I'm reading Ray Monk's
of Wittgenstein. I've already realised that it isn't going to be
quite as much fun as Derek Jarman's brilliantly flamboyant and over-the-top
has it that Terry Eagleton - then the UK's foremost Marxist academic -
wrote an earnestly social realist screenplay and was horrified when
Jarman completely disregarded it. He still gets a writer's credit,
The scene in the film where Russell and Wittgenstein argue about the
colour of the rhinocerous in the room meant a great deal to me, since
it closely paralleled an argument I had had with my topology lecturer (I
had defended a position that turned out to be Wittgensteinian).
Which is kind of the point - although my sympathies in philosophy have
for some years been Continental and broadly ontological, my early
training was in mathematics, and my first introduction to philosophy
was Bertrand Russell's
History of Western Philosophy. That particular book has
not worn well, I think it's fair to say, as my thought has developed
(ooh! hark at me) but the fact that I read that (and other
stuff by Russell, and A J "Freddy" Ayer's
Language, Truth and Logic) in my misspent youth does mean
that I have unfinished business with the Anglo-American school of
Bear in mind that these two schools of philosophy are so divergent in
outlook and method that their adherents seem to be effectively
incapable of inter-factional debate. If it wasn't for the fact that
they contest each other's right to describe their work as philosophy
at all you might easily think they were engaged in utterly unrelated
The importance of Wittgenstein is that he provides one of the few points of
contact between these traditions, and I'm kind of hoping that the
investigation of the development of his ideas will provide if not an
cure for my philosophical schizophrenia, then at least the possibility
of a framework within which they can interrogate each other.
I'm not in the least averse to a duel to the death between the two
traditions - I just want them to agree on a time and a place and
choose the God-damned weapons, already.
Well, here's a thing. When I'm sat at work at my computer (which is
all the time - I'm a programmer) with a mountain of work to be getting
on with (which is also all the time - I'm the only Indian in a tribe
of Academic Chiefs) the Net seems like the most fascinating thing
imaginable. I fidget fretfully while I work, snatching frequent but
hurried mouthfuls of blog, news-source and Usenet, wistfully dreaming of
the luxurious, leisurely linkfests I could indulge in if only I had
My posting style mutated from flabby first-draft essays to flabby
first-draft vignettes under pressure of the amount of time that it takes
me to write even badly. I may not have much respect for journalism as
a medium but I have great respect for journalists - the volume of
more-or-less lucid prose they have to be able to generate on a regular
basis boggles my mind.
I was anticipating working late, tonight, to clear the backlog of
urgent things that can't possibly wait, but it turns out that they can
wait. And by far the most sensible way to get to the airport is a
coach that leaves Bristol at 03:30.
Half past three in the morning. Marvellous. If I go home I'll either
fall asleep or just pace fretfully about the flat tormented by the
idea of falling asleep. (I'm already knackered - I think 8pm is the
earliest I've got away from work this week.)
Seems like my bluff is being called - for once I have all the time in
the world to play. So, needless to say, no one's updating their blogs,
and Usenet has gone all quiet - I guess it's Satuday in the States by
Tumbleweed blows through http://mainstreet.blogspot.com.
I can hear http://cicadas.diaryland.com/ chirping.
In principle, I could do something useful and constructive, but I'm
tired, unsettled and restless. I could check I've got my passport and
plane tickets again, I suppose. (Yup, still there.)
It's going to be a looong evening.
I'm an utter shambles. I've stuffed a bunch of clothes into a
rucksack and brought it into the office. Next I have to figure out
how to be at Heathrow tomorrow morning - coach or train? Crash at my
mum's (empty - she's in Japan already) house in London tonight?
I've got no Japanese currency or Travellers' Cheques, and they don't
just have ATMs out there so this is non-trivial.
Holidays, eh? Who'd have 'em?
That's telling them
Well! Queen Silvia of Sweden makes her Desbladet debut (I think?) to
announce her daughters' plans for the future.
