network that ensnares the high and the mighty of Edinburgh.
     I first encountered Rebus in the first TV series starring John Hanna, and liked the edginess of the stories. I started reading  his novels,  this is the third one I've finished. I couldn't get far into several others. I don’t think I’ll read another one. I’ve lost my taste for dark and troubling tales. But if you like well written crime novels, read Rankin. He has few equals. ***

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Comment to NYT on story about Nigel Farage

Comment to NYT on story about Nigel Farage
With some additions.

The soil that grew this poisonous plant is nostalgia for Empire. The English wallow in rosy-tinted fantasies of the past. One symptom: They have more Railway Preservation Societies than the rest of the world put together. I occasionally receive Steam Railway, a news magazine about these societies, whose mission is to promote steam locomotives. A recent story about defunct steam locos referred to the railroad "turning its back on steam". The implicit accusation of betrayal is obvious.

Or consider Downton Abbey, another example of treacly nostalgia, with every episode signalling that these were the days of glory when England ruled the world, and somehow the Others have since stolen England's place. Note how everyone knows their place, and accepts it. Oh, the days of tugged forelocks and curtsying maids! Gone, gone forever!

Farage's message is the same: The cosmopolitan elites have betrayed all that was best in England, and he will restore it. See also  Rees-Mogg's affectation of wearing Edwardian costume. But of course what they and their like really want is an England in which they rule unfettered by bothersome regulations about environmental protections, social safety nets, and financial probity.

Beware: As we age, we become curmudgeons who wish the times were as simple as we misremember them. That wish distorts our perceptions, and influences our votes. That's what the Farages and Trumps count on.

Monday, May 27, 2019

ETs as they could be

     Terence Dickinson (text) & Adolf Schaller (original illustrations).  Extraterrestrials (1994). An essay in controlled imagination.  Dickinson and Schaller begin with fictional ETs, then survey the Universe as we know it. Then they discuss evolutionary pressures which (probably) constrain the forms and functions of organisms. Finally, they speculate how ETs may appear if these evolutionary constraints work as expected. The book is handsome, pithy, and inspiring. Recently, SF movies have gone a step or two beyond the bug-eyed variants of human forms of Star Wars and Star Trek. I think this book and similar exercises in speculative imagining have had an good effect.
     The cover shows a half-kilometre long aerial whale swimming through the dense atmosphere of a gas giant like Jupiter. Symbiotic “crabs” living on and in the creature provide the manual dexterity needed to build cities and space-craft. ***

The Fascination of Everyday Things: Margert Visser's The Way We Are

     Margaret Visser. The Way We Are (1994). A wonderful potato chip book, but more nourishing. Margaret Visser wrote a column for Saturday Night, Canada’s defunct general interest and arts magazine. Her editor, John Fraser, persuaded her to collect them into a book. Here it is, and if you can find a copy, buy or borrow it. You won’t be disappointed.
     Visser has a knack for giving you both the essence of some topic and some off-the-wall riff on it. These essays often prompt further reflection. My favourite: she ends In Flagrante Delicto (an essay about blushing) thus:
     We blush above all when we think that other people think that we are different from what we want them to think we are.
     Which reminds me of my tentative definition of “honour” as our mutual acceptance of the public images we’ve created of ourselves as being better than we know ourselves to be. “Dishonour” is the revelation that we are not what we pretend to be. Hence the widespread misconception that some bad behaviour reveals “what a person really is”. What a person really is all the behaviours they are capable of. Most of us never discover all that we are capable of, but few, I think, understand how lucky they are. ****

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Language How She Is Spoke

     The Power of Babel (2001) McWhorter (at U of C Berkeley) surveys a slew of languages. He establishes what should be a common-sense conclusion: Languages change without ceasing. The book explores some implications of this fundamental fact.

