Tag Archives: Memes

New Job Posting: Teleport Engineer


I’m always surprised at the rapid rate of technological progress.  I often sit and watch my son play through Halo, Call of Duty, or Rock Band and get nostalgic for the simpler days when I played Adventure, Kaboom and Pitfall.

Imagine my amazement, then, when I received the following job posting for a Teleport Engineer in my email:

Requisition #

Job Title
Teleport Engineer

Turner Broadcasting

United States – Georgia – Atlanta

Full Time

Salary Grade_TBS

Referral Bonus Eligible

Referral Bonus Amount _TBS

Posting Job Description

Qualifications: 3 to 5 years of experience working as a maintenance engineer in a
earth station and/or broadcast facility.
3 to 5 years experience working with RF, high voltage, emergency power systems and high power RF amplifiers.
Two to four year technical degree, electronics related (or equivalent education/experience/training). Excellent customer services skills with attention to detail.
Demonstrated organizational skills and ability to prioritize and multi-task in a high-stress environment.
A sense of urgency in solving customer requests to ensure timely resolution.
Strong verbal and written communication skills in order to communicate with customers, peers and vendors.
Demonstrated ability to work in a team based environment to ensure 24x7x365 support of our customers.
Duties: Maintenance – troubleshooting, repair, calibration and preventative maintenance of equipment and systems at the teleports. Maintenance is done to ensure that the TBS customers have uplink and downlink resources available when required and to keep outage time to a minimum. In addition, maintenance is imperative to ensure that the teleport transmission and receive systems are compliant; requirements set forth by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the satellite providers and OSHA.
Projects – participation in the planning, installation and integration of new or replacement equipment and systems. May act in lead role on small projects.
Quality Control – ability to ensure outgoing, and incoming signals and content are compliant with standards set forth by the FCC, the satellite providers, TBS and good engineering practices. In addition this responsibility includes quality control of installations equipment and documentation utilized by the teleports.
Customer Service – provides the highest quality of customer service to our primary customers – Teleport operations, Distribution technology, CNN satellites/SNG, TEN and the TBS networks – by responding to requests in a timely manner.
Documentation – thoroughly documents problems and issues in the operations log. Timely and accurate completion on assigned projects including wire
numbers, systems documentation, drawings, time sheets, time tracking and work orders.

Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and its subsidiaries are Equal Opportunity Employers.

And here I’ve been waiting for a job as a flying car mechanic.

Finding the correct metaphor for text-to-speech


A recent release from the Associated Press concerning the Authors Guild’s concerns with the Kindle 2’s text-to-speech feature left many computer programmers guffawing, but it occurs to me that for those not familiar with text-to-speech technology, the humorous implications may not be self-evident, so I will attempt to parse it:

“NEW YORK (AP) — The guild that represents authors is urging writers to be wary of a text-to-speech feature on Amazon.com Inc.’s updated Kindle electronic reading device.


“In a memo sent to members Thursday, the guild says the Kindle 2’s “Read to Me” feature “presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry.”


“The Kindle can read text in a somewhat stilted electronic voice. But the Authors Guild says the quality figures to “improve rapidly.” And the guild worries that could undermine the market for audio books.”

The quality of text-to-speech depends on the library of phonemes available on the reading device and the algorithms used to put them all together.  A simple example is when you call the operator and an automated voice reads back a phone number to you with a completely unnatural intonation, and you realize that the pronunciation of each number has been clipped and then taped back together without any sort of context.  That is a case, moreover, where the relationship between vocalization and semantics is one-to-one.  The semantic meaning of the number “1” is always mapped to the sound of someone pronouncing the word “one”.   In the case of speech-to-text, no one has been sitting with the OED and carefully pronouncing every word for a similar one-to-one mapping. Instead, the software program on the reading device must use an algorithm to guess at the set of phonemes that are intended by a collection of letters and generate the sounds it associates with those phonemes. 


The problem of intonation is still there, along with the additional issue of the peculiarities of English spelling.  If have a GPS system in your car, then you are familiar with the results.  Bear in mind that your GPS system, in turn, is bungling up what is actually a very particularized vocabulary.  The books that the Kindle’s “Read to Me” feature will be dealing with have more in common with Borges’s labyrinth than Rand McNally’s road atlas.


While text-to-speech technology will indeed improve over time, it won’t be improving in the Kindle 2, which comes with one software bundle that reads in just one way.  I worked on a text-to-speech program a while back (if you have Vista, you can download it here) that combines an Eliza engine with the Vista operating system’s text-to-speech functionality.  One of the things I immediately wanted to do was to be able to switch out voices, and what I quickly found out was that I couldn’t get any new voices.  Vista came with a feminine voice with an American accent, and that was about it unless one wanted to use a feminine voice with a Pidgin-English accent that is included with the Chinese speech pack.  The only masculine voice Microsoft provided was available for Windows XP, and it wasn’t forward compatible. 


It simply isn’t easy to switch out voices, much less switch out speech engines on a given platform, and seeing that we aren’t paying for a software package when we buy the Kindle but rather only the device (with much less power than a Microsoft operation system), it can be said with some confidence that the Kindle 2 is never going to be able to read like Morgan Freeman.


The Kindle 2’s text-to-speech capabilities, or lack of it, is not going to undermine the market for audio books any more than public lectures by Stephen Hawking will undermine sales of his books.  They are simply different things.

“It is telling authors and publishers to consider asking Amazon to disable the audio function on e-books it licenses.”

This is what is commonly referred to as the business requirement from hell.  It assumes that something is easy out of a serious misunderstanding of how a given technology actually works.  Text-to-speech technology is not based on anything inherent to the books Amazon is trying to peddle.  It isn’t, for what this is worth, even associated with metadata about the books Amazon is trying to peddle.  Instead, it is a free-roaming program that will attempt to read any text you feed it.  Rather than a CD that is sold with the book, it has a greater similarity to a homunculus living inside your computer and reading everything out loud to you. 


