Wednesday, June 30, 2010

He used to say that there was no book so bad that it was not useful at some point.

From an essay by Michael Dirda, reviewing The Letters of Pliny the Younger. See Wikipedia for background on Pliny the Younger and his uncle, Pliny the Elder.

Elder and Younger were both in the vicinity of Vesuivius when it began its eruption in 79AD. Pliny the Elder went off to investigate and died in Pompeii. I have never read either of the extant Pliny's works in their entirity but have read snippets here and there. I had forgotten just how accessible their works are, particularly the letters of Pliny the Younger. For all that language, culture, technology, and other contexts have changed, in the letters, Pliny the Younger comes across as a knowledgeable but amiable neighbor down the street, sometimes talking shop, sometimes speculating, sometimes gossiping.

What caught my eye in reading Dirda's review is his account of the activities of both Pliny Elder and Pliny Younger at the time that the eruption was first noticed - both were busy reading. Pliny the Younger was so engrossed in Livy's History of Rome, that he declined his uncle's offer to go investigate what was happening in Pompeii. I recall a stretch of reading in my late teens or early twenties when I fell victim to Livy's spell and read through his works. All of it was engaging and interesting but I was particularly fascinated by the contest between Rome and Carthage for mastery of the Mediterranean. The capacity of the Romans to suffer defeat and return to the field of contest was amazing. In one of the Punic wars I seem to recall the land-based Romans deciding to take the battle to the sea, the natural element of the Carthaginians. They built a fleet; the Carthaginians sank it. They built a second fleet; the Carthaginians sank it. They built a third fleet and this time won. Astonishing persistence.

Anyway, via Dirda, here is Pliny the Younger's accounts of that long ago day, August 24th, 79AD when Vesuvius entombed Pompeii.
According to his nephew, the senior Pliny had "a keen intelligence, astonishing concentration, and little need for sleep.. . . He used to say that there was no book so bad that it was not useful at some point. . . . He believed that any time not devoted to study was wasted."

On the day of the eruption, the younger Pliny writes, "my uncle was at Misenum, where he held command of the fleet in person. Just after midday on 24 August [79 CE] my mother pointed out to him the appearance of a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had relaxed in the sun, had then taken a cold dip, had lunched lying down, and was at his books. He asked for his sandals, and mounted to the place from which that remarkable phenomenon could best be observed. A cloud was issuing up from some mountain which spectators from a distance could not identify; it was later established to have been Vesuvius."

Pliny goes on to tell Tacitus about the cloud: "The pine tree, rather than any other, best describes its appearance and shape, for it rose high up into the sky on what one can describe as a very long trunk, and it then spread out into what looked like branches. . . . Its appearance varied between white on the one hand, and grimy and spotted on the other, according as it had thrust up earth or ashes. My uncle, most learned man that he was, realized that this was important, and should be investigated at closer quarters."

In short order, the elder Pliny "ordered a fast-sailing ship to be made ready" and, continues his nephew, "gave me the option of accompanying him if I so wished. I replied that I preferred to work at my books." We later learn that the younger man, just 18, simply didn't want to tear himself away from his enthralled reading of Livy's history of Rome.


J.M.W. Turner, Vesuvius in Eruption, 1817

When the seas grew rough, the air dense with cloud, and stones began to fall from the sky, the older Pliny's ships made their way to Stabiaie. There, the seemingly untroubled Roman naturalist bathed and dined at a friend's villa, even while Vesuvius continued to pour out flames. He did his best to calm the people around him, going so far as to retire for a nap. "In fact, he relaxed in sleep that was wholly genuine, for his snoring, somewhat deep and loud because of his broad physique, was audible to those patrolling the threshold." Before long, though, "the courtyard which gave access to his suite of rooms had become so full of ash intermingled with pumice stones that it was piled high."

The sleeping Pliny was awakened, and a debate broke out over whether the villa's residents should stay indoors or venture out to the coast. By now "the buildings were shaking with frequent large-scale tremors, as though dislodged from their foundations" and "seemed to shift now one way and now another, and then back again." Pliny convinced everyone to make a dash for the sea, despite the rain of pumice and debris. "They used strips of cloth to fasten pillows on their heads as a protection against falling stones."

