Saturday, September 01, 2012

Johann Wyss, The Swiss Family Robinson


Opening Passage:

Already the tempest had continued six days; on the seventh its fury seemed still increasing and the morning dawned upon us without a prospect of hope, for we had wandered so far from the right track, and were so forcibly driven toward the south-east, that none on board knew where we were. The ship's company were exhausted by labour and watching, and the courage which had sustained them was no wsinking. The shivered masts had been cast into the sea; several leaks appeared, and the ship began to fill. The sailors forbore from swearing; many were at prayer on their knees; while others offered miracles of futue piety and goodness as the condition fo their release from danger. 'My beloved children,' said I to my four boys, who clung to me in their fright, 'God can csave us, for nothing is impossible to him. Wee must however hold ourselves resigned, and, instead of murmuring at his decree, rely that what he sees fit to do is best, and that should he call us from this earthly scene, we shall be near him in heaven, and united through eternity. Death may be well supported when it does not separate those who love.'

Summary: There are at least two curious lacunae in The Swiss Family Robinson. The first is that we never learn the name of the family -- almost all we know about their background is that they are Swiss, that the father is a Protestant pastor and must have had some unusual educational ideas even in an era famous for its unusual education ideas, and that they are traveling across the world for an unspecified reason, possibly to settle in, or maybe just to visit, Australia. The second is that we never learn the name of the father; he is the narrator, never gives his name, and is never addressed by name in the entire book. We learn that the mother's name is Elizabeth, and that the boys are Fritz, Ernest, Jack, and Francis, but the father's name we never learn.

Nonetheless, he and all the family have clearly defined and nicely rounded personalities. The father is a bit too pedantic and schoolmasterish; the mother is a bit too sarcastic; the outgoing boys, Fritz and Jack, have to rein in their passions; of the introverted boys, Ernest is a little too inclined to be lazy, and Francis, the youngest, has to slowly learn to express himself through the book. The boys bicker like boys do, albeit in better diction than most, and over exactly the sorts of ridiculous petty competitive things boys actually bicker about. Everyone is constantly ribbing everyone else, and everyone is a bit harder on Ernest than is entirely fair, although this does improve through the book as Ernest becomes less likely to try to shirk -- and as Jack starts to share the role of family target. Nonetheless, everyone in the family loves everyone else, and they all contribute important things by the end of the work. It's very much a family book. And while the family is a sort of super-family, in which everyone is a bit more ingenious and a bit luckier than one might expect, they make their share of mistakes and mis-steps -- and survive them as a family.

One of the things that struck me is that there are a lot of features of the book that would likely be a tough sell if you were to write something similar today -- the massacre of monkeys, for instance, is rather bloody, and the donkey being killed and devoured by a boa constrictor is told with such extraordinary detail as to be startling. The family is very animal-friendly -- the children are always sharply rebuked for any thoughtless or unnecessary killing of animals -- but they also have no qualms whatsoever with killing anything that will contribute to survival and comfort, and they turn out to be quite good at it. They aren't out camping; they are out to settle the island and turn it to their needs and wants. It never ceases to be a fun adventure, but the novel remarkably does not flinch from recognizing what would actually be required.

Favorite Passage: From Chapter 33:

I remarked that Ernest followed us to our embarkation with regret. I asked him the cause, and he declared that, if I wished to make him happy, I would leave him alone on this island, where he would live like Robinson Crusoe. The idea mad eme smile, and I instantly replied, 'You foolish boy, do you know that the life of Robinson is but a finely-wrought fiction, and that your romantic project has a thousand obstacles attending it? You would not be there long before you would grow tired of your solitude; sickness would come, and some fine morning we should fin d the poor hermit dead upon the beach. Thank God, He did not separate us at our shipwreck; we are six ain all, and we are scarcely able to provide for our well-being. What could you do, alone, upon these rocks?'

Recommendation: Quick-moving, full of variety, and despite the didactic tone, a rather rollicking adventure. Well worth reading at least once.

Poem a Day I


The farrier for reason's sake
must start at scratch,
pound the anvil,
hit the metal,
strike the nail with motion true,
but gently hold the hoof.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Links and Notes

* Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently had an excellent parsha on letting go of hate.