The proposal from the Authors Guild assumes that something must be taken off of the e-books in order to disable the text-to-speech feature.  In fact, instructions not to read those certain e-books must be added to the e-book metadata, and each Kindle 2 homunculus must in turn be taught to look for those instructions and act accordingly, in order to fulfill this requirement.  This is a non-trivial rewrite of the underlying Kindle software as well as of the thousands of e-book images that Amazon will be selling — nor can the files already living on people’s devices be recalled to add the additional metadata.

“Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener said the company has the proper license for the text-to-speech function, which comes from Nuance Communications Inc.”

This is just a legalese on Amazon’s part that intentionally misunderstands the Authors Guild’s concerns as well as the legal issues involved.  The Authors Guild isn’t accusing Amazon of not having rights to the text-to-speech software.  They are asking whether using text-to-speech on their works doesn’t violate pre-existing law. 


The answer to that, in turn, concerns metaphors, as many legal matters ultimately do.  What metaphor does text-to-speech fall under?  Is it like a CD of a reading of a book, which generates additional income from an author’s labor?  Or is it like hiring Morgan Freeman to read Dianetics to you?  In which case, beyond the price of the physical book, Mr. Freeman should certainly be paid, but the Church of Scientology should not.



Like may others, I recently received the fateful email notifying me that Lutz Roeder will be giving up his work on .NET Reflector, the brilliant and essential tool he developed to peer into the internal implementation of .NET assemblies.  Of course the whole idea of reflecting into an assembly is cheating a bit, since one of the principles of OO design is that we don’t care about implementations, only about contracts.  It gets worse, since one of the main reasons for using .NET Reflector is to reverse engineer someone else’s (particularly Microsoft’s) code.  Yet it is the perfect tool when one is good at reading code and simply needs to know how to do something special — something that cannot be explained, but must be seen.

While many terms in computer science are drawn from other scientific fields, reflection appears not to be.  Instead, it is derived from the philosophical “reflective” tradition, and is a synonym for looking inward: introspection.  Reflection and introspection are not exactly the same thing, however.  This is a bit of subjective interpretation, of course, but it seems to me that unlike introspection, which is merely a turning inward, reflection tends to involve a stepping outside of oneself and peering at oneself.  In reflection, there is a moment of stopping and stepping back; the “I” who looks back on oneself is a cold and appraising self, cool and objective as a mirror.

Metaphors pass oddly between the world of philosophy and the world of computer science, often giving rise to peculiar reversals.  When concepts such as memory and CPU’s were being developed, the developers of these concepts drew their metaphors from the workings of the human mind.  The persistent storage of a computer is like the human faculty of memory, and so it was called “memory”.  The CPU works like the processing of the mind, and so we called it the central processing unit, sitting in the shell of the computer like a homunculus viewing a theater across which data is streamed.  Originally it was the mind that was the given, while the computer was modeled upon it.  Within a generation, the flow of metaphors has been reversed, and it is not uncommon find arguments about the computational nature of the brain based on analogies with the workings of computers.  Isn’t it odd that we remember things, just like computers remember things?

The ancient Skeptics had the concept of epoche to describe this peculiar attitude of stepping back from the world, but it wasn’t until Descartes that this philosophical notion became associated with the metaphor of optics.  In a letter to Arnauld from 1648, Descartes writes:

“We make a distinction between direct and reflective thoughts corresponding to the distinction we make between direct and reflective vision, one depending on the first impact of the rays and the other on the second.”

This form of reflective thought, in turn, also turns up in at an essential turning point in Descartes’ discussion of his Method, when he realizes that his moment of self-awareness is logically dependent on something higher:

“In the next place, from reflecting on the circumstance that I doubted, and that consequently my being was not wholly perfect, (for I clearly saw that it was a greater perfection to know than to doubt,) I was led to inquire whence I had learned to think of something more perfect than myself;”

Descartes uses the metaphor in several places in the Discourse on Method.  In each case, it is as if, after doing something, for instance doubting, he is looking out the corner of his eye at a mirror to see what he looks like when he is doing it, like an angler trying to perfect his cast or an orator attempting to improve his hand gestures.  In each case, what one sees is not quite what one expects to see; what one does is not quite what one thought one was doing.  The act of reflection provides a different view of ourselves from what we might observe from introspection alone.  For Descartes, it is always a matter of finding out what one is “really” doing, rather than what one thinks one is doing.

This notion of philosophical “true sight” through reflection is carried forward, on the other side of the channel, by Locke.  In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke writes:

“This source of ideas every man has wholly in himself; and though it be not sense, as having nothing to do with external objects, yet it is very like it, and might properly enough be called internal sense. But as I call the other Sensation, so I call this REFLECTION, the ideas it affords being such only as the mind gets by reflecting on its own operations within itself. By reflection then, in the following part of this discourse, I would be understood to mean, that notice which the mind takes of its own operations, and the manner of them, by reason whereof there come to be ideas of these operations in the understanding.”

Within a century, reflection becomes so ingrained in philosophical thought, if not identified with it, that Kant is able to talk of “transcendental reflection”:

“Reflection (reflexio) is not occupied about objects themselves, for the purpose of directly obtaining conceptions of them, but is that state of the mind in which we set ourselves to discover the subjective conditions under which we obtain conceptions.

“The act whereby I compare my representations with the faculty of cognition which originates them, and whereby I distinguish whether they are compared with each other as belonging to the pure understanding or to sensuous intuition, I term transcendental reflection.”

In the 20th century, the reflective tradition takes a peculiar turn.  While the phenomenologists continued to use it as the central engine of their philosophizing, Wilfred Sellars began his attack on “the myth of the given” upon which phenomenological reflection depended.  From an epistemological viewpoint, Sellars questions the implicit assumption that we, as thinking individuals, have any privileged access to our own mental states. Instead, Sellars posits that what we actually have is not clear vision of our internal mental states, but rather a culturally mediated “folk psychology” of mind that we use to describe those mental states.  In one fell swoop, Sellars sweeps away the Cartesian tradition of self-understanding that informs the cogito ergo sum.

In a sense, however, this isn’t truly a reversal of the reflective tradition but merely a refinement.  Sellars and his contemporary heirs, such as the Churchlands and Daniel Dennett, certainly provided a devastating blow to the reliability of philosophical introspection.  The Cartesian project, however, was not one of introspection, nor is the later phenomenological project.  The “given” was always assumed to be unreliable in some way, which is why philosophical “reflection” is required to analyze and correct the “given.”  All that Sellars does is to move the venue of philosophical reflection from the armchair to the laboratory, where it no doubt belongs.