By this point day had turned to night, and the little party discovered that the Mediterranean was still too "mountainous and hostile" for ships to cast off. Perhaps already starting to be overcome by the foul air, "my uncle lay down . . . on a discarded sail, and repeatedly drank cold water, which he had requested. Then flames and the smell of sulphur heralding the flames impelled the rest to flight and roused him. Leaning on two of his confidential slaves, he stood up and at once collapsed." Later on, it was concluded that "his breathing was choked by the greater density of smoke, and this blocked his gullet, which was often frail and narrow, and often unsettled. When daylight was restored, two days after his eyes had closed in death, his body was found intact and unharmed. It was covered over, still in the clothes he had worn. It was more like someone sleeping than a corpse."

Extrasomatic information coded in words, works, and behavioral models

From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmahlyi, Daedulus, Volume 122, No. 1, Winter 1993.
As the importance of cultural values increases, our attitudes about children are bound to become more complex. When only biological evolution is at stake, the issues are quite simple: those individuals whose genes spread relatively more frequently in the succeeding generations are the most "successful." The prolific inherit the earth. But to the degree that culture makes us self-reflective, and the quality of life gains in importance relative to its sheer quantity, reproductive success begins to be defined in terms of the values our children learn, the skills they acquire, the happiness they experience throughout their lives. It is no longer enough to scatter one's genes into the future; it becomes important to project one's meme's as well. Reproductive success is not simply a matter of passing on chemical information coded on chromosomes, but involves transmitting extrasomatic information coded in words, works, and behavioral models.

Here is a slide from one of our TTMD presentations on reading which points out the coincidence of the development of reading and writing with the shift from settled agriculture to mercantile/urbanized economic systems circa 5-6,000 years ago. Csikszentmahlyi's observation would hold similarly true: the shift from settled agriculture to mercantile/urbanized economic systems would also mark some material changes in the nature of culture (capacity to mediate disputes differently arising from close quarters living, increased need for trust, etc.).

These observations together perhaps highlight why readers are so passionate about books and why there is so much energy invested in the quality of books to which children are exposed in schools and libraries. People wish to protect their children from bad literary seeds. Without couching it in extrasomatic terms, there is an instinctive recognition of the existential importance of books.

The fact that we poorly comprehend which values are core contributors to our culture's successes does not diminish the passion with which we seek to defend those values. Reflexive conservativism is not necessarily wrong (if we are successful then some elements of our cultural values must be differentially beneficial) but also not necessarily well informed (because we don't know which of those values make the most difference.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Indistinguishable from magic

Arthur C. Clarke, Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination, in Profiles of the Future
Clarke's Law:
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Creativity and Productivity

From the blog site, Knowing and Doing - Reflections of an Academic and Computer Scientist there is a post, Creativity, Productivity, Discipline, Flow, capturing the author's thoughts about a presentation done by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In the presentation Csikszentmihalyi presented his model of the life cycle of ideas, particularly with regard to new ideas.

Per the notes:
The culture transmits information to people. Some people are happy to keep it at that, to absorb knowledge and use it in their lives. These folks accept the status quo.

The creative person, though, has the idea that he can change the world. He produces a novelty and pushes it out for others see. Only a small percentage of folks do this, but the number is large enough that society can't pay attention to all of the novelties produce.

A field of discourse, such as an academic discipline or "the art world", selects some of the novelties as valuable and passes them onto the culture at large with a seal of approval. Thus the field acts as a gatekeeper. It consists of the critics and powerbrokers esteemed by the society.

When there doesn't seem to be enough creativity for rapid change in a domain, the problem is rarely with the production of sufficient ideas but in the field's narrow channel for recognizing enough important novelties. I suppose that it could also come back to a field's inability to accurately evaluate what is good and what isn't. The art world seems to go through phases of this sort with some regularity. How about the sciences?


This would seem to work for books as well. Many books are written that are not published, many are published that are not sold, many are sold that are not remembered. What happens at each stage of the game? What are the variables that determine current and long term success?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The meaning of intellectual freedom

Peter Dickinson, In Defence of Rubbish.
Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

American Corpus

And for the heavy duty word lovers out there, here is the American Corpus site, using 400 million words from spoken narrative and written word to determine word frequencies.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Define: Extrasomatic

From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmahlyi, Daedulus, Volume 122, No. 1, Winter 1993.

