What Are You, 12?

From the We Are Governed by Children File—Tom Tancredo thinks we should threaten to blow up Islamic holy sites to deter an attack.

Meanwhile in other pre-adolescent fits, Pamela of Atlas Shrugs posts the following picture (and many more) of herself flipping off Cindy Sheehan.


Archive Fever

Article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the strange battle over the disposition of Jacques Derrida's papers which ends with UC Irvine suing his widow and sons.

Very odd.


Firefly Wisdom Monday

INARA It sounds like something this crew can handle. I can't guarantee they'll handle it particularly well, but —
NANDI If they got guns, and brains at all —
INARA They've got guns.

Heart of Gold


Batshit Crazy II

Ms. Oetting has been busy again, this time with a post titled "Rape of the Truth." Yes, my irony meter slammed into the stop peg, too.

Less racism this time out, but the same proportions of venom, contempt, and ignorance. I left a comment, again. I suppose it comes across as condescending, but, damn it, if you're going to make philosophical arguments, you probably should know something about philosophy:
Tracy, there is no usage of "empiricism" in English that corresponds to what you’ve said:
However, our progressive counterparts, for the most part, believe that reality is entirely subjective, with all of reality being inside the brain of the perceiving subject with nothing independent of it. This philosophy is also known as Empiricism.
This is solipsism and is regarded as the antithesis of empiricism.

Adler’s book was written in 50s and has thus missed much of significance in the development of philosophical thinking over the last half century. Adler also indulged his prejudices quite freely and his book should not be mistaken for a systematic (let alone consistent) approach to philosophy.

I haven’t read Sire, but IVP is generally not a reliable publisher when it comes to philosophy.

If you really want to understand philosophy, I strongly recommend Metaphysics: An Introduction by Michael Loux or Metaphysics by Peter Van Inwagen. Inwagen is a Christian so that you may be more comfortable with him. Loux is a bit more rigorous. Neither of these are easy reading. However, given the complexity and significance of the issues, they deserve serious attention. You might also find Robert Audi's Epistemology: An Introduction of interest.

The correspondence theory of truth that you talk about is quite problematic in many ways. The American philosopher Hilary Putnam examines this in great (some might say excruciating) detail. Putnam is not what you would call postmodernist. His essay "Language and Meaning" in his collected papers would be the best place to begin thinking through the issues. Any of his books touch on this at some point.

All of this presupposes, of course, that you’re actively interested in thinking through the issues rather than throwing things together into a club with which to beat up people whose politics you dislike.

Today I'm a Luddite

I've been working in computing and technology for close to thirty years. I'm still amazed by how fucked up systems can be.

Today I went to the supplier's Web site to re-order checks. Two levels down, I get to the form. I enter the order id number from the supplier's re-order form. Error. I try the option of entering the check information. Error. I dial the 800 number for the supplier which I can only get by going back to the top of the website and causing an order id error. After four levels of numeric menus (including entering all of the information I had entered on the forms), I talked to a person who tells me that my bank no longer uses the supplier's services. I have to call my bank.

I call the 800 number for my bank. The person there transfers me to the branch. Except she doesn't—I wind up listening to a "disconnected number" tape. I call the 800 number for my bank again. This new person seems confused about why I'd tried to call the branch and, instead, gives me an 800 number for the new check supplier.

I dial the number for the new supplier. However, the 800 number is for their corporate headquarters. I have to listen to the message twice to get the right 800 number. I dial the new 800 number.

I enter the routing number, my account number, select a couple options and then wind up being transferred to a representative who requests all of that information again. He asks me several more questions, puts me on hold, and then asks me if my bank had a routing number change. I tell him no because I'd done a wire transfer on Monday using it. He puts me on hold again. Finally, he comes back and says that there's something wrong with their database and the routing number won't work. He tells me to call my branch.

I call the 800 number for my bank and ask to be transferred to the branch. This time it goes through. The guy takes my check order and explains that when they switched suppliers account information was moved over to the new check supplier only for folks who had ordered checks within the last year. I hadn't. I'd been digitally disappeared.