* Two excellent discussions of mathematical reasoning, both quite readable (and by that I do not mean merely 'readable for people familiar with the field' but 'readable by any intelligent reader willing to take the time'):

William Thurston, On Proof and Progress in Mathematics (PDF)
Barry Mazur, Is It Plausible? (PDF)

The first was published, the second just notes for a talk, but both are worth reading. Mazur, incidentally, is one of the best expositors of mathematics that I have found. Mathematicians in general are horrible expositors of mathematics unless they are talking to other mathematicians; they always explain things as if they are talking to mathematicians who just haven't studied up on the particular question in hand, and not, say, as if they are talking to archeologists or poets. It's not wholly their fault; for most things in mathematics, good exposition requires knowing what your audience already knows, so that you can see what they will or can pick up on immediately, and this is often not something that can be known before you've done lot of trying. But there are certain ways that do well in general, and Mazur's expository articles and notes are invaluable. Even if you don't follow the mathematics in particular examples, they are usually put forward in such a way that even a nonmathematician can see why they are examples (which, I think, many mathematicians don't understand is usually the problem with their examples) and what general moral you should draw from them. His discussions of area, on time in mathematics and literature, on stories about mathematics, and on equality are all well worth reading. (They are all PDF; the stories one is probably easiest and the equality one probably most difficult of this group for a typical nonmathematician, but they are none of them too onerous if you just think them through.)

* John Wilkins had an excellent post recently on phylogeny and the history of language and culture.

* Several discussions of runic inscriptions. They all tend to highlight the fact that beyond a certain point the field of study has to be fairly speculative in nature; runology is a field in which the evidence is often definite as far as you get it, but is also scattered and patchy enough that it can be hard to know what to make of it as a whole.

* Peter Millican's eight week General Philosophy course, for first-year students, is online. This is quite a nice series, although it really only focuses on modern philosophy, especially early modern. I've only dipped into it here and there, but all I've heard is good (he manages to avoid all the standard errors that arise in discussing Malebranche and Berkeley, for instance, which is in general a reliable sign of quality). If you want to brush up, or get a first introduction to basic names and ideas in early modern philosophy, it's well worth the listen.

* Michael Genesereth's free online Introduction to Logic course sounds interesting; it is from a Computer Science perspective and requires high school mathematics. It starts September 24.

* A rather hilariously funny story at Slate about what Swedes think of The Swedish Chef from the Muppets (ht):

“There are three things that people talk to Swedes about pretty uniformly: the Swedish Chef, Abba, and Ikea,” says Michael Moynihan, a Brooklyn-based journalist who is married to a Swede and founded the English language Stockholm Spectator magazine while living in Sweden as an expatriate.

Like me, he found that Swedes (or at least Swedish wives living abroad) get deeply irritated when they are confronted with questions about particleboard furniture, “Dancing Queen,” and the meaning of “Börk börk börk.” Moynihan says everyone who meets his wife approaches her with some variation of the Swedish Chef question, but she has learned to brush it off.

Apparently the Swedes think he sounds Norwegian. They didn't ask any Norwegians whether they think he sounds Swedish. Actually, if you listen to Swedes who are especially excited or happy, the tonal differences between Norwegian and Swedish vanish for people who aren't used to listening for them. (And, in general, Norwegian sounds happier and friendlier to non-Scandinavians than Swedish does, for precisely the reasons that the Swedish Chef sounds Norwegian to Swedes.)

* Of course, any American is going to think the accent here sounds like the Swedish Chef:

And that's very definitely a Swedish commercial.

* MrsDarwin on Augustine's confessions for children.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

She Speaks and Reasons but on Virtue's Side

I mentioned Jane Austen's poems previously. Most of her poems are satirical and humorous, but here she is in a serious vain. Mrs. Lefroy was an extraordinarily close friend and mentor to Austen; she was thrown off a horse and, knocked unconscious, never awoke. As the title says, Mrs. Lefroy died on Austen's birthday. It is notable for presenting Austen's ideal of womanhood -- and, notably, an ideal she arguably lived up to herself. 'Johnson', of course, is Samuel Johnson, of whose writings Austen was quite a fan.

