Honesty on Google vs Facebook – a footnote from John Lanchester

An essay worth reading in full on Facebook which contains this amusing footnote:

Facebook already had a huge amount of information about people and their social networks and their professed likes and dislikes.​2

2. Note the ‘professed’. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz points out in his new book Everybody Lies (Bloomsbury, £20), researchers have studied the difference between the language used on Google, where people tend to tell the truth because they are anonymously looking for answers, and the language used on Facebook, where people are projecting an image. On Facebook, the most common terms associated with the phrase ‘my husband is …’ are ‘the best’, ‘my best friend’, ‘amazing’, ‘the greatest’ and ‘so cute’. On Google, the top five are ‘amazing’, ‘a jerk’, ‘annoying’, ‘gay’ and ‘mean’. It would be interesting to know if there’s a husband out there who achieves the full Google set and is an amazing annoying mean gay jerk.

Advertisements

Could a novice beat Magnus Carlsen with a month to prepare? (Spoiler alert: No)

Someone said that headlines formulated as questions almost always have the answer “No.”

I came across this column on Chess.com which is a reaction to this Wall Street Journal article on a recent chess match between Max Deutsch, “a self-diagnosed obsessive learner” and Magnus Carlsen, current World Chess Champion and arguably the greatest chess player of all time..

The original WSJ piece has a certain breathless quality which alternately grates and endears. The piece follows Deutsch’s various one-month learning quests which culminated in his challenge against Carlsen:

Max’s year of monthly challenges had already been more successful than he could have imagined. He’d been contacted by students in a Belgian school who started their own projects after discovering his blog. Max, too, had been inspired by “Month to Master.” He left his job in August, raised money and started a company, Openmind, to guide people through the learning process.

Max hadn’t started thinking about chess at the end of September. He was still learning how to freestyle rap. “I don’t have a plan until the month begins,” he said. It was fairly conventional at first. He played Magni of different ages on the Play Magnus app.

Naturally enough, the Chess.com piece by GM Greg Serper takes a more jaundiced view of the enterprise. He also recounts an entertaining story reminiscent of Stefan Zweig’s The Royal Game:

Let’s rephrase the question: can a non-master amateur beat a world champion in a regular one-on-one game? While I never heard about such an event, let me tell you an unusual story that supposedly happened about 35 years ago.

The city of Kharkiv (the former Soviet Union, now Ukraine) has always had many very strong chess players. Currently the former women’s world champion Anna Ushenina and the super-GM Pavel Eljanov as well as a number of “just very strong” GMs live there. So, one day in the beginning of 1980s an unknown man entered Kharkiv’s chess club and started playing blitz with everyone for money. Despite giving serious time odds, the stranger kept winning. The strangest thing was that the guy had a bag full of cucumbers and he was munching them non-stop during the games!

Eventually the local masters entered the fray, but the mysterious guy was beating everyone! The situation looked more and more like Fischer’s famous visit to the Central Chess Club in Moscow. The young American prodigy demonstrated his amazing blitz skills beating famous Soviet masters! Eventually grandmaster Tigran Petrosian came to the rescue and successfully defended the honor of the Soviet chess.

Back to our story, Kharkiv’s strongest blitz player, Mikhail Gurevich, was called. The stranger recognized Gurevich and said: “If you were just a regular master, I would give you odds of three minutes vs. five minutes, but you are a very strong master so we are going to play five minutes each.”

The man was absolutely correct: in a couple of years Mikhail Gurevich won the Soviet championship, got a GM title and in the June 1990 rating list he was number seven in the world! So they played for several hours but the total score was about even. At the end of the day the bizarre stranger picked up his winnings and the remaining cucumbers and left the speechless crowd.

He was never seen again. The word on the street is that the man was returning home after many years spent in prison where, just like the protagonist of “The Royal Game,” he learned to play chess. Personally, I don’t buy this version since I totally agree with the famous statement by Botvinnik that no amount of analytical work is a good substitute for a tournament play.

So, if the mysterious man never played chess tournaments, he had no chance to beat a strong master like Mikhail Gurevich even in one blitz game. From the other side, the Soviet Union had a very closed chess community since during the years of the iron curtain you couldn’t just go abroad and play chess. Therefore all strong chess players, even candidate masters were well known, and the guy wasn’t one of them!

It is a great pity that the “cucumber guy” was never again seen playing chess.