The next systems analyst or bit of silicon that crosses my path today had better watch out.

Today in Weather

It's raining.

It's weather I understand, all soft sounds and greys without the sharp shadows that look like they cut up the world.


Really Batshit Crazy

I post something like the article below and about 12 hours later I wonder if it says more about me (and not in a good way) than about the object of criticism. Perhaps I should follow the Radish King's procedure of silently deleting posts.

Instead, this time around, I Googled the author's name, "Tracy Oetting." Quite the wingnut Republican, as it turns out.

The most telling item is her first-person account of how she and her husband set aside their plans for the day so that they could harass a couple anti-war protesters. All recounted with a truly childish glee.

I don't feel guilty anymore.


Batshit Crazy

There's quite a swamp of racism on the web, especially toward Muslims. Effin' Unsound pointed me to this little pestilential patch. I left an extended comment:
I do not think "the unhinged side" means what you think it means.

WRT the quote from the Qur'an, one has to wonder about the translation because the beginning commands "slay them" while it is clear in the remainder of this, and subsequent verses, that whoever the idolaters are (again, I do not think this means what you think it means) they’re still very much alive.

It should hardly be necessary to say this, but there are parallel passages in the Old Testament. You may have noticed those are not operative in 20th century Christianity (or Judaism), except, of course, for the looney-tunes branches. The same is true of Islam. Contemporary Islam, like contemporary Christianity, has found ways of reading the scripture in tolerant, humane ways. The Tim McVeighs and the David Koreshs are exceptions, just as Osama bin Laden is an exception in Islam.

Repeating yourself more loudly and at greater length does not change the simple, transparent, pellucid fact that you are indulging in ignorant, paranoid racism.

If you deny humanity to entire races/religions, what realistic expectation should you have of not being the subject of ad hominem (note the spelling) attacks?

Zero. That’s what.

Edit your comments. Pull the door closed and live in your room of mirrored fear. Do not, however, expect any of the rest of us to applaud.

UPDATE: Special Bonus Firefly Wisdom Monday quote:

MAL Nothing worse than a monster who thinks he's right with God.

Firefly Wisdom Monday

MAL You know, it ain't altogether wise, sneaking up on a man when he's handling a weapon.
INARA I'm sure I've heard that said. But perhaps the dining area isn't the place for this sort of thing?
MAL What do you mean? Only place with a table big enough.
INARA Of course. In that case... (rearranges guns) Every well-bred petty crook knows — the small concealable weapons always go to the far left of the place setting.

from Heart of Gold

The Right Books

Whenever I'm taking a trip, I always feel unsettled until I figure out which books I'm taking with me.

Clean clothes, shaving kit, towels, and all the rest seem to take care of themselves—as long as I have the right books.

This is clearly a symptom of something.


Haiku, Dog Grammar, and Computer-Generated Text, Part II

To continue from Part I ....

To review, in formal language theory, a language is defined by a set of terminal symbols, a set of non-terminal symbols, a symbol marked as the starting symbol, and a set of rules using the symbols that describe how to replace or rewrite a symbol in terms of other symbols.

To see if a sentence (in the formalism, it need only be a string of symbols) is part of the language, we see if it's possible to apply the rules in such a way as to derive the sentence (string) from the start symbol. If there is, the sentence (string) is in the language. Otherwise, not. This process is parsing.

This kind of grammar, however, can be used to generate sentences as well. And, in the previous post, I hinted that if we were clever in the construction of the rules, we might actually get interesting sentences.

