On consciously and unconsciously knowing

 

A Facebook friend of mine, very articulate, a sharp thinker, and with multiple academic degrees in “hard” subjects, was discussing his frustration with only speaking one language, and even so, “don’t ask me about the rules of grammar. On good days, I know what a gerund is.”

Now his written communication is always flawless in spelling and grammar, so he clearly knows how to apply grammar — which illustrates the difference between knowing something and knowing the words for it. Or, if you like, between having internalized a skill and being able to explain it.

Richard Feynman, in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” recalls how his father taught him that knowing the name of, say, a species of bird in several languages still doesn’t teach you anything about  the bird. That is true enough, of course, except for one thing — if I know what the bird is called, I can go look it up — trudge to the library for the Britannica or a handbook of ornithology when I was young, or just search in Google or Wikipedia nowadays.

I write a fair amount of highly technical nonfiction in my day job — well enough that I’ve been asked to teach others — and frankly didn’t consciously know any of the grammatical rules until I realized I was able to teach people how something was done, but not why. “This is how it goes, it just sounds wrong otherwise, don’t ask  why,” isn’t how thinking people like to be taught. Consequently, I was forced to hit the textbooks myself just so I could “tell people what the bird was called so they could look it up”. I imagine this is a similar situation to people who are self-taught as jazz or rock musician but need to go learn theory just so they can be more effective teachers.

In an interview shortly before he passed away, the legendary jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis reminisced about a meeting with Jimi Hendrix, planning a recording session that sadly never came to pass due to Jimi’s untimely death. He recalled mentioning a “diminished seventh chord”, and Jimi looking blank. He then took his trumpet and arpeggiated the four notes — Jimi of course immediately played the chord that he’d never known the name of. In fact, Jimi would have stared the same way at the mention of a “major-minor chord”, a.k.a. “dominant seventh-sharp ninth chord” — even though it’s nowadays often referred to as the “Purple Haze chord” or “Hendrix chord” due to its prominent use in one of Jimi’s best-known compositions.

Hendrix “spoke music like a native”, but didn’t consciously know the grammar, if you like — he just could apply it in his sleep. A very different intuitive musician, Evangelos Papathanassiou — world-famous among electronica and soundtrack lovers by the Greek nickname Vangelis — had classical piano lessons but never properly learned to read music: blessed with a prodigal ear and memory, he could reproduce what his teacher showed him just fine. While he apparently took some college classes in music (as did his more meditative German college, Klaus Schulze), he kept an intuitive, “feel” attitude toward music his whole life. When an interviewer in Keyboard magazine asked him how he composed, he answered tellingly: “it’s like breathing: if you think about how to breathe, you choke”.

Now while some of Vangelis’s more ambitious compositions (such as “Heaven and Hell”) clearly draw inspiration from Western classical music (Klaus Schulze even wrote a brief orchestral fugue in the studio version of “Ludwig II”), it would be hard for a musician to “function” in the classical world without the musical equivalent of “knowing your grammar”. (To be sure, at least one famous classical organist needed to learn most of his repertoire by ear — Helmut Walcha had been totally blind since age twelve — but he surely knew his theory, and taught for many years at the Frankfurt Conservatory.) Likewise, in some of the more ambitious, through-composed realms of jazz and progressive rock, a thorough conscious knowledge of music theory is a great asset—though you may be able to get by just fine with an unconscious one, as long as your fellow band members are comfortable learning by ear.

Conversely, knowing the rules without being able to apply them in real time may get you a job as a critic, but won’t get you far as a musician — or a writer.

 

 

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Abstraction layers and learning

The other day I heard an interview (in French) with electronic music megastar Jean-Michel Jarre (who is, incidentally, the estranged son of film composer Maurice Jarre and the ex-husband of actress Charlotte Rampling).

Paraphrasing one segment of the interview from memory: “Some people tell me that electronic music is abstract. On the contrary! Especially with analog instruments, it’s visceral, hands-on. I twist this knob or push that pedal, and I immediately hear the sound change in response. It’s classical music that is more abstract! They play off a score, which is an abstract representation of the music.”

