Monthly Archives: April 2020

Attractors


Shubenacadie sediment post-processed

Big whorls have little whorls
Which feed on their velocity,
And little whorls have lesser whorls
And so on to viscosity.

–Lewis F Richardson, who “…studied fluid turbulence
by throwing a sack of white parsnips into the Cape Cod Canal.”
(quoted in James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science)


The day began with a by-chance glance at a short piece in the May-June Harvard Magazine, “Will Truth Prevail?” by Drew Pendergrass ’20, which takes off from the author’s reading of Edward Lorenz1963 article and included this:

How do we find the signal in the noise? Climate science is based on the observation that even though everyday weather is chaotic and can be predicted only a few days ahead of time, the weather in aggregate is much easier to handle… Climate, governed by the slow warming and cooling of the oceans with the seasons, follows different rules than weather does…

The article included a familiar image:


(By User:Wikimol, User:DschwenOwn work based on images Image:Lorenz system r28 s10 b2-6666.png by User:Wikimol and Image:Lorenz attractor.svg by User:Dschwen, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

Another bit of the unexpected came in this morning via one of the blogs I follow:

something truly special is happening in the Southern Hemisphere: The air high above the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, anywhere between 20–40 kilometres (12–25 miles) above the surface, is warming a lot in just a few weeks… a “vortex breakdown” or “Stratospheric Sudden Warming”, and in the Southern Hemisphere it only happens for the second time that we know of, and certainly since the era of satellite measurements began in the late 1970s. The first time was in 2002… during Sudden Warmings, as their name suggests, the stratosphere over the pole warms a lot — by about 50 degrees celsius over just a few days… After the one previous event in the Southern Hemisphere, the entire following summer saw drier and warmer weather than usual in Southeastern Australia. We expect something similar to happen this year. Southeastern Australia is already experiencing a drought, and yet another dry and hot spring and summer could be devastating. (Martin Jucker)

Remembering that James Gleick’s Chaos had a whole section (pp 121-153) on “Strange Attractors” and that I’d never quite wrapped my mind around what it was that Lorenz kicked off in the 1963 paper, I got Gleick from the shelf and decided to try again, but first made a quick stop in the Wikipedia ‘Attractor’ article:

an attractor is a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system

…A dynamical system is generally described by one or more differential or difference equations. The equations of a given dynamical system specify its behavior over any given short period of time. To determine the system’s behavior for a longer period, it is often necessary to integrate the equations, either through analytical means or through iteration, often with the aid of computers… The subset of the phase space of the dynamical system corresponding to the typical behavior is the attractor…

An attractor is called strange if it has a fractal structure. This is often the case when the dynamics on it are chaotic, but strange nonchaotic attractors also exist. If a strange attractor is chaotic, exhibiting sensitive dependence on initial conditions, then any two arbitrarily close alternative initial points on the attractor, after any of various numbers of iterations, will lead to points that are arbitrarily far apart (subject to the confines of the attractor), and after any of various other numbers of iterations will lead to points that are arbitrarily close together. Thus a dynamic system with a chaotic attractor is locally unstable yet globally stable: once some sequences have entered the attractor, nearby points diverge from one another but never depart from the attractor.

OK, just barely holding on here. It’s helpful to recognize that a not-strange attractor is exemplified by the phase space of a pendulum, which swings across a point at which it finally stops when its energies are dissipated. A dynamical system with many variables (dimensions) in play (that is, changing and being changed by one another) has a vastly more complex phase space. Gleick:

Every piece of a dynamical system that can move independently is another variable, another degree of freedom. Every degree of freedom requires another dimension in phase space, to make sure that a single point contains enough information to determine the state of the system uniquely… Mathematicians had to accept the fact that systems with infinitely many degees of freedom — untrammeled nature expressing itself in a turbulent waterfall or an unpredictable bra (in — required a phase space of infinite dimensions. (pp 135-137)

Gleick’s Chaos came out in 1987, and my friend Ron Nigh photocopied it and sent it to me, saying that it was the most mind-bending book he’d encountered in years. I duly read what I could grasp of it and was suitably impressed but still somewhat nonplussed. Other books that belong to the same state of personal nonplusment [knowing that what one is reading is really important but not necessarily assimilating the contents…] are Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach, Ann Berthoff’s Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits, and David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

And that was only part of the day…

OuXPo

Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature rolled in yesterday and transfixed me from the very first page:


I’ve known of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, ‘Workshop for Potential Literature’) in a desultory sort of way for years, mostly via the work of Georges Perec (see Georges Perec provokes and Convivial Question and another genius) and largely thanks to my many years of friendship with Daniel Heïkalo, Oulipian avant la lettre. Becker introduces me to OuPhoPo, a Photographic avatar of the original institution, and a company of rats (“rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”) in which I feel I belong. “Cette association a pour de promouvoir la ‘Pataphysique de la photographie…”

31x18097x2a

and

morning egg duo

and

insect horror

are 3 examples of invocations of the playful, provocations to the literal and the staid.

And then in comes this bit of reality:


(from What Viral Shedding Looks Like During a Covid-19 Infection)

Much to think about. See Oulipo: freeing literature by tightening its rules from The Guardian.

Isogloss bundles

This morning, while waiting in the barn for today’s Zoom yoga session to start, I gathered up a few word books in the general realm of American English and one fell open to a map of isoglosses, which immediately called to mind a song written Donkey’s Years ago by my dear friend Ken Stallcup, who said that he got one good song out of every career. I quarried the mind for all that I could remember of the text as I lay on the mat, and here it is (there might be verses I haven’t remembered, indeed I hope there are…):


Little peasant upon the land
what’s that implement in your hand?
How many years have you been here?
What do you call your mother’s brother?
Tell me what you shouldn’t do and what you oughta,
Now that I’ve got my data I’m on my way

Anthropologist pen in hand
Now you’re standing here on my land
You to me are but a passing breeze
Kroeber, Lowie, Leach and Levi-Strauss
and even Malinowski have stayed in my house,
Now that you’ve got your data, where’s my pay?

Dialects run along isogloss bundles
Leaving little wavy lines across the Earth
With money from Ford and it’s all very interesting
But other than that, tell me what is it worth?
Other than that, tell me what is it worth?


I’m contemplating a heap of books on American English and on dialects thereof and trying to figure out how to make an efficient and interesting summary of their whats and whys, via comparisons and tasty extracts. How is one to make sense of these riches, thousands of pages of words and analysis and commentary, difficult of access and best consumed in sporadic tastings, not in epic bouts of reading? The collection or more exactly collocation would be perfect for bit-by-bit consumption in the Locale of Easement, but for the unwieldy format of the Large Book. A cleverly designed hinged or rolling desk might be the solution, but would perhaps not meet with universal enthusiasm if constructed and installed as a fixture in the Smallest Room. Perhaps a Dictionary Alcove built onto the side of the house…

At work upon several future posts in these realms.

The Blue Ship Tea Room, et seq.

Last night’s evening woolgathering on the day’s activities and discoveries (which is usually an hour or so after 9, accompanied by something tasty in the liquid line) found me reminiscing about the Blue Ship Tea Room, an uber-funky restaurant on Boston’s T Wharf in the 1940s and 1950s, which I visited with my parents on several occasions. They had whale steak on the menu, and the whole experience was memorable: you parked someplace on T Wharf itself, then walked up an exterior staircase to the third floor of a rickety building. The view of Boston Harbor was remarkable. Some searching discovered a wonderfully redolent photograph:



(photo by Nishan Bichajian, ca. 1955, from https://dome.mit.edu/handle/1721.3/34856)

There’s also a 1961 article from the Harvard Crimson On the Waterfront by Michael S. Gruen (in the series Around the Hub) about the character and characters of that long-vanished waterfront:

A long, faded-yellow loft building now used for apartments, a few lonely fishing boats, and an occasional tourist are all that remain today of what in better days was one of the world’s greatest fishing wharves. Perhaps the only fish people could see at T Wharf in recent years were those they consumed off of the willow pattern china at the Blue Ship Tea Room, a popular seafood restaurant at the tip of the wharf.

