Secret Music Lessons

I've started working on the fourth of Brouwer's Estudios Sencillos (Simple Studies). We spent a good ten minutes at my lesson working out one measure of it, measure 8. In 8 there's a three-note melody in the bass line punctuated by three two-note chords. Hitting the middle chord requires a partial barre on strings three and four.

If you're playing slowly, there's enough time to jump the fingers from one position to the next. However, if you try this at tempo, you're screwed. To play at tempo, you have to use the time during the melody notes to pre-position the fingers to play the chords.

Working that out and practicing it felt like I was being let in on a secret about the music itself. I understood something a casual listener would never know—he or she will just hear the music, as it's supposed to be.

All of which reminded me of the pleasures of using constraints to get started writing. The constraint will shape the piece, and in some cases make it possible, but the reader may never know it's there. But I'll know, and I'll know a secret.


Geek Chic

Pictures of science-related tattoos gathered by Carl Zimmer of The Loom.

The one I don't get is the Scheme code tattoo for the Fibonacci series. It really should use memoization rather than being directly recursive....


Understanding Humor

A recurring theme in Star Trek: The Next Generation (for example, The Outrageous Okona) was Data's attempt to understand humor. A story in The New Scientist reports on two University of Cincinnati researchers who have written a program that understands a particular kind of joke.

The kind of joke the program recognizes relies on a pun:

Property broker: "I tell you this new house has no flaws at all."
Buyer: "Then what do you walk on?"

Here's how the article describes the program:
To teach the program to spot jokes, the researchers first gave it a database of words, extracted from a children's dictionary to keep things simple, and then supplied examples of how words can be related to one another in different ways to create different meanings. When presented with a new passage, the program uses that knowledge to work out how those new words relate to each other and what they likely mean. When it finds a word that doesn't seem to fit with its surroundings, it searches a digital pronunciation guide for similar-sounding words. If any of those words fits in better with the rest of the sentence, it flags the passage as a joke. The result is a bot that "gets" jokes that turn on a simple pun.

Also interesting is the sort of joke the program does not understand:

Patient: "Doctor, doctor, I swallowed a bone."
Doctor: "Are you choking?"
Patient: "No, I really did!"

Here, the program fails because the word "choking" occurs in a context (medical) in which it fits. As the researchers remark in the UC news release, the hardest part of the program is representing the knowledge of the world required to recognize an anomalous word.

And this highlights something Simon DeDeo said offhandedly in "Towards an Anarchist Poetics" in Absent: "Every attempt to produce authentic text with a computer equipped only with a dictionary and syntax rules has failed." This is true. It is also silly—no one and nothing can produce "authentic text" with only a dictionary and syntax rules. Writing of any sort involves many rules, conventions, and cultural knowledge far beyond vocabulary and syntax. Finding ways to represent that knowledge and put it to use is the hardest part of programming some sort of writing machine. (See Haiku, Dog Grammar, and Computer-Generated Text I & II for a long aside.)

[The researchers' presentation is not available online. A story in The Telegraph provides different details. You can find references to other, earlier articles on Julia Taylor's web page and on the page for the UC Applied AI lab. Taylor's page includes a PDF of her Master's thesis which contains a summary of earlier humor-recognizing programs and an extensive taxonomy of jokes based on puns.]


Firefly Wisdom Monday

Zoë Scared her away again, did you?
Simon This may come as a shock, but I'm actually not very good at talking to girls.
Zoë Why, is there someone you are good at talking to?
The Message



It's lazy blogging to just embed YouTube videos, but....

I was doing a search for something else and came across references to a Bollywood flick, Keemat. Apparently the following scene is (in)famous. Even minimal continuity is thrown aside for the music and dancing and, just when you think it can't get any weirder, the guys lose their trunks and dance in skirts made of leaves.

Enjoy. Or something. I still can't get my head around it.


Uncle Sam Blues

Because you can never have too much Jefferson Airplane.

Looks like it's footage from Woodstock.

And here's an amazing clip that I think is better, though you probably need to be a fan of Slick's vocals.


Henri Alleg, La Question

About a year ago, I bought and watched Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. The booklet in the set included a bibliography that mentioned a small book by Henri Alleg, La Question.

Alleg is a French citizen who supported Algerian independence through the newspaper he published in Algiers. In 1957 he was arrested. La Question is his first-person account of his capture and torture. The book was banned in France for years, though it circulated and was a major contributor to the French finally pulling out of Algeria.

Last week I read it in the Bison Press translation, The Question. Unlike the current French edition, the translation includes Sartre's 1958 Preface and a very recent "Afterword" by Alleg. The parallels to Iraq and Abu Ghraib are striking. It is not pleasant reading (and much is lost in translation), but it feels like essential reading.

The "Afterword" highlights something I didn't know. When the French paratroopers who ran the secret prisons and torture chambers left Algeria they went to South and Central America where they trained troops and death squads. And they came to the United States where they helped train U.S. forces as part of the war in Vietnam.

There is, then, a direct line between the "paras" in Algeria and the torturers of Abu Ghraib and other secret prisons. A direct, bloody, disgraceful, evil line.


