Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Thought Experiment

“Poem of the Last Judgment”, Gutenberg Press, 1940
    You may bring in one secular book to read by candlelight for years in isolation. 

    Describe that book. 

    In my university history research those many decades ago I spent weeks reading letters from U.S. civil war soldiers¹ at the battle lines.  I was startled by how well, how long and how often such young, poorly educated enlisted men quoted verse--much of it contemporary--in their correspondence.  This faculty was common among all anglophone combatants.  It survived WWI, giving us iconic poems such as "In Flanders Field" and "Dulce et Decorum Est".  It tapered off during WWII but only after producing "High Flight".  Before the Korean conflict it receded from sight.

    I think of this now as I hear sour grapes from ConPoets who argue out of one side of their mouths that verse was never popular [because theirs isn't] while simultaneously insisting that poetry is alive today.  I tried telling them about the commercial successes² of everyone from Shakespeare to Byron to Service. 

    What was learned? 

    Not to bore stubborn people with facts. 

    Between the advent of the Gutenberg press and the introduction of the dime store novel in 1860 books and kerosene for reading could be prohibitively expensive.  Families might have nothing more than a bible.  Over time, they might add an atlas, an animal picture book or a collection of illustrated fairy tales.  Dictionaries were a luxury, novels an extravagance.  Between its publication in 1851 and his death in 1891, Herman Melville made only $1200 selling a meager 3,400 copies of "Moby Dick".  By contrast, in 1817 Robert Southey's dramatic poem, "Wat Tyler", sold 30,000 copies in its first week.² 

    Remember that book I asked about at the top?  Was yours prose or poetry?

    Whether you are a prisoner, a prairie dweller facing a long winter, an explorer or an agoraphobic trapped in an apartment, restricted by regulations, burden or budget to only one tome, it will be poetry.  The reason is simple.  By definition, prose is meant to to be read, enjoyed, and set aside with or without discussion (for a long while, at least).  Poetry is designed to be revisited more regularly, perhaps even memorized and, should a suitable audience appear, performed. 

    Life being what it was without frozen pizza and microwave ovens, reading was a pleasure taken after a long day's toil.  Unfortunately, the flickering light made it hard to read new text.  Previous exposure, which was more likely with verse than prose, facilitated character recognition.  This is before we get into the matter of poetry's concision.  Thus, along with relative convenience, scant resources and options resulted in higher sales of poetry than novels.² 

    Conversely, those accessing whole libraries or databanks of literature--and in bright lighting--will read prose.  Simple advances in modern life have fueled the comprehensive pursuit of stories, ideas and data rather than the silent music of unspoken words.  Our environment hardwires us for prose, as it once did for poetry.

NextAnother Paradigm

    "The takeaway here is that, as difficult as it would have been for someone in 1815 to imagine poetry being dead, it may be equally difficult for us in 2015 to imagine it being alive."

      - Facebook, 2015-06-26


¹ - We think of letters home from the front as seeking the sympathy and companionship of loved ones.  In fact, soldiers didn't want to spread their misery back home and had more than enough company where they were.  They simply wished to revisit a civilization being enjoyed, not destroyed.  They dreamed of simple courtesies like the absence of death threats.  It was about desolation, not consolation or isolation.

² - Other instances, along with precious few counterexamples, are only a web search away.  Enter "poem", a space, a dollar ("$") or pound ("£") sign, and a big round number into your search engine.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Vertical Language

     We should not be surprised that other languages lack a future (Japanese) or past perfect (spoken French) tense.  It could be argued that, in addition to needing participles to form the past imperfect ("I have seen...") and future ("I will see...") tenses, English lacks a present one! 

     Consider these uses of the "present" tense of the verb "to see":

1a.  "I am seeing the doctor."

     Surely the present progressive must represent what is progressing presently, right?

1b.  "I am seeing the doctor on Friday."

     Apparently not!  Worse yet, it might not refer to any singular, non-recurring event:

1c.  "I am seeing the doctor on Fridays."

     Assuming today is not Friday, the above refers to the past and the future--everything but the present!

1d.  "You can see the doctor now."

     The word "now" guarantees the medical professional's current visibility, right?  Actually, this is something a clinic receptionist might say while motioning you toward the physician's office.  Thus, it implies the healer is not in sight yet--the exact opposite of what the words mean literally.