Situated near the foot of State St., where it meets Atlantic Avenue, T Wharf was built sometime between 1708 and 1718 as a relatively unimportant appendage to adjacent Long Wharf, which, until 1868, extended all the way back to historic Faneuil Hall and docked the greatest schooners of its day along approximately one mile of pier…

and so forth, well worth reading in full.

My search also caught an advertising brochure and the tails of a marvelous tale of Massachusetts legal history, in Priscilla D. Webster v. Blue Ship Tea Room, Inc., which details a case that sprawled over the period 1959-1964 and turned upon questions of proper chowder. A few of the delicious chowdery bits:

The plaintiff, who had been born and brought up in New England (a fact of some consequence), ordered clam chowder and crabmeat salad. Within a few minutes she received tidings to the effect that “there was no more clam chowder,” whereupon she ordered a cup of fish chowder. Presently, there was set before her “a small bowl of fish chowder.” She had previously enjoyed a breakfast about 9 A.M. which had given her no difficulty. “The fish chowder contained haddock, potatoes, milk, water and seasoning. The chowder was milky in color and not clear. The haddock and potatoes were in chunks” (also a fact of consequence). “She agitated it a little with the spoon and observed that it was a fairly full bowl…. It was hot when she got it, but she did not tip it with her spoon because it was hot … but stirred it in an up and under motion. She denied that she did this because she was looking for something, but it was rather because she wanted an even distribution *423 of fish and potatoes.” “She started to eat it, alternating between the chowder and crackers which were on the table with … [some] rolls. She ate about 3 or 4 spoonfuls then stopped. She looked at the spoonfuls as she was eating. She saw equal parts of liquid, potato and fish as she spooned it into her mouth. She did not see anything unusual about it. After 3 or 4 spoonfuls she was aware that something had lodged in her throat because she couldn’t swallow and couldn’t clear her throat by gulping and she could feel it.” This misadventure led to two esophagoscopies at the Massachusetts General Hospital, in the second of which, on April 27, 1959, a fish bone was found and removed. The sequence of events produced injury to the plaintiff which was not insubstantial.

We must decide whether a fish bone lurking in a fish chowder, about the ingredients of which there is no other complaint, constitutes a breach of implied warranty under applicable provisions of the Uniform Commercial Code,[1] the annotations to which are not helpful on this point. As the judge put it in his charge, “Was the fish chowder fit to be eaten and wholesome?… [N]obody is claiming that the fish itself wasn’t wholesome…. But the bone of contention here I don’t mean that for a pun but was this fish bone a foreign substance that made the fish chowder unwholesome or not fit to be eaten?”

…The defendant asserts that here was a native New Englander eating fish chowder in a “quaint” Boston dining place where she had been before; that “[f]ish chowder, as it is served and enjoyed by New Englanders, is a hearty dish, originally designed to satisfy the appetites of our seamen and fishermen”; that “[t]his court knows well that we are not talking of some insipid broth as is customarily served to convalescents.” We are asked to rule in such fashion that no chef is forced “to reduce the pieces of fish in the chowder to miniscule size in an effort to ascertain if they contained any pieces of bone.” “In so ruling,” we are told (in the defendant’s brief), “the court will not only uphold its reputation for legal knowledge and acumen, but will, as loyal sons of Massachusetts, save our world-renowned fish chowder from degenerating into an insipid broth containing the mere essence of its former stature as a culinary masterpiece.”

and worth reading in its entirety, especially by New Englanders born and bred (and perhaps likely to be somewhat incomprehensible to others not so endowed).

