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“All poets write bad poetry. Bad poets publish them, good poets burn them.”*…

 

Thunderstorm with the Death of Amelia 1784 by William Williams active 1758-1797

Thunderstorm with the Death of Amelia, by William Williams, 1784. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

 

Readers may recall an earlier nod to William Topaz McGonagall, widely considered to be the worst published poet in British history.  McGonagall, best known for his widely-excoriated verse recounting of “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” distributed his poems, often about momentous events, on handbills and performed them publicly (often, it is reported, to cat calls and thrown food).  And he collected his verse into volumes including Poetic Gems, More Poetic Gems, Still More Poetic Gems, Further Poetic Gems, and Yet Further Poetic Gems.  Imagine your correspondent’s surprise and delight to find a learned appreciation of McGonagall’s place in poetic history:

Not unjustly, McGonagall is rarely mentioned without an epithet: some version of “the worst poet in the English language.” And by any reasonable account, any judgment based on the most universally shared values of poetics, prosody, and taste, there is little to admire in McGonagall. The rest of his corpus shares—replicates, really—the faults of “The Tay Bridge Disaster”: its lapses into bathos, its involuted syntactical structures, its rhymes so slanted as to be more or less horizontal.

There have been worse poets, of course, and as such it would be more accurate to describe McGonagall as the worst famous poet in the English language, a testament in part to the man’s powers of self-promotion and the caprices of literary history. But McGonagall’s notoriety still owes much to the singularly strange power of his own badness. There’s something, I think, in poems like “The Tay Bridge Disaster”—as well as McGonagall’s many poems on his great themes of death and destruction—that is worth examining; something that might redeem him, ever so slightly, from the annals of amusing semi-obscurity; something unsettling about his ostensibly blinkered artistic vision that might help to account for why he lingers as the patron saint of misbegotten verse…

On William Topaz McGonagall, the worst famous poet in the English language: “The Disaster Poet.”

(Readers will find a selection of McGonagall’s poems here.)

* Umberto Eco

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As we bathe in bathos, we might spare a thought for the decidedly more-accomplished poet (and playwright, artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and philosopher) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; he died on this date in 1832.  Probably best remembered these days for Faust, he was “the master spirit of the German people,” and, after Napoleon, the leading figure of his age.

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Written by LW

August 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

“If a ‘religion’ is defined to be a system of ideas that contains unprovable statements, then Gödel taught us that mathematics is not only a religion, it is the only religion that can prove itself to be one”*…

 

Godel-Tower_2880x1620_Lede

 

In 1931, the Austrian logician Kurt Gödel pulled off arguably one of the most stunning intellectual achievements in history.

Mathematicians of the era sought a solid foundation for mathematics: a set of basic mathematical facts, or axioms, that was both consistent — never leading to contradictions — and complete, serving as the building blocks of all mathematical truths.

But Gödel’s shocking incompleteness theorems, published when he was just 25, crushed that dream. He proved that any set of axioms you could posit as a possible foundation for math will inevitably be incomplete; there will always be true facts about numbers that cannot be proved by those axioms. He also showed that no candidate set of axioms can ever prove its own consistency.

His incompleteness theorems meant there can be no mathematical theory of everything, no unification of what’s provable and what’s true. What mathematicians can prove depends on their starting assumptions, not on any fundamental ground truth from which all answers spring.

In the 89 years since Gödel’s discovery, mathematicians have stumbled upon just the kinds of unanswerable questions his theorems foretold. For example, Gödel himself helped establish that the continuum hypothesis, which concerns the sizes of infinity, is undecidable, as is the halting problem, which asks whether a computer program fed with a random input will run forever or eventually halt. Undecidable questions have even arisen in physics, suggesting that Gödelian incompleteness afflicts not just math, but — in some ill-understood way — reality…

A (relatively) simple explanation of the incompleteness theorem– which destroyed the search for a mathematical theory of everything: “How Gödel’s Proof Works.”

* John D. Barrow, The Artful Universe

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As we noodle on the unknowable, we might spare a thought for Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto; he died on this date in 1923.  An engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher, he made several important contributions to economics, sociology, and mathematics.

