Poem: Past one o'clock . . .

As we leave behind the economic troubles of 2008, I thought it fitting to post this poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Russian futurist poet.   Mayakovsky’s life is celebrated by one of the greatest museums anywhere, the Mayakovsky House  in Moscow, which re-creates in visual and spatial terms the constructivism of Mayakovsky’s writing.   The image is from their web-site, and shows a room in the museum.
The middle quartrain formed part of Mayakovsky’s suicide note, with “you” replaced with “life”.

Past one o’clock.  You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
to balance mutual sorrows, pains and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

Vladimir Mayakovsky [1960]:  The Bedbug and Selected Poetry.  Translation by Max Hayward and George Reavey.  Bloomington, IA, USA:   Indiana University Press.

The strange disappearance of British manufacturing

The decline following World War II of textile manufacturing in Britain, home of the industrial revolution, has always puzzled me.  How could an industry that arose against great odds and survived successive wars and depressions have fizzled out so quickly?  Was it simply that the Lancashire textile industry depended on the suppression of rival manufacturers, first in English-occupied Ireland and North America, and then throughout the British Empire, and that the end of empire after 1945 also meant the end of British textiles?  This analysis seems somewhat too simplistic for me.

Once on a flight between Hong Kong and London in the mid 1990s, I sat next to a salesman for a small Lancashire company selling specialist dyes to textile manufacturers.   Although having fewer than 30 employees, the company was more than a century old and had managed to diversify its customer base to manufacturers in South and East Asia, while all its nearer customers went under.   Needless to say, its raw materials came from all over the world.  How could this small company survive and not its larger UK customers, I still wonder?

I have just come across the second-world war correspondence of American journalist A. J. Liebling, whose writing is simply riveting.   In an article called “The Lancashire Way” (first published in The New Yorker in 1941), he describes the supreme adaptability of British industry during war-time.   In a fascinating description of industrial resilience, technological flexibility and industrial-policy-on-the-hoof, Liebling records a discussion he had with an un-named British Ministry of Supply official:

I said that when I left New York a few months ago our armaments plants were working two or three shifts and we were building new plants as fast we could, and he answered, “Yes, that’s how we tried to do it at first.  We stopped depending on the obvious soon after Dunkerque.   Now when we need more cartridges, we don’t wait until we have built a new cartridge factory.  We get some from a man who used to make fountain pens and some more from a chap who once manufactured lipsticks.  We get shell fuses from a shop that once turned out prams – baby buggies, you know – and fuse components from costume-jewelry fellows.
. . .
In Westminster we have a candlemaker doing tank parts, for instance.  Some of the candlemaker’s lathes are a hundred years old. A fellow who used to make dental pumps – you know, those things the dentist puts under your tongue to draw away saliva – is now making an important part of the mechanism for the Bren gun.  Then the fellows who used to make the metal tops of soda-water siphons are very useful, so are beer-bottle-cap markers, who, with the aid of a little jiggery-pokery, change over to cartridge cases.  A lot of those small fellows are damned good mechanics. A man whose shop has only a couple of machines which he has been using for several different operations often proves more adaptable than a big-factory boy who has been used to ordering a special machine tool for each new job.
. . .
Lancashire, you know, used to be at least seventy percent textile before the war.  There were, of course, the textile mills.  Then there were the machine shops, which turned out textile machinery for the most part, and there was a good deal of miscellaneous light industry.  However, there weren’t any steel mills or locomotive plants or motor works.  It’s only twenty percent textile now, and it’s working full blast – harder than ever in its history.  Some of the mills are still making textiles required for the war effort and for a minimum civilian consumption; the others have been closed down.   But the machinery plants have been expanded and the textile labour has gone into them.   Most of the people have been weavers and spinners for a generation and never went near a lathe. There’s a sort of sense, though, that people acquire from being around any kind of machinery.  They get the swing of the new work much faster than, say, agricultural workers or white-collar fellows turned into a mill. The companies that are allowed to continue making textiles act as trustees for the whole industry.  The owners of the closed plants get an indemnity out of the profits of those that stay open.  The companies that stay open are pledged to protect the future interests of the closed ones – take care of the other fellows’ customers as well as possible during the war, for example.” (pp. 611-613 of Liebling 2008)
Reading this article, I kept thinking:  these are the grand-children of the people who created the industrial revolution, so none of this should be surprising.    What is surprising is that this history has not been celebrated in Britain.  And, it is hard to square such flexibility and resilience with the fate of UK industry after 1945.  I wonder then, in fact, if the organizational and financing structures involved in some manufacturing companies operating on behalf of others during the war did not in fact facilitate the exit of the owners of capital from British industry after it.  I can think of no other explanation of how such adaptability, resilience and applied technological intellect (what the Germans call Technik) should have disappeared so quickly.
A. J. Liebling [1941]: The Lancashire Way.  The New Yorker, 22 November 1941.  Reprinted in:  A. J. Liebling [2008]: World War II Writings.  New York City, NY, USA: The Library of America, pp. 611-621.
The image that was here was LS Lowry’s painting: “The Canal”.