Reproductive success is not simply a matter of passing on chemical information coded on chromosomes, but involves transmitting extrasomatic information coded in words, works, and behavioral models.

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Main Entry: ex·tra·so·mat·ic
Function: adjective

Thursday, June 24, 2010

What distinguishes good readers from poor ones is simply . . .

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy
Once the relevant knowledge has been acquired, the skill follows. General programs contrived to teach general skills are ineffective. AI research shows that experts perform better than novices not because they have more powerful and better oiled intellectual machinery but because they have more relevant and quickly available information. What distinguishes good readers from poor ones is simply the possession of a lot of diverse, task-specific information.

Probably the most dramatic illustrations of the knowledge-bound character of human skills came from some remarkable experiments conducted by Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch psychologist, who described his findings in a book entitled Het Denken van den Schaker (literally, "the thinking of chess players"). De Groot discovered that chess masters are astonishingly skilled at remembering and reproducing chess positions after a very brief exposure to them. The subjects in his experiments were players of various abilities, as indicated by their official chess rankings. In one experiment, de Groot displayed for five to ten seconds a chess position from an actual game in which twenty-five pieces were left on the board. Grand masters performed this feat with 100 percent accuracy, masters with 90 percent accuracy. Weaker players were lucky if they could correctly place five or six pieces.

Then de Groot varied the conditions of his experiment in one respect. Instead of placing the twenty-five pieces in positions from an actual game, he placed them on the board randomly. The results were unexpected. All his subjects - grand masters, masters, class A players, and class B players- performed the same as novices did, placing only five or six pieces correctly. This experiment has been duplicated in several different laboratories, and structurally in several other fields, including algebra, physics, and medicine, always with the same striking results.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Word Frequency Lists

Word Frequency Lists and Dictionary of American English. There are so many intriguing sites out there. On this particular page, they offer 90 words at ten levels of increasing word rarity. Of course I had to check myself and am pleased to report that I only missed one of the ninety. Mimetic apparently means imitative.

For the list of top 5000 most frequently used words, visit this page. Yes - maybe only a site a reader or word lover could enjoy but still; pretty neat.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The London of the Enlightenment

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. He is describing Samuel Johnson's London, (1737-1784, population approx. 700,000) and contrasting it sometimes favorably (in terms of intellectual dynamism) and sometimes unfavorably (in terms of cleanliness and safety) with Antonine Rome (138-180 AD) and Hangzhou, China (960-1279 AD).

In 1750, the population of all of England was roughly that of Atlanta, Georgia today - 5.5 million people. We have in Atlanta some great academic, commercial, intellectual, research, and artistic talents. I am prepared to believe that the overall intellectual IQ/capacity of Atlanta is massively greater than that of England in 1750. However, I don't think that Atlanta or any other community of 5.5 million in the US could cobble together a representation of intellects as described below and that would be comparably significant as seen from the year 2260.
Densely packed is the right descriptor for Johnson's intellectual London writ large. The city was jammed with men of immense accomplishment, sometimes resident, sometimes visitors, and they knew each other across disciplines and professions in a way that rarely happens today. In Johnson's London, this intellectual cross-fertilization was reified in The Club, which formed in the winter of 1763-1764. It was nothing like the imposing institutions that became the famous London clubs of 19C, just a group of men getting together every Monday night at the Turk's Head in Gerrard Street. But those men included statesmen James Fox and William Wyndham, linguist Sir William Jones, naturalist Sir Joseph Banks, painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, dramatists Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, actor David Garrick, Bishop Percy, historian Edward Gibbon, Johnson himself, and two men who together were to provide the intellectual templates for the Whigs and the Torries of British politics for the next century, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. Other eras have had their roundtables and salons, but in 18C London they were peopled by men who would change the intellectual shape of the West, for Samuel Johnson's London was above all the London of the Enlightenment.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010

What's that? Non angli sed Angeli

Non angli sed Angeli from Mere Comments.
Back in Rome, Pope Gregory one day sees a band of captives led to the block for sale. They are tall and fair-skinned and, what strikes Gregory's eye most particularly, blond. Moved with pity and curiosity he asks who they are and where they have come from. "They are Angles," comes the reply. "Not Angles but angels," says Gregory.

