Archive: Jeux d’esprit
The infra-ordinary: Scholar, disassembled
I received a new shoulder-bag for my birthday. Here are the permanent residents of my old bag awaiting transfer to the new. And yes, every single one of these items (with the exception of the mysterious paper) has proved useful on at least one occasion in the last ten years…
a :iPad to monitor adaptor
b :lip balm
c :wallet-sized Fresnel magnifier
d :Altoids tin (contains 1 Ricola lozenge)
e :Staedtler eraser
f :weathered wood from the coast of BC
a :Cheshire Cat button
b :fountain pen cartridges
c :binder clip
d :paper clip (“owl” style)
f :mysterious paper wrapped in plastic
g :AAA batteries, 3 rechargeable, 2 not
a :second pair of reading glasses
b :magnifier with light
c :paper for notes, bookmarks, etc.
d :colored pens, mechanical pencils
e :comb (freebie from Thai Airways)
a :45° triangle
b :bag for sunglasses
c :hand-knit cloth (for cleaning glasses)
d :Ministaff colored pencil kit
e :rotary lead pointer
a :pill box
c :miniature portfolio
d :notebook with strap
a :hairbrush (fine)
b :hairbrush (coarse)
A piece of their mind
Addendum: Republished from NewAPPS. See there the informative comment by John Protevi on the substance of Balko’s column—the fallibility of drug-sniffing dogs (and their trainers), and the resulting miscarriages of justice.
My late cat Mr. H came to be very good at knowing when I was finished playing a piece on the piano. I have recordings in which, a second or two after the piano stops, Mr. H’s characteristic yowl supplies a coda. One might almost think he had a grasp of musical form, but I’m quite sure that his grasp was rather of my habits than of anything to do with music. He had likely picked up something in my posture that correlated with finishing a piece, something distinctive enough that he was rarely deceived by pauses during a piece.
I was reminded of this in reading first a column by Radley Balko on police dogs and then some extracts from a book cited by Balko, Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a dog (the title alludes to a Groucho Marx joke, in case you’re wondering). Horowitz describes experiments in which domestic canines, when humans are present, tend to do much worse than their wild cousins.
Tested on their ability to, say, get a bit of food in a well-closed container, wolves keep trying and trying, and if the test is not rigged they eventually succeed through trial and error. Dogs, by contrast, tend to go at the container only until it appears that it won’t easily be opened. Then they look at any person in the room and begin a variety of attention-getting and solicitation behaviors until the person relents and helps them get into the box (180).
Anyone who has a dog or cat will recognize the phenomenon. Are dogs, then, dumber than wolves? Horowitz doesn’t think so.
More of the same
[From NewAPPS]. Eric Schliesser has recently mentioned a conference on self-plagiarism, inspired, apparently, by Bruno Frey’s republication of the same article in more than one venue. That act of self-plagiarism reminded me of the notion of “plagiat par anticipation”, which in its simplest form is the act of appropriating, without acknowledgment, the work of one’s successors. The notion was introduced by Francois Le Lionnais, one of the founders of Oulipo, in a flagrant plagiat par anticipation of Pierre Bayard’s book on the subject forty years later.
Gérard Genette somewhere (in Palimpsestes?) introduces the more elaborate notion of “auto-plagiat par anticipation”, which is to say the act of anticipating or drawing upon one’s own future works. So perhaps Bruno Frey was just making good his earlier acts of self-appropriation.
In a passage that I think Eric will appreciate, Aurélien Rouquet [pdf], who unfortunately has not managed a plagiat par anticipation of Bayard, and is therefore forced servilely to write about him, says:
La première thèse est celle d’une « histoire littéraire autonome ». Précisément, Bayard appelle « à séparer une fois pour toute l’histoire événementielle et l’histoire littéraire, et à admettre que les écrivains et les artistes relèvent en réalité d’une double chronologie » (p108). Prenant acte des similitudes que l’on ne manquera jamais de trouver entre écrivains éloignés dans le temps (du fait de l’existence du plagiat par anticipation), Bayard propose ainsi de narrer l’histoire littéraire sur la base de ces similitudes, plutôt que sur le fait que certains écrivains ont pu vivre à une même époque. Selon lui, il n’y aurait pas scandale à présenter Sophocle, qui a narré le mythe d’Œdipe en utilisant une technique tardivement utilisée au sein de la littérature policière (le meurtrier est l’enquêteur), au côté de Freud et d’écrivains du 20e siècle.