And so, here is a first run at a grammar for haiku (note that we're ignoring syllable count, and bunch of other things here):

Haiku -> Season-Reference Haiku-Body
| Haiku-Body Season-Reference

Season-Reference -> Season-Word | Season-Word Noun

Season-Word -> winter | spring | autumn | summer

Haiku-Body -> ExtendedImage | Image Image

ExtendedImage -> Image Preposition Determiner Noun

Image -> Determiner Adjective Noun | Adjective Noun
| Noun

Determiner -> a | the | this | that

Preposition -> about | as | by | down | for | in
| into | of | on | to

Conjunction -> and

Verb -> ate | cut | digs | goes | has | have | keep
| melt | opens | see

Adjective -> bare | black | crane_s | dried | first
| interesting | misty | my | settled
| silent | snowy | tonight_s | weathered
| white | wind-pierced

Noun -> body | bones | branch | chestnut | chewing
| crow | day | end | evening | eye | frost
| fuji | hand | hibiscus | horse | i
| law | legs | mind | moon | moonflower
| moonlight | morning | myself | net | no_one
| outhouse | rain | road | roadside | salmon
| seeing | torchlight | tree | way | worm

The first rule says that a Haiku consists of a Season-Reference followed by a Haiku-Body, or (that's the vertical bar) a Haiku consists of a Haiku-Body followed by a Season-Reference. In turn, a Season-Reference consists of a Season-Word, or (the vertical bar again) a Season-Reference is a Season-Word followed by a Noun.

Now, we can use this grammar and Norvig's Lisp code to see if we generate something a little more interesting than random sentences. I translated Norvig's Common Lisp code into a dialect of Lisp called Scheme. And, to make it easier for the program to use the grammar, I also translated it into what are called S-expressions which are kind of the native form for expressions in dialects of Lisp. You can take a look at the code and the translated grammar. (If you want to explore Scheme, probably the best thing to start with is DrScheme, a free interactive Scheme environment. The tutorials are top-notch.)

Running the generator program, which consists of typing (generate 'Haiku) at the prompt, we'll get a succession of strings. Adding some line breaks, some of them are more interesting:

this silent morning
snowy branch
spring bones

summer torchlight
moonlight on the eye

chestnut by that outhouse

a misty moon
a misty roadside

than others:

winter worm
this tonight's horse
on that evening

the my law
weathered salmon

One obvious thing to do, given this last, would be to handle the possessive pronouns separately from the adjectives. But first, let's talk about text grammars—that's the road we're headed down with this.

In 1928, Vladimir Propp wrote what would become known, in translation, as Morphology of the Folktale. Propp's book wasn't translated until the 1950s and it didn't make it into English until 1968. Propp's book laid out a grammar for the Russian folktale, a text grammar. The grammar included possible actions, character types, events, and rules for combining them into stories. When Propp's work reached the U.S., it set off a search for other possible text grammars as part of the shift toward structuralism in literary studies.

It also held out the possibility of running the grammar backwards and generating folktales—and it didn't work worth a darn. Part of the problem is the way that the elements of a grammar are relatively independent of each other. There's no method, in our current formulation, to indicate, say, the selection of a plural adjective so that we'll later select a plural noun. Or, that the Prince is already married when he encounters a maiden a second time. We could make more refined categories, but this is usually handled by adding attributes to elements in the grammar creating what is, not surprisingly, an attributed grammar. This wasn't, however, the first thing tried.

Enter GPS, the General Problem Solver. The program, despite the hyped expectations set by its developers, wasn't really a generalized problem solver. Instead it was the first of what are known as planning programs. Norvig talks quite a bit about GPS and provides code for a scaled-down version of it. GPS is designed to take a start state and find a series of actions that produce a goal state. Actions have three parts: the preconditions that make the action possible, the action itself, and the conditions that result from the action. The program begins with the start state and searches for a series of actions that produce the goal state. Planning algorithms like GPS are in wide use creating schedules and in structuring processes. They're also of great interest in robotics.

In 1976, James Meehan wrote Tale-Spin, a program that applied (and elaborated) the GPS algorithm to writing stories. The program took a story start, a goal, and specifications about characters and objects and the actions they could perform. It then found a series of actions that would produce the goal. These actions formed the narrative spine which was then fleshed out into a story by another part of the program that produced descriptions of the actions and world states. Tale-Spin solved the problems of text grammars by separating the generation of the narrative from the generation of the language giving the narrative.