Poem: Mnemosyne

Another poem by Joe Stickney, following Song.   This is Mnemosyne, which on the surface appears to be a straightforward poem about a country where he had lived in the past (given the title, probably Greece, which Stickney knew well).  However, reading the poem carefully, one sees that it also about that country we have all visited, called The Past.

Quoting this poem allows me to point you to Ljova Zurbin’s wonderful setting of the poem, available here.  What I find particularly powerful in this setting is the repetition of the varying refrains as a final verse, which brings Stickney’s argument into clear focus.

I had the rare chance to see Ljova and the Kontraband perform this song and other great music live at The Stone last weekend.  Ljova played a 6-string viola with a facility and fluency that Paganini would have envied:  the man must have about 20 fingers on his left hand!   Lots of what they played did not make it onto their great CD, so I hope they are able to release a second CD soon.

It’s autumn in the country I remember.
How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.
The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.
I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.
The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.
There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I ‘d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.
It rains across the country I remember.

PS (2016-09-09):  Another wonderful song about the invocation of memories, suddenly, is The Bones of You by Elbow, official video here.

Vale George Brecht

Fluxus artist George Brecht (born George MacDiarmid in 1926) has just died, aged 82. He was a student in the Experimental Composition class which John Cage gave at the New School in New York in the late 1950s, Regretting that I was born too late to join this class*, I took the next best step, which was to track down a copy of Brecht’s notebooks in order to pore over his lecture notes taken in this class.  His most recent exhibition was at MACBA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, in 2006.

The photo that was here showed Brecht performing “Drip Music” (1959): “For single or multiple performance. A source of dripping water and an empty vessel are arranged so that the water falls into the vessel.”

* I did once take a composition class with Gentleman Jim Penberthy (1917-1999), which makes me a grand-pupil of Nadia Boulanger. That class focused mainly on Penberthy’s compositional method of expressionist serialism.

Poem: A Dream within a Dream

Today’s poem is “A Dream Within a Dream” by American writer and poet, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849):

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand –
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep – while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Hearing is (not necessarily) believing

Someone (let’s call her Alice) tells you that something is true, say the proposition P.  What can you validly infer from that utterance of Alice?  Not that P is necessarily true, since Alice may be mistaken.  You can’t even infer that Alice believes that P is true, since she may be aiming to mislead you.
Can you then infer that Alice wants you to believe that P is true?  Well, not always, since the two of you may have the sort of history of interactions which leads you to mostly distrust what she says, and she may know this about you, so she may be counting on you believing that P is not true precisely because she told you that it is true.  But, you, in turn, may know this about Alice (that she is counting on you not to believe her regarding the truth of P), and she knows that you know, so she is actually expecting you not to not-believe her on P, but to in fact infer either no opinion on P or to believe that P is true.
So, let us try summarizing what you could infer from Alice telling that P is true:

  • That P is true.
  • That Alice believes that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to not believe that P is true.
  • That Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • That Alice desires that you believe that Alice desires you to believe that P is not true.
  • And so on, ad infinitum.