The surprising complications of tide-watching

cover

Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ “Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth” has a title that sounds hyperbolic, but is endearing in its combination of a certain rhetorical restraint (noted by the Guardian reviewer linked to above), simple awe and a willingness to get into quotidian detail. I went into the book thinking that the tide basically boiled down to the influence of the moon – there is a lot more to it than that.

Early on, Aldersey-Williams decides he needs to observe an entire tidal cycle. This sounds something very straightforward – just sitting by the sea for a day! – but not so:

It is an odd idea, I admit, simply to sit and watch the water for twelve or thirteen unbroken hours. You might find similes coming to mind to do with watching paint dry or grass grow. But I will shut these unhelpful analogies out of my mind. I do not know what I might see, but I will at least try to note down anything I do. I do not know what I might see, and that will be the best of it. The first requirement was to select a site where I could do this. Every part of the British coast is subject to substantial tidal movement. I live in Norfolk, a county that bulges obscenely out into the North Sea (in old satirical cartoons that depict Britain as a person, Norfolk is always the rump). The coast is correspondingly distended, and so I was spoiled for choice. I considered Blakeney Quay. I’d seen the tide running in there so fast round the bend in the river – I reckoned its speed as about three metres per second, based on counting as pieces of seaweed hurried by – that it sent thick wooden mooring posts into frenzied vibrations. But the place was too overrun with tourists, and I could see that I would be constantly interrupted by curious busybodies. Instead, I selected a site a mile or two away where I knew I would be undisturbed

Aldersey-Williams has even more criteria:

The scene would be nothing like the domesticated sublime of the beach at Lyme Regis that Jane Austen describes in Persuasion, ‘where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the tide’. My prospect would be more like that in George Crabbe’s epic poem of East Anglian life, The Borough. I would ‘view the lazy tide / In its hot slimy channel slowly glide’. I would make myself into what Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend called one of ‘those amphibious human-creatures who appear to have some mysterious power of extracting a subsistence out of tidal water by looking at it’. Reading passages such as these, I saw that writers use the tide as a kind of hypnotist’s watch. It is something to induce a state of reverie or, more dangerously, a trance. I would have to be careful not to fall into daydreaming if I was going to make more incisive observations of the unceasing rise and fall of the seas. Next, I had to choose a suitable time of year and time of day to make my study. The tides are in constant action, washing the world’s shores, but they vary according to astronomical factors that are subject in turn to their own complex temporal rhythms. I did not want to freeze or fry out on the marshes, but more important than that, I would need my thirteen hours to fall during daylight in order to make my observations. Wherever you are, a full tidal cycle, from high water back to high water (or low to low), takes nearly this length of time. This constraint limited me to the months from March to September when the days were long enough. I also wanted to observe a fairly typical tide, not a huge one that would flush me out of my vantage point when high water approached, nor one so meagre that I would miss the things I should normally expect to see

….

Any thirteen-hour time slot guaranteed that I would see one high water, one low
water, one full flood tide and one ebb. But where in the cycle did I want to start my work? This was more a matter of aesthetic preference and narrative design. To begin with the tide in full spate, either flooding or ebbing, seemed to me melodramatic. An obscure logic told me that low water would be a natural beginning: a bath or a bucket starts empty, after all, and its story is to be filled. This version would give the greatest sense of a flooding. I could watch the flood tide fill the creeks, but I would then have to see them empty again as the cycle came around, and something about this displeased me. Or, I could start at high water. But this was not right either: even though I would then end on a high, it seemed wrong to begin by witnessing the departure of the substance of my tale. I feared that the immediate ebb might be the end of my own story. In the event, I found my choice still more restricted. The tide table showed few days when the tidal range would be sufficient for my needs, the day long enough, the weather likely to be bearable, and the place quiet enough – a weekday during school term rather than a weekend – that I would not be disturbed. In the end, I chose a day when the sun would be rising just as the ebb was gathering pace. I would begin my observations about an hour after high water. The mood should be one of calm and expectation. My morning would see the tide recede and the muddy shore revealed. High water would come late in the day, and provide a well-timed climax. By starting an hour or so after high water, I would then stay on through the subsequent high water long enough to see the ebb begin again. This, I felt, would show more truthfully that the tidal cycle does not in any way peak or culminate at high water, as we might be tempted to think, but that it goes on in an eternal cycle in which no momentary state has any more claim to special status than another

Aldersey-Williams prepares himself for longeurs:

Though I intended to be diligent in my observations, I imagined there might be long stretches when little was happening, and so I armed myself also with a copy of The Oxford Book of the Sea. It held excerpts of many works I would need to familiarize myself with, from Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us to Matthew Arnold’s allegorical poem ‘Dover Beach’. These poems and prose pieces would remind me of the main to which my insignificant creek, thanks to the tide, was eternally connected and intermingled.