Regular bedtimes linked to better language, reading and math skills in preschool children

This article, Regular bedtimes linked to better language, reading and math skills in preschool children, from escience supports one of the recommended actions in the Growing a Reading Culture report; establish reading routines. Among the points made in the report:

Gaylor recommended that parents can help their preschooler get sufficient sleep by setting an appropriate time for their child to go to bed and interacting with their child at bedtime using routines such as reading books or telling stories.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A German view of reading in America

When you are in a foreign country, you are always observing and learning - everything is fresh, striking and frequently surprising. When in your home country it is of course natural that you become accustomed to the way things work and you end up not paying all that much attention to why it is the way it is. For a fresh look at your own circumstances, it is nice to have someone from afar look and talk about your ways to you.

The USA - "a nation of avid readers"? is an essay by the German researcher and writer Annette Zerpner.
Despite the prejudice felt by "old Europe" against a nation of permanent TV watchers who regard a trip to Disneyland as a cultural activity, the book is a medium of value to many US Americans, and they are far less conscious when approaching it in forums and talks with authors. The deeply ingrained, fundamentally democratic view that everyone's opinion is at least worth hearing contributes to this attitude.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Don't tread on me

via "Reading: An essay" by W.H. Auden
The one thing I most emphatically do not ask of a critic is that he tell me what I ought to approve or condemn. I have no objection to his telling me what works and authors he likes and dislikes; indeed, it is useful to know this for, from his expressed preferences about works which I have read, I learn how likely I am to agree or disagree with his verdicts on works which I have not. But let him not dare to lay down the law to me. The responsibility for what I choose to read is mine, and nobody else on earth can do it for me.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Define: Reredos

From The Murder Room by P.D. James.
. . . the gloriously adorned interior imposed its moment of astonished quietude. From floor to roof no part of it had been left undecorated. The walls gleamed with mosaics and murals and the reredos with its row of painted saints drew the eye towards the glory of the high altar.

From The Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Main Entry: rere dos
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French reredors, areredos, from arere behind + dos back, from Latin dorsum - more at arrear
Date: 14th century

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

To read is to translate

via "Reading: An essay" by W.H. Auden
To read is to translate, for no two persons' experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Study hard, study often

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
In the computation made by Herbert Walberg and Timothy Shanahan from a huge sampling of data, it appears tha thte chief factor in academic achievement is the time the student spends in studying the material to be mastered.

Monday, June 14, 2010

An amalgam that had no single identifiable parent

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
To put this point in perspective, consider a historical moment remote enough in time from the current American scene to provide a clear and disinterested insight into the inherently classless character of cultural literacy. In the England of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, long before dictionary makers began a conscious effort to standardize the national language, there existed a very strong tendency toward standardization of public discourse in the great towns. The big cities of Europe and Asia were the first cultural melting pots; America has no historical monopoly on that phenomenon. Within these growing cities, neither diversity of social class nor diversity of regional dialects could inhibit the inexorable process of linguistic and cultural standardization that occurred when great numbers of people moved to town from the provinces.

This process, as it then occurred in London, is an illustration of Patterson's observation that mainstream culture is not a class culture and that outsiders and newcomers influence its forms as much as they are influenced by them. Provincial newcomers of all classes who migrated to London gradually changed the local London speech as much as they themselves were changed by it. In the documents preserved from that era, we can find, even from one decade to another, evidence that local London forms were being "driven out by forms previously only found in other districts, especially those of the North." Even the place names of London - and place names are perhaps the most conservative cultural forms of any words in ordinary use - show effects of the new eclectic speech. Isemonger Lane became Ironmonger Lane, Crepelgate became Cripplegate, and so on, all under the influence of the provincial immigrants.

Dialects rubbed up against each other in the public streets and halls of London. The great city was a meeting place for public interactions of all sorts. There, people of all types - artisans, tradespeople, and aristocrats - were attracted by the magnetism of London's money, amusement, and excitement. The need for a common medium of intercourse among all these different classes of people gradually pulled into use a common, composite speech for use in public discourse. The local London dialect actually disappeared and was gradually replaced by something that had never existed before - an amalgam that had no single identifiable parent. It did not represent the speech of any particular location, class, or ethnic group.

