A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Monthly Archives: February 2007

Onomastical poem

How do all things with names combine?
Words are but nests, the meanings are the birds,
Body the bed through which the spirit-river flows.
The surface of this mental watercourse
Is not without its chaff of good and bad repute:
It flows, but you would say it stagnates;
It moves but you would say it stays;
From place to place were there no motion
Whence these renewed supplies of floating chaff?
That chaff is but an image of the mind,
Assuming every moment a new shape;
Like chaff its likes and dislikes float away;
The husks upon the surface of this watercourse
Come from transmundane garden’s fruits,—
The kernels of those husks in yonder garden seek.
The water from that garden to the river flows;
If you your life’s departure cannot see,
Behold in the waters this floating of the plants.

Rumi, excerpt from “Need or Purpose,” Selections from Rumi (II), translated by Edward Rehatsek.

I’m not a big Rumi fan, but I came across this by happenstance today, and I liked the images. And the word ‘transmundane’ is perfectly other-worldly.

Is there really a controversy regarding "The Higher Power of Lucky"?

The blogosphere is abuzz with discussions about the controversy about censorship of the Newbery Medal winning children’s book “The Higher Power of Lucky,” because it contains the word ‘scrotum’ on the first page, especially after an article about the controversy appeared on the first page of The New York Times (the article in question, soon to be behind the Times’s paywall).

The New York Times says:

On electronic mailing lists like Librarian.net, dozens of literary blogs and pages on the social-networking site LiveJournal, teachers, authors and school librarians took sides over the book. Librarians from all over the country, including Missoula, Mont.; upstate New York; Central Pennsylvania; and Portland, Ore., weighed in, questioning the role of the librarian when selecting — or censoring, some argued — literature for children.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, librarians “held about 159,000 jobs in 2004.” Compare this to the ‘dozens’ of blogs mentioning it, including a post on librarian.net–which, is definitely not an electronic mailing list, the Times’s unfact-checked assertion to the contrary. I suppose by now this story has been parishiltoned–it’s now famous for being famous. But I wish that the media (both mainstream and alternative) would do the simplest of facts before calling something “controversial” there should be considerably more than a few dozen people are upset on either side of an issue. Sure, the Lucky story was a story–but it was a local story, not worth national exposure. This is no evidence of a vast conspiracy or vast stupidity or vast anything.

And the ‘blogosphere is abuzz’ is a hackneyed phrase, but this story is a hackneyed story. Please put it to rest.

How short the time! How frail the state!

Death, like an overflowing stream,
Sweeps us away; our life’s a dream,
An empty tale, a morning flow’r,
Cut down and withered in an hour.

Our age to sev’nty years is set;
How short the time! How frail the state!
And if to eighty we arrive,
We’d rather sigh and groan than live.

Teach us, Oh Lord, how frail is man;
And kindly lengthen out the span,
Till a wise care of piety
Fit us to die and dwell with Thee.

(Words by Isaac Watts. Image from SciAm, via Cosmic Variance and Three-toed sloth)

Happy Valentines Day, Jane!

Miss Amy's witness

The Rev. Vernon Tyson remembers ‘Miss Amy’s witness,’ during the civil rights era in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In 1963, when the Rev. Vernon Tyson was pastor of Jonesboro Methodist Church in Sanford, he invited Dr. Samuel Proctor to preach for what was called Race Relations Sunday. Proctor, an African-American and one of the leading theologians in the United States until his death in 1997, was then president of North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. When Tyson invited him to Sanford, Proctor laughed and said, “Yes, and we’ll be run out of town together.”

Read what happened next …

(From the Southern Oral History Project, via Annie Grieshop‘s note to the Fasola discussion list.)

Powerset in NY Times, Venturebeat

The company I work for, Powerset, is being written up in the New York Times and Venturebeat, both reporting on a deal between Powerset and PARC. The New York Times article (behind a registration wall, alack) mostly follows the storied arc of the Palo Alto Research Center, where the graphical user interface and ethernet were born but capitalized on more by rivals rather than its original owner, Xerox. Our CEO, Barney Pell is quoted:

For a lot of things, keyword search works well. But I think we are going to look back in 10 years and say, remember when we used to search using keywords.

The Venturebeat article is more interesting, I think. It tells a bit more of the story behind the deal between Powerset and PARC. It also includes an interview with Peter Norvig, the Director of Research at Google. Norvig is a GOFAI (“good old fashioned artificial intelligence”) guy who switched to what is now the standard modern AI approaches to language (crunching the statistics of words and other things) “about 15 years ago,” as he says in the Venturebeat article. He also says (when asked about natural language and search),

We feel there is a lot to do in the field of search, with many ways to approach it. Search remains at the core of everything Google does and we are always working to improve it.