Bingo. To borrow a term from information technology, the score is one “abstraction layer” above the music. A jazz music “lead sheet” would be one more abstraction layer above: it specifies the lead melody, the chord progression, and the meter — and the details on how to translate the progression into notes are left to the performer!
The next higher abstraction level is sometimes seen when experienced musicians are jamming together, and all the lead player needs to say is “slow 12/8 blues in G minor”: everybody else knows what to do and fills in the details on the fly, according to their best musical judgment. (Fixed chord progressions like “the blues” as improvisational frameworks are not a recent invention: suffice to mention “La Folia” in Renaissance and Baroque contexts.) An Indian raga is, likewise, a meta-structure for improvisation.

A paradigmatic example of abstraction layers in information technology — one that many readers will be familiar with — are network addresses. Individual network cards have a permanent, unique “MAC address” or “hardware address”, six bytes in hexadecimal notation: something like 4c:33:73:9d:40:42 We do not use such addresses directly to send Email or access web servers though, since everytime a server or even network card would go on the fritz, you’d have to update directories.
So one abstraction layer above that, we have the numerical addresses of the form 123.45.67.89. These can be defined manually on a device, or (this is what happens in most home WiFi networks) assigned using a DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) service. You replace a server or swap out a network card? Update the DHCP configuration table, and you’re good to go.
But if you moved to another provider, you’d still have to change addresses. Or you may have so much traffic that you need to deploy multiple servers, and load-balance traffic between them. Which is why we have yet another abstraction layer above that: the more conventional, human-readable addresses like www.pjmedia.com or www.berkeley.edu A domain name server (DNS) keeps track of which name corresponds to which number (or knows which other DNS to ask if it can’t resolve the query from cache), and hence you only need to deal with the “link”: you can leave the concrete details on how to translate this into an actual connection to the “abstraction layers” below.

The above puts me in mind of the laments of a friend of mine (a college lecturer in a humanities subject) about the atrocious writing of his students. Effectively, he says, the students have only learned the English language by imitation: they parrot words and phrases, rely on their spelling checker to fix spellings (sometimes coming up with unintentionally hilarious malapropisms as they do so), and often display a disregard for grammar and syntax that has non-native speakers like myself flabbergasted. The thing is, grammar and syntax are abstraction levels above the words: they can be learned by immersion — but that would have to be by “neural network training” from a very large corpus of high-quality written text. (I frankly didn’t know most of the grammatical rules in English consciously — but could apply them just fine on autopilot, as I’d been a voracious reader from a young age. Only when I found myself needing to explain edits to scientific papers — and of course learned that “it sounds wrong otherwise” is not an acceptable answer to thinking people — did I end up hitting the grammar and usage books.)
Prose style and essay structure are, of course, yet further abstraction levels above. But the problem is much broader than language: at one research institution where I was a guest faculty member, I saw distressing levels of learning by imitation in the lab — newer grad students basically being shown “this is how it goes” by the older ones. Now if this is just a matter of “kickstarting” then this is fine — the real problem was that only a few had any desire to actually understand what they were doing. (This became painfully clear when they attempted to write a paper — which in practice usually boiled down to compiling tables and graphs as required, and the professor or his amanuensis writing the actual paper—or rewriting the sorry excuse for a manuscript so thoroughly as to qualify as writing from scratch.)

Pretty much everybody who lives near a Jewish community has heard of Chabad (a.k.a. the Lubavitch movement): Chabad (חב׳׳ד) is, however, originally the Hebrew acronym for a much broader concept: the three levels of understanding. This is how I see them outside a religious context.
D (ד) stands for the lowest layer: da’at ([factual] “knowledge”)
B (ב) stands for the layer above: bina (“insight”) or, if you like, analytical understanding. That which is required for the higher “abstraction layers” of learning.
Ch (ח) stands for the highest layer: chochma (“wisdom”), or, if you like, synthetic understanding, creativity. The levels of “meta-insight” that allow you to apply the structural principles of that which exists, for creating something new.

Our current educational system effectively sacrifices insight on the altar of creativity (or, worse, the students’ self-esteem) — while at the same time, perversely, ensuring that students only have quite shallow knowlegde by declaring a kind-of war on memorization at exactly the ages children most easily learn by rote. The end products are students that have never progressed beyond some nuts-and-bolts knowledge picked up by imitation—and even that is not to be taken for granted.