2.  "It happened about five years ago.  I get up one morning, go to the clinic and see the doctor."

3.  "...was blind, but now I see."

     This implies a permanent change in status, "now" meaning "now and/or in the future", the paradox being it could be said or sung with one's eyes closed.

     This confusion comes before we contemplate the hundreds of irregular verbs, of which see/seen/saw is one of the least confounding.

     The five C's for communication are:

1.  Comprehensibility

    Whole web sites are devoted to expressions absent from English.

2.  Comprehension/Clarity

    I'm told this actually makes sense:  "The man the professor the student has studies Rome."

3.  Cohesion

    Much of our humor stems from absurdities in our grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

4.  Concision

     "All the faith he had had had had no effect on the outcome of his life."

5.  Consistency

    Exceptions to "'i' before 'e' except after 'c'":  beige, cleidoic, codeine, conscience, deify, deity, deign, dreidel, eider, eight, either, feign, feint, feisty, foreign, forfeit, freight, gleization, gneiss, greige, greisen, heifer, heigh-ho, height, heinous, heir, heist, leitmotiv, neigh, neighbor, neither, peignoir, prescient, rein, science, seiche, seidel, seine, seismic, seize, sheik, society, sovereign, surfeit, teiid, veil, vein, weight, weir, weird, etc.

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #1
     How many of these does English do and do well?  Let me try the math:  um...3...multiplied by...plus...uh...carry the one...subtracting...yeah...

     None of them.  Seriously.  Not even close.

     Nevertheless, thanks to commerce and the Internet, in a few generations every educated individual on the planet will speak English.  At that point language will have nowhere left to expand on earth.  We and it will start thinking and growing vertically.  Even St. Augustine would begin to dream of the stars. 

     Consider how ill-prepared English is for interplanetary exploration.  For example, we know our universe is expanding but what do we call what it's spreading into?  We can't call it "space" because that is the stuff of our universe--the thing doing the expanding.  How do we identify the area beyond?

     That's just vocabulary.  We need modes of conceptualization, a language not for our tongues but our imaginations.  We need nouns and modifiers that have states (i.e. solid, liquid, gaseous, like ice, water and steam) of being.  We need temporary, permanent and, in speaking of Schrödinger's Cat, indefinite verbs. 

     It's a long shopping list.

1. Vertical Language

2. Horizontal Language


English Is CUH-RAY-ZEE  - Words by Josh White, Jr. and Pete Seeger. Sung by Pete Seeger 

English is the most widely spoken language in the history of the planet.
One out of every seven human beings can speak or read it.
Half the world's books, 3/4 of the international mail are in English.
It has the largest vocabulary, perhaps two million words,
And a noble body of literature. But face it:
English is cuh-ray-zee!

Just a few examples: There's no egg in eggplant, no pine or apple in pineapple.
Quicksand works slowly; boxing rings are square.
A writer writes, but do fingers fing?
Hammers don't ham, grocers don't groce. Haberdashers don't haberdash.
English is cuh-ray-zee!

If the plural of tooth is teeth, shouldn't the plural of booth be beeth?
It's one goose, two geese. Why not one moose, two meese?
If it's one index, two indices; why not one Kleenex, two Kleenices?
English is cuh-ray-zee!

You can comb through the annals of history, but not just one annal.
You can make amends, but not just one amend.
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one, is it an odd or an end?
If the teacher taught, why isn't it true that a preacher praught?
If you wrote a letter, did you also bote your tongue?
And if a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
English is cuh-ray-zee!

Why is it that night falls but never breaks and day breaks but never falls?
In what other language do people drive on the parkway and park on the driveway?
Ship by truck but send cargo by ship? Recite at a play but play at a recital?
Have noses that run and feet that smell?
English is cuh-ray-zee!

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same
When a wise man and a wise guy are very different?
To overlook something and to oversee something are very different,
But quite a lot and quite a few are the same.
How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell the next?
English is cuh-ray-zee!

You have to marvel at the lunacy of a language in which your house can burn down
While it is burning up. You fill out a form by filling it in.
In which your alarm clock goes off by going on.
If pro is the opposite of con, what is the opposite of progress?