Translation: The first thesis is that of an “autonomous literary history”. Bayard calls for a “separation once and for all of event-history from literary history”, and for an “admission that literature and art are referred to a double chronology”. Taking note of the similarities one will never fail to find between authors far apart in time (on the basis of plagiarism by anticipation), Bayard proposes to narrate the history of literature on the basis of those similarities, rather than on the basis of the fact that certain writers happened to live in the same period. There would be no scandal in presenting Sophocles, who told the myth of Œdipus using a technique later employed in murder mysteries (the murderer is also the investigator), alongside Freud and other twentieth-century authors.
As Bayard knows, he has been plagiarized in advance by Borges, who wrote of a literary history in which Kafka, rather than being influenced by his precursors, creates them (“Kafka and his precursors”, in Other inquisitions).
Behind these jokes there can be discerned a serious issue for the historian. In the sixties it was discussed under the heading of “genesis and structure” (Piaget, Derrida), but I will use the more familiar terminology (for anglophone philosophers) of types and events. The historian, even in bare narrative, cannot merely order events by time; some principle of selection is needed on the basis of which some subset of “all” the events within some period (the object of an ideal, impossible, “total” history) is selected. Those events will be of a type which is itself perhaps limited in time and space (e.g. “Baroque”), but whose conditions of existence in time will differ from those of the events falling under it. Considered as instances of the type, the events stand in a timeless relation of similarity, and could be re-ordered without ceasing to stand in that relation. That is, of course, what Borges suggests: the “precursor” relation, insofar as it based upon similarity, is reversible.
Damaged Keyboard Aphorisms
(from a note found in a copy of Human, All Too Human).
Look, Jo. Mooz loom.
Poolz o’ bloom.
Odd measures #2: Entourage Depth Index
This Odd Measure was inspired by a quote from Mariah Carey:
I had my team with me but the pups had a mini entourage of their own, of course! And why wouldn’t they? It was a big shoot and even my entourage had an entourage—my stylist had an assistant, my security had extra security [for another version, see this].
Merely having an entourage, of course, is indicative of fame. I’ve never had even the smallest entourage, and I would guess that most academics are below the threshold. Susan Sontag, who I sat next to on a panel once, had a small entourage to sweep her away to the next event. But intellectuals by and large just don’t seem to need them.
Divas, on the other hand, do. Likewise Presidents—the Secret Service is an entourage all by itself. Or Roger Ailes, head of Fox news, who in public is constantly “buffered” by an “elaborate private security detail” paid for by News Corp. I’ll bet that like Mariah Carey’s, his security too has security of its own.
A better measure of your fame and (self-)importance will take account not merely of the size of your entourage, but of its depth. On this basis we would expect the little people—those who have no entourage—to be assigned an index of 0. If you’re like Paula Abdul and all you can muster is a first-order entourage, your index ought to be 1. Mariah Carey’s index, as we’ve seen, will be at least 2.
One complication emerges as we consider the elaborate arrangements around Presidents, Queens, Miss America, Dr. Evil and the like. The collection of entourages around a person, ordered by the “belongs to the immediate entourage of” relation, will be, in favorable cases, a directed tree, that is a directed graph with a designated node such that between that node and any other node there is exactly one path. In the graph of entourages all paths lead to the Star.
Take the tree at right (all edges are understood to be directed upwards). The longest paths contain three entourages, but there are also paths containing only two. How, then, should the ENTOURAGE DEPTH INDEX be defined?
An important person has a large entourage, of course, but also, one would think, a deep one. Largeness corresponds to breadth, to the average number of nodes at each level; overall depth to some measure where we give greater weight to nodes that are farther away from the top. (If you set the EDI simply to the length of the longest path, then you’re ignoring breadth altogether.) I’m not sure there is a universal measure: after all, in some contexts, breadth would indicate importance better than depth, and in others vice versa. Criminal organizations tend toward flatness, armies toward depth.