I don’t want to spoil the account of his actual tide watch, which is well worth reading, but can reveal he does find not much time for reading:

I had thought that there would be longueurs in my day. But it is clear now that I will be kept very busy. I find it necessary to carefully plan my activity between each hourly tide reading, because I know I’ll only have the chance to do certain things – like delving in the mud for worms, or observing how the wind whips up waves – at certain states of the tide. Suddenly, my schedule starts to look like a school timetable. I have the whole curriculum covered: plotting water level graphs (mathematics); observing mud life and marsh plants (biology); recording water flow (physics); canoeing (PE); contemplating the cosmic order of things (religious studies?). I will be so busy for the day that English will have to be cancelled; The Oxford Book of the Sea lies unregarded, its pages turning crisp in the dry breeze.

“For my sins”

20515726

In Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor expertly sketches the lives of the elderly long-term residents of the Claremont Hotel, a somwhat shabby-genteel premises on the Cromwell Road which acts as a (bare) alternative to the nursing home.

Mrs Palfrey, widow of a colonial administrator, takes up residence in the Claremont. Unvisited by her grandson Desmond “who works in the British Musuem”, and ignored by her daughter in Scotland, Mrs Palfrey ends up engaging in one of the first deceptions of her life – pretending that Ludo, a writer who she meets through a fall on the street, is her grandson.

Ludo himself lives a hand-to-mouth existence, “working at Harrod’s” – meaning he writes his novels in a café there – and making occasional resentful visits to his narcissistic mother and her new lover, “the Major.”

1st_Chatto_and_Windus_edition_cover_of_Mrs._Palfrey_at_the_Claremont

Anyway, all this is as prelude to this wonderful passage with its play on the trite phrase “for my sins.” A final background – here we meet Lady Swayne, who uses the Claremont yearly as a base for a London fortnight, and condescends spectacularly to all present:

At that moment, out of the life stepped brocaded Lady Swayne. Mrs Palfrey, who had sometimes in her life been majestic, but never graceful, thrust out the violets as Lady Swayne paused beside her.

‘A breath of spring,’ she said. She seemed un-coordinated, Ludo thought, like a robot that gone wrong. Lady Swayne took full advantage of this state of mind, with a flowing, gracious gesture. ‘Exquisite,’ she breathed, in the softest of tones. ‘Alas though! They never last.”

‘My grandson,’ Mrs Palfrey continued wildly, nodding towards Ludo.

‘Ah, I’ve heard of you, heard of you.’

‘Desmond,’ Mrs Palfrey added firmly. ‘Lady Swayne.’

‘You are at the B.M., I believe’, said Lady Swayne.

Mrs Palfrey was alarmed, but Ludo’s pause was brief. ‘For my sins,’ he said, smiling. He had often thought of using this meaningless phrase, which was one of the Major’s favourites.

‘Do you know Carr Templeton?’

Mrs Palfrey was now mesmerised like a startled hare. ‘Only vaguely,’ said Ludo. He had quickly summed up Lady Swayne, and decided that Carr Templeton must be grand, or would not have been mentioned by her. ‘I am hardly on that plane as yet,’ he said, and almost added ‘for my sins’ again, but took a grip of himself. He might have extricated himself by talking of being in different departments, if he had known what Carr Templeton’s department was. He was not even sure of his own, and felt that the British Museum background should be gone into in greater detail.

‘You are young,’ Lady Swayne was saying graciously. ‘Your time will come.’

‘My Grandmamma is going to give me a glass of sherry.’ (‘For my sins’ would have gone beautifully with that, too.) He moved a little, and took Mrs Palfrey’s elbow.