Well, English was invented by people, not computers
And reflects the creativity of the human race.
So that's why when the stars are out, they're visible,
But when the lights are out, they're invisible.
When I wind up my watch I start it, but when I wind up this rap,
I end it. English is cuh-ray-zee!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Horizontal Language

    Why do I get the feeling that this post will be a lot less sexy than expected?

    Let us assume that human language developed betweeen 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, shortly after the appearance of homo sapiens.  Judging from the speed at which modern humans replaced earlier hominids (e.g. Neanderthals, Homo rhodesiensis), it seems likely that the original impetus for language development was the formation of expansion--if not battle--plans.  Like a weed or a city spreading outwards before it has to build upwards, language is still in the process of growing horizontally.  Through the Internet and other media one particularly invasive language, English, is becoming our lingua franca, dismantling the Tower of Babel.

    The diversification of language is not simply a matter of geography and conquest;  the languages themselves have grown apart, evolving and devolving in the process.  Let's compare one of the most complex languages, English, to one of the easiest, Japanese, with its adult literacy rate of 99%.  Both are relatively new (under 2000 years?) and from island monarchic populations but, because of their history and demographics, they are opposite in almost every regard.

     When England wasn't being conquered itself it was busy colonizing the rest of the world.  Not surprisingly, it has collected the most synonyms/words.  Other languages reflect the culture that produced them.  English sounds like a United Nations cafeteria food fight.  Its spelling is more random than Boggle.  One pundit swore that "English could only have been produced by magpies on spring break in Ibiza."

     At the far end of the prehistoric world, Nihongo (i.e. the language of Japan) reflects the isolationism, overpopulation and stricter class structure evident for centuries before 1853.  This resulted in a paucity of synonyms which, in turn, led to commonly accepted symbols.  Its metaphoric nature may seem closer to Tamarian than to western prose.

     To illustrate, we anglophones attribute values of slyness to foxes and sturdiness to oak trees.  What do pine trees represent, though?  Or dung beetles?  Or sunstorms?  Largely through their folk literature, the Japanese have assigned specific iconic traits to virtually everything.  This is one of many reasons why their poetic forms, most saliently haiku, fail in European cultures.  It's like listening to a soccer game without knowing which players are on which team.  We're completely out of the loop.  To make even a modicum of sense to a gaijin (i.e. foreigner) a single haiku would need an encyclopedia of footnotes.  At the very least, the audience would need to be familiar with every entry in this glossary.  Contrary to popular misconception, Japanese verse is not meant to be cryptic. It's just very culture-dependent.

     Nihongo isn't big on plurals.  Sometimes one simply repeats the singular:

        "Ware" = "Me"
    "Wareware" = "Us"

     In other cases the suffix "-achi" or "-ra" is appended, much like "s" in English:

    "Watashi"  = "I"
"Watashitachi" = "We"   - Five syllables to say "We"!?

        "Kare" = "Him"
      "Karera" = "Them"

     Speakers deal with the polysyllabic pronouns by dropping them, along with their particles.  "Watashi wa byoki desu" ("I am sick") becomes "Byoki desu" ("Am sick").

     Japanese being a no-frills language, there is no future tense. 


     How optimistic is a culture whose language doesn't have a future tense?

     Well, at least that explains Kurosawa.

     The workaround is to use the present tense and a time.  Even in English people will accept "Tomorrow I go to work" as grammatically correct.  Gerunds handle other missing progressive and perfect tenses.

     Japanese is moraic, like Hawaiian and Sanskrit, meaning it matters how long you pronounce vowels and whether or not you exhale after consonants.  "Osaka" is actually O-O-sa-ka, 4 tempi, not 3.  To be clear, that isn't two distinct "O" sounds but one sustained one.  It is less like "Oh, oh, we're in trouble!" and more like "O-o-o-oh, now I remember!" 

     In English, consider the aspiration at the end of "cat" versus "rabbit".  "Cat" is stressed, ending in an exhalation not necessarily evident in "rabbit" (which ends in an unstressed syllable).  Thus, "cat" is one syllable but two moras.¹

     Japanese separates vowels, employing hiatus where we might use  diphthong or composites.  For example, where we hear one syllable with one vowel sound in "bike" the Japanese will hear three abbreviated sounds:

"Bu-"² as in "but" + "eek" as in "...a mouse!" + exhalation, like a schwa

      In Japanese prosody a mora is an "on":  a vowel sound with or without a consonant--but not two consonants.  The style of haiku with 5-7-5 "syllables" actually has 5-7-5 "sounds" (or tempi, moras or "on").   Thus, there is an element of quantitative meter in Japanese (and ancient Greek) verse that is largely absent from English poetry.  The line with 7 on is bracketed by two observations that take the same time to utter as each other, thus underscoring the sense of transition.

