November 24, 2006
Just found out, from re-watching it with the director’s commentary turned on, that some of the scenes in Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana were of the bleak volcanic landscape of Lanzarote, the island which another famous misanthrope, Michel Houellebecq, was obsessed with. Herzog will probaby object to being called a misanthrope, and he probably isn’t one in the way Houellebecq is — the latter exudes hatred for mankind, but Herzog definitely shows affection for his human film subjects, and is very much a humanist. Nevertheless, they both show a keen appreciation of the darkness and futility of human life. In any case, I sense they share some sort of common philosophy, but misanthropy is not quite it, and neither is cynicism — it’s more than mere everyday cynicism. Nihilism?
Houllebecq has some sort of photo book of Lanzarote with (I think, having glanced through it once) some short narratives, and Lanzarote is the location of the new age cloners in his latest novel. Reading the way he describes Lanzarote in the latest novel, he was clearly struck by the bleak landscape the same way Herzog was.
I really don’t know how Herzog gets this knack of finding the most eccentric human film subjects I’ve ever seen. The government clerk from Berlin who takes months of unpaid leave every year to go to the Algerian (I think) desert to study monitor lizards. The Swiss restaurant owner in Lanzarote who “hunts” turtles in his own artificial pool (landscaped to look like a beach) as a hobby. The pimp in Lanzarote who performs awful music with the owner of the brothel. And many more examples in his other films.
Throughout the commentary Herzog repeatedly denied that he was an “adventurer”. He scoffed at modern “adventurers” who pay to visit the headhunting tribes in Papua New Guinea while keeping their cellphones with them and “having a helicopter in the next bush” ready to rescue them if anything happened. He insisted that there were only two or three times when he ventured into danger knowingly (such as when he filmed the possible explosion of La Soufriere). “An idiot could cross the Sahara desert” he says, denying that he knew filming Fata Morgana would be dangerous. All quite unconvincing. There are very few people who would regard crossing the Sahara desert on one’s own (without backup helicopters and whatnot) as a safe endeavour. Herzog himself admitted that they went at a bad time, when torrential rains in the southern Sahara cut them off from rescue teams. And one only has to look at how he persisted with films like Fitzcarraldo, despite highly unfavourable (to say the least) conditions, to see that when lured by some grand project, he tends to disregard safety. Of course, I suppose he still has one over the helicopter-accompanied “adventurers” he loathes in that he does venture into real danger.
November 18, 2006
No. Having a self-selecting group of students is the exact opposite of a problem. It’s one of the best characteristics of this school. Zimmer was going on about attracting students from less privileged backgrounds, etc. Call me an elitist but I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing the unique nature of a U of C undergraduate education in order to attract those who are deterred from applying to the U of C by its Uncommon Application. For I assume the idea is that switching to the Common Application will bring in a few more applicants who either:
1) Would have been too lazy to fill out the Uncommon Application
2) Had not heard of the U of C and applied to it only because it conveniently happened to be on the list of Common Application schools.
For obvious reasons, letting in people from 1) would adversely affect the quality of undergraduates. And it would be unwise to let in people from 2), because no one should come here not expecting the unusual academic rigour, intensity and idealism. For their own mental health, and to lessen the burden on academic advisers and counsellors, most people shouldn’t stumble into a place like this without any mental preparation.
November 17, 2006
At a screening and discussion of the movie Chinatown, Ted Cohen somehow got onto the topic of why Poland has a long and continuing history of being belittled. Part of his evidence for this phenomenon were the various significant Polish intellectuals who were known primarily by their non-Polish names, such as Copernicus and Marie Curie. To point out the unfairness of ignoring Curie’s native name, he started by mentioning John Bardeen, who won the Nobel Prize twice. For some reason I thought he’d won it thrice, and interjected with that, to which Cohen replied saying “well once he shared it, that doesn’t count”. Turns out Bardeen only won it twice, and both times he shared it. Linus Pauling is the only person to have won two unshared Nobel Prizes. Although one of it was the Peace Prize, which perhaps doesn’t count as a serious prize (Cohen could not resist taking a side dig at the Economics Prize, which is not one of the prizes originally instituted by Alfred Nobel).