Just one more bit of glorious serendipity in all of this: the MIT Libraries photograph above references György Kepes and Kevin Lynch (he of the still-essential The Image of the City). Kepes had worked with László Moholy-Nagy in Berlin and London, and “after immigrating to the U.S. in 1937, he taught design at the New Bauhaus (later the School of Design, then Institute of Design, then Illinois Institute of Design or IIT) in Chicago. In 1967 he founded the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he taught until his retirement in 1974.” (Wikipedia). He was also a colleague of Len Gittleman, our photography teacher at Harvard 1963-1965, and was himself a photographer. A few years ago, while exploring in Mount Auburn Cemetery, I came across his grave:

Gyorgy Kepes

The Spanish Inquisition

A hiatus from word book blogging, brought on by garden construction labors and the arrival of the 55th Class Report (Harvard Class of 1965). The latter has provoked quite a lot of thought about How Things Are Changing, abetted by various RSS feed incomings, the April 13th issue of the New Yorker, and assorted free-association mindstorms. The Leitmotif seems to be

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

(the text for which is here)


In this week’s New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl’s Mortality and the Old Masters, a reflection mostly upon his recent re-encounter with Velásquez’s “Las Meninas”, is particularly trenchant and apposite to questions of ?what’s next? and how shall we think about (and think about thinking about) that.

(and see the Wikipedia article)

This sort of reëvaluation can happen when events disrupt your life’s habitual ways and means. You may be taken not only out of yourself—the boon of successful work in every art form, when you’re in the mood for it—but out of your time, relocated to a particular past that seems to dispel, in a flash of undeniable reality, everything that you thought you knew. It’s not like going back to anything. It’s like finding yourself anticipated as an incidental upshot of fully realized, unchanging truths. The impression passes quickly, but it leaves a mark that’s indistinguishable from a wound. Here’s a prediction of our experience when we are again free to wander museums: Everything in them will be other than what we remember. The objects won’t have altered, but we will have, in some ratio of good and ill. The casualties of the coronavirus will accompany us spectrally. Until, inevitably, we begin to forget, for a while we will have been reminded of our oneness throughout the world and across time with all the living and the dead. The works await us as expressions of individuals and of entire cultures that have been—and vividly remain—light-years ahead of what passes for our understanding. Things that are better than other things, they may even induce us to consider, however briefly, becoming a bit better, too.

The 55th Class Report entries were composed in Fall 2019, and disclose a panoply of personal tragedies, observations on the Present as it seemed to be in late 2019, hopes and plans for the coming years, and reflections on the Harvard experience we shared all those years ago. My own augmentation of the printed submission updates to the present.

Whatever else happens, all sorts of the taken-for-granted will be no more. Hand-shaking, for instance. The Curtsy may return, granting unexpected salience to this bit of the Downton Abbey Movie:



le mot juste du jour: Sprachgefühl

I’m working in the direction of a posting on books about American English, but along the way I encounter all manner of things that divert and inform and goad and send me haring off into wanton serendipities. The Language Log blog is dependable that way, and today’s post on Ancient Chinese mottos is a case in point. It has to do with a text from ca. 700 BCE, and ends with this deliciousness:

To do this kind of high level translation requires hard work going through old annotations and commentaries. To make the English felicitous demands inspired creativity and a high level of Sprachgefühl.

Yeah, I know that word, but was hazier than I might have been:

intuitive feeling for the natural idiom of a language.
“it’s not genes or culture but Sprachgefühl that sets the French apart from the Finns, and the Russians from the Romanians”

the essential character of a language.
“each language has its own personality, or Sprachgefühl, which limits its speakers to a certain mode of thought”
(https://www.lexico.com/definition/sprachgefuhl)

And, just because I can, I looked it up in the German Wikipedia:

Als Sprachgefühl bezeichnet man das intuitive, unreflektierte und unbewusste Erkennen dessen, was sprachlich als korrekt (in Wortwahl und Grammatik) bzw. als (situativ und kontextuell) angemessen oder aber als falsch bzw. unangemessen empfunden wird. Geprägt wird es insbesondere im Zuge des Erwerbs der Muttersprache, wobei Herkunft, soziales Umfeld und Bildung und die entsprechenden sprachlichen Erfahrungen des Kindes eine maßgebliche Rolle spielen. Durch intensive sprachliche Erfahrungen in der alltäglichen (auch medialen) Kommunikation, wozu auch literarische und andere Leseerfahrungen gehören, kann das Sprachgefühl aber auch in späteren Jahren trainiert und modifiziert werden.