The system stunts students while claiming to empower them, and it boosts a brittle, hollow self-esteem that shatters on the first contact with reality. It “creates a desert, and calls it peace.” Or self-esteem, “or something”

Origin of a famous literary put-down: not Balfour

 

I remember seeing the following priceless put-down in a review:

There is much here that is new, and much that is true. However, the true stuff is old hat, and the new stuff is false.

This appears to have been a paraphrase. Winston Churchill, in Great Contemporaries (London & New York, 1937) p. 250 quotes Arthur Balfour as having said:

…there were some things that were true, and some things that were trite; but what was true was trite, and what was not trite was not true…

Did Balfour actually say this? A similar phrase, in a different context, appears in an 1877 theological tract called “The Down Grade” by the English Baptist preacher Robert Shindler, published in his friend and mentor C. H. Spurgeon‘s journal The Sword and the Trowel (March 1887, p. 122):

But commonly it is found in theology that that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.

Tthe “Prince of Preachers” Spurgeon was legendary in his day and remains influential in Baptist circles to this day. It is quite possible that Balfour read the tract and absorbed the original phrase from there.

Happy Chanuka!

 

Why Romance languages aren’t “gender-neutral”

Somebody forwarded me a derposaurus item about the “sexism” of the French language. The argument, such as it was, primarily proves Orwell’s Law, but an interesting linguistic curiosum occurred to me. Why does French have no neuter gender, and neither do Spanish and Italian — while their common ancestor Latin clearly does?

English, of course, has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The gender of English nouns is also extremely regular: pretty much every inanimate object or concept is neuter. (In literary and poetic usage, countries or (star)ships can be female.) Compare German, which also has three genders. (Neuter gender is actually called sachlich, lit. thing-like, objective, business-like in German.) Who would have guessed that a carpet is male (der Teppich), a page is female (die Seite) — as is physics (die Physik) — while a boat is neuter (das Boot). [There are actually some, fairly complex, rules that allow you to guesstimate correctly about 4 out of 5 times. More here.]

In Hebrew (or Arabic), for instance, there is no neuter gender, so anything is male or female. As a rule, in Hebrew, unspecified gender defaults to male. So a dog is a kelev, plural klavim — except if you want to specifically point out it’s a she-dog, then kalba (which also can mean “bitch” as a pejorative), plural kalbot. A donkey is a khamor, except if you specifically mean a she-ass, atonAvot (the plural of av) literally means “fathers” but also can generally mean “ancestors” of both genders.

Back to French now, and Romance languages in general. Classical Latin obviously had three genders. In nouns of the second declension, they are quickly identified by the endings -us for male (dominus, domus), -a for female (domina, ancilla), -um for neuter (museum, ferrum). But of all the major Romance languages, only Rumanian seems to have a neuter gender at all — and even that is a strange beast that behaves like male in the singular and female in the plural. What gives?

The thing is: Latin existed in different “high”/formal/literary and “low”/informal register variants, and the differences were so pronounced that they amounted to two dialects of the same language. (Linguists call this situation diglossia. It is also seen with classical vs. demotic Greek, Sanskrit vs. Prakrit, and — in the modern era — literary Arabic vs. its regional dialects.) The classic Latin works we learned in high school were all written in easier or more difficult forms of classical Latin: the language spoken (and to some extent written) by the common people (Latin: vulgus) was called vulgar Latin. All Romance languages descend from vulgar Latin, rather than classical literary Latin.

Typically, the informal language variants have a simplified grammar compared to the literary form. For example, this is the case with spoken informal German (Mundart, lit. “the way of the mouth”) vs. the written language, and with “street Hebrew” vs. the formal language (e.g., the use of “[noun] sheli” for the possessive instead of inflecting the noun). Vulgar Latin was no exception to this rule: among other things, the neuter gender was absorbed into the masculine.

415px-latingenderloss-svg

Et voilà. As vulgar Latin fragmented into dialects, which ultimately evolved into Old French etc., those descendants retained the binary gender.

In contrast, while classical Greek existed in a similar state of diglossia, both classical Attic Greek and demotic Greek had three genders —  and hence modern Greek (which descends from Demotic) retains the neuter gender.retains it as well, even if many other grammatical features of literary Greek were discarded.

