Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Curious Couple

Today, February 14, 2018 is both St. Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday. I did not recall the two falling on the same day, and my lack of recall was correct. It has not happened since 1945, before I was born, and well before I paid attention to St. Valentine's Day. The coincidence will recur in 2024 and 2029, then not again until 2070. All this is according to the  "Anonymous Gregorian" or "Meeus/Jones/Butcher" algorithm offered in the Wikipedia entry Computus. (The Easter dates this yields check out against those in an old St. Andrew Daily Missal, though that missal's years cover a much shorter range, which overlaps with none of the years of coincidence.)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Found in Fowler

For years I have noticed and disliked the journalistic use of "exponential" to mean "rapid". Without knowing the exponent, one does not know how rapid the growth is, for one thing--if the exponent is 0, the growth is linear. For another, articles using the term often enough give just two numbers, one small and one large. Innumerable curves could be fitted through those two numbers, all with different leading exponents.

So having found a copy of the first edition of Modern English Usage on the shelves, I was pleased to notice the article 
progression. Arithmetical p. & geometrical p. There are in constant demand to express a rapid rate of increase, which is not involved in either of them, & is not even suggested by a. p. Those who use the expressions should bear in mind (1) that you cannot determine the nature of the progression from two terms whose relative place in the series is unknown, (2) that ever rate of increase that could be named is slower than some rates of a. p. & g .p., & faster than some others & consequently (3) that the phrases 'better than a. p., than g. p.', 'almost in a. p., g. p.', are wholly meaningless.
 In 1903 there were ten thousand 'paying guests', last year [1906] fifty thousand. The rate of increase is better, it will be observed than arithmetical progression. Better, certainly, than a. p. with increment 1, of which the fourth annual term would have been 10,003; but as certainly worse than a. p. with increment a million, of which the fourth term would have been 3,010,000; neither better nor worse than, but a case of, a. p. with increment 13333 1/3. The writer meant a. p. with annual increment 10,000; but as soon as we see what he meant to say we see also that it was not wortth saying, since it tells us no more than that, as we knew before, fifty thousand is greater than forty thousand.
Even g. p. may be so slow that to raise 210,000 in three years to as little as the 10,003 mentioned above is merely a matter of fixing the increment ratio low enough. Neither a. p. nor g. p. necessarily implies rapid progress. The point of the contrast between them is that one involves growth or decline at a constant pace, & the other at an increasing  pace. Hence the famous sentence in Malthus about population & subsistence, the first increasing in a g. & the second in an a. ratio, which perhaps started the phrases on their career as POPULARIZED TECHNICALITIES.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Books Not Stolen

This week an item appeared on the neighborhood email list. Someone had stolen a package with Crocs and vitamins from a neighbor's porch, leaving behind a box with a copy of Manhattan Beach. The intended recipient of Manhattan Beach responded, and then collected it. Nobody has so far reported finding a box of Crocs and vitamins on his porch, and a box with electronics missing. I infer that Crocs and vitamins are more easily sold than books.

My wife remarks that the the thief must have known that the first package was a book. I guess so, but I can't think what book would be better to steal for resale than Manhattan Beach. Perhaps if it had been a true crime book, he could have kept it to read for tips. We suppose that he carried it to another porch instead of discarding it because that way he went up the steps with a box and came back with one, making the theft less obvious.

Jennifer Egan is not the only author whose books are not attractive to local thieves. A few years ago we left a car door open, and came out in the morning to find the trunk open. Nothing that we could see had been stolen, and there in the trunk was a collection of essays by Matthew Arnold. A bit after that, a man across the street found  resting on his car an old family Bible, and in his garbage can a case looking like a purse, in which the Bible had been when stole. The owner, a woman who lived around the corner, was very grateful to have it back.

Monday, January 29, 2018


I have never cared for the "Desert Island Discs" notion of choosing a dozen records that one would choose to take into exile Yes, I could come up with a list of twelve; but what if one morning I woke up to know that I had heard enough of those twelve discs for now, and it was time to hear some Strauss or Monteverdi or Ellington?

Yet those of us without practically unlimited time and space do go through the same exercise. The parameters are larger, but the principle is the same. One must choose what to keep. If it is the thousandth rather than the thirteenth spot contested, the choice may be easier, or a matter of indifference. Still, it must be made.

Not quite three years ago, we regained the use of some bookshelves that we had stowed in the garage while a contractor renovated our basement. Suddenly we had plenty of space. Gradually it filled, and now we have little. In fact, we may have less than none, if we were to try to fit in the books now lying tacked on tables. It is time to discard some.