‘That will be nice,’ said Lady Swayne. ‘ Your grandmother has such peaceful, quiet evenings that you will make a little change for her. Unlike poor little me.’ (She was at least give foot ten, and with shoulders like a bison’s.) ‘I am whirled round London in a way more fitting to a deb than an old, old lady. Yes, a taxi, please, Summers. This evening … ‘ – she sighed – ‘I’m off to the Savoy,’ and then, to Ludo’s immense delight, she added, ‘for my sins.’ It is infectious, he decided.

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?
Look at the moon
Do you want to hear what ears have never heard?
Listen to the birds cry
Do you want to touch what hands have never touched?
Touch the earth
Truly I say that God is about to create the world.

From The Theologians, Jorge Luis Borges

The opening lines of The Theologians:

After having razed the garden and profaned the chalices and altars, the Huns entered the monastery library on horseback and trampled the incomprehensible books and vituperated and burned them, perhaps fearful that the letters concealed blasphemies against their god, which was an iron scimitar. Palimpsests and codices were consumed, but in the heart of the fire, amid the ashes, there remained almost intact the twelfth book of the Civitas Dei, which relates how in Athens Plato taught that, at the centuries’ end, all things will recover their previous state and he in Athens, before the same audience, will teach this same doctrine anew. The text pardoned by the flames enjoyed special veneration and those who read and reread it in that remote province came to forget that the author had only stated this doctrine in order better to refute it.

The Empathy of St. Francis

A wonderful essay by DeForest London on St Francis (of Assisi) and the power of empathy:

“When people were around St. Francis and his empathy, they felt this lightening of their burden because they knew (they felt deeply) that someone was sharing the load with them. They found rest for their world-weary souls in a similar way that the followers of Jesus found rest in his empathetic presence.

The beauty of this quality is that we do not have to be especially intelligent or wise or wealthy to cultivate it. In fact, according to the Gospel, this quality often eludes the wealthy and the wise. Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The Greek word for “infants” is nepios, which can also be translated as someone who does not speak or someone who needs training (which sounds kind of like our pets).

Empathy is a quality available to all and is often found among those from whom we least expect it (or don’t expect it at all). Empathy is available not only to humans, but to all sentient beings (Francis might even say to all of creation). Personally, one of my most profound experiences of empathy was not from a human. Several years ago, my cat, Frisky London, passed away at the ripe old age of 20 (which would be equivalent to about 96 in human years). Before she passed away, she comforted me. The last time I said goodbye to her at my parent’s house, I cried, knowing that I might not see her ever again. She was not really eating or drinking and was very unresponsive. But when I cried, I cried into her beautiful fur coat. And as I was oozing out my sadness onto her, she responded by licking my tears. And, I felt, very powerfully, that she knew she was going to die and she knew that I was going to miss her and she showed me empathy and she comforted me and she eased my sadness. Frisky was my St. Francis.”

DeForest London

There was a discussion in a First Grade religion class focused on St. Francis of Assisi. After school, a First Grader came home very excited about what he had learned and blurted out to his mother, “Guess what, Mommy? Today, I learned that St. Francis was a sissy!” Now one practical way to ensure that we don’t go home thinking that St. Francis was a sissy is to practice the proper pronunciation of the saint’s hometown: Not “Asisy” but “Aseesee.”

However, even with the proper pronunciation of his hometown, I wonder if many of us still do think of this saint as perhaps a little too kind and too gentle for his own good. He was known to have cried every day, he preached sermons to birds, he rubbed sticks together as if he were playing the violin, he called the sun his brother and the moon his sister, and…

View original post 1,322 more words

“Nature and culture have been replaced by landscape and literature”: Mark Cocker on the “New Nature Writing”, New Statesman, June 2015

I have previously cited this essay by Mark Cocker on the “New Nature Writing” as exemplified by Robert Macfarlane and Helen McDonald. Have been re-reading it and find, as often happens, the temptation to repost it in full very strong… but here are some selected highlights:

TThe recent expansion of “new nature writing” is among the most significant developments in British publishing this century. If you missed its inception or have not the inclination to read the scores of books appearing under its banner, you could do worse to catch up than to read a single chapter in Michael McCarthy’s new book, The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy. It is the one entitled “The Great Thinning” and it powerfully and succinctly summarises the unfolding national story.

The phrase refers to the inexorable diminution of wildlife on these islands since the Second World War, primarily at the hands of farmers armed with an array of industrially produced chemicals. “The country I was born into,” McCarthy writes, “possessed something wonderful it absolutely possesses no longer: natural abundance . . . Blessed, unregarded abundance has been destroyed.” His most powerful and strangely poignant example of this is something that only people over 50 would have seen: the blizzard of nocturnal insects that would eventually obliterate the vision of any driver on a long car journey during a summer’s evening. I remember it, just.