 

Who first said: “We must keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out”?

I have heard the quote in the title attributed to all sorts of people, ranging from mathematician Alan Ross Anderson to Mark Twain to Prince Charles [OK, the sophomoric jokes write themselves]. But who really said this?

Quoteinvestigator did the legwork and also cites another article researching the origin of the quote.

Let us keep our minds open, by all means, as long as that means keeping our sense of perspective and seeking an understanding of the forces which mould the world. But don’t keep your minds so open that your brains fall out! There are still things in this world which are true and things which are false; acts which are right and acts which are wrong, even if there are statesmen who hide their designs under the cloak of high-sounding phrases.

— Walter Kotschnig November 8, 1939

Now, who is Walter Kotschnig? This American academic and diplomat of Austrian-Jewish origin has a fairly detailed bio in the German-language Wikipedia, but none in the English version. A brief summary:

He was born in the historical town Judenburg in Steiermark/Styria, Austria as the son of a school principal. The town name is first documented in 1074: it was an important commercial center at the time and, as the name suggests, had a significant Jewish community (which was expelled in 1496). During the Third Reich, there were attempts to change the “embarrassing” name, but a decision was postponed until after the “Endsieg” (final victory), which thank G-d never came.

Kotschnig started his university studies in nearby Graz. As he became ill with tuberculosis, he was briefly cared for by an American relief organization based in the Netherlands: the experience made him passionate about international collaboration. Upon obtaining his doctorate in political science at the U. of Kiel, Germany in 1924 and marrying (to psychologist Elinid Prys), he took a position with the International Student Service in Geneva, and from 1927 until 1934 served as secretary-general of the organization. Subsequently, he worked for the League of Nations (the interbellum predecessor of the UN) as director of the High Commission for German Refugees. In 1936 he emigrated with his family to the USA, where he took up teaching positions at two of the “Seven Sisters” women’s colleges, Smith College and Mount Holyoke. In addition, he published scholarly papers on education policy planning. He became a US citizen in 1942, published a book with proposals for democratic education reforms in formerly fascist countries, and in 1944 was involved in the planning of the Dumbarton Oaks conference, which was the cradle of the UN. In 1947 he became the head of the International Organizations desk at the US State Department, to eventually rise to the position of Assistant Secretary of State (1965-1971).

At any rate, on November 8, 1939, he gave a speech at Smith College in honor of the upcoming Armistice day, where he made the above remark. The manuscript of his speech has been found in his collected papers at SUNY Albany.

The speech was later reported on in an article in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly [“Chapel and Assembly Notes”, Vol. 31(2), p. 153 (1940)] where the quote first appears in print in that form.

Tim Farley in his article does, however, note an earlier quote in a Yale Law Journal article by law professor Max Radin, “On Legal Scholarship,”  http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/791732  ) that may have been a direct inspiration.

[Practical gentlemen] have a number of bitterly sarcastical comments on persons whose minds are so open that their brains fall out.

Radin may have borrowed it in turn from somebody else, but Kotschnig is clearly the first documented person to use the quote in substantially its present form.

 

Palookas, palookaville, the palooka party, and etymology of the word

 

Commenter “buzzsawmonkey” posted the following in a discussion on PJMedia. Agree or disagree, the metaphor is rather colorful.

“The Republicans are what Orwell called “a permanent and pensioned opposition.” They are the inflatable doll in the passenger seat that enables the Democrats to drive in the carpool lane.

More properly, they are the Palooka Party. They see their role as taking dives for the Democrats for the guaranteed short money, as a palooka fighter in a 1930s pulp-fiction story would take a dive for [the] kid being groomed by the gambling syndicate for a shot at the title. The Republicans’ job, as palookas, is to make it look good—put up a flurry of opposition before getting showily knocked out in the sixth round.

Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan don’t want to govern—nor do the other palookas in their party who voted to put them where they are. They want to go back to the safe business of taking dives for the guaranteed short money.”

The last sentence echoes this quote from the movie “On The Waterfront” (1954):

Terry: It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.

Charlie: Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.

