Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Carpe Librum Returns

Carpe Librum has reopened, at 2134 L St. NW and at Union Station. I visited the first of these location today. Whether through lack of space and shelves, through having to share with Union Station, or both, the stock is considerably smaller than it was at 17th St: it might be a sixth or eighth of what it was there. Still, anyone who really needed to spend money could have found something to buy. I bought a copy of the JQuery Cookbook, not to spend money but for quick reference when, as sometimes happens, I need to write or adjust a bit of JQuery.

According to the cashier, the L St. location will be open until July.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Pillar of Aristocracy

On September 2, 1813, John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson a letter containing among much else
 Now, my Friend who are the ἄριστοι ["aristocrats"]? Philosophy may Answer the Wise and Good." But the World, Mankind, have by their practice always answered, "the rich the beautiful and well born." And Philosophers in marrying their children prefer the rich the handsome and the well descended to the wise and good.
 What chance have Talents and Virtues in competition, with Wealth and Birth? and Beauty? ...
 The five Pillars of Aristocracy are Beauty Wealth, Birth, Genius and Virtues. Any one of the three first can at any time over bear any one or both of the two last.
Adams added a postscript:
You may laugh at the introduction of Beauty, among the Pillars of Aristocracy. But Madame Barry says La veritable Royautée est la B[e]autee ["true royalty is beauty"], and there is not a more certain Truth. Beauty, Grace, Figure, Attitude, Movement, have in innumerable Instances prevailed over Wealth, Birth, Talents Virtues and everything else, in Men of the highest rank, greatest Power, and sometimes, the most exalted Genius, greatest Fame, and highest Merit.
This came to mind when I was reading through the pages dedicated to Mme. Récamier in Mémoires de Outre-Tombe. These were to have formed a book of the third part, but Chateaubriand decided against publishing them: Livres de Poche includes them in the "Fragment retranchés" at the end of the third volume. They run to twenty-three chapters, almost ninety pages. Mme. Récamier's beauty does seem to have prevailed over much. The list of men with their heads turned includes at least Lucien Bonaparte, Prince August of Prussia, Benjamin Constant, and of course Chateaubriand. (One could presumably add M. Recamier to the list; but in the narrative he is all but absent.) It is fair to say that Mme. de Staël was devoted to her also. A thumbnail biography in the back of a Larousse writes of Mme. Récamier as celebrated for her wit, her beauty, and the salon she kept. Was she enchanted, flatter, bored, or distressed by the very silly letters sent her by mostly sensible men?

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Pelidisi System

In The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921, Bertrand M. Patenaud writes of a system to identify the children most in need of help, the Pelidisi system:
This was the creation of a Viennese medical doctor, Professor Clemens Pirquet, who served as chairman of the Austrian equivalent of the [Russian-managed relief committee]. Pirquet devised a formula for determining the degree of undernourishment in children up to the age of fifteen. The measurement was the cubic root of the tenfold weight of the body divided by that body's sitting height. For adults the average would be 100, for children 94.5--anything below that signified undernourishment.
On the face of it, this is confusing. The cube of 100 is 1,000,000: so for units x of weight and y of height we need a body weight of 100,000x for height 1y. Unfortunately, the units are not stated. But presumably, since Pirquet was Austrian, they are taken from the metric system. Nor is "sitting height" defined. One can make sense of this by assuming that
  • weight is stated in grams
  • height is given as centimeters from the ground, or anyway the seat
  • we aim at  numerator/denominator = 1, then multiply by 100
For a person weighing 100 kg, 10 * the weight in grams will be 1 million, the cube root one hundred. That just works out with a seated height of 1 meter, 100 centimeters, which one might expect of a man 6'7" tall. Men that height play basketball at 220 lb without anyone supposing that they are starved. Still the numbers look about right.

An article in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps gave the formula as stated, and also committed itself to the statement that "the cube of the sitting height in centimetres is about ten times the body weight in grammes." Again, assuming that for sitting height we sit on the ground or measure from the seat, my sitting height is around 90 cm: I would be considered adequately nourished at around 72 kg, roughly my weight on graduating from college. A person 5' tall might have 75 cm sitting height. Then that person should weigh around 42 kg, call it 93 lb.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Grinding out Meaning from Alien Vocables

A post over at The Palace at 2:00 a.m. brings to mind a passage in Jaques Barzun's Teacher in America, in the essay "Tongues and Areas":
Every two or three years it falls to my lot to conduct the language examinations for Ph.D. candidates in European history. I am invariably shocked at the number of mature men and women who suppose that foreign prose is basically nonsense They must suppose this, or they would not put down English nonsense at its equivalent. Of course I know how they get into this defeatist frame of mind, but I groan at the thought that they have stewed in it since first-year high school. Once or twice these victims have had some claim on my time, which I discharged by putting them through a course of self-tuition in reading. We take a work of Ranke's and one of Michelet's, the dictionaries, and we start for an hour of intellectual misery grinding out meaning from alien vocables. The hour is only a sample. The student goes on at this pace until he or she can read at sight fluently. Fluency does not mean exactitude, sense of nuance, or even infallible recognition of unusual words: it means going on with the author at a reasonable rate. New words can be guessed, shades of meaning deduced from a second reading and exactitude checked with a new translation. Scholarly work will bring its own assistance later through repetition and criticism.
What is deplorable is that this should not be a well-known technique, and that the determination to squeeze sense from a text should be so rare, even among professional translators....
Here and there in Cultural Amnesia, Clive James advocates roughly the same procedure, though for German he mentions Golo Mann..

Thursday, April 26, 2018

No Greater Flaw

 Some early readers of the Port-Royal Logic complained of its organization, some perhaps of its simple lack of dullness. The authors wrote in response that
But those who reason thus [complain of the organization of the logic], do not sufficiently consider that a book can scarcely have a greater defect, than that, of not being read, since it can only benefit those who read it ; and that thus everything which helps to make a book read, contributes also to its usefulness. Now, it is certain, that if we had followed their advice, and had made a logic altogether barren (with the ordinary examples, of an animal and a horse), we should only have added to the number of those of which the world is already full, and which are not read. Whereas, it is just that collection of different things which has given this work such a run, and caused it to be read with less distaste than is felt in reading others.
This seems fair enough. Leszek Kolakowski quotes part of this near the beginning of the second part of God Owes Us Nothing, his study of Pascal and the fortunes of Jansenism. Without the context, though, it reads oddly: "there is no greater flaw in a book than that it is not read".  I reflected on how many books have grave flaws that I discovered only by reading them, and wondered what the logicians could have meant.

Kolakowski says also that the logic is now "read only by a tiny bunch of of people specializing in the intellectual history of the seventeenth century." That I don't doubt. Yet is it much more forgotten than most of seventeenth century philosophy, the biggest names apart, and how well remembered are they? Certainly I'd find many persons who had read Spinoza's Ethics before I found one who had read the Port-Royal Logic; but how many would I have to stop on K St. NW before I found five who had read the Ethics?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Eastern Redbuds

Around fifteen years ago, the city planted quite a few trees along this block. Many are scarlet oaks, but some are eastern redbuds  (Cercis canadensis), and this is their time to flower:

This winter the city, unless it was the National Park Service, planted two or three at the corner of 16th Street and Arkansas Avenue NW.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

One Tree, Nine Weeks

In early February, I took a picture of this tree on 16th Street NW

for the beads of water on it caught my eye. Today I noticed it again: