"There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture. The most universal article of my own Logic is Distinguo. I always mean to speak well of what is good..."
-Michel de Montaigne, "Of the inconstancy of our actions", tr. M.A. Screech
Continuing the "eulogies and democracy" trend of the last post: Steve Earle has a moving tribute to Woody Guthrie up at AlterNet. Steve Earle gives me hope for the US all by himself, and even though he once dissed my home town in song, it was a fair rebuke. He finishes up with a bang:
Besides, as much as we need him right now, I wouldn't wish this post-9/11 world on Woody. He hated Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" more than any other song in the world. He believed that it was jingoistic and exclusive, so he wrote a song of his own. It goes: This land is your land This land is my land...
I remember singing that in school (with Canadianized geographical references - yay, the folk process), coached by greying hippie teachers who liked the vague populist sentiment of the first verse, but discreetly passed over the more radical later verses:
As I was walkin' I saw a sign there And that sign said No Trespassing But on the other side It didn't say nothing! Now that side was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city In the shadow of the steeple Near the relief office I see my people And some are grumblin' And some are wonderin' If this land's still made for you and me.
As usual, Steve leaves me nodding and saying "Yeah. What he said." So, no more off-the-cuff rambling; I'm going to walk down a street that once Emma Goldman walked, and hope for better things:
Only the brass-bands throbbing in the park foretell Some future reign of happiness and peace We learn to pity and rebel. -W.H. Auden, "A Major Port"
Of all places, Salon has an appreciation of the late, much-missed Edsger W. Dijkstra. The author commits the venial sin of omitting the middle initial (for 'Wybe'), which Dijkstra was famously much attached to, and I'm not too sure about dubbing the collection of EWD manuscripts a proto-blog. If that's the case, then the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Essais of Montaigne are also proto-blogs, and maybe the genre of "loosely connected pieces of short-to-medium length in temporal sequence" is pretty old and deserves its own name, separate from the particular technology we are using to enable it these days. However, the piece captures Dijkstra's uncompromising spirit of inquiry and problem-solving nicely, though it glosses over - de mortuis nil nisi bonum, perhaps - his equally-famous, erm, forcefulness in giving voice to that spirit.
I can still recall vividly when Dijkstra visited my department a few years ago. Here was the inventor of the stack and the semaphore, but he wanted to talk to us about calculational proofs. This was just fine with me and the other formalistas, but there was some restiveness -- people hoped for something zippier. An office-mate of mine fell asleep; he had been up until 4am or so making copies of his doctoral thesis. He had a stentorian snore that filled the lecture hall, and did so for a good twenty seconds before an elbow in the ribs. Dijkstra wound up in good time, and fielded questions. An early question was a familiar one - why do proofs that way, when "real" mathematicians don't? The questioner got hit with the butt end of the pistol: "I am not interested in the sensibilities of those who call themselves mathematicians." To Dijkstra, the mechanics of proof were as simple as the rules of high-school algebra, and could be taught in the same way, rather then being cloaked in the social and linguistic conventions of math papers, leaving important details to be reconstructed after much consulting of reference texts. I thought of this point some time ago, while reading Harold Innis' Empire and Communications (much more illuminating than anything of McLuhan's I've read); Innis cites Plutarch on math and politics:
.. Lycurgus is said to have banished the study of arithmetic from Sparta, as being democratic and popular in its effect, and to have introduced geometry, as being better suited to a sober oligarchy and constitutional monarchy. For arithmetic, by its employment of number, distributes things equally; geometry, by the employment of proportion, distributes things according to merit.
For arithmetic there I read algebra, the formal approach, and for geometry the reliance on intuition and innate gifts: and for my part I come down on the democratic and popular side of the fence, and Dijkstra did too. That climate he created was a major part of my education.
I recall, too, the news of Dijkstra's passing. I was at a summer school in formal methods, and Tony Hoare came up to the podium to announce that Dijkstra had died, and asked us all to stand for a minute of silence. There was a strong feeling of being among giants, one of whom had just fallen -- imagine a roomful of physicists hearing of Newton's death, or Einstein's. At the final dinner, J Strother Moore, who had been Dijkstra's department chair at the University of Texas at Austin, delivered a brief eulogy. Moore is a compact, wiry Southern gentleman, flawlessly courteous and decent, and he spoke similarly at the funeral a day or so later - text here. I had forgotten how he spoke as much about Dijkstra the democrat as Dijkstra the scientist:
He brought to faculty meetings only one agenda: How can we improve? How can we become better scientists? Better scholars? Better teachers? He stated his positions in the open and debated them. Then he cast his single vote and that was that. Never did he come to the chair's office and argue, behind the scenes, that because he was Edsger W. Dijkstra we should do things his way.
Though, in truth, many of the founders of Moore's Republic were not only democrats, but scientistsalso; so, as wiser heads than mine have noted, there are at least common values and mental tools to both tasks.
Of late, I steeled myself to read Matt Ruff's latest outing, Set this House in Order: A Romance of Souls. Steeled, because I have loved his first novel Fool on the Hill for ages now, and I could tell that this one would be nothing like it. If you have not read Fool, it's a fun, fun book; a contemporary fantasy set at Cornell University, with sprites, evil rats, the wonderful Bohemians (including Ragnarok, the Minister for Defence, and Preacher, the Minister for Ministry), Tolkien House, a college for dogs, and lots more. It's a first novel, and has that first novel characteristic of containing everything in the author's head, including the kitchen sink, and there's probably a touch of wish fulfillment -- Ruff did go to Cornell, but his stay probably wasn't that cool. Having loved it for so long, I found myself unable to warm to, or even finish, his second book, Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy: for one thing, there was a lot of talk about Ayn Rand in it, and even though he obviously was mocking at least the extremes of Rand's thought and the silliness of a lot of her followers, that's still too much Ayn Rand for me; and it dwelt in gruesome detail on the main character's smoking, and that always puts me off too. So it was expecting disappointment that I picked up Set this House in Order.
Another source of worry was that House is about people with multiple personalities, and that is just strewn with pitfalls: something that the recent wreckage of the film Identity made gruesomely clear. So, I was pleased to see that Ruff avoided most of these pitfalls, and, in the process, drew me completely into the story. It's been about a week, and I can't say that much of the book has lingered in my head -- I don't think it's quite as deep an exploration of identity and morality as I get the feeling it was meant to be - but it was definitely a compelling narrative.