This was in keeping with much that was going on in literary studies at the time surrounding narratology—the study of narrative structure and how a sequence of chronological events are re-mapped into a story (among other things).

And there I'll stop, for now.

Religious Bigots

...disrupt this morning's Senate invocation given by a Hindu chaplain. CNN has the video (seems only to work in IE).

Meanwhile, another wannabe Christian terrorist harasses and threatens biologists at the University of Colorado.

UPDATE: The assholes yelling in the Senate were members of "Operation Save America," apparently named with no sense of irony. TPM has details.


A Map

My book is now available through Amazon. Also newly available is Rebecca Loudon's Radish King which it would be extremely foolish not to purchase and read. Really. Your imagination will shrivel without it.


Joshua Marie Wilkinson

... wrote today's poem at No Tell Motel. (Permalink to the poem.)

I'm very pleased that Floating Bridge Press published some of his earlier work in Pontoon when he was in the area.


Language Kills

Important piece by the New York Times Public Editor, Clark Hoyt, about the Administration's latest linguistic con to justify more death and destruction in Iraq.


The summer issue of HOW2 is up, with work by Hejinian & Scalapino, Osman, Schultz, and a special section on women's experimental writing. Cooler than cool as always.

Christian Bök Interview

Postmodern Culture has just published an interview with the Canadian poet Christian Bök. An excerpt:
Stephen Voyce: When did you first begin to write poetry? How would you describe those initial efforts at writing verse?

Christian Bök: I began writing poetry in my late adolescence, producing work inspired mostly by the likes of Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. I published some of this juvenilia, but I became convinced late in my undergraduate career that, if I continued writing emotive, lyrical anecdotes, then I was unlikely to make any important, epistemic contributions to the history of poetry. I decided to become more experimental in my practice only after I encountered the work of Steve McCaffery during my graduate studies. I was surprised to discover that, despite my literary training, none of my professors had ever deigned to expose me to the "secret history" of the avant-garde (what with its wonderful zoo of conceptual novelties and linguistic anomalies). I realized then that, by trying to write emotional anecdotes, I was striving to become the kind of poet that I "should be" rather than the kind of poet that I "could be." I decided then that I would dedicate my complete, literary practice to nothing but a whole array of formalistic innovations.

SV: This assumption about what a poem "should be"—can you elaborate on this statement? Why has the emotive lyric become almost synonymous with poetry as such?

CB: Unlike other artists in other domains where avant-garde practice is normative, poets have little incentive to range very distantly outside the catechism of their own training—and because they know very little of epistemological noteworthiness (since they do not often specialize in other more challenging disciplines beyond the field of the humanities), they tend to write about what they do know: themselves, their own subjectivity. The idea that a writer might conduct an analytical experiment with literature in order to make unprecedented discoveries about the nature of language itself seems largely foreign to most poets.

SV: That said, has the concept of formal innovation changed since high modernism?

CB: Postmodern life has utterly recoded the avant-garde demand for radical newness. Innovation in art no longer differs from the kind of manufactured obsolescence that has come to justify advertisements for "improved" products; nevertheless, we have to find a new way to contribute by generating a "surprise" (a term that almost conforms to the cybernetic definition of "information"). The future of poetry may no longer reside in the standard lyricism of emotional anecdotes, but in other exploratory procedures, some of which may seem entirely unpoetic, because they work, not by expressing subjective thoughts, but by exploiting unthinking machines, by colonizing unfamiliar lexicons, or by simulating unliterary art forms.

Links to more about Bök and Eunoia in this older post. Text-only back issues of PMC are available. McCaffery's major essays are collected in North of Intention.


Bob Hicok Interview

Over at Poetry Daily.

A couple excerpts:
...There is not a correct kind of poem to write, or an incorrect kind. I want access to the whole spectrum. If I piss on the surreal, I won't let myself head in that direction. If I insist that the lyric is dead, that door closes. Being open to all kinds of poems allows for a fuller range of expression and helps the poet write out of different kinds of moods and sensibilities.
...I almost never have a goal in mind for a poem, so poems failing to do what I want them to do aren't usually a problem. It's a large part of the joy of writing for me, to arrive where I didn't know I was going. Writers talk about this quite often. I think it's why many of us don't want to talk in detail about what we're writing. I tend to run with the first line or image that arrives with force.