The old claim that this London speech, which became the basis of our standard written English, was just the upper-class dialect of the royal court is incorrect. The members of that court itself came from all parts of England and spoke different native dialects. King and courtier alike had to learn the common London speech; it formed the upper-class speech of the court, not vice versa. The dialect that formed the basis of our own national language was, in origin, the democratic speech of the marketplaces and alleyways of the big melting pot of London.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Define: Pantile

From The Murder Room by P.D. James.
It looked like a picture from a child's storybook with its two ground-floor bay windows on each side of a jutting porch, the two plain windows under the pantile roof, its neat front garden with the paved stone path leading to the front door and a lawn each side bound by a low privet hedge.

From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Main Entry: pan tile
Function: noun
Etymology: 1pan
Date: 1640
1 : a roofing tile whose cross section is an ogee curve
2 : a roofing tile of which the cross section is an arc of a circle and which is laid with alternate convex and concave surfaces uppermost

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Plucked the gowans fine

From Jeeves in the Morning by P.G. Wodehouse.

Bertie Wooster:
It was, as you may well imagine, in pretty fairly melancholy mood that I donned the bath robe and made my way back to the house. There's always something about the going phut of an old friendship that tends to lower the spirits. It was many years since this Cheesewright and I had started what I believe is known as plucking the gowans fine, and there had been a time whe we had plucked them rather assiduously. But his attitude at the recent get-together had made it plain that the close season for gowans had now set in, and, as I say, it rather saddened me.

Wodehouse enthusiast Terry Mordue explains here.
Gowan is a general name for various white or yellow field flowers. When used without qualification, it is usually taken to refer to the common daisy, Bellis perennis. The phrase "plucked the gowans fine" is an English translation of phrase from a well-known Scottish poem and song:
We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou'd the gowans fine,
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

Robert Burns, "Auld Lang Syne" (1788)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Reading, flow, and the Aristotelian Principle

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.

Here is Murray's discussion and a graphic he has adapted from work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. All on pages 385-389. This Aristotelian Principle is very pertinent to the process of learning to read (see Growing a Reading Culture): parents and teachers are constantly having to navigate between the shoals of apathy, the whitewaters of anxiety and the reefs of boredom. The payoff, of course, is immense - the state of flow where a child is completely immersed in the story, oblivious to time and external reality. It is a delicate balancing act of trying to match a child's reading skills with the challenge of a particular text, made even more difficult given that a child's reading skills and interests stall and accelerate so unevenly.
I proceed from the view that accomplishment in the arts and sciences is one manifestation of a characteristic of human nature discussed at length by Aristotle in books seven and ten of the Nichomachean Ethics. A leading topic in those books is the meaning of pleasure in human life. The core sentence for our purposes: "Life is an activity, and each man actively exercises his favorite faculties upon the objects he loves most." Philosopher John Rawls distilled the sense of Aristotle's discussion into what he labeled the Aristotelian principle, which Rawls stated as follows:
Other things being equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity.

I add the italics to signify the importance of this statement. If it is not true, little of the rest of my explanation of what ignites excellence in human accomplishment hangs together. If it is true, elements of the explanation approach the self evident. Rawls continues:
The intuitive idea here is that human beings take more pleasure in doing something as they become more proficient at it, and of two activities they do equally well, they prefer the one calling on a larger repertoire of more intricate and subtle discriminations. For example, chess is a more complicated and subtle game than checkers, and algebra is more intricate than elementary arithmetic. Thus the principle says that someone who can do both generally prefers playing chess to playing checkers, and that he would rather study algebra than arithmetic.

Here is the graphic Murray uses.

The concept of flow is one of the principle extrinsic motivations that help sustain children through the often times bumpy ride of learning to read and then becoming an habitual and enthusiastic reader. I believe this statement of the Aristotelian Principle also underpins three of the five core recommendations made in Growing a Reading Culture, to wit - Make many books available (variety), give children the power of choosing which books to read, and read to them. All three facilitate the journey to Flow.

This principle also illuminates two observed traits of children reading. The first observation is that, left to their own devices, children will oscillate between easy and familiar texts and more challenging books - they are simply oscillating along that line from Apathy to Flow; enjoying easier texts with which they are familiar but not so easy that they become bored, then shifting over to books that challenge and stretch them, just as the principle predicts.

The second observed feature of children becoming habitual and enthusiastic readers is that, again left to their own devices and in an environment rich in books from which they can choose, no matter to what extent they indulge in "easier" or "lower quality" books, they do and will evolve towards better books because they "enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity."

