Not quite genius

It has been truly said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

A genius once observed that all motion is relative. After long perspiration, he published the Theory of Relativity.

An idiot, too, observed that all motion is relative. After no perspiration at all, he decided to brush his teeth by holding the toothbrush in one place and shaking his head back and forth.


At some point I shall have more to say about the ‘New Criticism’ of the 1940s and its successors since then – the various ill-starred attempts to remove the subjective from literary criticism and thereby gank some of the prestige (read: grant money) hitherto reserved for the hard sciences. This program, as I have mentioned before, led to the ludicrous practice of analysing literature without any reference either to the intentions of the writer or the reactions of the reader; as if the mere text were an eternal and uncreated thing, existing solely to be studied in the abstract, and not a dirty, low-down, wilful attempt at communication.

Linguistics, which (almost alone among the social sciences) ought to be a science, and can at least be approached as one, is in a worse state than all the others. So I found out a decade ago, when I made the mistake of paying tuition to study it. The ‘Quantitative Methods’ in that field, as in most of the social sciences, consist chiefly of misapplied statistics and a smattering of logic. But if language is anything, it is an attempt to transmit a signal successfully; and you cannot really understand how signals work without studying information theory. Naturally, there was no mention of information theory in the linguistics syllabus; probably because the linguists don’t know any information theory themselves, and don’t even know that it’s there not to know. (These are the same people, in some cases, who laughed at Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’; more fools they.) You see, information theory is taught by the Maths Department, and requires other mathematics courses as prerequisites; at the university I attended, it was a third-year course, and by that time a linguist is supposed to have completed all his Quantitative Methods courses and relapsed into comfortable innumeracy.

The inimitable Tom Lehrer, in one of his lesser known songs, took a shot at the same tendency in the social sciences. In his younger days, the social sciences were (as he puts it) desperately trying to justify the word ‘science’ in their title. Social scientists, whose ostensible subject was the study of the nature and interactions of human beings, were instead abandoning that subject to go in for the aforementioned Quantitative Methods. It was this absurdity that spilled over into literature; and pretty nearly everything that needs to be said about it was said briefly and pithily by Mr. Lehrer in the song that follows.

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G. K. C. opens the cruellest month

Today would have been my father’s ninetieth birthday. He expected to live to see it; many of his close relations had lived that long, or close to it; he was in robust physical health till his mind gave way. But a house untenanted falls sooner into dilapidation, and I had to say my goodbye to him more than two years ago.

Because the first of April was, for our family, the date of a celebration not fitly met with mockery, I have never gone in for April Foolery myself; though I can appreciate a good jape when performed by a genuine artist.

This, for instance:

‘G. K. Chesterton on AI Risk’

The followers of Mr. Samuel Butler speak of thinking-machines that grow grander and grander until – quite against the wishes of their engineers – they become as tyrannical angels, firmly supplanting the poor human race. This theory is neither exciting nor original; there have been tyrannical angels since the days of Noah, and our tools have been rebelling against us since the first peasant stepped on a rake. Nor have I any doubt that what Butler says will come to pass. If every generation needs its tyrant-angels, then ours has been so inoculated against the original that if Lucifer and all his hosts were to descend upon Smithfield Market to demand that the English people bend the knee, we should politely ignore them, being far too modern to have time for such things. Butler’s thinking-machines are the only tyrant-angels we will accept; fate, ever accommodating, will surely give them to us.

(Hat tip to Nancy Lebovitz for mentioning this jewel in the comment box.)

International Tongue-Twister Day

Hat tip to The Passive Voice.

In honour of the day, TPV commenter Antares proposes this ditty:

An American legend

The odd thing about the Banshee Guys, or Bratwurst Grills, or whatever B. G. stands for (as previously mentioned), is that they did not start off as a disco band. No indeed, their roots lay deep in the American folk-song revival of the postwar years, and in the course of mining that country’s traditions, they put to glorious music some of its most moving and enduring legends.

One of their most famous songs retells an ancient myth of the American Southwest, where to this day, the natives tell tales of that supernatural trickster, the Coyote. I reproduce the lyrics in full:

I started a chase which started the Road Bird running,
But I didn’t see that the chase was on me.
I set off the fuse which started the bomb exploding,
Oh, but my TNT, it was glued onto me.

I ran off a cliff, stood there as if it were solid and stiff.
Then I looked at the ground, and none being found, plummeted down,
Till I fell with a crash, which started the Road Bird beeping,
And a boulder broke free, and it crashed upon me.

Breathes there a man with heart so dead that he is not stirred to sublime emotions by the story of the Wily Coyote? Ah, it is a moving legend indeed; it has been clocked at over 60 miles per hour.

The unbearable lightness of disco

Just now, I happened to be within earshot of a radio loudly playing an ‘oldies’ station; and, as is liable to happen on such occasions, I heard a familiar old song for about the ten thousandth time. And as is also liable to happen, I had never before paid much attention to the lyrics; partly because they were sung in a screeching nasal falsetto, hard to distinguish, and partly because they are not really meant to draw one’s attention. They are merely mouth noises to carry the tune, and the tune is merely a noise to tell the stridently funky disco band when to change key. And that is merely the signal for people on the dance floor to do bad John Travolta impersonations.

But this time I did pay attention; and with a little help from the Internet (that infallible source of nothing but petrified truth), I deciphered them at last. Now I know what the Banshee Guys were actually singing about. I think that was the name of the vocal group; it was either that or Banana Grinders; but it is hard to recover the information at this late date in history, for they had a stubborn habit of using only the initials B. G. At any rate, here are the words, as reconstructed by the latest techniques in the science of musical archaeology.

(Cut for mild anatomical vulgarity…)

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Philosophers and philosophers

In thirty-odd years’ study of the arcane field of Philosophy, I have not learned very much; which perhaps means that I am doing it right.

Here is one thing I have definitely learned:

In the field of Philosophy, there are two kinds of people: Philosophers and Academic Philosophers. All the actual philosophies are created by the first group, but it is the second group that gets tenure.

Philosophers think very hard about the meaning of life, the nature of knowledge, and things like that, and write about it for the public.

Academic Philosophers, by tradition, are angry old men with beards and elbow patches who write incomprehensible gobbledygook at each other because they just like arguing that much.

In these enlightened times, however, Academic Philosophy has risen above its ignoble past and taken on a whole new look. For nowadays, most of the Academic Philosophers are clean-shaven.


Cosmic claustrophobia

Apropos of nothing particular, A Theory:

If you do the whole Star Trek thing, leave Earth behind, explore the galaxy, and boldly go where no man has gone before…

…you will STILL end up face to face with someone you knew in high school, and you couldn’t stand each other then, and it isn’t any better now.

This is my theory, and I would point out that it has never yet been disproved. It is neither logically impossible, nor is there any empirical evidence against it. Which is more than you can say for a lot of crackpot theories.

Spangling the conversational firmament

You can tell you’ve been having a strange conversation when – well, let me just give you the last line:

‘You know, there’s a reason why very few dogs are employed by the better restaurants as dishwashers.’


Over at According to Hoyt, they’re having Sunday Vignettes. The object is to write 50 words (exactly 50, if possible) on a given prompt. Today’s prompt is ‘alchemy’. My own humble contribution:

I went Midas one worse. Everything I touch is transmuted. Food turns to metal when I try to eat. The love of my life is now a lifeless statue. Everything in my house is hard, shiny, and useless.

But I didn’t even get gold.

Anybody want fifty tons of zinc?