He introduced the concept of Pareto efficiency and helped develop the field of microeconomics.  He was also the first to discover that income follows a Pareto distribution, which is a power law probability distribution.  The Pareto principle,  named after him, generalized on his observations on wealth distribution to suggest that, in most systems/settings, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes– the “80-20 rule.” He was also responsible for popularizing the use of the term “elite” in social analysis.

As Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson observed, “His legacy as an economist was profound. Partly because of him, the field evolved from a branch of moral philosophy as practised by Adam Smith into a data intensive field of scientific research and mathematical equations.”

The future leader of Italian fascism Benito Mussolini, in 1904, when he was a young student, attended some of Pareto’s lectures at the University of Lausanne.  It has been argued that Mussolini’s move away from socialism towards a form of “elitism” may be attributed to Pareto’s ideas.

Mandelbrot summarized Pareto’s notions as follows:

At the bottom of the Wealth curve, he wrote, Men and Women starve and children die young. In the broad middle of the curve all is turmoil and motion: people rising and falling, climbing by talent or luck and falling by alcoholism, tuberculosis and other kinds of unfitness. At the very top sit the elite of the elite, who control wealth and power for a time – until they are unseated through revolution or upheaval by a new aristocratic class. There is no progress in human history. Democracy is a fraud. Human nature is primitive, emotional, unyielding. The smarter, abler, stronger, and shrewder take the lion’s share. The weak starve, lest society become degenerate: One can, Pareto wrote, ‘compare the social body to the human body, which will promptly perish if prevented from eliminating toxins.’ Inflammatory stuff – and it burned Pareto’s reputation… [source]

220px-Vilfredo_Pareto_1870s2 source

 

 

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”*…

 

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Naeem Hayat as Hamlet, with the Shakespeare’s Globe company, performs to migrants in the Jungle refugee camp on 3 February 2016 in Calais, France

 

William Shakespeare lived in an age of uncertainty. His society was traversing a number of unpredictable challenges that spun from the succession of the heirless queen Elizabeth to the ascent of a new class of merchants. But the biggest issue had to do with religious conflicts. In the premodern world, religion provided absolute certainty: whatever we knew was implanted in our mind by God. We didn’t have to look any further. Once that system of beliefs started to collapse, Europe was left with a yawning gap. Religion no longer seemed capable to explain the world. René Descartes and Shakespeare, who were contemporaries, gave opposite answers to the sceptical challenge: Descartes believed that our quest for knowledge could be rebuilt and founded on indubitable certainties. Shakespeare, on the other hand, made uncertainty a leitmotiv of all his works, and harnessed its creative power…

Lorenzo Zucca considers the poet as a philosopher: “Much ado about uncertainty: how Shakespeare navigates doubt.”

Of possible parallel interest: an informative review of Scott Newstok’s How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education.

* Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 5, Scene 1

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As we back the Bard, we might recall that it was on this date in 1600 that four plays, three by Shakespeare– Much Ago About NothingHenry V, and the source of today’s title quote, As You Like It— plus Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour were officially entered into the Stationers’ Registry.  Readers will recall that the copyright regimen was strict in Elizabeth’s time, as is now.  But back then, copyright was literally that, the right to make a (first) copy: the Queen, concerned with sedition and determined to keep a tight rein on any and all published material in her realm, had decreed that no work could be printed in England without a license from the Stationer.  In this particular instance all four plays were “stayed”–meaning that they were specifically noted in the registry as works not to be printed.  The stay didn’t hold for long; within a few years, three of the four were published.  Only one held out: for reasons scholars still debate, As You Like It didn’t appear in print until the famed First Folio edition of 1623.

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Written by LW

August 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

“You are what what you eat eats”*…

 

Fruit3-1396x1536

 

Eating is paradoxically completely normal and pretty weird at the same time, once you start to think about it. We eat other beings constantly, in order to remain ourselves. In modern Western logic, the potential oddity of this situation has been dealt with for the most part by assuming that the things we eat stop being themselves after ingestion, that they become fuel or building blocks for us.

However, deep in the detailed pages of journals such as Cell Host & Microbe and Nature Reviews Endocrinology, a profound transformation is occurring in scientific ideas about food and eating that promises to undo assumptions about the relationships between eaters and what is eaten. This transformation, which we might characterize as a shift from a “machinic” to a rather hallucinogenic model of food and its incorporation, endows foodstuffs with much more agency and potency than they ever had in the standard “fuel + building blocks” model, where they were just burned and redeployed.