To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy who died Dec:r 16 — my Birthday.
by Jane Austen

The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes.–

The day, commemorative of my birth
Bestowing Life and Light and Hope on me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on Earth.
Oh! bitter pang of torturing Memory!–

Angelic Woman! past my power to praise
In Language meet, thy Talents, Temper, mind.
Thy solid Worth, thy captivating Grace!–
Thou friend and ornament of Humankind!–

At Johnson’s death by Hamilton t’was said,
‘Seek we a substitute–Ah! vain the plan,
No second best remains to Johnson dead–
None can remind us even of the Man.’

So we of thee–unequall’d in thy race
Unequall’d thou, as he the first of Men.
Vainly we search around the vacant place,
We ne’er may look upon thy like again.

Come then fond Fancy, thou indulgant Power,–
–Hope is desponding, chill, severe to thee!–
Bless thou, this little portion of an hour,
Let me behold her as she used to be.

I see her here, with all her smiles benign,
Her looks of eager Love, her accents sweet.
That voice and Countenance almost divine!–
Expression, Harmony, alike complete.–

I listen–’tis not sound alone–’tis sense,
‘Tis Genius, Taste and Tenderness of Soul.
‘Tis genuine warmth of heart without pretence
And purity of Mind that crowns the whole.

She speaks; ’tis Eloquence–that grace of Tongue
So rare, so lovely!–Never misapplied
By her to palliate Vice, or deck a Wrong,
She speaks and reasons but on Virtue’s side.

Her’s is the Engergy of Soul sincere.
Her Christian Spirit ignorant to feign,
Seeks but to comfort, heal, enlighten, chear,
Confer a pleasure, or prevent a pain.–

Can ought enhance such Goodness?–Yes, to me,
Her partial favour from my earliest years
Consummates all.–Ah! Give me yet to see
Her smile of Love.–the Vision diappears.

‘Tis past and gone–We meet no more below.
Short is the Cheat of Fancy o’er the Tomb.
Oh! might I hope to equal Bliss to go!
To meet thee Angel! in thy future home!–

Fain would I feel an union in thy fate,
Fain would I seek to draw an Omen fair
From this connection in our Earthly date.
Indulge the harmless weakness–Reason, spare.–

Mereological Structure

Even though all sciences are greatly concerned with ‘structure’, standard mereology cannot deal with ‘structured’ wholes. Structured wholes, such as
chemical molecules, generally have causal efficacy in virtue of their ‘connec-
tivity’– in addition to the causal powers of their constituent atoms. (Levoro-
tatory amino acids are nutritious, corresponding dextrorotatory amino acids
are poisonous – although both sorts of molecules have exactly the same
component parts.)

Inclusion in a chemical molecule clearly causes significant changes in each
of the components that are so included. For example, organic molecules gen-
erally contain many hydrogen centers (‘protons’). Ethyl alcohol (CH3CH2
OH) has five hydrogen centers (‘atoms’). Those hydrogens are not all the
same, however. There are three distinct sorts of hydrogen centers in the
ethanol molecule. If a sample of ethanol is placed in a magnetic field and sub-
jected to appropriate radio-frequency radiation of varying frequency, energy
may be absorbed in bringing about a change in the relationship between the
‘spin’ of a proton (hydrogen nucleus) and direction of the imposed magnetic
field – what is sometimes called a ‘spin-flip’. In such experiments, sharp ab-
sorption bands are observed at three separate frequencies (‘chemical shifts’)
corresponding to differing detailed characteristics of the electromagnetic en-
vironments that characterize the several types of hydrogen nuclei within the
ethanol molecule. The intensities of those three absorptions correspond to
the numbers (1 and 2 and 3) of hydrogen centers of each of the three struc-
tural types that are present in ethanol....

Those hydrogen centers are strongly influenced by being parts of the ethanol
molecule, and by the details of their relative locations in the molecule....

John Earley, Sr., How Philosophy of Mind Needs Philosophy of Chemistry (PDF). The example could be stated a bit more clearly, but the basic point is that even though the hydrogen atoms in ethanol are all hydrogen atoms, they have very importantly different behaviors depending on their 'locations' in the molecule, that is, depending on how they link up with other atoms. Earley has argued that this is quite common for chemical substances: parts that are, in some sense, of the same kind nonetheless differ considerably depending on the structures (or structured processes) in which they are participating. Chemistry is a field in which mereology, i.e., parts and wholes in relation, is extraordinarily important, but most discussions of mereology don't give us an account of how parts relate to wholes that is useful for explaining reasoning about chemical reactions and substances. What is needed is an account of mereological structure or forms of integration.

Earley goes on to make the argument, which is a somewhat different issue, although interesting in its own right, that the major forms of physicalism and reductionism regularly assume mereological principles that are too simplistic to account for chemical substances and processes.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two Poem Re-Drafts

These are both derived, a little loosely, from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. The first is based on the poem "En perseguirme, mundo, ¿que interesas?" and the second on the poem "En que da moral censura a una rosa, y en ella a sus semejantes". They are, of course, massively inferior to their models; Sor Juana is a hard act to follow. I do like how both of them are slowly shaping up, though.

Sor Juana's Apologia

Why persecute me, World, behind a thousand faces?
In what do I offend you, when all I am demanding
Is to place fair graces in my understanding,
Not my understanding upon those graces?

I regard not treasures nor mundane riches;
Thus tranquillity I have always bought
By infusing riches into my thought,
Not giving my thought to outer riches.

And I do not regard beauties that, taken,
Are looted spoils in every century;
Nor can treacherous wealth my pleasure waken;
For I hold it better in truth and verity
To let the vanities of life be shaken
Than vainly to waste my life in vanity.

In which she rebukes a rose, and in it those like it

Divine rose, you are grown in grace,
with all your fragrant subtleness,
a teacher with scarlet beauty blessed,
a winter lesson in lovely face,

a twin of human frame and doom,
an example made of graciousness vain,
in whom are unified these twain:
the happy cradle, the grieving tomb.

Such haughtiness in pomp, such pride,
such presumption! Disdaining mortal fate,
you later are dismayed and hide

when you show in illness a withered state
of which, by learnéd death and foolish life,
alive you lied, but dying demonstrate!

St. Austin's Day

As is fitting, the feast of St. Augustine follows on the feast of St. Monica. From Confessions, Book I, Chapter IV:

What, therefore, is my God? What, I ask, but the Lord God? "For who is Lord but the Lord himself, or who is God besides our God?" Most high, most excellent, most potent, most omnipotent; most merciful and most just; most secret and most truly present; most beautiful and most strong; stable, yet not supported; unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud, and they know it not; always working, ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing; sustaining, pervading, and protecting; creating, nourishing, and developing; seeking, and yet possessing all things. Thou dost love, but without passion; art jealous, yet free from care; dost repent without remorse; art angry, yet remainest serene. Thou changest thy ways, leaving thy plans unchanged; thou recoverest what thou hast never really lost. Thou art never in need but still thou dost rejoice at thy gains; art never greedy, yet demandest dividends. Men pay more than is required so that thou dost become a debtor; yet who can possess anything at all which is not already thine? Thou owest men nothing, yet payest out to them as if in debt to thy creature, and when thou dost cancel debts thou losest nothing thereby. Yet, O my God, my life, my holy Joy, what is this that I have said? What can any man say when he speaks of thee? But woe to them that keep silence--since even those who say most are dumb.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Santa Monica

Today was the feast of St. Monica (it was probably originally spelled 'Monnica'). She was a North African saint, from Carthage, and was the mother of St. Augustine. Augustine's passionate description of her life and death in Book IX of the Confessions is well worth reading. A brief selection:

29. I closed her eyes; and there flowed in a great sadness on my heart and it was passing into tears, when at the strong behest of my mind my eyes sucked back the fountain dry, and sorrow was in me like a convulsion. As soon as she breathed her last, the boy Adeodatus burst out wailing; but he was checked by us all, and became quiet. Likewise, my own childish feeling which was, through the youthful voice of my heart, seeking escape in tears, was held back and silenced. For we did not consider it fitting to celebrate that death with tearful wails and groanings. This is the way those who die unhappy or are altogether dead are usually mourned. But she neither died unhappy nor did she altogether die. For of this we were assured by the witness of her good life, her "faith unfeigned," and other manifest evidence.