A more fundamental attack on the reflective tradition came from Italy approximately 200 hundred years before Sellars.  Giambattista Vico saw the danger of the Cartesian tradition of philosophical reflection as lying in its undermining of the given of cultural institutions.  A professor of oratory and law, Vico believed that common understanding held a society together, and that the dissolution of civilizations occurred not when those institutions no longer held, but rather when we begin to doubt that they even exist.  On the face of it, it sounds like the rather annoying contemporary arguments against “cultural relativism”, but is actually a bit different.  Vico’s argument is rather that we all live in a world of myths and metaphors that help us to regulate our lives, and in fact contribute to what makes us human, and able to communicate with one another.  In the 1730 edition of the New Science, Vico writes:

“Because, unlike in the time of the barbarism of sense, the barbarism of reflection pays attention only to the words and not to the spirit of the laws and regulations; even worse, whatever might have been claimed in these empty sounds of words is believed to be just.  In this way the barbarism of reflection claims to recognize and know the just, what the regulations and laws intend, and endeavors to defraud them through the superstition of words.”

For Vico, the reflective tradition breaks down those civil bonds by presenting man as a rational man who can navigate the world of social institutions as an individual, the solitary cogito who sees clearly, and cooly, the world as it is.

This begets the natural question, does reflection really provide us with true sight, or does it merely dissociate ourselves from our inner lives in such a way that we only see what we want to see?  In computer science of course (not that this should be any guide to philosophy) the latter is the case.  Reflection is accomplished by publishing metadata about a code library which may or may not be true.  It does not allow us to view the code as it really is, but rather provides us a mediated view of the code, which is then associated with the code.  We assume it is reliable, but there is no way of really knowing until something goes wrong.

Last of the Great Whistleblowers


Anne Applebaum has written one of the better obituaries for Alexander Solzhenitsyn in her column for the Washington Post:

"Even Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from Russia in 1974 only increased his notoriety, as well as the impact of "The Gulag Archipelago." Though it was based on "reports, memoirs and letters by 227 witnesses," the book was not quite a straight history — obviously, Solzhenitsyn did not have access to then-secret archives — but, rather, an interpretation of history. Partly polemical, partly autobiographical, both emotional and judgmental, it aimed to show that, contrary to what many believed, the mass arrests and concentration camps were not an incidental phenomenon but an essential part of the Soviet system — and had been from the very beginning.

"Not all of this was new: Credible witnesses had reported on the growth of the Gulag and the spread of terror since the Russian Revolution. But what Solzhenitsyn produced was simply more thorough, more monumental and more detailed than anything that had preceded it. His account could not be dismissed as a single man’s experience. No one who dealt with the Soviet Union, diplomatically or intellectually, could ignore it. So threatening was the book to certain branches of the European left that Jean-Paul Sartre himself described Solzhenitsyn as a "dangerous element." Its publication certainly contributed to the recognition of "human rights" as a legitimate element of international debate and foreign policy.

"His manuscripts were read and pondered in silence, and the thought he put into them provoked his readers to think, too. In the end, his books mattered not because he was famous or notorious but because millions of Soviet citizens recognized themselves in his work: They read his books because they already knew that they were true."

It is a peculiar meme in Western Culture that, at some level, the evil of Stalin’s Soviet regime cannot be viewed on the same level as, say, Hitler’s Third Reich.  It sometimes takes the form of faint attempts to explain it away, or to see it as an aberration of the Soviet state, and generally ends in a change of subject.  This aura of lingering romanticism about the Soviet State among Westerners is odd and, I think, rather inexplicable.  A meme is probably the best way to describe it.

In Russia itself, the attitude is perhaps easier to understand.  No one likes to be reminded of their own sins, and no one likes bad news that is unlikely to gain them anything.  In her book, Gulag: A History, Applebaum describes the typical reactions of people she encounters in Russia once they discover that she is doing a historical investigation of the Gulag system.

"At first, my presence only added to their general merriment.  It is not every day one meets a real American on a rickety ferry boat in the middle of the White Sea, and the oddity amused them.  They wanted to know why I spoke Russian, what I thought of Russia, how it differs from the United States.  When I told them what I was doing in Russia, however, they grew less cheerful.  An American on a pleausre cruise, visiting the Solovetsky Islands to see the scenery and the beautiful old monastery — that was one thing.  An American visiting the Solovetsky Islands to see the remains of the concentration camp — that was something else.

"One of the men turned hostile.  ‘Why do you foreigners only care about the ugly things in our history?’ he wanted to know. ‘Why write about the Gulag?  Why not write about our achievements?  We were the first country to put a man into space!’  By ‘we’ he meant ‘we Soviets.’

"His wife attacked me as well.  ‘The Gulag isn’t relevant anymore,’ she told me.  ‘We have other troubles here.  We have unemployment, we have crime.  Why don’t you write about our real problems, instead of things that happened a long time ago?’

"In my subsequent travels around Russia, I encountered these four attitudes to my project again and again.  ‘It’s none of your business,’ and ‘it’s irrelevant’ were both common reactions.  Silence — or an absence of opinion, as evinced by a shrug of the shoulders — was probably the most frequent reaction.  But there were also people who understood why it was important to know about the past…"

This is toward the end of the book.  Just as interesting is how the book begins, with an observation on a bridge.

"Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known.  By some measures, it is still not known.  Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness.

"I first became aware of this problem several years ago, when walking across the Charles Bridge, a major tourist attraction in what was then newly democratic Prague.  There were buskers and hustlers along the bridge, and every fifteen feet or so someone was selling precisely what one would expect to find for sale in such a postcard-perfect spot.  Paintings of appropriately pretty streets were on display, along with bargain jewelry and ‘Prague’ key chains.  Among the bric-a-brac, one could buy Soviet military paraphernalia: caps, badges, belt buckles, and little pins, the tin Lenin and Brezhnev images that Soviet schoolchildren once pinned to their uniforms.