Interestingly, of the six father-son pairs of Nobel laureates, four of them are physics pairs (I never knew that Bohr had a son who was a signficant physicist — how he must have had to struggle to emerge from his father’s shadow — that I’d never heard of him probably proves that he didn’t succeed in doing that), and the other two are medicine-chemistry pairs. The one father-daughter pair is, of course, Pierre Curie and his daughter, a physics-chemistry pair, and the one mother-daughter pair is also a Curie pair. Obviously there is something about physics that makes talent in it more heritable than talent in the others. I’m not sure the two medicine-chemistry pairs are statistically significant, because (ignoring economics because of its short history) there are only five types of Nobel Prizes, so their share isn’t all that statistically deviant from a random distribution of heritable “Nobel types” amongst the family pairs (I am ignoring husband-wife pairs because they don’t suggest anything about genetic heritability or shared childhood environments), and given the small sample size, if one takes into account the double-counting of the Curies (Marie and Irene form a pair and Pierre and Irene form another), the number of chemistry familial pairs decreases drastically. The familial pair that intrigues me the most is the Tinbergens. For a long time I’d only known of Nikolaas, whom anyone with the slightest interest in psychology must know of, until a confusion one day with a Dutch friend alerted me to the other [fake-]Nobel-winning Tinbergen, the economist Jan. Medicine and economics sound pretty far apart, but when one considers that Nikolaas won his for his theory of animal behaviour and Jan for his theory of human behaviour, the relationship is evident.
November 7, 2006
Excerpt from Robert Pippin’s speech at the inauguration of the new U of C president:
It is said that in every generation of a great civilization there was always a group of reflective thoughtful members subject to a great anxiety, who worried constantly that everything of real value in that civilization is in great danger of being lost, that the signs of civilizational decline are everywhere. It can also be said that at the University of Chicago, in every generation, almost everyone worries almost all the time that everything of value that the University represents is in great imminent danger of being lost or permanently forgotten. It can seem that as long as it has been the University of Chicago, it has seen itself as teetering on the brink of an abyss, subject to the temptations of all the anti-U of C vices, beset by our own excess of evil tendencies. The temptations of mindless specialization, rampant professionalism and careerism among the faculty, vocationalism [yes he said it in italics], fad-following and trendiness in academic fashion, creeping country-club-ism in the undergraduate community, all the impure influences on the properly monastic life of the mind. As you already know, such anxieties can develop into full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorders.
I had to quote that, because soon I will be trapped somewhere where no one will understand why that was so funny.
Today a Singaporean student in the calculus class I’m grading asked the instructor to recommend advanced math courses that didn’t involve proofs. Most mathematicians will probably balk at the idea anyway, but U of C ones will probably balk even more. It’s not really math unless it has proofs…
November 4, 2006
Being the sourpuss that I am, I have never found Sascha Baron-Cohen funny. John Derbyshire thinks SBC is funnier than his material. Well it would hardly be difficult to be that. I suppose I don’t even get the “innate” part of SBC’s humour because I just don’t naturally interpret human expressions the way most people do.
All this being an excuse to quote what I thought was the most interesting part of Derbyshire’s review:
I think native Americans might be more at ease with this movie than I am. Imbedded in it is a critique of American niceness. Coming from the Old World, where people are much less nice, I am a bit of a fan of American niceness, and perhaps can’t laugh at it as easily as someone who grew up with it.
That’s strange, I would have thought people who grew up with niceness would also be somewhat sensitive to having it criticised.
It also got me self-absorbedly asking myself what I think of American niceness. I’m certainly not comfortable with it. But, to my own surprise, even though I’m usually anti-social niceties, I’m not really anti-American niceness. Perhaps I actually think it’s often genuine, and hence not “just” a nicety. I don’t even know if I think it’s genuine. Mostly I don’t think any more about whether it’s genuine, when it happens. Least of my worries.
November 1, 2006
In Physics Book II Ch. 8, Aristotle argues that nature works for the sake of an end. What I find bizarre about his argument is his reliance on analogies between nature and art, or intelligent action. For example, in 199a10-20 he argues that if things made by nature that were also made by art must be made in the same way that they are made by art. In this passage “art” and “intelligent action” seem to mean the same thing. He writes “surely as in intelligent action, so in nature”, and “intelligent action is for the sake of an end; therefore the nature of things also is so”, all without any prior justification for these assertions. Now perhaps I’ve just missed a major point he makes earlier in the Physics, and these assertions have actually been justified. They would still be bizarre though, unless one takes a theological viewpoint and has an intelligent actor, as such, creating nature. One would have thought that nature is prior to intelligent action, that it serves as the blueprint for intelligent action, rather than the other way around. Another “modern” viewpoint?