The problem with the American English books is that there are so many, and they are so various: descriptive, evaluative, jocular, narrow, broad, thick, thin… each has something to add, and I’m still wrestling with a typology. And I’m so damned Sprachgefühl re: American English. So I’ll be back to that subject.

Lexicon of Musical Invective

Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995) is famous for several things, the most immediately relevant here being his Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time. The Amazon blurb:

A snakeful of critical venom aimed at the composers and the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century music. Who wrote advanced cat music? What commonplace theme is very much like Yankee Doodle? Which composer is a scoundrel and a giftless bastard? What opera would His Satanic Majesty turn out? Whose name suggests fierce whiskers stained with vodka? And finally, what third movement begins with a dog howling at midnight, then imitates the regurgitations of the less-refined or lower-middle-class type of water-closet cistern, and ends with the cello reproducing the screech of an ungreased wheelbarrow? For the answers to these and other questions, readers need only consult the “Invecticon” at the back of this inspired book and then turn to the full passage, in all its vituperation.

The Invecticon lists 30+ pages of calumnies and disparagements:


and examples of Critical Response: Stravinsky, Webern and Varèse

There’s a lovely Nicolas Slonimsky Documentary- A Touch of Genius (56 min)


and an interview with Slonimsky about his friendship with Frank Zappa:


Another example of Slonimsky’s genius is his Thesaurus Of Scales And Melodic Patterns, known to Jazz and Classical musicians alike.

Survey of Modern English

Quarrying the books in the Auxiliary Library (i.e., upstairs in the barn) produces some treasures, legacy of past projects and enthusiasms. Stephen Gramley & Kurt-Michael Pätzold’s
A Survey of Modern English (1992) was acquired when Betsy was working on Speech Works: the accent reduction tool. Since 1992 there’s a second edition of Gramley & Pätzold, and Amazon says that a “fully revised and updated” third edition is in the works.

Gramley & Pätzold were senior lecturers at the Faculty of Linguistics and Literature at the University of Bielefeld, and the original version of the book (Das moderne Englische) was designed to meet the needs and interests of their German students. A quick look at the Contents makes it clear that a native speaker of English can find elegant explanations of niceties of English that might not appear in native-English sources, in which much about the language is taken for granted:


Chapters 1, 2, 5 and 6 are especially relevant to my exploration of ‘word books’, but anybody curious about languages will find other sections that look fascinating. A few especially choice examples from the text:



Gramley & Pätzold is one of those books I can open to any page and find an engaging 15-minute diversion that provokes searches and ponderings and more slips of paper with stuff written down for later exploration. I’ve done it a thousand times, such that it’s become a modus operandi. Good thing that I now have a place to put all that stuff…

Taking Stock: langue & parole

This adventure into the word books on my shelves began on March 21 and has gathered steam on its downhill run, but snowman-like it has also swept lots of nearby materials into its gravitoid mass.

gravitoid appeared out of nowhere, as a nonce word [or occasionalism]: “a word coined for one single occasion only…”, “a lexeme created for a single occasion to solve an immediate problem of communication” (Wikipedia) “…term coined by James Murray],” but also, as Google tells us, “…A jumping puzzle game in space! Use gravity to your advantage and travel through the stars/galaxies/cosmos…” ” …truly settling matter in coastal waters [vs. colloids]…” “…an upcoming physics puzzler set in space, and developed by the folks over at Endless Tea Studios. It sees you, as an astronaut, trying to survive amongst the stars as you hop from planet to planet using gravity to help you…”

Well, so it goes, as Vonnegut says. I see no obvious end to this Project, since more and more relatable books keep leaping out at me and snuggling up to one another, demanding my attention and reminding me that I’ve been word-smitten all my life. I can certainly claim this linguistic territory as a realm tangent to anthropology, and even as a legit branch of Nacirema and Naidanac studies.