"The sight struck me as odd.  Most of the people buying the Soviet paraphernalia were Americans and West Europeans.  All would be sickened by the thought of wearing a swastika.  None objected, however, to wearing the hammer and sickle on a T-shirt or a hat.  It was a minor observation, but sometimes, it is through just such minor observations that a cultural mood is best observed.  For here, the lesson could not have been clearer: while the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another murder makes us laugh."

I do not play the game myself, but a friend tells me that there is a similar controversy in Civilization IV concerning the presence of Stalin as a player character in this PC game and the absence of Hitler.  Here is a small flame war over it, with links to more flame wars.  Another friend, who is ethnic Chinese, resents the presence of Mao in the game.

Perhaps the greatest trick the Devil ever played, to paraphrase Kaiser Sose, was to convince people that he was Adolf Hitler, while men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn worked to convince us that things were otherwise.  To quote the man himself:

"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  – The Gulag Archipelago

The Devil’s Triad


According to tradition, the tritone was called the Devil’s Chord or the Diabolis in Musica, a sound so dissonant and so puissant it was believed to be capable of raising the Lord of Hell himself.  For this reason, in it’s irrationality, the Roman Catholic Church banned the Devil’s Triad, on pain of excommunication.  Today, of course, bands such as Metallica and Black Sabbath  use the tritone on a regular basis with no adverse effects.

The irrational is a powerful force that may be harnessed, dear reader, by those willing play on the fringes of reality.  Three magical phrases, irrational yet powerful and well known to the practitioners of the dark arts, can be invoked by anyone who desires to kill a technical project they dislike.  Today, dear reader, I will teach you these three phrases.

But first, a word about motivations.  According to Nietzsche, the driving force behind modern man’s desire for power is, tout court, resentment.  We all resent the guy who comes in the middle of a software project and starts making suggestions about how to improve it.  As the new guy, in turn, we resent the old and crusty way things are done, as if the way things are done is the only way.  Resentment, in other words, is the mother of invention when it comes to technology, and we each, in our own way, embrace it as we strive toward a new tomorrow.  In a perfect world, we may all act as the angels, but in the real world, we may occasionally be forced to make deals ex inferis.  Which is not to recommend what I am about to teach you.  I ask you, moreover, to use these techniques judiciously.  One should not call upon the powers of the underworld lightly.  But should you find yourself in a situation where rational discourse is no longer possible, and rhetorical brute force is required, then these phrases may be of use to you.

1. It’s too complex.  It’s not maintainable.

This is a wonderful phrase.  It is universally applicable since any useful piece of code will end up being complex, and one can never overemphasize the incompetence of one’s peers when discussing maintainability.  And with luminaries like Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood backing you, how can you go wrong?  If you want to kill any technology — WCF, WPF, .NET Remoting, 3-tier architecture — just invoke this magic phrase and it will wither away.

2. It’s not scalable.

Amazingly enough, this diabolical mantra can be called upon without any evidence.  No one will ever turn around and ask you to justify your claim — be it with a load tester or anything.  Simply say these magic words and your enemies will cower before you.  Anything cool — like reflection, say — will cause a certain amount of performance degradation.  This is normal of course.  In software there are always tradeoffs, and exchanging performance for other advantages such as robustness and decoupling are the norm.  Unless, of course, you make trade offs impossible.  The magic phrase “It’s not scalable” instantly makes any trade off seem impossible.  It’s very well, after all, to lose 5 milliseconds on a transaction, but what happens when you have a gazillion transactions?!!!  That’s 5 milli-gazillion units of time that you have cost the company, and time is money!  That’s 5 milli-gazillion dollars you’ve cost the company!   By golly, this solution is not scalable!

3. It will push us beyond our deadline.

“The solution you have provided is all well and good, and I mean neither to question your integrity nor your intelligence, but given the fact that it is not maintainable and not scalable, I fear that trying to implement it will push us beyond our deadline.”  I’ve never worked on a project that wasn’t “time sensitive” and rarely on one that wasn’t needed “yesterday”.  There’s no better way to kill an idea, even when it comes out of  the mouth of someone who refuses to say definitively when a project will in fact be completed, than to say that it will push us past our deadline.  I’ve seen this used when determining which architecture to use.  I’ve even seen it used in determining which textbox control to use.  If you ever find yourself in a position where you have an idea that is competing with someone else’s idea, you can quickly sweep your adversary’s idea aside by invoking this occult phrase: It will push us beyond our deadline.

Why are these magic phrases never tested?  Why are they impervious to standards of verifiability traditionally expected in other fields?  The reason is simple.  Software development is always seen, from the outside, as a kind of magic, and any successful project has at its heart some secret sauce, some magic code, that makes it all possible.

This is the magic unicorn principle.  At the heart of any successful application stands a magic unicorn.  You feed it data, no matter how disorganized or moldy, and it comes out the other end a rainbow.  Data in.  Rainbows out.  It’s beautiful in its simplicity.

In my next post, I will demonstrate how to build a DIRO magic assembly.  Stay tuned …

Memes and Goat’s Milk


What does eighteenth century naval warfare have to do with life today?  Nothing, as far as I can tell, yet one of the pleasures of reading Patrick O’Brian’s novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin — one of the great portraits of male friendship in English literature — is the anachronistic affinities one finds between the bygone world of wood and canvas and quotidian modern life, thanks to Mr. O’Brian’s ingenuity.

Take, for instance, this passage from Master And Commander in which Jack, while at sea, is obliged to sign a legal document drafted by his predecessor, the previous captain of the sloop Sophie:

My Lord,

I am to beg you will be pleased to order a Court Martial to be held on Isaac Wilson (seaman) belonging to the Sloop I have the honour to Command for having committed the unnatural Crime of Sodomy on a Goat, in the Goathouse, on the evening of March 16th.  I have the Honour to remain, my Lord, Your Lordship’s most obedient very humble servant ….

Like the modern reader, Jack is not pleased with the rules and procedures one must comply with in the course of fulfilling one’s duties.  For his friend, Stephen, the matter is simply one that inspires perplexity.

‘It is odd how the law always harps upon the unnaturalness of sodomy,’ observed Stephen.  ‘Though I know at least two judges who are paederasts; and of course barristers … What will happen to him?’

