Saturday, March 17, 2018

Barnacles and Ships

At Kramerbooks this week, the name in the subtitle of On The Decay of Criticism: The Complete Essays of W.M. Spackman made it worth a look. A passage on one of the first pages I opened it to shows why I had to buy it:
... I have not yet grown used to a kind of intellectual asthenia and rooted habit with which Latinists, for example, tackle reform. The data seem plain as daylight. Latin's working vocabulary is extremely small, its irregular verbs nearly nonexistent, its grammar point for point our own (except that Latin is far more regular), and the reading-matter could hardly be more literal-minded--in short, I cannot think of an Indo-European language easier to learn. On this simple structure, there merely happens to have been raised some of the most hair-raising Wissenschaft in the history of man--imperfects of dephlogistication, subjunctives of discontinuous contingent speculation, and every  kind of ablative we can crowd on the point of a pin. But surely there is not the slightest mystery possible about what is wanted--or does someone propose we expound the nature of barnacles when our students have come to us to learn about a ship?
("The Menace to Curriculum Reform")

Perhaps; but I'm not sure that a commitment to philology has been the true weakness of Latin instruction, then or now. A couple of generations have been born and passed through school since the essay was written seventy years ago, and of such as studied Latin, many understood it as punishment or at best discipline, one more thing to be got through to get out of school. It seems likely that Spackman was one of those with the knack for instruction,  and prevented by his own gifts from understanding the common case.

How the book came to be published by Fantagraphics, which describes itself as "Publisher of the World's Greatest Cartoonists", I cannot guess. But I am grateful to Fantagraphics for making an exception for Spackman. Dalkey Archive Press seems to have let Spackman's Complete Fiction go out of print.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Auxiliary Forms

Once, after teaching a session on auxiliary verbs to an ESL class, I remarked to a friend on the construction "might could", which I take to be a southern idiom for what another might express as "maybe could" or "might be able to". The friend, who grew up in Virginia, came back with "used to would". I had never heard this, but another ESL teacher, a native of Tennessee, said that she had. I take to "used to would" to be a slight modification of "used to"; but whether it strengthens or weakens it, I don't know.

This past week I was interested to find to "used to could" in The Pioneers. I suppose that "could then" or "once could" would convey the same meaning. Natty Bumppo, who uses the expression, is represented as a native of New York, therefore distinctly a northerner. I think that Mark Twain was mostly correct about Cooper as a novelist, but I imagine that Cooper knew how people spoke in upstate New York as 1800 approached.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Predictive Policing

It appears that for the last five or six years New Orleans Police Department has been experimenting with "predictive policing", using technology developed by Palantir. Meanwhile, the People's Republic of China has taken predictive policing farther than (we know) New Orleans has, making preemptive arrests.

In Lichtenberg's The Waste Books, item 91 of Notebook F reads
If physiognomy becomes what Lavater expects it to become, children will be hanged before they have perpetrated the deeds that deserve the gallows; a new kind of confirmation will thus be performed every year. A physiognomic auto-da-fé.
 "Big Data" or "Data Science" has the modern sound that "physiognomy" has lost.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Meridian Hill and Meridians West

While looking idly at Parkman's A Half-Century of Conflict, chapter "France in the Far West", I noticed
This meeting [of a French expedition with the Comanches] took place a little north of the Arkansas, apparently where the river makes a northward bend, near the 22d degree of west longitude.
(Footnote 1, p.. 577 in the Library of America edition.) That would the 22d degree using Washington, D.C., as the prime meridian: using Greenwich, it is about the 99th meridian. I have long known that Meridian Hill has its name from the period when Americans drew the prime meridian through the White House. But I hadn't before noticed any figures of longitude using the Washington meridian.

The footnote interested me, and I dipped here and there into the two volumes of France and England in North America looking for figures of longitude, without much luck. The map in the Library of America edition of Parkman's The Conspiracy of Pontiac uses the Greenwich meridian. I'm not sure why Parkman would have used the Greenwich prime meridian for his earlier book and Washington for his later.

On the other hand, a map of 1837 reproduced in The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier 17834-1846 does use the Washington meridian. Perhaps Parkman's source for the location of the meeting used the reckoning by Washington, and Parkman copied it without adjusting. Judging from the atlas, the meeting was pretty close to where Fort Dodge, Kansas, now is.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Teaching and Coaching

The former chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools has just achieved former status. He did this by arranging that his daughter, unhappy at the arts magnet high school, should transfer into Wilson, a good high school, rather than into Dunbar, not a particularly good one. This was bound to become known, for even if an organization that large could keep secrets, still one cannot be chancellor of a large school system without making enemies. Once out, it was bound to create resentment. Wilson High School has a waiting list of six hundred students who do not live within its boundaries but would like--whose parents would like them--to attend.

It strikes me that being head of many school districts is much like being the football coach at a lower tier school in a power conference. Not all the good will and all the plans in the world will give Directional State  much of a chance to beat Alabama or Auburn. Not all the good will and mission statements in the world will anytime soon turn Desperate High into Boston Latin School or the Bronx High School of Science. Pretty much everyone knows this, but boosters and parents are impatient.

And in both cases, it largely comes down to recruiting. I think that it was Bum Phillips who spoke of Bear Bryant as a coach who "could take his'n and beat your'n or take your'n and beat his'n". There may be some such out there. But Alabama and Ohio State take all measures in their power to have the best their'n to put on the field. And when highly educated professionals move to Fairfax County or Potomac for the school district, that district's success builds on itself.

Still, there are compensations for the coach who goes 3-7 in the Big Ten or the school superintendent who isn't getting the job done. The university or the school board may become impatient and buy out the contract. A co-worker knew a school superintendent who had been bought out a couple of times--not for any particular fault of his own--and  had at times enjoyed the salary from his current job along with the salary from his previous one.

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.