The examples mentioned above suggest another index, the SDI or Security Depth Index. But I suspect that, as the story about Roger Ailes shows, the SDI would not be a measure of importance so much as of paranoia.
Odd Measures #1: Shelf encumbrance index
You can never be too thin or too rich, they say. But perhaps you can have too many books. How many is too many?
Several factors are relevant. First of all, of course, how many books you have. But whether you have too many depends also on how much space you have. Some people have enough space for all their books; each one sits neatly on its shelf with selected others, and nothing hinders the eager reader from contemplating the titles on an orderly row of spines, and plucking from amongst them the desired tome.
Unfortunately, unless you are fabulously wealthy or else a “man of one book”, your books are probably not in this edenic condition. Not only may some books be shelfless, or placed ad-hockily on surfaces other than shelves, but quite possibly those that are shelved may not be entirely accessible. Some may be encumbered by others.
It is not my purpose to prescribe limits on the possession of books. Instead I aim only to provide a handy measure by which readers may decide for themselves whether their acquisitive instincts have exceeded the bounds of prudence.
To this end I offer the Shelf Encumbrance Index. In theory it is easily calculated. You have merely to determine, for each book in your collection, how many other books must be moved so as to permit that book to be available for reading. Call that its “encumbrance”. Divide the total encumbrance of all your books taken together by the number of books, and that will be the SEI. In the ideal library it is zero: no book is encumbered. Likewise the SEI of an e-library is always, sadly, zero. In Borges’ Library of Babel, on the other hand, the SEI may have been greater than zero (it can never be less), because according to Borges, a few frustrated librarians turned into vandals.*
In real life there will be complications. For example, in the library on the right books are not only shelved; some are stacked. Clearly the encumbrance of a book beneath the stack, if it cannot be extracted without disturbing the stack, will be at least as great as the number of books in the stack. On the other hand, the encumbrance of a book within the stack will vary. A bit of thought shows that the SEI for a stack of height n will be (n–1)/2. In yet more complicated situations empirical tests may be required.
As I said, I do not presume to determine how many books are too many. But an SEI greater than ten is clearly cause for concern. After all, you probably do want to spend more time reading your books than retrieving them (inveterate procrastinators may think otherwise).
Perhaps the easiest remedy which does not involve actually relinquishing possession of any books is to lend them. Your friends, and their friends, will soon sniff out your generosity and before long that hefty SEI will shrink fabulously.
*The alert reader will have noticed that in an infinite library, such as the Library of Babel is said to be, the SEI is not well-defined. I suggest that for infinite libraries the SEI be defined as the limit, provided it exists, of the SEIs for finite sublibraries as the diameter of the sublibraries increases without bound. This may take some time to calculate.
Criss Cross #1
You’re getting there!
Before there were Fortnights, there was…
… a Wayfaring Stranger. The Wayback Machine has preserved some old pages (almost as old as some of my students). For example, the rules for an Oulipian exercise based on the links of the day at Yahoo. Younger folks may not realize that long ago the number of new pages added to the World Wide Web was not only finite, but rather small, in the dozens or scores. In principle you could have looked at all of them, though if you did, then on the general principle that 97% of everything is crap you’d be wasting your time in a way that only historians can turn into gainful labor.
I contain multitudes
Below are 137 “favicons”. Favicons are the little icons that appear in the location field of your browser window along with the URL of the site you’re looking at. Many sites include a link to a custom icon, which is often a tiny version of the logo of the site or its owner. Icons and the like are supposed to be distinctive. But when there are hundreds of them, they all start to flow together into a graphic stew. I have no idea which sites most of these icons belong to. Do you?
All these icons put me in mind of Plato’s One and Many. It turns out that there are many “problems of the many”. For example: the Problem of Many-in-One; the Problem of One versus Many; the Many-Body Problem; and finally the Many-to-One Routing Problem, which I’m sure has troubled more than one of us. It may be that we have too many One and Many problems—a One-and-Many-Problem Problem, about which these few words are surely enough.