Victoria is going to study something dreary to do with exports in
Berlin and then Paris. Victoria thinks it will be fascinating, said
Madeleine gets to go to art school. Are Swedish art schools like
British ones where everyone just gets stoned, sleeps around and forms
terrible rock bands? (I've lived with art students - this is not a
lazy caricature, it's eye-witness testimony.) Art school is perfect
for Madeleine, if they can keep the papparazzi on a tight leash.
Gossip-minded readers will recall that
the last we heard of Victoria was a leaking of her relationship with a
Stockholm-based personal trainer, but now she can't wait to get to
Berlin to study the export trade. According to her mother.
Corporal punishment would have been kinder than that, surely?
Then we'll make a quick trick blog stack.
Can door blogs, floor blogs, saw blogs, chore blogs, store blogs and gore blogs
be far behind? More blogs!
[ Yes, my dialect is non-rhotic - it's the R-est of RPs, for better or worse ]
I *heart* Roland Barthes
I think the first structuralist book I ever read was Barthes'
Mythologies. It was love at first read - I don't think I've
ever really recovered:
What I claim is to live to the full the contradiction of my time,
which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth. -- Roland Barthes
It seems hard now to believe anyone ever thought that a science could be
built on such remarks as, "The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of
Hepburn an Event". Maybe no one ever did believe it - maybe the
lab-coat were just the thing to be seen in in Paris that
season. Who cares - Barthes writes like an angel. Funny, sad,
brilliant and as rigourous as your life.
But when I was looking to buy a copy all of my own recently, I noticed
that the English translation is also a selection. I did the
only thing I could reasonably do under the circumstances - I bought
the original from
Amazon.fr. It's just 5.65 Euros over there!
French paperbacks are really dinky little things too, even tiddlier
than English paperbacks were before the Great Prestige Kingsizing of
the 80s (which I still curse daily). They really do fit in a back
pocket, so that wherever you go your copy of J-F Lyotard's
La Phenomenologie can go with you.
That's an important quality for today's no-nonsense urban philosopher
on the move, I'm sure you'll agree.
word falling - image falling
The origins of language are a problem. We know that children learn
the ambient language that surrounds them, but how did there get to
be an ambient language In The Beginning?
Any number of pointless and untestable Just-So Stories have been proposed
was the last one I saw making the rounds - but who cares?
Why not just pick something openly preposterous and believe that
instead? I know I have:
What scared you into time? Into body? Into shit? I will tell you:
"the word." Alien Word "the." "The" word
of Alien Enemy imprisons "thee" in Time. In Body, In Shit. Prisoner,
come out. The great skies are open. I Hassan i Sabbah rub out the
word forever. If you I cancel all your words forever. And the
words of Hassan i Sabbah as also cancel.
by William S Burroughs ]
It's the Logos considered as a Bad Thing. So far as anyone knows
Burroughs really did believe that language was an evil alien virus
of a piece with political power and drug addiction and that his cut-up
method wasn't literary avant-gardeism, it was an act of guerilla
resistance - propaganda, analysis and cure in one convenient package.
I think there's a lesson there for us all.
I honestly thought Japanese pronunciation was pretty straight-forward
for Europeans, even if the language itself wasn't.
although primarily focused on teaching English pronunciation to
Japanese people - shows just how wrong I was.
England and Sweden both go through in this "football" of which I've
been hearing so much lately. Sigh. I was hoping England would be out
before I got to Japan.
Still, the England/Denmark match is on Saturday, and I'm spending
Saturday sitting in a metal tube as the Earth whizzes by below me.
When I get out of the tube it will be Sunday, and I'll be in Japan.
Whether England are still in the football or not, I confidently
predict that I'll need a drink.
Herman and the Nawticks
The philosophers have interpreted consciousness in various ways;
the point however is to implement it.
Suppose you're looking for an account of Continental Philosophy from
the point of view of a computer programmer (aren't we all?).
Look no further.