     Standard languages are recently standardised dialects spoken by the politically and economically most powerful groups. When the King’s power unified disparate regions into a country, the dialect of his region spread beyond its borders. The dialect of the powerful became the language of law and business. Hence, standard languages. Printing accelerated this process, and had the secondary effect of recording language changes. Before printing, people spelled as they spoke. Standardised spelling prompted the wide-spread misconception that language is unchanging, and that dialects are bastardised, defective versions of the “real” language.
     And that I think, is why language mavens make a living. They claim that they know what the language should be, and never tire of correcting other people’s mistakes. They do, eventually, accept change, but they do so reluctantly. I’ve never read a language column that welcomed some change.
     McWhorter’s central thesis is that a language is a collection of related (but not always mutually intelligible) dialects whose speakers see themselves as all using some version the common language. He shows that in pre-literate societies, languages change within a person’s lifetime, and that sometimes these changes are major reconstructions of grammar and vocabulary. Some changes are so drastic that we need a written record to recognise them.
     These drastic changes illustrate an important fact: languages change in illogical ways. There is no logical reason why English speakers should distinguish between the apple they’ve just spoken about, and an apple they haven’t referred to. Yet that’s what we do. Around the world, “articles” are unusual. Sino-Tibetan languages, even Russian, don’t have them. In most contexts we know what we are talking about, and if we aren’t sure, we make sure with words like “that”. Thus, articles (aka “determiners”) aren’t necessary. So why do we have them?
     Look at similar oddities in every language, and there’s a clue. McWhorter focusses on gender. We think of gender as being about sex: male, female, or neither. That’s why we find German genders odd: why is a woman female, but a girl not? But in many languages, gender goes well beyond these classes. Why? McWhorter argues that “drift” accounts for these unnecessary and often illogical elaborations of language. He uses the analogy of water-cooler talk. The group develops in-jokes and allusions to their common history. Their conversation may be utterly opaque to the outsider. Linguistic drift, McWhorter claims, is like this. Speakers add information to their speech by extending word meanings, or adding in bits and pieces. I also think of tag-lines and buzzwords, and slang as sources of language drift. A deliberate in-joke mistake may become standard if it spreads fashionably enough.
     The book is rich in examples. It amounts to a survey of language as she is spoke, with a side-glance at how she is wrote. It consolidated my understanding, and gave me lots of new data and insights. McWhorter is a bit wobbly on semantic change, I think. For example, in his discussion of the English article, he fails to note that the absence of the article changes the reference of a noun from object to class. Abstract nouns normally don’t take articles. When someone uses the article, they signal that they see varieties of the abstract entity (eg, C S Lewis’s The Four Loves).
     McWhorter believes that pidgins and creoles show us the most basic aspects of reality that we want or need to express. I think he makes the case. Pidgins and creoles are stripped down. As such, they are a clue to the ur-language, the one that our remote ancestors must have used before they migrated out of Africa. McWhorter notes that as a creole develops and changes over time, its speakers add those wonderful curlicues and frills. We believe those add-ons are essential, simply because we use them in our own language. We’re flummoxed when we discover other languages don’t have them. And we’re even more flummoxed when we find that they have different ones. These are often so different that it’s almost impossible for us to grasp their intended meanings. I think that’s why we feel that every language expresses a different way of experiencing the world.
     An excellent introduction to linguistics in general, and especially the wonderful variety of languages. One thing this book confirms: languages differ mostly in what must be said in each of them, even if it doesn’t matter. Pinker has some interesting discussions of experiments teasing out how these differences affect the way we feel about reality. ****
     20190527: Another factor that standardises language, and also fossilises them, is religion. Sacred texts tend to be preserved verbatim by memorisation or precise copying. Thus "dead" languages like Latin and Sanskrit. Hebrew is an instructive exception: Israel made it the official language, and it has become a living language again.

Friday, May 17, 2019

"I Am My Brain"

    The Brain has A Mind of its Own (1991) A collection of essays originally written for Newsday and other public forums. As such, they are short, often lack nuance, and too often express far more certainty than the evidence warranted. Overall, a good refresher on neurobiology, documentation on the state of neurology in the 1980s and ‘90s, and an interesting reminder of a time when experts weren’t afraid of saying things that these days would be heard as triggers or worse.
     Restak’s stance is that we are our brains, which implies that our Western and especially American insistence that we are somehow exempt from biology. His sometimes testy remarks about the interplay between nature and nurture should correct the widespread notion that we can be anything we want to be. Restak was also a psychiatrist, and his anecdotes about his patients and his helplessness show that there are limits to the best-intentioned attempts to help.
     I learned a few things. His comments on the limits of artificial intelligence (AI) appear at first reading to miss the point, since he wrote before neural networks so spectacularly demonstrated the power of computing. But recent equally spectacular failures of neural-net AI support his contention: human (and animal) brains are self-modifying in response to new experiences that don’t compute. AI can’t do that. Once trained, AI stubbornly resists further training. Eg, offered a mildly altered image of an orange, the AI asserts it’s a power drill. AI cannot do what biological brains do: recognise objects in a context. They can only recognise statistical patterns, so that a handful of differences in one region of the pattern prompts an incorrect recognition.
     It may be possible to build some self-modification into AI, but that won’t eliminate the fundamental limitation: it’s domain-specific. AI can deal only with the data that it’s trained on. Brains can somehow appl what’s been learned in one domain to another domain. Humans are especially good at this: mathematics is the abstraction of patterns that apply to multiple domains, which may explain the “unreasonable efficacy of mathematics”, as Wigner called it.
     Worth reading. ** to ***
Richard Restak. M.D.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019


     Gratitude (2015) Four essays written towards the end of Sacks’ life, lovely and loving meditations on life and death. This book was given me, and it is a gift in all senses of the word. The second essay, My Own Life, ends, “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been and enormous privilege and pleasure.” Amen
Oliver Sacks.

Guide to gentlemanliness

      The English Gentleman (1978) An anatomy of the English gentleman, written with a mildly Wodehousian wit, and generally agreeing with Edmund Burke’s “A King may make a nobleman, but he cannot make a gentleman.” Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, Bart, supplies a foreword, which suggests a serious purpose beneath the mild mockery.
Douglas Sutherland.
     Sutherland’s stereotypical English gentleman is a version of Chaucer’s very parfitt gentil knight, warts, prejudices, and all. Briefly, he minds his own business and expects you to mind yours. He strives for courtesy, decency, and kindness, as he understands these virtues; and avoids petty strife, again as he understands it. He has a strong sense of duty, is not given to self-reflection, or any reflection for that matter, and detests change for change’s sake. He spends as little as possible, but can be generous. He sees himself as upholding standards, though he may have  a vague idea that these standards may be mere shibboleths. He’s not a snob, though his shyness may give the opposite impression.
     The last chapter provides some advice on how to be a gentleman. But if you’ve understood Sutherland’s discussion up that point, you’ll realise that no gentleman strives to be one. ***