‘Oh, he’ll be hanged.  Run up at the yard-arm, and boats attending from every ship in the fleet.’

‘That seems a little extreme.’

‘Of course it is.  Oh, what an infernal bore — witnesses going over to the flagship by the dozen, days lost … the Sophie a laughing-stock.  Why will they report these things?  The goat must be slaughtered — that’s but fair — and it shall be served out to the mess that informed on him.’

‘Could you not set them both ashore — on separate shores, if you have strong feelings on the moral issue — and sail quietly away?’

‘Well,’ said Jack, whose anger had died down.  ‘Perhaps there is something in what you propose.  A dish of tea?  You take milk, sir?’

‘Goat’s milk, sir?’

‘Why, I suppose it is.’

‘Perhaps without milk, then, if you please.’

The connection to be found between this passage and today’s headlines is no doubt as obvious to you as it is to me, reader.  The notion of contamination which runs thematically through this brief anecdote is a clear analog for the theory of memes.   Terms such as "viral", often used to describe memes, reveal the epidemiological roots of memetic theory.  While the vectors are different, the notion that the sin of seaman Isaac Wilson has somehow been transmitted to the hapless goat, for which reason the goat "must be slaughtered," mirrors the theory that ideas such as "freedom", "God", and "revolution" can be transmitted from person to person, carrying with them certain properties that will affect the behavior of the infected.

At the same time, this anecdote reveals one of the chief problems with memetic theory.  The idea of memes depends on a peculiar notion about the identity of memes when they inhabit different hosts.  But is this identity really something we can take for granted?  Is the "freedom" meme really the same from person to person?  What is missing from the meme theory is an acknowledgement of the inherent ambiguity of all ideas.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison, after all.

For instance, what is the intent behind serving the slaughtered goat, the unwarranted victim of seaman Isaac Wilson’s wantonness, to the seamen who informed on him?  Is it a reward for their dutifulness with regard to the Royal Navy or a punishment for their faithlessness with regard to their comrade?  Is the intent to let them taste a bit of Mr. Wilson’s humiliation, or to fill their bellies with a rare treat?

Memetics seems to completely ignore the much more interesting phenomenon of the association of ideas — perhaps necessarily so, since while the affinity between various notions and concepts, the way one idea leads to another, depends on the malleability of thought, memetics depends on its immutability.

The point is brought across in Stephen Maturin’s aversion toward the goat’s milk.  Why does he refuse the milk?  Because, in his mind, he associates it with Mr. Wilson’s goat.  One idea leads naturally to the other and the properties of Mr. Wilson’s crime are mysteriously transferred to the goat’s milk — an entirely different goat, certainly.

kant Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), normally thought of as a dour man though a great philosopher, is duly famous within certain disreputable circles for inserting the goat’s milk meme into his seminal work, the Critique of Pure Reason, sometimes known as the First Critique.  In Section III of the Second Part of the Doctrine of Elements, after he has explained the meaning of the term transcendental logic,  and after he has assented to the traditional definition of truth as the agreement between knowledge and its object, Kant drops this witty passage:

To know what questions may reasonably be asked is already a great and necessary proof of sagacity and insight.  For if a question is absurd in itself and calls for an answer where none is required, it not only brings shame on the propounder of the question, but may betray an incautious listener into absurd answers, thus presenting, as the ancients said, the ludicrous spectacle of one man milking a he-goat and the other holding a sieve underneath.

Kant alludes to the fact that this particular meme has classical antecedents, and indeed one can find it in Lucian’s (c. 125-180 AD) Life of Demonax (c. 70-170 AD).   That particular version of the meme was later replicated in Erasmus’s (1466-1536) collection of Adages

When [Demonax] saw a pair of philosophers, each as ignorant as the other, disputing together, one propounding absurd questions and the other giving crazy answers, entirely off the point: ‘Why friends,’ said he, ‘is not one of these fellows milking a he-goat and the other putting a sieve under it?’ 

To Polybius (c. 203-120 BC), in turn, is ascribed the following version of the trope:

But I fear that the well-known adage may apply to me unknown to myself: "Which is the greater simpleton, the man who milks a he-goat or he who holds a sieve to catch the milk?" For it may be said of me that by confuting in detail what is confessed to be a lie, and doing so at great length, I am behaving in a very similar manner. So I shall be told I entirely waste my time in speaking of this matter, unless indeed I wish to record dreams and take into serious consideration the visions of a man with his eyes open.

Erasmus ascribes this same variation to Diogenes of Sinope (c. 404-323 BC) (aka Diogenes the Cynic).

Another variation can be found in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, though in this case, we move from goats to bovines, and interestingly Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is mocking the Scottish philosopher (1711-1776) whom Kant credited with waking him from his dogmatic slumber.

Hume, and other sceptical innovators, are vain men, and will gratify themselves at any expence. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to errour. Truth, Sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.

(I recommend that the curious reader not attempt googling on the phrase "milk the bull", since this seems to have taken on a different meaning in recent times.  "Milk the he-goat", however, is quite safe for searching.)

An obvious question is raised by these variations on a meme.  While they are obviously dependent on one another, and perhaps some sort of history can be traced showing how the trope has been transmitted over time from this thinker to that one, are they in fact the same meme?  Do memes admit of variation, or must a meme always have the same form?  In the latter case, are we then dealing with two memes, for instance the Polybius version and the Demonax version, with the Demonax variation later mutating into the Samuel Johnson version, or is it the case that each host (Demonax, Diogenes, Polybius, Erasmus, Johnson, Kant, O’Brian [1914-2000]) actually possesses a different meme altogether?

The rules by which a meme is transmitted from host to host is a central concern for memetics, and the problem of identity will remain a problem for it.  More interesting, from my point of view, is the problem of similarity.  What are the rules by which we associate certain ideas with other ideas?  Why does Stephen Maturin associate goat’s milk with a seaman’s indiscretion, to the point that he will not drink the milk?  How are we able to find a resemblance between these different variations on the he-goat anecdote, derived from different sources, to the point that we associate them all together?