This feels similar to what Pell said in his weblog a while ago, “Search is in its early days, and natural language is the future of search.”

This makes us, of course, a rebel with a clause.

Fourth century words about words

St. Basil, who lived from around 330-379 CE, is one of the “three hierarchs” of the Orthodox Church. I’ve just finished reading (in a translation by RJ Deferrai), an excellent essay On the distinction between ousia and hypostasis. In this letter, he writes very clearly about the Christian view of God as Triune, in particular explaining the meaning of the technical terms ousia (abstract being) and hypostasis (individual being).

It’s good as a piece of theology, but it’s also interesting as clear technical writing. It also has a fascinating illustration of the rainbow, which he makes clear is to be used as an illustration; it’s not reasoning by analogy. He also uses it to show that the ousia/hypostasis distinction is not just a piece of theology, but that similar phenomena occur “mong perceptible things.”

His description on how rainbows work is amazing, considering he’s writing in the fourth century:

Those who are skilled in these things claim that [this bow] is formed whenever a certain moisture is mixed with the air, the force of the winds compressing the moist and dense [portions] of the vapours, already having become cloudy, into rain. They say the process of formation is this. When the ray of the sun intercepts at a slant the compact and opaque [portion] of the cloud, then immediately it impresses its own circle upon the cloud such that there is a bending and return of the light to itself, for the sunlight returns in the opposite direction from what is moist and shiny. For since it is in the nature of flame-like | flashes of light, if they fall upon something smooth, to recoil back upon themselves, and since the shape of the sun which is formed in the damp and smooth part of the air is circular, necessarily also is the air adjacent to the cloud outlined in the shape of the sun’s disc by the reflecting brilliance.

Could you do a better job? And he makes a distinction between continuous and discrete properties that seems very modern:

Now this brilliancy is both continuous with itself and separated. For although it is many-coloured and multiform, imperceptibly it is intermingled in itself with the various colours of the dyer, so that the juncture between [the colours] steals unaware from our eyes. As such we cannot discern between the blue-green and the yellow an intervening space which both mingles them together and separates them from each other, or between the yellow and the purple, or between the purple and the amber. For when the rays of all the colours are seen [together], they are distinct yet also hide from us their points of continuity with each other, eluding our scrutiny, with the result that it is impossible to discover just how far the red or the green [portion] of the radiance extends, and from which point it begins no longer to be that which it is observed to be in its distinct segment.

Finally, and I think this is very interesting to find in a fourth century writing (you must understand that I really don’t know that much about fourth century writing), is that he allows a word to mean different things in different contexts, rather than have a fixed, platonic meaning. This he does to explain what St. Paul meant when he described Jesus as being the figure of God the Father’s hypostasis, which is odd if hypostasis means the essence of what it means to be a particular individual.

But we assert this, namely that the statement fulfils a different purpose for the apostle, … a purpose which, if a person perceives it properly, he will find does not contradict our statements; but [Paul’s] argument is carried out with a certain peculiar intention.

"rebel without a *" -cause

Still looking for a rebel without: an ah, applause, a baas, a car, bearclaws, d’etats, card draws, faux pas, any flaws, Fracoise, guffaws, a hawse, in-laws, slack jaws, macaws, her ma’s, sein maus, the Land of Oz, cat paws, La Paz, a sauce, a souse, the shah’s, Bernard Shaw’s, a spa, paper straws, spring thaws, a vase, wah wahs, what was, Evelyn Waugh’s.

Why sing Sacred Harp? redux

Maggie Leonard, responding to Linda’s statement about singing Sacred Harp that I quoted recently:

That says it all. I’m not a doctrinal Christian. I tried for years to accept the doctrinal view of Jesus, but couldn’t when I searched my soul. However, this music rises beyond doctrine and summons the spirit that moved among the apostles after Jesus’ passing. That spirit moves through us like water when we sing, cleansing and purifying. It’s like getting baptized over and again with sound. . . . It’s like we’re all stepping together into an inexhaustible font of joy, and the only way to get there is together. I know that’s what Jesus intended. I’m so grateful I’ve found it! I’ve told both my sisters that I’m going to do everything in my power to get their babies into the tradition when they’re young.

People find this to be powerful stuff.

Useless account!