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(I know, I know, but it's the way we diarylanders have done it for generations.)

2002-06-14 21:31

Holiday Reading.

I'm reading Ray Monk's biography 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 biopic. Gossip 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, though.

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 analytical philosophy.

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 activities.

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.

2002-06-14 18:18


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 the time.

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 now.

Tumbleweed blows through

I can hear 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.

2002-06-14 10:43


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?

2002-06-13 18:07

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 the queen.

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?

2002-06-13 12:39

Then we'll make a quick trick blog stack.

War blogs? Law blogs! 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 ]

2002-06-13 9:56

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 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.

2002-06-13 07:55

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 - this one 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.
[ from Nova Express 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.

2002-06-13 08:27

I honestly thought Japanese pronunciation was pretty straight-forward for Europeans, even if the language itself wasn't.

This article - although primarily focused on teaching English pronunciation to Japanese people - shows just how wrong I was.

2002-06-12 12:38

Divided Disloyalties

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.

2002-06-12 09:04

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 also available.)

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?

2002-06-11 12:04

On Phonology

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 fabulous paper 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?

2002-06-11 09:14


Princess Madeleine heeds my Call For Gossip by being photographed leaving a pub run by a notorious gangster.

Also, an article on how to achieve the Madeleine look. The trick is to wear pale blue frocks, apparently. Preferably very expensive pale blue frocks.

2002-06-11 08:46

Poetry pandemonium

A strange article 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 Mallarm 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.

2002-06-10 17:39

Ceci n'est pas mon blogue

Tinka 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. ]

2002-06-10 15:42

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 revive the 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.

2002-06-10 10:46

Revenge of the Brainists

There's a Scientific American 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 from memory.

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...

2002-06-10 9:15

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.

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