In the First Critique, Kant raises a similar question about the character of experience.  Why should it be that events happen in a certain sequence?  Why do causes always precede their effects, instead of the other way around?  For Kant — and for you too, perhaps, if you have read the Critique — this is a perplexing and ultimately uncanny feature of our experience of the external world.  That events should happen in a certain sequence, and not in another, Kant calls Affinity (in philosophical jargon, it is known as the transcendental affinity of the manifold of intuition).

While Kant would not — for those interested, this is because according to Kant inner sense is not associated with a manifold –, we might ask the same question about the way in which one idea follows from another in the stream of consciousness.  What are the rules by which, say, the idea of a madeline leads a man to think back on his childhood and wonder about the nature of remembrance?  Like memes, the flow of ideas have a viral, irrational, and uncontrollable character to them.  It is something like the way in which you get on the Internet to look up how to throw a cocktail party and end up, hours later, reading about cooking with monkey.  Whereas memes are objects of a germinal science about how ideas are transmitted between people, shouldn’t there also be a science concerned with the logic by which ideas are linked together within the same person?

But perhaps this is not possible, since a universal logic of how ideas follow upon one another depends on all people being basically the same, and this cannot be guaranteed.  Certain people find affinities and make connections that others simply do not.  The point is well illustrated in T. S. Elliot’s (1888-1965) play The Cocktail Party — again, contamination is a central theme, here.  The setting is simple enough.  Edward and Lavinia host a cocktail party, and Alex, a guest, explains current affairs in colonial Africa.



Edward: But how do monkeys cause unrest?

Alex: To begin with, the monkeys are very destructive …

Julia: You don’t need to tell me that monkeys are destructive.  I shall never forget Mary Mallington’s monkey, The horrid little beast — stole my ticket to mentone and I had to travel in a very slow train and in a couchette.  She was very angry when I told her the creature ought to be destroyed.

Lavinia: But can’t they exterminate these monkeys if they are a pest?

Alex: Unfortunately, the majority of the natives are heathen: they hold these monkeys in particular veneration and do not want them killed.  So they blame the Government for the damage that the monkeys do.

Edward: That seems unreasonable.

Alex: it is unreasonable, but characteristic.  And that’s not the worst of it.  Some of the tribes are Christian converts, and, naturally, take a different view.  They trap the monkeys.  And they eat them.  The young monkeys are extremely palatable: I’ve cooked them myself …

Edward: And did anybody eat them when you cooked them?

Alex: Oh yes, indeed.  I invented for the natives several new recipes.  But you see, what with eating the monkeys and what with protecting their crops from the monkeys the Christian natives prosper exceedingly: and that creates friction between them and the others.  And that’s the real problem.  I hope I’m not boring you?

Edward: No indeed: we are anxious to learn the solution.

Alex: I’m not sure that there is any solution.  But even this does not bring us to the heart of the matter.  There are also foreign agitators, stirring up trouble …

Lavinia: Why don’t you expel them?

Alex: They are citizens of a friendly neighboring state which we have just recognised.  You see, Lavinia, there are very deep waters.

Edward: And the agitators; how do they agitate?

Alex: By convincing the heathen that the slaughter of monkeys has put a curse on them which can only be removed by slaughtering the Christians.  They have even been persuading some of the converts — who, after all, prefer not to be slaughtered — to relapse into heathendom.  So, instead of eating monkeys they are eating Christians.

Julia: Who have eaten monkeys.

Alex: The native is not, I fear, very logical.

Meme Manqué


Pronunciation: n-‘kA
Function: adjective
Etymology: French, from past participle of manquer to lack, fail, from Italian mancare, from manco lacking, left-handed, from Latin, having a crippled hand, probably from manus
: short of or frustrated in the fulfillment of one’s aspirations or talents — used postpositively <a poet manqué>

Merriam-Webster Online


During my perusal of the August 27th New Yorker, I came across the word manqué in two different articles, which struck me as noteworthy as I don’t think I have come across this word in several years.  A quick search of the New Yorker archives indicates that besides these two recent uses,  one in a snarky article about Nicolas Sarkozy by Adam Gopnik:

“People close to Sarkozy like to say that he is an American manqué….”

 and the other in a fawning review of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film opus by Anthony Lane:

“This is not to say that the Italian was a novelist manqué.”

the word had been used in an April review of a Richard Gere film, and prior to that had not appeared in the pages of The New Yorker since September of last year, in a short story by Henry Roth.

Occasionally an unusual word achieves a brief period of fashionability due to its rarity, such as was the case with the term disestablishmentarianism, and its dopplegänger anti-disestablishmentarianism, a few years back.  Once it is recognized that such a word has become le mot juste in just too many instances, however, it quickly recedes back into obscurity, like boy bands and one hit wonders. 

Playing with The New Yorker archives reveals similarly suggestive, if not definitive, phenomenological gold about the way rare words become popular for a brief time, and then go underground for a year or more.  Try, for instance, a search on sartorial, zeitgeist, or pusillanimous.  A more interesting project, of course, would involve sifting through the archives of several high-brow publications and graphing the frequency of rare words.  What a memetic field day that would be.

Perhaps this is peculiar to me, but I feel sometimes that using a given word more than once in a blue moon is already an overuse.  Such is my feeling about swearing, which should be used judiciously in order to achieve maximum impact, as well as my feeling about obscure words.  Obscure words, used judiciously, demonstrate erudition and good taste.  Rare words, when abused, simply demonstrate boorishness, false eloquence, and a supercilious character, as well as a proclivity toward intellectual bullying.  That’s fucked up.

My sense that the obscure should be kept obscure does not pertain to words alone.  In the early 90’s I came across an anecdote while watching Star Trek: Next Generation called the frog and the scorpion, which was ascribed to Aesop.  In the version I heard, a scorpion asks a frog to take him across a river and after much deliberation and rationalization, the frog finally agrees.  Unfortunately, the scorpion does decide to sting the frog midstream, after all, and when the frog asks why, the scorpion replies, “It is my nature.”  The punchline is that they both drown.

Oddly I came across the same anecdote again, a few weeks later while watching Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia deliver a speech on the Senate floor.  It probably was over an important international event, but I only remember the anecdote and no longer recall what the anecdote was meant to illustrate.  What was interesting about Senator Byrd’s version is that he ascribed the story to Chaucer, rather than Aesop.