Cranky Old Bastard

I thought about deleting the post below. It's one of those things that makes me wonder if I'm turning into the crazy old guy who sits on his porch, waiting for the kids to walk on his lawn so that he can yell at them.

Maybe so. Heaven knows we all have our blind spots about ourselves. Just ask my ex. Or my siblings.

However (the introductory word of self-justification—you knew it was coming, didn't you?), there really has been a conversation about poetry going on for 2500+ years. To extend the metaphor, it would be extraordinarily crass to rush into a room where people are talking, shout something, and then run back out. And it'd fail to respect the topic or the conversation. That's how the thing on Helium struck me yesterday. Some of the folks in the conversation were actually quite proud of their anti-intellectualism.

Why in the world would you devote yourself to an art and yet, proudly and loudly, proclaim your ignorance of the best that has been thought and said about that art? Why? It makes no sense—and it shows a hidden but pernicious contempt for the art itself.

I'm not arguing that everyone who picks up a pen or a keyboard has to be a literary theorist. But in this day and age, there's more than enough introductory material out there that there's really no excuse. And there are poets out there who write thoughtfully and well and add to the conversation. Folks like Mathews, Hejinian, and Ashbery.

If you're going to write, you have to read. And if you're going to reflect on what and why you're writing, then you should know part of that conversation, too.

Now, get the hell off my lawn.



Given two and a half millenia of serious, systematic thought about poetry, do dumbass, pre-theoretical, pre-thoughtful questions like this make you feel outraged or just very, very tired?


Scholarly Books Online

Ohio State University Press is making the full texts of some of their books available online—for free. You'll need Adobe Reader, but it's free, too.

I'm tempted by Alexander's book on Arnold and Ruskin, and the essays on Joyce....

A thank you to The Long Eighteenth for the link.


Surrealism Lives

At Starfish Poetry. A thank you to dumbfoundry.


In college I was in the Honors Program. That meant that all of my required classes were replaced with honors classes where the size was limited to 25 students. It also meant putting up with a lot of elitist bullshit from the director of the program who would have benefited greatly from the surgical removal of a large stick.

More significantly, for me at least, it meant that there was always summer reading. The first two years, I chose pre-prepared lists that introduced me to Kazantzakis and to more Waugh than I knew existed. The third year, I decided I was going to read Joyce.

I went to John Ehrstine, the English faculty member who'd been supervising my summer reading. Ehrstine was an old-style humanist. When I'd go in to talk to him, he'd always ask me what I was reading. And, inevitably, he'd ask me "But what are you reading for your imagination?" Frye's The Educated Imagination was gospel for him. We agreed that I'd read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses.

It was a good summer of reading. I can still remember lying on the lawn after work, Ulysses open in front of me, Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's Ulysses and a copy of The Odyssey ready-to-hand. All I really remember about the summer is reading Joyce, especially the delight of such sentences as "Please ptake some ptarmigan."

I'm on my 100-day break from contracting at Microsoft. And my imagination is feeling shriveled, exhausted. So, I've decided to see if I can find some of the delight and pleasure of that summer so many decades past by re-reading Joyce. Might be time to read Frye, again, too.

So far I've read the first three stories in Dubliners. I'm amazed by their naturalistic realism which is still instinct with meaning. In "The Encounter," you can actually draw the route the boys take on a map of Dublin. But, at the same time, the man they encounter in the field, who brings them confused and perhaps unwelcome news from the world of adulthood, has the green eyes of Odysseus. "Araby" has the same naturalism and yet includes hints of the Grail myths. I've been reading mostly genre fiction for the last eight months and had forgotten how much depth could be under the surface of a narrative.

I'm enjoying the reading. And maybe this time I'll get to Finnegan's Wake.