Insofar as there is method in this madness, it seems to involve some combination of early-morning thoughts (scrawled on bits of paper before forgotten or superceded), serendipitous bibliology, pilings-up of candidates, and results of googlings. Today’s bit of paper has these entries:

roiling cauldron of speech [waking thought]
langue/parole
solecisms
idiolect
idioms
dialect
memes
hacker speak
jargon
catchphrases
shelf life
bunny boiler [a newly-encountered catchphrase]

and that’s more than enough inspiration for today’s blog post.

I’m guessing that ‘bunny boiler’ is as novel/incomprehensible to most of whatever readership this post may have as it was to me. I found it as the result of a search for ‘catchphrase’, which I was impelled to by looking at Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, of which I have the 1977 edition (Amazon offers the 1992 edition), and reflecting that such dictionaries have shelf life [the OED dates the first example of that phrase to 1927: “Manufacturing Confectioner Jan. 12 (heading) What is the shelf life of your hard candy?”]… and then looking for some more contemporary resources, and so finding a list of English (well, American) idioms that included ‘bunny boiler’, which I’d never encountered. And so: bunny boiler: An obsessive and dangerous female, in pursuit of a lover who has spurned her. Ew. Almost sorry I asked, but its derivation is from the 1987 film Fatal Attraction (which I’ve never seen) …

The phrase comes from the plot device whereby Forrest, in a fit of frenzied jealousy, boils her erstwhile lover’s daughter’s pet rabbit… At the time that the phrase first came into general use it referred to someone unable to remain rational at the end of a romantic relationship. Very quickly that usage became moderated and it came to be used, often with some degree of irony, in much less extreme situations. Any needy, possessive or even just mildly annoying woman is now liable to be described as a ‘bunny boiler’.

And there we have it, the whole /ball of wax/ of linguistic invention, complete with misogyny and irony and humo[u]r and Grand Guignol rolled into one. And I missed it, by being not particularly well-connected to Popular Culture. And so reflect that I miss a lot of Pop Culch references by being a non-participant in the lexico-fertile social media of the Facebook and the Twitter. Some Nacirema ethnographer I am, to ignore the Media which are the Message…

Here’s a page from Partridge 1977, reflecting the [notably British] linguistic world of 40+ years ago:

Here we skate perilously close to the field of slang, which needs its own separate treatment in future posts. For the moment, let’s go back to today’s slip of paper and follow Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) in distinguishing langue and parole: “language: Saussure intended the term to mean internal arrangement and relationship of rules understood by a social group, however, rarely thought of in everyday life…” (Wikipedia), and parole: language as she is spoke by folk. The latter encompasses idioms, jargon, memes, dialect and so on, where the real fun is, in the scum on the top levels of the roiling cauldron. The sober realms of etymology and *PIE and OED definition surely have their charms, but the rubber meets the road in the pragmatics of metaphors and allusions and in-jokes and synecdoche.

To finish off today’s post, let’s take a look at Mark Forsyth (The Inky Fool) The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language (Amazon blurb: “a completely unauthorized guide to the strange underpinnings of the English language”)

A toe dipt into Etymologies

Nowadays many old reference works are, as they say, on line, either as downloadable page images (pdf, kindle, etc.) or in their own Web presentations (OED, etc.). Using them often requires some juggling, but that’s of course also true of the hard-copy paper, too. I’m not sure how best to set up a workflow for easy access to the just-discovered electronic form of A dictionary of English etymology (by Wedgwood, Hensleigh, 1803-1891; Atkinson, J. C. (John Christopher), 1814-1900), now that I’ve downloaded its 75 MB pdf form, but here’s an example of the richness:


…and compare with the much briefer entries in The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology:



…and, for the sheer fun of it, compare with the entry for *PIE beu; bhel, bhleu in Shipley:



…and, for full measure, the OED entry:



and a part of the detail of the first sense in the OED:



Each is its own sort of fun.