Archive for September, 2009

Insanabile Scribendi Cacoethes

September 24, 2009

Merton’s On the Shoulders of Giants “supplies a veritable nosography and materia medica of closely identified ailments endemic among scholars and scientists: denigrating adumbrationism (or the practice of finding seeming anticipations in times long past of ideas or findings newly discovered in the present); the correlative anatopic or palimpsestic syndrome (the covering over of earlier versions of an idea by ascribing it to a comparatively recent author in whose work the idea was first encountered); an honest cryptomnesia (‘submerged or subliminal memory of events forgotten by the supraliminal self’ as in forgetting the source of an idea one takes to be newly one’s own); the obscurantist grimgribber (the art of gobbledegook); insanabile scribendi cacoethes (the excruciating itch to publish, an ailment remedied only by scratching words down on paper); the humbling Parvus-complex or nanism (diminishing the scholarly merits of one’s own work by ambitiously contrasting it to the towering work achieved by giants of science and learning); the parochial peregrinosis (the subliminal fear of foreign learning); and, to extend this prefatory list no further, the defensive tu quoque (thou also), first generally identified in the seventeenth century and specified here as meeting a charge of plagiarism by retorting that the accuser has himself plagiarized.”

Robert K. Merton, On The Shoulders of Giants, pp. xiii-xiv.

In the back cover of the first edition of OTSOG:

“There is a genuine excitement in following the range of learned reference. The pleasure I took in the reading was lively and unremitting. The Aphorism comes to have an enchanted and enchanting life of its own.” —Lionel Trilling

“A comfort and delight… I marveled at the maintenance of Form under the appearances of improvisation and discursiveness: that puts Merton in Sterne’s class.” —Jacques Barzun


Page and reference counts

September 24, 2009

The first two figures show the page and reference count for articles published in ASQ. The others show a comparison between AJS and ASR, between AJS and SF, and a comparison among all the journals for which I have the data.

How magicians protect intellectual property

September 23, 2009

Below is the abstract of an article about how magicians protect intellectual property without law (available at SSRN:

Intellectual property scholars have begun to explore the curious dynamics of IP’s negative spaces, areas in which IP law offers scant protection for innovators, but where innovation nevertheless seems to thrive. Such negative spaces pose a puzzle for the traditional theory of IP, which holds that IP law is necessary to create incentives for innovation.

This paper presents a study of one such negative space which has so far garnered some curiosity but little sustained attention – the world of performing magicians. This paper argues that idiosyncratic dynamics among magicians make traditional copyright, patent, and trade secret law ill-suited to protecting magicians’ most valuable intellectual property. Yet, the paper further argues that the magic community has developed its own set of unique IP norms which effectively operate in law’s absence. The paper details the structure of these informal norms that protect the creation, dissemination, and performance of magic tricks. The paper also discusses broader implications for IP theory, suggesting that a norm-based approach may offer a promising explanation for the puzzling persistence of some of IP’s negative spaces.

In the Shandean Scripture

September 23, 2009

Tristram Shandy on writing, gentleman (Book VIII, Chapter II): “That of all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident that my own way of doing it is the best.—I’m sure it is the most religious,—for I begin with writing the first sentence,—and trusting the Almighty God for the second.”

On multiple choice tests

September 23, 2009

They should go. They are an insult to Intelligence, except when played with as parlor games. And something else must go at the same time; I mean the form of such tests. Every man of education ought to take a solemn vow that he will never ‘check’ anything on a printed list. Students should not be asked to pass so-called objective examinations, which are the kind composed of mimeographed questions to be marked Yes or No, or to be solved by matching the right name with a definition. I have kept track for some ten years of the effect of such tests upon the upper half of each class. The best men go down one grade and the next best go up. It is not hard to see why. The second-rate do well in school and in life because of their ability to grasp what is accepted and conventional, the ‘ropes’ of the subject. They become pillars of society and I have no quarrel with them. But first-rate men are rarer and equally indispensable. They see into situations quickly, and with the fresh, clear eye of Intelligence, and they must be encouraged to continue. To them, a ready-made question is an obstacle. It paralyzes thought by cutting off all connections but one. Or else it sets them thinking and doubting whether in that form any possible answers really fits. Their minds have finer adjustments, more imagination, which the test deliberately penalizes as encumbrances. This basic difficulty occurs no matter how carefully the questions are drafted and how extensive their coverage. I sat and worked on a committee that prepared objective questions in history for the so-called Graduate Record Examination, which is now widely used to test college seniors’ readiness for graduate work. In committee, it was revealing to see how a question that seemed ‘foolproof’ and ‘obvious’ to two or three men, thoroughly trained in their field, struck others of the same caliber as ‘ambiguous’ or ‘misleading.’ Add modifiers and you can make the question so unwieldy that it can hardly be grasped at one reading; simplify and you reduce it to bare common fact. Neither extreme, moreover, brings anything out of the student’s mind; yet the power to relate, to think up, to see into, is what distinguishes the first rank from the second in all walks of life. The results of the Graduate examination no doubt correlate very satisfactorily with other indices, but they scarcely give data for the most needful kind of diagnosis. Nor have they ever been tried on the masters of the profession, which would be the test of tests, provided running comments were allowed. When one courageous man proposed just this at an institution that thrives on endless testing, the idea was dismissed as a joke in poor taste.

Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect, pp. 300-302.

The growth of knowledge?

September 23, 2009

The first figure shows the average size of articles published in AJS between 1895 and 2007. The other two show a comparison between AJS and AER. The comparison provides an interesting point of departure for discussing the norms of publication in sociology and economics. What happened to AJS?




The mind as computer

September 23, 2009

Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with William James, p. 45.

In the light of this description the analogy so passively received nowadays, of the mind as computer, is manifestly fallacious. A computer does not think, it feels nothing, and what it is said to “know” — bits of information all cast in the digital mode — has no fringe. Nor has it a memory, only storage room. On any point called for, the answer is all or none. Vagueness, intelligent confusion, original punning on words or ideas never occur, the internal hookups being unchangeable; they were determined once for all by the true minds that made the machine and the program. When plugged in, the least elaborate computer can be relied on to work to the fullest extent of its capacity; the greatest mind cannot be relied on for the simplest thing; its variability is its superiority. Homer nods, Shakespeare writes twaddle, Newton makes mistakes, you and I have been known to talk nonsense. But they and we can (as the phrase goes) surpass ourselves, invent, discover, create. The late John von Neumann, mathematician, logician, and inventor of game theory, would not allow one to liken the mind to a computer. He knew how his mind worked and he understood his computer. So goodbye to all the bright remarks, in fiction and conversation, about programming oneself to pass an interview.

Song for William James

September 21, 2009

Song for William James by Robert Sargent

Argument Early inculcations cling.
We must to our insight bring:
Truth is an invented thing.
The illimitable number
of chance
Randomness makes up the world:
Her flickering events
Are numbered like the babbling stars
In their extravagance.
Our selective
choice of
assimilable events
From this set we pick and choose,
Selectively, the ones
That keep our theories entire,
Neglecting other suns.
Our theories not
The theory designed to fit
A proper realm of fact
Leaves out the shameless other realms
That with our realm react.
Our local view
of space
The corporal sizes we observe,
Galactic to the little,
Make us suspect a further range,
Since man is in the middle.
Our local view
of time
The instruments that measure time
From eons down to shakes
Show that the year which measures us
A mid-position takes.
Man’s partisanship The way man sees the neutral world
Depends upon the times,
And is as partisan a thing
And human as his rhymes.
Recapitulation These persuasive voices sing:
Grant that metaphor is king;
Truth is an invented thing.

The Antioch Review, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1964-1965), p. 464

The only safeguard

September 21, 2009

Something is before us; we do our best to tell what it is, but in spite of our good will we may go astray, and give a description more applicable to some other sort of thing. The only safeguard is in the final consensus of our farther knowledge about the thing in question, later views correcting earlier ones, until at last the harmony of a consistent system is reached. Such a system, gradually worked out, is the best guarantee the psychologist can give for the soundness of any particular psychologic observation which he may report. Such a system we ourselves must strive, as far as may be, to attain.

William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol I, p. 192-193

No matter how good one’s sentiments may be

September 21, 2009

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved. An this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down. A ‘character,’ as J.S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will’; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use. Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge. There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed. Rousseau, inflaming all the mothers of France, by his eloquence, to follow Nature and nurse their babies themselves, while he sends his own children to the foundling hospital, is the classical example of what I mean. But every one of us in his measure, whenever, after glowing for an abstractly formulated Good, he practically ignores some actual case, among the squalid ‘other particulars’ of which that same Good lurks disguised, treads straight on Rousseau’s path. All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when he thinks them in their pure and abstract form! The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coach-man is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. Even the habit of excessive indulgence in music, for those who are neither performers themselves nor musically gifted enough to take it in a purely intellectual way, has probably a relaxing effect upon the character. One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world—speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers—but let it not fail to take place.

William James, The Principles of Psychology, Vol I, p. 125-126