30. What was it, then, that hurt me so grievously in my heart except the newly made wound, caused from having the sweet and dear habit of living together with her suddenly broken? I was full of joy because of her testimony in her last illness, when she praised my dutiful attention and called me kind, and recalled with great affection of love that she had never heard any harsh or reproachful sound from my mouth against her. But yet, O my God who made us, how can that honor I paid her be compared with her service to me? I was then left destitute of a great comfort in her, and my soul was stricken; and that life was torn apart, as it were, which had been made but one out of hers and mine together.

31. When the boy was restrained from weeping, Evodius took up the Psalter and began to sing, with the whole household responding, the psalm, "I will sing of mercy and judgment unto thee, O Lord." And when they heard what we were doing, many of the brethren and religious women came together. And while those whose office it was to prepare for the funeral went about their task according to custom, I discoursed in another part of the house, with those who thought I should not be left alone, on what was appropriate to the occasion. By this balm of truth, I softened the anguish known to thee. They were unconscious of it and listened intently and thought me free of any sense of sorrow. But in thy ears, where none of them heard, I reproached myself for the mildness of my feelings, and restrained the flow of my grief which bowed a little to my will. The paroxysm returned again, and I knew what I repressed in my heart, even though it did not make me burst forth into tears or even change my countenance; and I was greatly annoyed that these human things had such power over me, which in the due order and destiny of our natural condition must of necessity happen. And so with a new sorrow I sorrowed for my sorrow and was wasted with a twofold sadness.

32. So, when the body was carried forth, we both went and returned without tears. For neither in those prayers which we poured forth to thee, when the sacrifice of our redemption was offered up to thee for her--with the body placed by the side of the grave as the custom is there, before it is lowered down into it--neither in those prayers did I weep. But I was most grievously sad in secret all the day, and with a troubled mind entreated thee, as I could, to heal my sorrow; but thou didst not.

First Day of Term

First day of term, and it looks like it will be a good one -- the students seem good so far, and while, as usual, I do have a lot of driving this term, it's only to two campuses (out of eight) rather than the three I was expecting. And I'm ahead of where I usually am. Still, for obvious reasons, you should expect posts to be fairly limited and not at all extensive or substantial in content for the first half of this week.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Radiance Pale

on leaving Oxford in the evening May 14th 1785
by James Austen

What fondly cherish'd thoughts my bosom-fill,
As yon dark mansions from my sight retire,
As the last turret black & pointed spire
Vanish, slow sinking 'neath the far seen hill,
While half hushed murmurs from the distant mill
The white smoke rising from the village fire,
Wake in my breast such social soft desire,
And thoughts of Home into my heart instill.
Thus fondly wrapt in Fancy's magic dream
And many a Castle forming, on I stray
Cross the lone heath, or deeper shaded dale,
While soft reflected in the wavy stream
Night's full orbed Queen directs my dubious way
Tinting the woodlands round with radiance pale.

James Austen was Jane Austen's oldest brother; he was actually in most ordinary senses the literary one in the family, and seems to have been considered so even after Jane began publishing (but part of this was perhaps that Jane's being an author was kept pretty quiet by most of the family). His poems show skill but not ingenuity; the handful of poems we have by Jane Austen herself -- they are all humorous or satirical, except for one or two uncertain attributions -- are much more ingenious. He has an exceptional sense of poetic image, though. It would actually be a good poetic exercise to rework his images in a livelier, or at least less predictable, diction.

Dark Sublime

James Chastek sums up much of the horror genre, and in so doing, why we can often learn from it:

One can make any number of horror-movie monsters by removing the limits from some natural desire: Alien is reproduction without regard for anything else; The Blob is pure and unlimited growth (with unlimited consumption as a corollary); The Thing is a sacculina-esque parasite that places no limits on its own desire to survive etc. Removing the limit shows two sides of removing a limit: on the one hand we get a monster and on the other hand we get godlike power. These two aspects are usually reflected in the plot: the protagonists want to kill the unlimited thing as a monster; the antagonists (government officials) marvel and desire the unlimited thing as a god. The marvel of the antagonists is tempered by the fact that they do not simply marvel at the godlike thing but also desire to possess and control it. Such possession itself is a claim to unlimited power, and so is a redoubling of the monster.