<>Another strange thing is Aristotle’s distinguishment of “chance” and “spontaneity”. It seems that he simply defines chance as a special case of spontaneity — that which applies to moral agents. His idea is that only someone with intentions can do something by chance. Rocks, for example, cannot. On my first reading this didn’t seem to do much more than create superfluous new terminology. Then I figured out that spontaneity and chance are actually causes, and we must distinguish between them because spontaneity is an external cause and chance is an internal cause.
And, of course, only moral agents have internal causes. Nah, all natural things have internal causes. Once again I’m buggered as to why the difference between spontaneity and chance is important.
November 1, 2006
I would love to know why the non-prime number variations sound so much more like ordered scales than the prime number variations.
November 1, 2006
Thank the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in giving me more breathing space to catch up with my classes. I am taking advantage of it to continue putting off a unified analysis of the second Razumovsky quartet. Instead I will blab some thoughts about experimental particle physics that have been returning to bug me ever since I first came up with them in desperation for a history of science paper.
In meta-commentaries of experimental particle physics, it is usually the “big science” aspect which is focused on. I won’t go into the problems of big science because there is enough written about it already. But what about the fact that the most cutting-edge particle physics experimental results today cannot be replicated by other, independent, research groups? It is hard to deny that there is an upper limit to the energies produced in accelerators, and that we are approaching it. The LHC might “discover” the Higgs, but no other accelerator can replicate it. It can be done again in the LHC, but since that would be using the same apparatus and very likely the same algorithms (many of which would be embedded in the electronics), that would hardly be an independent replication.
This is probably not unique to experimental particle physics. Conceivably, observational astronomy might also reach such a limit. Telescopes may only get so powerful. We may reach a point where there is only one telescope powerful enough to show us certain details, and that would not be independently repeatable. I suspect, though, that even space telescopes are much less expensive than giant particle accelerators, so it is not inconceivable that independent researchers could build and launch another telescope capable of rivalling the machine that made the initial discovery. It is certainly quite inconceivable that another LHC-scale will be built just to attempt to verify the LHC’s discoveries. The ILC, for example, is touted as a complement rather than as backup support for the LHC. It is not inconceivable that we will eventually have the technology to build a more powerful accelerator than the LHC. But there will be a limit, and it is not far away. Besides, I don’t regard another gargantuan, complex machine, built by 1000 physicists and engineers, many of whom would have been trained by working for accelerators that had been built earlier, as something that can strictly, independently, reproduce the experimental results of a human-machine complex that had been similar to it. And how many times could we reproduce it? Two, three, different accelerators that can access the same energy? Nothing at all like “tabletop” experiments.
November 1, 2006
It seems that in order to make a music analysis paper sound coherent, one must either discuss a group of characteristics that themselves share a common characteristic, or concentrate on just one particularly interesting characteristic or excerpt of the piece. One must resist the urge to also cover other interesting but unrelated aspects of the piece.
That was all an expression of how I have no stomach at the moment to redo my analysis of the second Razumovsky quartet. My brain in this late night state doesn’t feel up to the task of obsessing over one detail in the piece and trying to ferret out the entirety of its role in the piece — for Beethoven is almost certain to have inserted echoes of any interesting detail in various places other than the obvious. Nor does it feel up to squashing the interesting parts that it has found into an almost certainly inadequate unifying framework.
A feeling that is becoming familiar is the guilt after having written a music analysis paper. Because I always feel that I’m perpetrating some fraud. I never really believe that the main point I make is really a main point. Rather I always feel that I’ve concocted a main point and massaged my diverse thoughts about the piece to make them sound like they contribute to the main point. I always feel like I’ve made a patchwork quilt, with especially ugly and prominent seams. When others seem to appreciate the hack job, I feel relief rather than satisfaction. Relief that I haven’t been found out.
If my brain weren’t already sputtering in protest I’d ponder more on what it is about arguments in music analysis that make them so much harder to organise, as it were, compared to arguments in other fields. Or what it is about my mind that makes music analysis appear to me as though it is more difficult to organise.