Terry: You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. […]

The word “palooka”  appears to have been coined in the 1920s by Variety sports writer Jack Conway, as a term for “a mediocre prizefighter”. Wikipedia (caveat lectorclaims it was derived as a kind-of spoonerism from the ethnic slur “Polack”. However, the talk page for the article suggests a much more plausible etymology: the Italian word pagliuca (a Southern dialect diminutive of paglia=straw or chaff), i.e. “little straw [guy]”. It’s hardly a stretch to assume that Mafiosi engaged in match-rigging would have referred to the designated loser as a pagliuca —which an English speaker unfamiliar with Italian would have transliterated as something like palooka.

A more modern form of “designated loser” would be the Washington Generals against the basketball exhibition team, the Harlem Globetrotters. Indeed, that very metaphor can be found online in a US political context, in both directions.

 

Colorful Dutch idioms and expressions, Part 3

In the final installment of this series, a few more expressions that didn’t make it into Part 1 and Part 2, most of them inspired by the animal kingdom.

Waiting for roast chickens to fall into your mouth. (wachten tot de gebraden kippen in je mond vallen.) Awaiting success and prosperity without making adequate effort toward them.

Which the dogs won’t eat bread of. (Waar de honden geen brood van lusten.) Said of an acrimoniously worded letter or speech, etc.

Having as much understanding of [something] as a cow of eating saffron/of painting. (Evenveel verstand van [iets] hebben als een koe van saffraan eten/van schilderkunst.) Knowing jack all about [something], being clueless about [something].

[looking] Like a cow that sees a passing train (als een koe die een trein ziet voorbijrijden): (1) looking clueless; (2) being taken by surprise, “like a deer in the headlights”. (More Flemish/”Zuidnederlands” than standard Dutch usage.)

Two guys and a horse’s head. (Twee man en een paardekop.) A[n audience/turnout of a] handful of people; ten people and a dog. Also “one and a half guys and a horse’s head” (anderhalve man en een paardekop).

[That fits/matches] like pliers and a pig. (Dat past als een tang op een varken.) Spectacularly, garishly mismatched.

Like a dog [walking though] a bowling game. (Als een hond in een kegelspel.) Unwelcome or unwanted; like a fifth wheel; spare organ at a wedding.

To send one’s cat. (Zijn kat sturen.) Not showing up.

Sparing the cabbage and the goat. (De kool en de geit sparen.) Having one’s cake and eating it too.

Forward the goat! (Vooruit met de geit!) Get on with it!

You can’t pluck a bald chicken/You can’t skin a pebble. (Je kan een kale kip niet pluimen/Je kan niet van men key het vel afstropen.) You can’t skin a stone/extract money from somebody who has none.

We’re lodged at the Monkey Inn. (We zijn in den aap gelogeerd.) We’ve been had/we’re hosed.

A donkey that poops money. (Een ezeltje dat geld schijt.) (1) a source of “rent”/easy money; (2) Ironically, the nonexistent finance of a fiscally unsustainable plan: “What’s going to pay for this, a donkey that poops money?”

That’s goat’s b-llocks. (Dat is kloten van de bok.) This sucks big time. [Dutch can get pretty graphic. “Kloten”/”b-llocks” plays a similar ‘all-purpose expletive’ role in Dutch as the f-word in English.]

Calling a cat a cat. (Een kat een kat noemen.) Saying it like it is, calling things by their name without sugarcoating.

When they want to beat a dog, a stick is readily found. (Als men een hond wil slaan vindt men licht een stok.) If they’re out to “get” somebody, they’ll find some pretext or another.

Little Barber must hang. (Barbertje moet hangen.) His fate’s already been decided: the trial is just for show, and even if he’s found innocent they’ll trump up another charge. From a parable in the classic 19th Century novel Max Havelaar by Multatuli (more in Dutch); said parable was itself inspired by a scene in Act IV of the German Enlightenment play “Nathan The Wise” by Lessing.

A more Pythonesque version:

 

ADDENDUM

He knows where Abraham found the mustard. (Hij went waar Abraham de mosterd gevonden heeft.) (1) He has the straight dope; (2) he knows what it’s all about. The “mosterd” is a corruption of the archaic Dutch word “mutsaard” for a pile of firewood (or shrub wood collected for the same purpose)—both of which appear in the Biblical story of the Binding of Isaac (Gen.22:1-19).