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When your parents instruct you, listen respectfully

Chinese friends and Chinese members of the TTMD community have mentioned an ancient Chinese text, Standards for Being a Good Student and Child (Di Zi Gui). I finally got around to looking it up a few months ago. There are many translations though I am in no position to judge which are more true or are better renderings. In this particular version there are seven subjects that encompass 113 rules. The seven subjects are:

At Home, Be Dutiful to Your Parents
Standards for a Younger Brother When Away from Home
Be Cautious in Your Daily Life
Be Trustworthy
Love All Equally
Be Close to and Learn from People of Virtue and Compassion
After All the Above Are Accomplished, Study Further and Learn Literature and Art to Improve Your Cultural and Spiritual Life

As an example of the rules, here are the first fifteen under the topic "At home, be dutiful to your parents."
1. When your parents call you, answer them right away.
2. When they command you to do something, do it quickly.
3. When your parents instruct you, listen respectfully.
4. When your parents reproach you, obey and accept their scolding; try hard to change and improve yourself and start anew.
5. In the winter, make sure your parents keep warm.
6. In the summer, make sure your parents keep cool.
7. Greet them in the morning to show them that you care.
8. At night be sure that they rest well.
9. Before going out, tell your parents where you are going, for parents are always concerned about their children.
10. After returning home, let your parents know that you are back, so they do not worry about you.
11. Have a permanent place to stay, and lead a routine life.
12. Persist in whatever you do and do not change your aspirations at will.
13. Although a matter may be considered trivial, if it is wrong or unfair to another person, do not do it and think that it will bear little or no consequence. If you do, you are not being a dutiful child because parents do not want to see their child doing things that are irresponsible or illegal.
14. Although a possession may be small, do not hoard it and refuse to share. If you do, your parents will be saddened.
15. If whatever pleases your parents is fair and reasonable, try your best to provide it for them.

As a parent there is a lot to like here. Some of these early ones come across perhaps as simplistic but as you read through the materials there are a lot of thoughtful injunctions and much to admire and respect. There is something of an archaic feel not dissimilar to reading George Washington's Rules of Conduct or Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. Rules Two and Three were particular favorites of my kids (#2 When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered and #3 Show Nothing to your Friend that may affright him).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Index of Economic Freedom

The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation have produce The 2009 Index of Economic Freedom. It is interesting to see correlations. I need to dig them out but just eye-balling the list, probably ten of the top twenty-five countries would appear on all four lists if we were looking at economic freedom, political freedom, economic productivity and reading participation. All the countries with relatively high reading participation (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Britain, the US) are all high on the economic freedom list. OECD countries with low reading rates such as France, Italy, Spain, and Greece are well down the economic freedom league. All of these type of lists are to some degree contingent on certain prejudicial decisions in their construction but are none-the-less interesting in their outcomes.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

To read is to translate

W.H. Auden:
To read is to translate, for no two persons' experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.

Toiling upward in the night

It is interesting to me how there are some poems with a single line or stanza that is memorable but is buried in a text that, in its entirity, is not particularly striking. In this instance, I like the third from last stanza of a twelve stanza poem by Longfellow. The rest of the poem is alright, but to me not memorable. The part that leaps out is this stanza:
The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

A graceful statement of a rueful truism that most wish to ignore but becomes more and more inescapable and well documented as time progresses and data is accumulated.

Here is the whole poem.

The Ladder of St. Augustine
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Saint Augustine! well hast thou said,
That of our vices we can frame
A ladder, if we will but tread
Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

All common things, each day's events,
That with the hour begin and end,
Our pleasures and our discontents,
Are rounds by which we may ascend.

The low desire, the base design,
That makes another's virtues less;
The revel of the ruddy wine,
And all occasions of excess;

The longing for ignoble things;
The strife for triumph more than truth;
The hardening of the heart, that brings
Irreverence for the dreams of youth;

All thoughts of ill; all evil deeds,
That have their root in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes
The action of the nobler will; -

All these must first be trampled down
Beneath our feet, if we would gain
In the bright fields of fair renown
The right of eminent domain.