     Don't confuse this with phonemes (i.e. individual sounds);  all but 5 on include a consonant along with the obligatory vowel (a-e-i-o-u).  By clicking here (PDF) or here (HTML) you can see a list of the 71 moras.  Got a half hour?  If you memorize their symbols you will be able to read and write in hiragana (roughly, their phonetic alphabet).  (They also have characters, called "katakana" collectively, for making facsimiles of foreign names and words but these can be picked up later.)

     Their subject-object-verb word order is more strictly observed than our subject-verb-object default.  Lest there be confusion, Nihongo uses "particles", markers (e.g. "ga" and "wo") that distinguish subject from object.  Free of other influences,  Japanese includes a grand total of two irregular verbs.  Two!  Newcomers to English must wonder if it has two regular ones!

     Because superiors held the power of life or death over underlings, tremendous resources have been invested in deference.  One speaks differently, depending on whether the audience is a superior, an employee, a stranger, a friend, a family member, a lover, a child or an animal.  Yes, they speak to animals, but in a terms that won't remind us of Doctor Dolittle.  In more polite company, sentences are littered with obsequious honorifics (e.g. "kudasai", "chodai" or "onegaishimasu" when making a request).  Whole conjugations are devoted to kowtowing. 

    "Tabetai." = "I want to eat."

"Tabemasu." = "I would like to eat if that won't piss you off in the slightest, master."

     Japanese humor often derives from inadvertently using the wrong tone of reverence.  This is similar to Shakespearean plays, where less educated soldiers and civilians try to speak formally to generals or royalty.  Alas, most of the ensuing hilarity is lost on us modern egalitarians.

     Should this etiquette seem tedious, employ the standard³ Doonesbury approach, as I do:  speak informally and, when someone blanches, explain "I'm just a French major from the Bronx."  If nothing else, the experience should render an insight into what Japanese- and English-speakers find funny.

1. Vertical Language 

2. Horizontal Language


¹ - We hope that learning a little about a foreign tongue--especially one as foreign as Japanese--helps us understand our own (and its prosody).

² - Other anglophones might enunciate the first mora as "Ba-", as in "bat" or even "Bo-", as in "boat".  No matter.

³ - The reference is to a cartoon by Garry Trudeau in which an amateur American hockey player tries to check an opponent, only to be met by a string of French insults, curses and vituperation, causing him to slink off, saying:  "Oh, you're Canadian.  You must be good at this!"  The adversary keeps the puck and skates past, muttering that famous line:  "Actually, I'm just a French major from the Bronx."

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Quantum Poetry - Part II

Revelation versus Revolution

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #177
     In my experience, ordinary poets are introspective¹.  The great ones are curious.  More broadly so, at least.  To wit, an individual who encounters an unfamiliar prosody-related term or concept (e.g. curgina, corata, DATIA) and doesn't look it up lacks the interest and intellectual curiosity to become a noteworthy poet.

     This same dichotomy applies to the scientists I've known.  Most are concerned with their own theories and prospects.  Only the remarkable ones understand how fleeting those things are...and how wonderful that impermanence is.  Mediocre scientists delight in being proven right, legendary ones delight in being proven wrong.  Similarly, people defined by their beliefs will take comfort in going to bed with the same understanding of order they had when they woke up.  A brilliant scientist regards that as a day wasted.  Both revel in their own ignorance.  The difference is that proselytizers hope to increase the range of that ignorance while researchers work to reduce it.

     The rule that Nobody Reads Poetry seems to have one exception...and it isn't poets.  Almost every physics treatise I've read quoted or alluded to a poem and, to my astonishment, some of those were [gasp!] contemporary!  One of my favorite human beings supports this with anecdotal evidence².  Not once but twice³ Oxford undergraduate students [of Stephen Hawkings] contacted my friend regarding  verses he had posted online, promising to "do the math".