Apart from life, the universe and everything, you may be wondering where such ideas would find application.   Well, one place is in Intelligence.   Tennent H. Bagley, in his very thorough book on the Nosenko affair, for example, discusses the ructions in CIA caused by doubts about the veracity of the supposed KGB defector, Yuri Nosenko.    Was he a real defector?  Or was he sent by KGB as a fake defector, in order to lead CIA astray with false or misleading information?  If he was a fake defector, should CIA admit this publicly or should they try to convince KGB that they believe Nosenko and his stories?  Does KGB actually want CIA to conclude that Nosenko is a fake defector, for instance, in order to believe something by an earlier defector which CIA may otherwise doubt?  In which case, should CIA pretend to taken in by Nosenko (to make KGB think their plot was successful) or let KGB know that they were not taken in (in order to make KGB believe that CIA does not believe that other earlier information)?  And so on, ad infinitum.
I have seen similar (although far less dramatic) ructions in companies when they learn of some exciting or important piece of competitor intelligence.   Quite often, the recipient company just assumes the information is true and launches itself into vast efforts executing new plans.  Before doing this, companies should explicitly ask, Is this information true?,  and also pay great attention to the separate question, Who would benefit if we (the recipients) were to believe it?
Another application of these ideas is in the design of computer communications systems.   Machines send messages to each other all the time (for example, via the various Internet protocols, whenever a web-page is browsed or email is sent), and most of these are completely believed by the recipient machine.   To the extent that this is so, the recipient machines can hardly be called intelligent.   Designing intelligent communications between machines requires machines able and willing to query and challenge information they receive when appropriate, and then able to reach an informed conclusion about what received information to believe.
Many computer scientists believe that a key component for such intelligent communications is an agreed semantics for communication interactions between machines, so that the symbols exchanged between different machines are understood by them all in the same way.   The most thoroughly-developed machine semantics to date is the Semantic Language SL of the Agent Communications Language ACL of the IEEE Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (IEEE FIPA), which has been formalized in a mix of epistemic and doxastic logics (ie, logics of knowledge and belief).   Unfortunately, the semantics of FIPA ACL requires the sender of information (ie, Alice) to believe that information herself.  This feature precludes the language being used for any interactions involving negotiations or scenario exploration.  The semantics of FIPA ACL also require Alice not to believe that the recipient believes one way or another about the information being communicated (eg, the proposition P).  Presumably this is to prevent Alice wasting the time of the recipient.  But this feature precludes the language being used for one of the most common interactions in computer communications – the citing of a password by someone (human or machine) seeking to access some resource, since the citer of the password assumes that the resource-controller already knows the password.
More work clearly needs doing on the semantics of machine communications.  As the example above demonstrates, communication has many subtleties and complexities.
Tennent H. Bagley [2007]: Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Poem: O Batuque

From the 2007 album, Cymbals, by Brazilian guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria, is this sad song, “O Batuque”.    The song was composed with Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos, and its diminished minor chords express a traveler’s sad longing for the sun and the south, from the cold, still north.

Se a samba e Brasileiro
Pele e internacional
Salve o Amazonas
Salve o pantanal
Swing afro-cubana
Tem reggae no carnaval
Alo alo Bob Marley alo
Alo alo Bob Marley alo
Saudades do Brasil
Eu estau passando um tempo fora
O frio esta matando
E no metro ninguem me olha
Os pretos elegantes
Os latinos brilhantina
E um loiro americano
De patins a cada esquina
O que e que eu estou fazendo aqui
The Beat
If samba means Brazil
Pele means international
Long live the Amazon
Long live the Pantanal
Afro-Cuban swing
Reggae meets Carnaval
Hey there, Bob Marley
Hey there, Bob Marley
How I miss Brazil
I’ve been away awhile
The cold is killing me
No one sees me on the subway
The elegant blacks
The slick Latinos
And a blonde American
Skating around every corner
Whatever am I doing here?