I have been considering the books that are more or less mine, purchased by me or given to me, that is, rather than purchased by my wife or given to her. I can say that The Federalist Era will stay, but Albion's Seed and Washington's Crossing, for all that I think well of David Hackett Fisher, will go. The Big Show in Bololand can probably go, but before or after I finish it? If after, when will that be? Other choices are easier, fortunately. Maybe by May we can make room enough to get us through another couple of years.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Blaming Scott

If you have read Life on the Mississippi, or Quid Plura, you know that Mark Twain blamed Sir Walter Scott's novels, or least the southern obsession with them, for bringing on the Civil War:
Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.
I first read that passage probably fifty years ago, and have encountered it a few times since. But this week I was surprised by a passage in Chateaubriand's memoirs. In late April of 1832, the Duchesse de Berry had landed in France to try to stir up a revolution: her attempt may have outdone the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 for incompetence and futility. By mid-May, she was in hiding in the Vendée, and sent a message to a group of legitimists in Paris:
... there arrived from Nantes a merchant captain who told us where the heroine was. The captain is a handsome young man, brave as sailor, original as a Breton. He disapproved of the the business; he found it foolish; but he said, "If Madame will not leave, it's a question of dying, that's all. And then, counselors, see that you hang Walter Scott--he's the real culprit."
(Mémoires d'outre-tombe, Book 35, Chapter 3) The editor notes that the duchesse was a great reader of Scott.

Twain read widely, and on the face of it there is no reason he mightn't have read Chateaubriand. Yet I find it hard to imagine him reading Chateaubriand with any patience. Paine's biography of Twain has no entry for Chateaubriand in the index, though for that matter it has none for Sir Walter Scott. I suppose this is a case of writers--or perhaps a skipper and a pilot--thinking alike.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Ames, Williams, Whitefield, and Others

Sydney E. Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People is worth reading for anyone with an interest in American history and for anyone who has an interest in the history and sociology of religion and has heard of this boisterous place called America.  However, it does take some time to read the book, which a bit more than 1100 pages--it is not a book to to carry through airports, or read without a bookmark. Ahlstrom first published the work in 1972, concluding it with reflections on the 1960s: in 2004, David D. Hall  contributed about 25 pages that bring the history forward into the 21st Century.

The broad outlines of the history will be familiar to most Americans, at least those who haven't entirely forgotten high school history classes: the Puritans, the Great Awakening, Methodism, Mormonism, etc. Few of us, though, will know any of the history to anything like the level of detail that Ahlstrom gives. How and where did the camp meeting tradition come about? How did there arise an Arminian synod of Presbyterianism, and when did it reunite with those that had exscinded it? How did so much of the New England church, originally Congregationalist, defect to Unitarianism or Anglicanism? And there are the details for the German pietistic sects, the varying strains of Lutheranism, the different immigrant waves of the Catholics, and so on.

The book is organized in sixty-four chapters in nine parts. Most chapters are a dozen or fifteen pages long, so there are plenty of stopping points. The bibliography runs to about forty pages, out of which, time allowing, I may someday pick out two or three books to read. The index is here and there a delight for the names that American, and not only Americans, will give to their offspring.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Michelangelo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We went to New York Monday and Tuesday, in part to be able to see the exhibition Michelangelo:Divine Draftsman & Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It did not disappoint.

With 133 drawings, three sculptures, a painting, and a wooden model of a vault by Michelangelo, plus related works by other artists, it is overwhelming. Perhaps the expert eye could make one pass and sift the work: I cannot. Were I in or close to New York, I'd aim to see the exhibition several times: once for a notion of the whole, however confused, subsequently to reinforce my impressions of the high points. There has been some sharp commentary about the amount of work on view. Yet I suspect that the artist and the critic could find something worth seeing on the nth view of the smallest drawing.

One sees that paper was scarcer then. Many pieces of paper have several drawings, some include bits of poetry or other jottings.

The ceiling of one of the rooms has a quarter-scale photographic reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Around the room are stands with Michelangelo's sketches of this or that figure. Also on each stand is a picture of the figure as painted, and a schematic showing where to find it. In that room or another is a page with his sonnet humorously describing the effects of the work on him.

Though the exhibition has been open for two months, it was crowded. Eventually I lost self-consciousness about leaning over or around other visitors, or nudging others with the coat under my arm. In the Sistine Chapel room, what looked to be a third grade class came in, not tall enough to have a good look at the sketches, but able to look up to the ceiling with the rest of us.

The exhibition is open through February 12. If you can't make it to the museum, and if your coffee table and the floor under it are up to the weight, you can get the exhibition catalogue.