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear
Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
As we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

Standing on what too long we bore
With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern unseen before -
A path to higher destinies,

Nor doom the irrevocable Past
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The information essential to literacy is rarely detailed or precise

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
Our children can learn this information only by being taught it. Shared literate information is deliberately sustained by national systems of education in many countries because they recognize the importance of giving their children a common basis for communication. Some decades ago a charming book called 1066 and All That appeared in Britain. It dealt with facts of British history that all educated Britons had been taught as children but remembered only dimly as adults. The book caricatured those recollections, purposely getting the "facts" just wrong enough to make them ridiculous on their face. Readers instantly recognized that the book was mistaken in its theory about what Ethelred-the Unready was unready for, but, on the other hand, they couldn't say precisely what he was unready for. The book was hilarious to literate Britons as a satire of their own vague and confused memories. But even if their schoolchild knowledge had become vague with the passage of time, it was still functional, because the information essential to literacy is rarely detailed or precise.

Dennis Hopper and Rudyard Kipling?

I posted the poem If by Rudyard Kipling at the end of last year. I thing it is a great poem but it shares an attribute with Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright, or many passages of Shakespeare; that the cadence and verbal delivery are critical to carrying over the wonderful majesty of the poem. Read quickly and without reflective weighting of accents and words, these passages sometimes come across as awkward or trite pieces. Done well and they are memorable.

A librarian in Australia brought this video to my attention. The video features the recently departed Dennis Hopper, of all people, delivering Kipling's If in a way that makes it hard to imagine it being delivered better.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

I am the very model of a modern Major-General

The Major-General's Song
from The Pirates of Penzance
by Gilbert and Sullivan

I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.
Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev'ry detail of Caractacus's uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat",
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery -
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy -
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.
For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

CEO Libraries

The New York Times ran this interesting article, CEO Libraries Reveal Keys to Success, by Harriett Rubin on July 21, 2007. I am not sure it actually reveals any secrets other than that enthusiastic readers show up disproportionately among the most productive members of our society.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Once storytelling stops, we are dead

From Aidan Chambers' Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children.
While we can tell each other what is going on inside us and can be told what is going on inside other people we remain human, sane, hopeful, creative. In short, we remain alive. Once storytelling stops, we are dead.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Requires imagining various scenarios and perspectives on the truth

From the July 2009 The Atlantic Monthly article by Lane Wallace, McNamara, Aristotle, and the Limits of Analytic Thinking. See our earlier Pigeon Post article on Imagination in children's stories.
My refresher was courtesy of Tony Golsby-Smith, a teacher, Aristotelian scholar, and CEO of the 2nd Road training and consulting company, who electrified a Design Management Institute conference last month with his ideas about redesigning business thinking. Golsby-Smith argued that the reason many businesses don't do better at innovation or effective strategic thinking is because they focus too much on analysis, and too little on rhetoric--both subjects that Aristotle explored at length.

"The western world bought the wrong thinking system from Aristotle," Golsby-Smith argues. "Aristotle conceived two thinking systems, not one. We made the mistake of just buying one, and then allowing it to monopolize the whole territory of thought. We should have bought both and used them as partners." The first thinking system, which laid the foundation for western scientific thought, is what we generally refer to as deductive reasoning, analysis, or "logic." (If a=b, and b=c, then a=c.) The second thinking system Aristotle discussed was a more open-ended process of supposition, hypothesis generation, and argument, which he called "rhetoric."

Analytic logic--the rational, numbers-based analysis that McNamara prized and clung to so fiercely--has a lot of appeal, Golsby-Smith points out, because it holds "the promise of certainty and control." And it has an important place in the world. "The logic road underpinned the era of science, the era of science delivered us technologies, and technologies made the industrial revolution possible," Golsby-Smith says. "The industrial revolution delivered us untold wealth and capitalism, and sitting at the end of this beneficial trail lays modern management and its strategic processes, deeply indebted to the logic road."

The analytic method worked well for McNamara in terms of making Ford Motor Company processes and the Defense Department more efficient, which undoubtedly reinforced his belief in the approach. Unfortunately, as McNamara and many businesses have discovered, the logic road has its limits. The control and certainty it promises do not always materialize. But that, Aristotle would say, is because the analytic method is only the best way to truth in domains where things "cannot be other than they are" (e.g. natural science). There is only one answer, for example, to why a leaf is green. So a deductive, analytic approach to discovering that answer makes sense.