Over the decades, during his time as a journalist, McCarthy sensed the public’s abil­ity to hear this story in its piecemeal form and ignore it almost entirely. Even now, he points out, the scale of what has happened on these islands eludes many people.

It is this gap between our recent natural history and the present public taste for such books that makes the upsurge of the “new nature” genre so fascinating – but also so perplexing. What role are these works playing and what do they say about the British relationship with non-human life?

Cocker considers the extravagantly praised (but not by me) H for Hawk:

The book’s profound impact is not in any doubt but a legitimate question to pose about H Is for Hawk is its status as a nature book. The motif of a raptor as a symbol of grief and of the author’s struggle with depression is indisputably powerful. Macdonald’s evocation of her bird’s savage habits also provides the book’s aura of raw otherness but it is ultimately not a wild bird. Yet there are wild goshawks in Britain and these barely appear in the text. You would understand why if you have ever tried to look for this extraordinary bird. Wild goshawks are among Britain’s most elusive and unpredictable large predators. I go looking routinely and count a sighting on one in ten visits a pretty good return. Goshawk watching is a frustrating business but the birds’ self-willed indifference to our intentions is surely almost a defining characteristic of nature.

It is not our project. It keeps its own hours. One powerful psychological effect of contact with nature is that it measures what we are not and the specific appeal of books on the subject is that they simultaneously remind us of our relationship with the rest of life but deflate our burdening sense of centrality within it. We become part, not all.

The key passage of this essay charts a subtle but important shift :

Mabey’s entire project could be summarised as a movement along a single axis between culture – land practice or literature, science, the visual arts, sculpture, whatever – and nature. It is metaphorically and actually rooted in a soil of real, living things. Almost every one of the books involves movement between those two poles. In Macfarlane’s work and in so many of the new books, nature and culture have been replaced by landscape and literature. It may seem a relatively small shift in emphasis but one cannot help pondering its significance.

He also considers William Atkins’ The Moor:

The Moor attempts to explore the cultural purpose and meaning of some of the most forsaken, yet most contested, semi-natural places in Britain. They are the gritstone uplands, dominated by heather, mosses and lichens but also now by sheep and by red grouse. This intermittent column of high ground serves as England’s vertebrae from Cornwall to Cumbria. Yet a striking anomaly about The Moor, which looks more significant in view of the recent widening gulf between north and south, is its billing as a book about British uplands, when Atkins barely crosses the English border. Yet Scotland holds twice as much grouse moorland – two million acres – as England and Wales combined.

In truth, the author is most comfortable tackling the historical and inherited psychological roles of such landscapes as described in the literary works of W H Auden, the Brontës, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath or Henry Williamson. There are, for instance, far more titles in the bibliography concerning the sexual politics of Hughes and Plath than there are about the environmental politics of red grouse and hen harriers.

Does that matter? It does if you consider that most moorland exists today to deliver a cash crop of grouse to a super-rich elite who think little of paying between £3,000 and £12,000 per person for a day’s shooting. Just as significant is that you and I, through our taxes, help to subsidise those little luxuries. As a consequence of management that aims to create the maximum possible grouse bag and therefore raise the most money, grouse moor owners have almost extinguished the predatory hen harrier from England and substantially reduced its potential numbers in Scotland.

The shift from writing about nature to writing “about” landscape, literature and human culture – our own “projects”- involves itself a kind of loss. Cocker ends with an Emerson quote that reminds me of Yeats’ “rag-and-bone shop of the heart” :

Does this mean that all nature books have to be filled with the grief and pain of loss? Of course not. But they have to navigate – as McCarthy endeavours to do – between joy and anxiety. Nature writers must ponder and engage with these troubling realities. Otherwise, we are just fiddling while the agrochemicals burn.

The real danger is that nature writing becomes a literature of consolation that distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside, or – just as bad – that it becomes a space for us to talk to ourselves about ourselves, with nature relegated to the background as an attractive green wash. The project of re-enchantment might restore to us a canon of lost writings about the eeriness and mystery of our landscape. Yet, as Emerson warned in his essay “Nature”, what worth is there in words that have no real soil at their roots?