A while after that (was it months or years?) the anecdote came before me once again in another Star Trek franchise, Voyager, except this time it was described as a Native American myth and was told by the space-faring Indian Commander Chokote, and the protagonists were now a coyote and a scorpion rather than a frog and a scorpion.

A little research indicates that this particular anecdote may have originally been revived from its antique sleep in the movie The Crying Game, before it made its way through public policy papers, senate speeches, and finally into televised science fiction, where I came across it.

The first time I heard it, I found it charming. The second time, I thought it platitudinous.  The third time, I thought it was idiotic and vowed to boycott the next show, politician or foreign policy that attempted to leverage it in order to make a point.  Such is my nature.

Then again, I recall Benjamin Franklin’s prescription that once one has found a word that works, it is unnecessary to go out of one’s way to find synonyms in order simply to avoid overusing the word in a given piece of journalism or essay.  One should just reuse the word as often as one requires it — which is common-sensical advice, I must admit.

philosophia perennis

In the Valentine’s edition of The New Yorker, there was a rather nice portrait by Larissa MacFarquhar of Paul and Pat Churchland, connubial philosophers of the mind-body problem at UC San Diego.  For years they have been basically decrying in the wilderness against the way that philosophy of mind was being done without any regard for the experimental data being produced by studies in neurophysiology.  In the article, Pat Churchland says this prevalent approach was the result of Anglo-American common language philosophy, which holds that the object of philosophy is to clarify our ideas by analyizing language. The problem, as she sees it, is that clarifying incorrect notions about the relationship between mind and body does not get us to truth, but rather leads us simply to have sophisticated bad ideas.  The mind-body problem had become a problematic (to borrow from Foucault), when the evidence from neurophysiology was very clear — there is the brain and that’s it.  Everything else is language games.

The article continues on a disappointed note:

These days, many philosophers give Pat credit for admonishing them that a person who wants to think seriously about the mind-body problem has to pay attention to the brain.  But this acknowledgment is not always extended to Pat herself, or to the work she does now.


The common language philosophy that Pat Churchland critisizes has its roots in german philosophy and the general post-Kantian diminishing of the relevance of Metaphysics.  The deathknell for metaphysics in the 20th century may have arrived with Wittgenstein’s pronouncement in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that  “[w]ovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.”  There are different ways to take this, of course, one of which is to say that, as with the dove-tailing of Kant’s first and second critiques, it delimits metaphysics in order to make room for faith (or occultism, or theosophy, or whatever).

The other is that it states what is already well known, that Metaphysic is dead, and there is nothing more to say about her.  But if philosophers can no longer talk about metaphysics, then what shall they talk about?  For years in Anglo-American philosophy, they talked about language.  Instead of the relation between appearance and reality in the world, they talked about appearance and meaning in language instead.  What the Churchlands found disturbing about this was that this seemed simply to be a way to practice metaphysics underground.  Philosophers could dismiss metaphysics on the one hand, but then reintroduce it in their conversations about language instead — though insisting that all they were doing was discussing how we talk about metaphysical notions, not metaphysics itself.  Like vampire hunters to the rescue (though under-appreciated, as indicated above) the Churchlands moved in and reapplied Wittgenstein’s dictum to this underground metaphysics.  I like to think of them as latter day versions of Maximus the Confessor, pointing out that the compromise monothelite christology was in fact simply the monophysite heresy under a new guise.  Claiming that Christ has two natures but one will is no better than claiming that he has one nature.  Claiming that mind and body are the same in the world but separated in language is no better than claiming that they are different in the world, also.

The natural endpoint for the Churchlands is, then, to make our language conform to the world, in order to remove these errors of thought.

One afternoon recently, Paul says, he was home making dinner when Pat burst in the door, having come straight from a frustrating faculty meeting. “She said, ‘Paul, don’t speak to me, my serotonin levels have hit bottom, my brain is awash in glucocorticoids, my blood vessels are full of adrenaline, and if it weren’t for my endogenous opiates I’d have driven the car into a tree on the way home.  My dopamine levels need lifting.  Pour me a Chardonnay, and I’ll be down in a minute.'”  Paul and Pat have noticed that it is not just they who talk this way — their students now talk of psychopharmacology as comfortably as of food.


But if we cannot do metaphysics, and we should not even talk of it anymore, what should philosophers do with themselves?  Open Court Press may have found an answer with their Popular Culture and Philosophy series.  Not all the books listed below are from their press, but they do emphasize the point that if we cannot speak of metaphysics, that is if we cannot use philosophy to go beyond what we already know, then we ought to use her instead to explore those things that we are familiar with.  We should practice the perennial philosophy.

  1. The Beatles and Philosophy
  2. Monty Python and Philosophy
  3. U2 and Philosophy
  4. Undead and Philosophy
  5. Bob Dylan and Philosophy
  6. The Simpsons and Philosophy
  7. Harry Potter and Philosophy
  8. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy
  9. James Bond and Philosophy
  10. The Sopranos and Philosophy
  11. Star Wars and Philosophy
  12. Baseball and Philosophy
  13. The Matrix and Philosophy
  14. More Matrix and Philosophy
  15. Woody Allen and Philosophy
  16. South Park and Philosophy
  17. The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy
  18. Poker and Philosophy
  19. Hip-Hop and Philosophy
  20. Basketball and Philosophy
  21. Hitchcock and Philosophy
  22. The Atkins Diet and Philosophy
  23. Superheroes and Philosophy
  24. Harley-Davidson and Philosophy
  25. The Grateful Dead and Philosophy
  26. Seinfeld and Philosophy
  27. Mel Gibson’s Passion and Philosophy
  28. The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy
  29. Bullshit and Philosophy
  30. Johnny Cash and Philosophy

Surrendering to Technology

My wife pulled into the garage yesterday after a shopping trip and called me out to her car to catch the tail end of a vignette on NPR about the Theater of Memory tradition Frances Yates rediscovered in the 60’s — a subject my wife knows has been a particular interest of mine since graduate school.  The radio essayist was discussing his attempt to create his own memory theater by forming the image of a series of rooms in his mind and placing strange mnemonic creatures representing different things he wanted to remember in each of the corners.  Over time, however, he finally came to the conclusion that there was nothing in his memory theater that he couldn’t find on the Internet and, even worse, his memory theater had no search button.  Eventually he gave up on the Renaissance theater of memory tradition and replaced it with Google.