When it comes to planning for the future, or making decisions in domains where things can be "other than they are," Aristotle believed rhetoric was far more useful than analysis. "Humans have never predicted the future by analyzing it," Golsby-Smith says. Designing effective strategies for the future--especially in areas involving potentially irrational human actions and reactions--requires imagining various scenarios and perspectives on the truth, and then making judgments based on the persuasiveness of each one.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A remarkable fact that we too easily take for granted

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
But these benefits of national literate culture will be lost if we take our cultural traditions and national language too much for granted. It is all too easy for us to make this mistake, because of our history. When our nation began, we did not experience the bloody animosities and social dislocations that followed the imposition of national languages in France, Spain, and Britain, and that are now following the same process in Russia. Fortunately, we inherited a standard written language that by 1776 had become normalized in grammar, spelling, and pronunciation. Our ancient charters, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were written in a language that is current more than two hundred years later - a remarkable fact that we too easily take for granted when we read them. We remain happily unaware of the political struggles that usually accompanied the establishment of a national language. The Scots and Irish and Welsh did not begin to speak English because they believed it to be superior to their own language. The work of standardizing our language had been done for us long ago in such bloody, faraway battles as Flodden, Worcester, and Drogheda and in numerous decades of work by English scholars and schoolmasters.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Blessings on thee, little man . . .

illustrated by Norman Rockwell
The Barefoot Boy
by John Greenleaf Whittier

Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim's jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy, -
I was once a barefoot boy!

Prince thou art, - the grown-up man
Only is republican.
Let the million-dollared ride!
Barefoot, trudging at his side,
Thou hast more than he can buy
In the reach of ear and eye, -
Outward sunshine, inward joy:
Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!

Oh for boyhood's painless play,
Sleep that wakes in laughing day,
Health that mocks the doctor's rules,
Knowledge never learned of schools,
Of the wild bee's morning chase,
Of the wild-flower's time and place,
Flight of fowl and habitude
Of the tenants of the wood;
How the tortoise bears his shell,
How the woodchuck digs his cell,
And the ground-mole sinks his well;
How the robin feeds her young,
How the oriole's nest is hung
Where the whitest lilies blow,
Where the freshest berries grow,
Where the ground-nut trails its vine,
Where the wood-grape's clusters shine;
Of the black wasp's cunning way,
Mason of his walls of clay,
And the architectural plans
Of gray hornet artisans!
For, eschewing books and tasks,
Nature answers all he asks;
Hand in hand with her he walks,
Face to face with her he talks,
Part and parcel of her joy, -
Blessings on the barefoot boy!

Oh for boyhood's time of June,
Crowding years in one brief moon,
When all things I heard or saw,
Me, their master, waited for.
I was rich in flowers and trees,
Humming-birds and honey-bees;
For my sport the squirrel played,
Plied the snouted mole his spade;
For my taste the blackberry cone
Purpled over hedge and stone;
Laughed the brook for my delight
Through the day and through the night,
Whispering at the garden wall,
Talked with me from fall to fall;
Mine the sand-rimmed pickerel pond,
Mine the walnut slopes beyond,
Mine, on bending orchard trees,
Apples of Hesperides!
Still as my horizon grew,
Larger grew my riches too;
All the world I saw or knew
Seemed a complex Chinese toy,
Fashioned for a barefoot boy!
Oh for festal dainties spread,
Like my bowl of milk and bread;
Pewter spoon and bowl of wood,
On the door-stone, gray and rude!
O'er me, like a regal tent,
Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,
Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,
Looped in many a wind-swung fold;
While for music came the play
Of the pied frogs' orchestra;
And, to light the noisy choir,
Lit the fly his lamp of fire.
I was monarch: pomp and joy
Waited on the barefoot boy!

Cheerily, then, my little man,
Live and laugh, as boyhood can!
Though the flinty slopes be hard,
Stubble-speared the new-mown sward,
Every morn shall lead thee through
Fresh baptisms of the dew;
Every evening from thy feet
Shall the cool wind kiss the heat:
All too soon these feet must hide
In the prison cells of pride,
Lose the freedom of the sod,
Like a colt's for work be shod,
Made to treat the mills of toil,
Up and down in ceaseless moil:
Happy if their track be found
Never on forbidden ground;
Happy if they sink not in
Quick and treacherous sands of sin.
Ah! that thou couldst know thy joy,
Ere it passes, barefoot boy!