(Dead tree version
At 27 brisk pages it not only manages to round up all the usual
suspects (from Husserl to Ricoeur - they like Ricoeur) but
they find time for the Austin's Ordinary Language philosophy and the
later Wittgenstein as well as the Popper/Kuhn/Feyerabend debate on the
epistemological basis of science.
I did say brisk, didn't I?
Phonetics is about making sounds with your mouth and related organs.
It's a whole bunch of fun, for sure. And when I occasionally write
stuff in square brackets like this: [t^hIn] then I'm doing
(or trying to do) phonetic transcription. The point of this is that
phonetic transcription is (at least in principle) independent
of the language being spoken. In principle, if you gave me an
accurate and sufficiently detailed transcription of a piece of any
spoken language in phonetic notation, I could say it correctly without
having any idea what it meant or how the language actually worked.
Phonology is related but there's an important difference: phonology is
the study of how sounds are used in a given language, which is
obviously not language independent. To emphasise the difference,
phonological transcriptions are written using slashes, like this:
/tIn/, and to read them you need to know what language is
being transcribed (English, in this case) and enough about the
phonological system of the language to reconstruct the sounds.
So phonology is the point where the study of language takes over from
the study of sound.
Conventional orthography (that's writing, like what I am doing here)
is at best a transcription of the native speaker's phonological
intuitions. In practice, of course, writing systems change a lot
slower than the spoken language and English orthography (i.e.,
spelling) is in a lot of ways better adapted to the language of
Chaucer than the language what I speak.
I find phonology fascinating. I also like computers a great deal, so
you can imagine my delight at finding this
on a computer program which can infer a bunch of English
morphophonological rules from simple examples. (One of the authors is
Gerald Sussman, whose extensive magnificence is an essay topic in its
own right). It's a brilliant approach, leveraging the sparseness of
the phonological feature vectors to allow unprecendented speed and
accuracy of learning. It really does have the Ring Of Truth about it.
It's like the AI Winter never happened! Real hardcore
old-skool symbolist AI is back, and you'd better believe it!
From now on, Computational Semiotics is totally where I'm at, if
anyone happens to ask, OK?
Princess Madeleine heeds my Call For Gossip by
leaving a pub run by a notorious gangster.
Also, an article on how to achieve the
The trick is to wear pale blue frocks, apparently. Preferably very
expensive pale blue frocks.
over at Grauniad books - Adam Philips approves of a new anthology of
translations of 20th century French poetry by claiming that
Many of the remarkable poems in English of this century and the past
one - by T S Eliot, John Ashbery, Denis Devlin, C K Williams, Derek
Mahon, Marilyn Hacker, Paul Muldoon, Alan Jenkins, and Romer himself -
are French, as the translations in this book make abundantly clear.
Um. Still, there you are. One of my (far too) many projects this
summer is to become better acquainted with French poetry, but I was
going to start at Baudelaire and work forwards which means I have to
get through Verlaine, Rimbaud and Mallarmé before starting on the 20th
century. Still, I'm all for blurring the line between ambition and
utter stupidity, so bring it on, bring it on.
Ceci n'est pas mon blogue
has been thinking about the relationship between blogs and journalism
and media and all that sort of stuff.
In such matters, of course, I am a simple peasant number-farmer (as
indeed in so much else) and utterly unqualified to comment. So here goes!
Perhaps some people are still interested in and willing to defend a
distinction between real journalists covering real news and columnists
engaging in gossip. I'm not - the tabloidisation of the British media
has long since eroded my ability to distinguish between them.
Instead, like a good Situationist, I distinguish between Spectacle
(for which I'm an Alienated Consumer) and Conversation (in which I'm
an active participant). There are shades of grey here also -
it's more of a continuum than a strict opposition - but it's
a classification that fits much better with way I really deal with
media (including blogs).
Blogs (like Usenet before them) can be either, depending on one's
willingness to join in, and the willingness of others to listen.
[ A preliminary draft of this post can be found here.
Denial of gossip attack
While I was in Smiths at the weekend I happened to glance (ahem) at the European
skvallerbladet selection they maintain and noticed that both the German
rags had Swedish princesses on the cover. One had photos of Princess
Victoria's new beau (the personal trainer,
remember?) and the other was trying to
rumours linking Madeleine with Prince Felipe of Spain.