Theodore Roethke

What have I done, dear God, to deserve this perpetual feeling that I'm almost ready to begin something really new?
—Theodore Roethke, Straw for the Fire, 206
This weekend I went to see First Class, David Wagoner's play about Theodore Roethke. Although several folks had recommended it highly, I was reluctant thinking it might be pure hagiography, given Roethke's continuing influence around here. (There were still stories about him circulating when I started graduate work at UW.)

The play is really quite wonderful, showing, so far as I know, all sides of Roethke, the brilliant teacher as well as the drunken asshole at the faculty party. It also captures perfectly that weird combination of challenge and encouragement that constitutes the writing workshop.

If you're in Seattle and you haven't seen it, do go. The play closes on August 26th.



If you're a regular reader of Boing Boing, you already know about this. If not, well, here's a nice interactive introduction to Duchamp's work and life. Requires Flash.


What Are You, 12? Special Poetics Edition

Updated below, 8/8/07.

Kent Johnson's staging of his self-dramatization in response to yet another mess of which he is the origin: Johnson effectively spammed Lime Tree's comments, reverted to "please explain to me what I've done wrong," next trotted out his old stand-by "I was entering into the spirit of things," and then goes into full-throated cries of censorship, this last the final step every time he pulls this bullshit.

Kent justifying his sociopathology as theory at Blazevox, an otherwise interesting online journal and publisher. Example entry at Lime Tree here.

Watch the pivot point in the article when it goes from innocence and shock, and broadens into accusations of "censorship" against the "avant-garde." This is his shtick. This is why he was booted from the POETICS-L list multiple times.

Sometimes a cigar is a cigar and an asshole is an asshole, not a theorist.

UPDATE: From the That Certainly Went Well File—I wrote the above rant on the blog because it seemed a way to safely vent and not contribute to the brouhaha that usually surrounds these things. Only a few friends read the blog.

Checking this morning, I've had more traffic in the last twelve hours than I usually have on a really good week. Looks like the URL made it into some email folks are circulating as well as into the Flarf private list on Google. So much for low-key venting.

Tips on name changing and relocation appreciated.

UPDATE II (7/8/07, 3:03PM): More of Johnson's perfervid self-staging captured in the Google cache.

UPDATE III (8/8/07, 6:53PM): John Latta's silly comparison of the blog dust-up to Stalin (Kent Johnson's comments vs. 20 million dead—gosh, John, thank God we have you to be our moral compass). You'll have to scroll to find them. And some of his comments from Lime Tree, courtesy of Google cache, whose deletion he (foolishly) protests.

I was thinking about this, and the various posts on POETICS-L surrounding it, while listening to the two-part NPR report on life in the FEMA trailer parks in Mississippi. Now there's something that might, perhaps, be worth talking about as genocide.

Something real. Something genuinely evil.

Firefly Wisdom Monday

MAL He's not the first psycho to hire us, nor the last. You think that's a commentary on us?

The Train Job


Wisdom of the Body

Like Peter, I'm not a fan of the Blue Angels. It's not just the noise, though I live in one of the nieghborhoods they fly over low and fast after a North/South run on the lake. No.

I have never served in the military (Nixon ended the draft just before my lottery), and I have never been in combat. So Vietnam was largely TV news stories, photos in Life, the knot in my stomach as draft registration approached, and the stories I've heard from vets that told me it was worse than I imagined.

But every time I hear the Blue Angels, I'm taken back to that one, single, iconic picture of the war: the naked Vietnamese girl running screaming down the road where, in the distance, smoke and flames show over the jungle.

Before the Blue Angels switched to the F/A-18 Hornets, they flew A-4 Skyhawks, the work horse of the Vietnam era. As the Wikipedia article notes of the aircraft's use in Vietnam, "Skyhawks carried out some of the first air strikes by the US during the conflict and a Marine Skyhawk is believed to have dropped the last US bombs on the country."

The Navy adopted the Hornet for the Blue Angels in 1986. And while they're shiny and blue in the August sunshine, here's what those sleek machines usually carry (hardpoints are the external mounting points for weaponry and fuel):

  • Guns: 1x 20 mm M61 Vulcan internal gatling gun with 578 rounds

  • Hardpoints: 9: 2 wingtip, 4 underwing, and 3 fuselage, carrying up to 13,700 lb (6,215 kg) of missiles, rockets, bombs, fuel tanks, and pods

    • Missiles:

      • Air-to-air: AIM-9 Sidewinder, AIM-132 ASRAAM, AIM-120 AMRAAM, AIM-7 Sparrow, IRIS-T

      • Air-to-ground: AGM-45 Shrike, AGM-65 Maverick, AGM-88 HARM, SLAM-ER, JSOW, Taurus missile

      • Anti-ship: AGM-84 Harpoon

    • Bombs: CBU-87 cluster, CBU-89 gator mine, CBU-97 CEM, Paveway, JDAM, Mk 80 series, nuclear bombs, Mk 20 Rockeye II cluster, mines

Yes. Cluster bombs, mines, and even nuclear warheads. Over six tons. It's no accident—there's a reason every cell in your body tells you to throw yourself at the dirt when these things fly over. Sometimes the body is very wise.