I havn’t read Yates’s The Art of Memory for a long time, but it seemed to me that the guy on the radio had gotten it wrong, somehow.  While the art of memory began as a set of techniques allowing an orator to memorize topics about which he planned to speak, often for hours, over time it became something else.  The novice rhetorician would begin by spending a few years memorizing every nook and cranny of some building until he was able to recall every aspect of the rooms simply by closing his eyes.  Next he would spend several more years learning the techniques to build mnemonic images which he would then place in different stations of his memory theater in preparation for an oration.  The rule of thumb was that the most memorable images were also the most outrageous and monstrous.  A notable example originating in the Latin mnemonic textbook Ad Herennium is a ram’s testicles used as a place holder for a lawsuit, since witnesses must testify in court, and testify sounds like testicles.

As a mere technique, the importance of the theater of memory waned with the appearance of cheap paper as a new memory technology.  Instead of working all those years to make the mind powerful enough to remember a multitude of topics, topics can now be written down on paper and recalled as we like.  The final demise of the theater of memory is no doubt realized in the news announcer who reads off a teleprompter, being fed words to say as if they were being drawn from his own memory.  This is of course an illusion, and the announcer is merely a host for the words that flow through him.

A variation on the theater of memory not obviated by paper began to be formulated in the Renaissance in the works of men like Marsilio Ficino, Giulio Camillo, Giordano Bruno, Raymond Lull, and Peter Ramus.  Through them, the theater of memory was integrated with the Hermetic tradition, and the mental theater was transformed into something more than a mere technique for remembering words and ideas.  Instead, the Hermetic notion of the microcosm and macrocosm, and the sympathetic rules that could connect the two, became the basis for seeing the memory theater as a way to connect the individual with a world of cosmic and magical forces.  By placing objects in the memory theater that resonate with the celestial powers, the Renaissance magus was able to call upon these forces for insight and wisdom.

Since magic is not real, even these innovations are not so interesting on their own.  However the 18th century thinker, Giambattista Vico, both a rationalist and someone steeped in the traditions of Renaissance magic, recast the theater of memory one more time.  For Vico, the memory theater was not a repository for magical artifacts, but rather something that is formed in each of us through acculturation; it contains a knowledge of the cultural institutions, such as property rights, marriage, and burial (the images within our memory theaters), that are universal and make culture possible.  Acculturation puts these images in our minds and makes it possible for people to live together.  As elements of our individual memory theaters, these civilizing institutions are taken to be objects in the world, when in actuality they are images buried so deeply in our memories that they exert a remarkable influence over our behavior. 

Some vestige of this notion of cultural artifacts can be found in Richard Dawkins’s hypothesis about memes as units of culture.  Dawkins suggests that our thoughts are  made up, at least in part, of memes that influence our behavior in irrational but inexorable ways.  On analogy with his concept of genes as selfish replicators, he conceives of memes as things seeking to replicate themselves based on rules that are not necessarily either evident or rational.  His examples include, at the trivial end, songs that we can’t get out of our heads and, at the profound end, the concept of God.  For Dawkins, memes are not part of the hardwiring of the brain, but instead act like computer viruses attempting to run themselves on top of the brain’s hardware.

One interesting aspect of Dawkins’s interpretation of the spread of culture is that it also offers an explanation for the development of subcultures and fads.  Subcultures can be understood as communities that physically limit the available vectors for the spread of memes to certain communities, while fads can be explained away as short-lived viruses that are vital for a while but eventually waste their energies and disappear.  The increasing prevalence of visual media and the Internet, in turn, increase the number of vectors for the replication of memes, just as increased air-travel improves the ability of real diseases to spread across the world.

Dawkins describes the replication of memetic viruses in impersonal terms.  The purpose of these viruses is not to advance culture in any way, but rather simply to perpetuate themselves.  The cultural artifacts spread by these viruses are not guaranteed to improve us, no more than Darwinian evolution offers to make us better morally, culturally or intellectually.  Even to think in these terms is a misunderstanding of the underlying reality. Memes do not survive because we judge them to be valuable.  Rather, we deceive ourselves into valuing them because they survive. 

How different this is from the Renaissance conception of the memory theater, for which the theater existed to serve man, instead of man serving simply to host the theater.  Ioan Couliano, in the 80’s, attempted to disentangle Renaissance philosophy from its magical trappings to show that at its root the Renaissance manipulation of images was a proto-psychology.  The goal of the Hermeticist was to cultivate and order images in order to improve both mind and spirit.  Properly arranged, these images would help him to see the world more clearly, and allow him to live in it more deeply.

For after all what are we but the sum of our memories?  A technique for forming and organizing these memories — to actually take control of our memories instead of simply allowing them to influence us willy-nilly — such as the Renaissance Hermeticists tried to formulate could still be of great use to us today.  Is it so preposterous that by reading literature instead of trash, by controlling the images and memories that we allow to pour into us, we can actually structure what sort of persons we are and will become?

These were the ideas that initially occurred to me when I heard the end of the radio vignette while standing in the garage.  I immediately went to the basement and pulled out Umberto Eco’s The Search For The Perfect Language, which has an excellent chapter in it called Kabbalism and Lullism in Modern Culture that seemed germane to the topic.  As I sat down to read it, however, I noticed that Doom, the movie based on a video game, was playing on HBO, so I ended up watching that on the brand new plasma TV we bought for Christmas.

The premise of the film is that a mutagenic virus (a virus that creates mutants?) is found on an alien planet that starts altering the genes of people it infects and turns them into either supermen or monsters depending on some predisposition of the infected person’s nature.  (There is even a line in the film explaining that the final ten percent of the human genome that has not been mapped is believed to be the blueprint for the human soul.)  Doom ends with “The Rock” becoming infected and having to be put down before he can finish his transformation into some sort of malign creature.  After that I pulled up the NPR website in order to do a search on the essayist who abandoned his memory theater for Google.  My search couldn’t find him.