One Small Voice

The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre

Poetry as Code


A few months ago, in preparation for composing a cycle of poems on Nietzsche's ethical philosophy (now half done and provisionally entitled Songs of Zarathustra), I made the time to re-read my favorite book on the writing of metrical poetry: All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing by Timothy Steele. This also inspired me to revisit and revise some of the poems and translations I published years ago in my book Ancient Fire. Sadly, I discovered that those early poems were rather buggy; the translations of Horace were especially malformed and a few of them required major refactoring so that they would compile from a metrical perspective.

My application of programming terminology to poetry-writing is not unwarranted. Done right, poetry has a kind of code to it. Different languages have entirely different underlying poetic principles: in ancient Greek and Latin, poetry was syllabic (i.e., based on the number of syllables in a line, such as 11, 11, 11, and 5 in the four lines of a Sapphic stanza) whereas old German and Anglo-Saxon poetry was purely accentual (you could have any number of syllables in a line as long as you had the proper number of accented syllables) and modern English poetry is a mixture of the two (called "accentual-syllabic"). Within each language, different forms (e.g., iambic pentameter or haiku or sonnet) have different rules such as the number of feet per line or repeating patterns (as in the pantoum), which can be stretched a bit in several directions but only so far. This is not all that dissimilar from types of programming languages (say, functional vs. object-oriented) or different coding styles (how you break up program logic into functions is a bit like how you break up poetic logic into lines and stanzas). And then there are free-verse programming languages like C or JavaScript that are a lot more loose in the kinds of structures they allow.

I wouldn't take these analogies too far, but I do find them interesting...


RFC 8141: Uniform Resource Names


Long, long ago on an Internet far, far away, some forward-thinking technologists defined several different types of identifiers called Uniform Resource Locators or URLs (for locating things - say, an article published online) and Uniform Resource Names or URNs (for permanently naming things without necessarily locating them - say, identifying a book by its ISBN no matter where a physical or electronic copy might be located). Some years later, a grand unified theory of identifiers was formulated, leading to the creation of Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) including both URLs and URNs (and URCs, but who's ever heard of those?). Even though most URIs that we use today are URLs, URNs as specified in RFC 2141 have continued to be widely deployed, especially for bibliographic purposes and as XML namespace names. Because the communities that use URNs have felt the need to make some slight adjustments to the syntax and to align URNs with the formal definition of URIs, back in 2010 folks at the IETF decided to start work on a new document to obsolete RFC 2141. It took us 7 years (!), but here we are today with RFC 8141 to bring URNs into the modern age (almost exactly 20 years after the publication of RFC 2141 in 1997). Special thanks to John Klensin for co-editing this specification with me!




While dipping back into Baltasar Gracián's Art of Worldly Wisdom recently, I got curious about the author, who it turns out was both a practitioner and a theoretician of a 17th-century Iberian literary style called conceptism. My interest was further piqued when I learned that conceptist writers attempted to express intricate conceptual meanings in a very concise form, and that both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were great admirers of Gracián (in Nietzsche's case perhaps reflected in his aphoristic style). I'm reminded also of Yevgeny Zamyatin's essay Theme and Plot, in which he espoused a concentrated brevity that he called "the art of writing with ninety-proof ink" (Zamyatin, in turn, was a great admirer of Nietzsche). These stylistic currents strike a deep chord with me, given my project of writing six extremely compressed books on eudaimonia. Speaking of which, now that I'm almost done with the book about Thoreau I'm making fast progress on a cycle of philosophical poems about Nietzsche.


Unethical Philosophers


Reports and allegations continue to surface regarding widespread sexual misconduct by male philosophy professors, including "stars" such as John Searle and Thomas Pogge (as well as several professors here in Colorado). The sad irony and arrogant hypocrisy of professors of philosophy engaging in such despicable and deeply unethical behavior cannot be passed by in silence. We witness here in a particularly painful form the truth of Thoreau's observation that "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers." According to Thoreau and the ancients, "to be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates" - which these piddling professors clearly fail to do.

Also disheartening is the lack of awareness, even among those who criticize this misconduct, of the true nature of what Nietzsche called the "visible philosophical life". Consider, for example, professor Louise Antony, who has been quoted as saying "The evaluation of the philosophical work - the quality of the arguments - is one thing, and the evaluation of the philosopher’s behavior is something else" and "We take our job to be giving students the tools to make good ethical decisions. But of course, a philosopher can know what the tools are, and still be bad at using them." Both statements are true as far as they go, but they do not go very far because they evade the deeper issue: these men merely profess, but do not live, the philosophies they espouse. In other words: they are not philosophers! I, for one, will cease referring to them as such.

This line of argument implies that it is difficult to determine if someone is a philosopher, or merely a sophist who professes subtle thoughts. This problem is not new, and also goes back to the ancient Greeks. One is reminded, too, of the ancient Greek notion that you cannot call a person eudaimon (successful at living as a human being) until they die, or even afterward. In the case of John Searle, perhaps he had people fooled for a long time but now at the age of 84 the truth is coming out.

Unfortunately, there's a long and sordid history of bad behavior among so-called philosophers: Heidegger was an unreconstructed Nazi, Rousseau dropped his five infant children off at the Paris Foundling Hospital, Wittgenstein caused the death of his 11-year-old student Josef Haidbauer, Foucault was an enthusiastic disciple of the Marquis de Sade, and even Ayn Rand cheated on her husband while publicly avowing that he was her "top value".

So much for the love of wisdom.


Going Deep


Three months ago, in a post entitled "Below the Surface", I started a habit of posting in my weblog at least once a week. Although it's been a good run, I've cleared out my backlog of topics to write about. More importantly, I have a big project to finish (The Upland Farm, my forthcoming book on Thoreau) and another one to restart (more on that in the coming weeks), not to mention the need to focus intently on building the team at Filament and bringing our products to market. Because all of these initiatives will require a lot of deep work, my weblog will likely be fairly quiet until mid-summer. See you then.


Limited Liability


Someone I know who is an avowed socialist told me he'd be much more sympathetic to libertarian views if we didn't need big government to protect us from big business.

This set me to thinking: are large corporations a necessary feature of a free society?

Big business didn't become a dominant presence in the economy until the 19th century, so something must have happened to make that possible.

While doing some research and thinking on the topic, I think I found the fulcrum: limited liability.

What limited liability does is prevent someone who is harmed by corporate activity from seeking unlimited damages from the owners and directors and managers of the corporation. In effect, limited liability means that losses are limited but profits are theoretically unlimited.

That doesn't sound like a recipe for personal responsibility, does it?

Indeed, the artificial legislative construct of limited liability enables the owners and directors and managers of a corporation to do pretty much whatever they please, secure in the knowledge that they won't be held accountable.

Oh, and the first limited liability legislation was passed in 1811 in New York State (I'd bet at the behest of crony capitalists), followed over the next few decades by other U.S. states, England (in 1855), etc. So the timing works out, too.

In the absence of such legislation, would extremely large corporations exist? I have my doubts, because the owners and directors and managers would not want the organization to grow so large that they could not have direct, personal oversight of its operations (without such hands-on management, they wouldn't understand their potential liabilities).

Thus it seems to me right now that in a completely voluntary society, individuals would not willingly cede their right to seek appropriate damages against organizational activity and thus that our current regime of limited losses and unlimited profits (with its attendant huge corporations) would not exist.


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