     This is hardly the first time verse became hyperthesis.   A conversation between François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1697-1778) and his mistress, Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (a physics student he called "Lady Newton") may have inspired theorizing that led eventually to the discovery of atomic energy.  That story ended with nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer quoting verses from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

Ruins, posted by Earl Gray on Vimeo.

Final Thoughts

     Theoretical physics is knowledge in the future tense.  Ultimately, humankind will develop a Unified Theory, allowing us to understand the entire cosmos.  On that bittersweet day physicists will have obsoleted themselves;  as mathematician, World Chess Champion and friend of Albert Einstein Emanuel Lasker said, "the perfection of an endeavor destroys it."  Until then, everything is evolving. 

     Poetry is knowledge in the past tense.  Its science, prosody, involves preserving the words exactly as originally presented.  Forms and fads may come and go but, by definition, a poem is the one thing in the universe that cannot be changed.


¹ - A euphemism for self-absorbed?

² - We concede that, in the research community, "anecdotal evidence" is an oxymoron.

Han Solo, just chillin'.

³ - The first verse mentioned that "time is motion."  Want to travel forward in time?  Freeze every molecule in your body, like Han Solo in "Star Wars:  The Empire Strikes Back".  When revived you won't be a second older.  Want to travel forward?  Move faster than the speed of light.  When did time begin?  At the Big Bang, when inert "nothingness" exploded into action.

     The second line was "leaves scatter slower than the wind."  This was in a context of objects in the universe expanding at an uneven rate.  Could the slower bodies have existed before our universe and are now being pushed along by newer material, the Big Bang's "shrapnel"?   

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Quantum Poetry

Part I - Fundamentals

     If you have more than an hour and a half (1:38:43) to learn about the universe, let me recommend "Measure for Measure: Quantum Physics and Reality":

     While I can't name anyone less qualified than I, let me give you a metaphoric distillation of the universe at the subatomic level.

An unretouched photo of Albert Einstein
     We used to assume that particles going in one direction would continue to do so (after accounting for gravity and friction).  In truth, the flight path seems to be more random.  The video above employed the example of two rectangular openings in a solid front wall through which electrons are sent until they hit a back wall.  If we were firing bullets or throwing fastballs we'd expect their straight trajectory to eventually form a pattern concentrated the back wall identical to the aperture:  rectangular. 

     What do we see instead? 

     Stripes across the entire back wall! 

     WTF?  Why the whole wall and what's with the stripes? 

     Hold that thought.

     Let's begin by thinking of knuckleballs rather than fastballs.  The unpredictability of the flight pattern makes the ball hard to catch, let alone hit.  Indeed, one catcher remarked that he needed a pillow, not a glove.  Another quipped that his job was easy;  just walk to the backstop and pick up the ball.  WTP?

     The catch¹ is that while the path may be erratic the destination isn't.  A knuckleball thrower can hit the strike zone with almost the same consistency as a fastball pitcher. 

     Consider Joe Pesci at the drive thru

     It's unlikely that Pesci will get exactly what he ordered but it's a safe bet that it will be fast food², not filet mignon or escargots. 

     This is the Uncertainty Principle.   

Schrödinger's Cat (and some photobomber)
     Commencing in 1926, after consulting with Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger solved the riddle (with help from his cat, who ended up hogging the spotlight).  Electrons don't travel as individual projectiles like bullets or fastballs.  Rather, they move as waves. 

    "Okay," you might say, "that explains the splattering across the entire back wall but, again, what about the stripes?"
     Imagine dropping two rocks into a pond.  Waves from each landing spot will ripple out and cross each other.  When a trough of one meets the trough of the other we have a low point, which shows up as the blank space between the striations.  When two crests join we have a pinnacle, appearing as a column on the background.  Where high points in one wave encounter lower ones in the other they average out, creating the transitional fuzziness between the blanks and the stripes.

     That is quantum physics in a nutshell--and what else would you expect from a squirrel?³

NextPart II - Poetry Parallels

Jurel the Squirrel


¹ - Please excuse the pun.

² - Assuming "fast food" isn't a oxymoron.

³ - Actually, our greatest scientist, Jurel the Squirrel (1903-1909), came up with a more elegant and comprehensive theory decades before Schrödinger et all.  Unfortunately, it doesn't translate easily into English.  (My best succinct attempt would be "God does not play dice...but She does deal goulies.") 

     Better to leave that for another day.