Wunderkind Shelley

Do you know this poem?:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, that is. I read it for a correspondence course in my senior year of high school, and I love it–brilliant, searingly ironic, beautifully lyric. I think I’ve posted it before – back when this blog was new and I posted a poem each Wednesday.

Did you know he also wrote this?:

Why do we admit design in any machine of human contrivance? Simply, because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind, because we are acquainted with persons who could construct such machines; but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had accidentally found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted, and that any attempt to account for the origin of its existence would be equally presumptuous and unsatisfactory.

and this?:

It is vain philosophy that supposes more causes than are exactly adequate to explain the phenomena of things.

You assert that the construction of the animal machine, the fitness of certain animals to certain situations, the connexion between the organs of perception and that which is perceived; the relation between every thing which exists, and that which tends to preserve it in its existence, imply design. It is manifest that if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest, the human frame could not preserve its present mode of existence. It is equally certain, however, that the elements of its composition, if they did not exist in one form, must exist in another; and that the combinations which they would form, must so long as they endured, derive support for their peculiar mode of being from their fitness to the circumstances of their situation.

and this?:

That certain animals exist in certain climates, results from the consentaneity of their frames to the circumstances of their situation: let these circumstances be altered to a sufficient degree, and the elements of their composition must exist in some new combination no less resulting than the former from those inevitable laws by which the Universe is governed….

and this?:

If we found our belief in the existence of God on the universal consent of mankind, we are duped by the most palpable of sophisms. The word God cannot mean at the same time an ape, a snake, a bone, a calabash, a Trinity, and a Unity. Nor can that belief be accounted universal against which men of powerful intellect and spotless virtue have in every age protested….

Turns out he got expelled from Oxford for writing a tract advocating atheism, and wikipedia claims that publishers were afraid to print his writing, throughout his life, lest they be punished for it. Oh yeah, and Shelley wrote the work these quotes are from in 1814. He was a little ahead of the curve, you might say.

…Also, seriously? Shelley was arguing 200 years ago against the very same design arguments that are still trying to insinuate themselves into classrooms today? (sigh)

Zazzlebook (notebook review)

Through a quirk of holiday sales that Zazzle may not have intended to turn out the way it did, I received a free copy of one of the notebooks I put up on my store this summer.* I picked one with a black and white image, so I can’t speak to the vibrancy of a color print; but I can complain that the black doesn’t seem quite black, in part because of the glossy cover reflecting light where black would just absorb it all. The glossy cover is also, of course, a wondrous fingerprint magnet.

The notebook advertises 60# or 90 gsm paper, which is the same weight as my Clairefontaine staple-bound notebook has. The paper is smooth, though not buttery like the CF (so it’s probably better for pencils than the CF would be). It’s white, but not blindingly so. It holds up to the pens I use – a variety of gel pens (Uniball Signo 207 0.5mm, Zebra Sarasa 0.7mm) and fineliners (Stabilo 88, 0.4mm). There’s a little shadowing on the back of the page I tested, but no bleed-through; the darker colors of the fineliners threatened to bleed if I wrote too slowly but never quite did. I even tried a silver Sakura Pentouch paint pen (0.7mm) with no bleed. Clairefontaine is better, but this is good.

The lines are dotted and a nice, narrow rule (maybe a hair over 6mm), but they are pitch black, which makes reading what you’ve written noticeably harder than if they were a nice middle gray. The margins (especially the gutter) are too wide, wasting quite a bit of writing area for the sake of white space. The pages are not perforated.

Binding closes at the first page instead of the last.

Binding closes at the first page instead of the last.

The Wire-o binding on my notebook was done the wrong way round, so it meets in front of the first page instead of after the last. I have a feeling that the early pages will get torn up by the wire, particularly from the cut-off wire ends at the top and bottom. Furthermore, the binding is uneven – nearly open in the middle and closed awkwardly at the ends (instead of a round “o” shape, it’s more of a football, as if it were done by hand and not very well).

The notebook has a soft cover, which was nowhere officially specified on the product page. It’s not just soft, either — it’s thinner than the covers on my Clairefontaine notebook, as well as a wire-bound Whitelines notebook. It doesn’t feel like the kind of cover that creases if you look at it wrong, but it does feel like the edges will be worn and beat to hell before I’ve used 1/4 of the pages.

At a minimum regular price of $13, the only reason to buy this notebook is the choice of custom cover designs. If you don’t care that much about the cover, Clairefontaine and Rhodia notebooks have somewhat better paper with much better rule lines and margins (among the ones I’ve tried, anyway). And Whitelines offers a style of rule that all but disappears as you write; their wire binding is much better done; and their pages are perforated (although the paper won’t hold up as well to inky pens). And they’re cheaper.

I really wish it were better, but on a generous day, the Zazzle notebook is worth half its minimum list price.

* Free is not quite accurate. In fact, they are paying me a dollar and change as a referral fee; yes, I referred myself.

Meaning Is in the I (fourth ModPo essay)

(The week’s topic was aleatory, or chance, poetry. Bonus points if you recognize all of the hat-tips in the title; I intended three of them.)


Here I have created a mesostic using the seed word “wandering” with Rae Armantrout’s “The Way”* as my oracle. I chose this combination because I would describe my own mind as peregrine, and “wandering” links that with the shifting “I” in Armantrout’s poem. I didn’t want to add deliberate meaning to the experiment, so this is the unedited result from the mesostomatic.