Whereupon two things occurred to me: firstly, I really,
really wanted to know more about this. My pretence at ironic
detachment is no longer even fooling me (I assume everyone else saw
through it instantly). And secondly, you now how you can get DVD
players semi-legally chipped so that they can read all regional
encodings? I want to get that done to my head - I need to be able to
read German, like, now. Sigh.
Revenge of the Brainists
special issue on "The Hidden Mind" out now, in which Real Scientists
(with proper white coats and everything, I shouldn't wonder) attempt
to wrest back the Meaning of Consciousness from philosophers,
psychoanalysts and other assorted no-goodniks.
Consider, for example, Johnathan Winson's "The Meaning of Dreams".
You'll probably need to hum along during some of the more explicit
stretches of brain porn:
LTP [long term potentiation] is achieved by the activity of the NMDA
(N-Methyl-D-aspartate receptor. This molecule is
embedded in the dendrites of the granule cells and the CA1 cells of
the hippocampus as well as in the neurons throughout the neocortex.
Really? How marvellous, who'd have thought it. Actually, the article
is mostly pretty readable, and makes a good case (well, it seems
plausible - I'm not a neurologist) from the neurological evidence and
comparative anatomy of various mammals that dreams are a way of
sifting through the important parts of the day's experience as a way
of reducing the burden on the pre-frontal cortex. Cute factoid 1 - by
destroying the neurones in cats' brains (well, OK, maybe not that
cute) they could watch them act out the stalkings and surprises of
their dreams. Cute factoid 2 - monotreme mammals (such as the spiny
anteater) which lay eggs don't do REM sleep, and their pre-frontal
cortexes are huge, even by human standards. Which suggests that
either spiny anteaters are the smartest creatures on earth, or that
REM sleep is a pretty effective way of processing associations.
Humourless spoilsports that they are, all the proper scientists are
voting for (b). I have decided instead to start a religion in which
the spiny anteater is revered like unto a god.
Now you might think that all this processing-of-the-day's events stuff
is remeniscent of something, but hold your horses, Freud Was Wrong:
For reasons he could not possibly have known, Freud set forth a
profound truth in his work. There is an unconscious, and dreams are
indeed the "royal road" to understanding it. The characteristics of
the unconscious and associated processes of brain function, however,
are very different from what Freud thought.
Rather than being a cauldron of untamed passions and destructive
wishes, I propose that the unconscious is a cohesive, continuously
active mental structure that takes note of life's experience and
reacts according to its own scheme of interpretation.
Dreams are not disguised as a consequence of repression. Their
unusual character is a result of the complex associations are culled
Elsewhere in the article we are told that "[t]hese associations are
strongly biased toward early childhood experience."
So we have a model in which dreams involve the unconscious mind
working through the day's significant events and weaving some into the
fabric of memory within a framework of associations whose pattern is
largely determined by early childhood experiences, while discarding
(and thus forgetting) others. I bet that Freud guy is feeling pretty
darn stupid right about now, huh?
Now sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and I'd be the last person to
suggest that someone whose day job involves making malicious
alterations to the brains of living cats might have his own reasons
for keeping his unconscious desires at a safe distance (OK, maybe not
the absolute last. What can I say? I feel sorry for the poor
kitties!) but I don't think you can write Uncle Sigmund out of the story
quite that easily. For one thing, he actually described the
mechanisms of the unconscious mind's "own scheme of interpretation",
and if it isn't the kind of blandly bureaucratic filing clerk that the
Brainists are presumably hoping to discover, well, that's just too bad.
Now, Professor Winson, tell me about your mother...
My life with the Glycosphingolipids
Oxford University is holding an essay competition - you're allowed up
to 4000 words on "any subject related to 'Glycosphingolipids'".
I'm worried that I won't be able to say what I have to say in so few
words. And that I have no idea what a glycosphingolipid is.