Rather than mere nosh, provender or raw material, food and its components are now being investigated for communicative and informational properties and for roles in gene regulation, environment sensing, maintaining physiological boundaries and adjusting cellular metabolic programs. Food speaks, cues and signals. Bodies sense and respond in complicated processes of inner conversation only dimly intuited by conscious thought.

Eating as interlocution is a conceptual development that carries with it potentially disorienting new representations of human interiority and autonomy. It is at the same time an immensely practical development, with implications for nutrition and metabolism as sites of potential technological interventions in health and longevity…

Food is being reunderstood as a currency of communication– social (a la Instagram), but more impactfully, biological: “Eating As Dialogue, Food As Technology.”

With this as background, see also: “The Future of Our Food Supply.”

Tangentially related– but entirely fascinating: “Putting Order In Its Place.”

* Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

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As we take a taste, we might spare a thought for William A. Mitchell; he died on this date in 2004.  A chemist who spent most of his career at General Foods, he was the inventor of Pop Rocks, Tang, quick-set Jell-O, Cool Whip, and powdered egg whites; over his career, he received over 70 patents.

MITCHELL source

 

“People are more violently opposed to fur than leather because it’s safer to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs”*…

 

The Wild One

Marlon Brando, The Wild One

 

Throughout the 1930s, the sleepy town of Hollister [California], not far from Monterey Bay, had made a pastime of hosting motorcycle rallies. Paused during World War II, an Independence Day rally returned in 1947 with a pent-up energy like never before.

By the end of the holiday weekend, roughly 50 bikers had been arrested for public drunkenness and other forms of debauchery. Then they left, and life in Hollister went back to normal. But the lore of what became dubbed the Hollister Riot grew. Breathless news accounts told of “havoc” and “pandemonium” on the streets of small-town America.

A couple weeks later LIFE magazine published a S.F. Chronicle photo from Hollister, pictured above, showing a drunken fellow teetering atop a Harley, a beer bottle in each fist and a pile of spent bottles at his feet. The headline: “Cyclists’ Holiday: He and friends terrorize a town.”

biker_hollister

Historians have questioned whether this photo from the so-called Hollister Riot was staged. Barney Peterson/S.F. Chronicle

LIFE was read by roughly 10% of the country at a time before widespread adoption of the television. The image of wild men on motorcycles, Hunter S. Thompson observed, was like nothing America had ever seen.

In “Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga,” Thompson wrote: “There was absolutely no precedent, in the years after World War II, for large gangs of hoodlums on motorcycles, reveling in violence, worshiping mobility and thinking nothing of riding five hundreds miles on a weekend … to whoop it up with other gangs of cyclists in some country hamlet entirely unprepared to handle even a dozen peaceful tourists.”

A few years after Hollister, Harper’s Magazine published a fictionalized version of the rally that was in turn crafted into a Hollywood depiction. “The Wild One” premiered in 1953 starring heartthrob Marlon Brando as the iconic biker outlaw Johnny Strabler.

At one point in the movie, a little girl asks Strabler what he’s rebelling against.

“Whaddya got?” he replies.

Over the years, mainstream motorcycle groups sought to dispel their reputation as hell-raising ruffians. But other clubs wore it proudly. They called themselves one-percenters, a response to the claim that 99% of motorcyclists are model citizens. The most notorious, the Hell’s Angels, was founded in Fontana not long after Hollister. Their motto: “When we do right, nobody remembers. When we do wrong, nobody forgets.”…

How the image of the outlaw biker was born. Via the ever-illuminating California Sun.

* Alexi Sayle

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As we hit the road, we might spare a thought for Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus, better known simply as Erasmus; he died on this date in 1536.  A Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, translator, and theologian, probably best remembered for his book In Praise of Folly, he was the greatest scholar of the northern Renaissance, the first editor of the New Testament (“Do unto others…”), and an important figure in patristics and classical literature.  Among fellow scholars and philosophers he was– and is– known as the “Prince of the Humanists.”

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1523) by Hans Holbein the Younger

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