The resulting grammar is unconventional but not nonsensical. “Pew announces only bad winter” reads like the clipped syntax of news headlines – a bad winter is the only forecast we get from the pew. And “word is scenes gasp,” with a comma after “is,” acquires a conversational tone; “scenes gasp” could indicate the bad winter – a season of “scenes” where everything holds its breath, waiting for the spring. We could even read “pew” as the research group, suggesting a prediction of a chilly post-election civil/political climate.

More interesting than a particular meaning is that we can find meaning at all in a poem that came about through a pseudorandom, deterministic process where no specific meaning could have been intended. This reminds us what pattern detectors we humans are – we seek patterns and meaning everywhere, so much so that we often see them where they aren’t (both for good reason, ask any evolutionist). Finding meaning in chance poems shows that this applies to language as much as anything else, and it also invites us to ask what meaning really is.

Douglas Hofstadter wrote in Gödel, Escher, Bach that “meaning is an automatic by-product of our recognition of any isomorphism.” A heady statement, but he was discussing the way that no message comes through as uncoded, pure meaning (e.g., this essay is coded in English); an isomorphism is a relationship between two things, “mapping” one onto the other (like a translation). Meaning happens when you make the connection between them. There are all kinds of things (objects, ideas, experiences) that bear a relationship to each other without anyone intending it. The “code” of chance poems may not be organized and deliberate, but if something in it makes sense to you, then you’ve recognized a relationship – meaning has happened. In this sense, chance poems have whatever meaning their readers find in them.

But I think it’s more than that. That they have whatever meaning readers find is itself a (meta) meaning of the chance poem – the fact that meaning belongs to each person who encounters the poem. In a traditional poem, the poet tries to control what meaning the reader sees, but if the readers don’t recognize the intended meaning in it, it’s unsuccessful; that meaning isn’t there. The fact that language is such that it can so often be non-intentionally arranged into something that seems meaningful and, conversely, that we are such that we can find meaning in such arrangements of words may be another meaning.

Finally, there are the questions themselves: what does this mean? how do I find meaning in this noise? if something non-intentional can have meaning, then what is meaning?

We are all too familiar with these questions in another context: faced with the claim that the universe and life and we came about through non-intentional, deterministic processes, the religious ask, “Then what’s the point? What value or meaning can there be in life if everything exists by coincidence?” Atheists seem to have little trouble finding these things. Indeed, many exclaim that it is all the more wonderful that there is such order and complexity in the universe, and that we are here, if no one has been there deliberately making it so. And it is up to us to determine or create meaning in our lives.

Some people will find meaning in chance poems; some will not. Either way, art demands we look at its objects in new ways, and here, the object most in question is meaning itself.

* Read Armantrout’s poem here, and find a PoemTalk discussion of it here. We read this in the second week of the course, when we saw a variety of Dickinsonian and Whitmanian poets (she is Dickinsonian).

Why technology astounds me

I used to play Sleuth off of a disk that looked like this:

Now, I just got a flash memory card for a new touch-screen media player. This–

–can hold as much as over 86,000 of those floppy disks. Eighty-six thousand.

The micro SD card holds 32,000,000,000 bytes, while a typical 5.25″ floppy held around 368,000. This means the floppy disk holds about 13 kB per square inch of overall disk size, while this micro SD card holds about 123 million kB per square inch. That’s a ratio of 9.5 million to one!

(Caveat: non sequitur follows. 😉 ) So why, again, don’t we have humans on Mars by now?

Wherein she gushes a little about a poetry class

Two whole posts in a single month? Watch out, folks, Arestelle’s getting crazy here! 😉

I have been busy. I have spent too much time fretting about scholarship applications and not enough figuring out how to write them (or writing my previous references to beg another favor). I have completed a second Coursera class while simultaneously working on a third. (Wait did I tell you about the first? It was Game Theory; it was fun and cool and challenging; you should try it when it runs again.)

Statistics One, taught by Princeton’s Andrew Conway, is the one I just completed; it had a few glitches that need worked out and leaned a little too far in the direction of learning how to write programs to run statistics, as opposed to focusing on the concepts on which those calculations are based. This made it feel like I was just playing puppet by the end, just typing in the code that the video said to type or copying it over from an example to the script for the assignment and getting answers right half by chance.

I did learn some new things, though (granted, that’s not a high bar to go by, since I have no background in stats), so hopefully I can hold on to some sense of the things to look out for in reported statistics – sample size (a huge enough sample size can make almost any little effect “statistically significant”), effect size (this’ll tell you if the effect is negligible in spite of “significance”), etc. And Princeton doesn’t award certificates or statements of accomplishment for their Coursera classes, so I didn’t worry as much about the ‘grades’ I was getting – just what I learned.

The one I’m still working on is the most engaging yet (and Game Theory was engaging): ModPo, or Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, taught by UPenn’s Al Filreis and several TAs. They’ve managed to make it feel like a poetry class – it’s all Socratic seminar style discussions, with only occasional mini-lectures by Al, who’s got a contagious mixture of my first philosophy professor’s taste for collaborative learning (over lecture and test) and my Dante prof’s sheer exuberant enthusiasm for the subject. I could definitely see him veering off on a Karenlike excited half-hour tangent on some point of historical and artistic context for a poem. (Of course, that won’t mean much to you if you don’t know Karen. This is she. And this, at the end of the post.)

…Is it bad that I’m looking forward to Penn next year as much for proximity to the Writers’ House as for my grad program? You definitely want to check out this class. Forget about highbrow academic rigor for 10 weeks (this is me saying this) and just come for fun. We’ve even got some of the poets we’re reading joining us on the forums and Facebook, now we’re up to the Language poets. How cool is that?