The frozen coachman

Catarina Dutilh Novaes’ item on literature and on what, thanks to her and to Helen de Cruz, I now know to call “moral self-licensing” brought to mind some sleuthing I did two months ago. This was in connection with teaching a bit of the “moral uplift through art” literature that Catarina and her commenters discuss. (The review article cited by Catarina, by the way, is available for free here. See also the abstracts at p81 of the program for 2011 meeting of the Association for Consumer Research — one area in which the theory will soon find application…)
The trail begins with William James, who in his Briefer Course on Psychology (1915) writes:
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 the Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale (148).
For a long time — I don’t remember why — I thought that the unfortunate coachman was to be found somewhere in Tolstoy. Other people did too, including the critic Vincent Sheean, who places the coachman in St. Petersburg, and has the noble lady watching La dame aux camélias. For all I know, he may be right.
But the coachman has turned out to be an elusive character. I tracked him back to around 1700… After which I’ll return to James, and Catarina.
Source: The Idler 11 (1897) 703. Artist: John Schönberg.
The next earlier appearance I could find was not promising. We move back to 1897, to a periodical called the Idler. In a story by Fred Whishaw, a prolific author of adventure novels, Alexis Bogoliubov [i.e. Godslove], chief coachman to Baron Krilof, has seen his brother condemned to Siberia by the Baron, who is Head of Police; the Baron, moreover, had insisted on calling him twice to duty while his little daughter lay ill with a fever. The second time she died. Persuaded by some “nihilist” friends of his brother to assassinate the Baron, Alexis drives him to the theatre, planning to shoot him when he comes out. The Baron comes out, climbs into the coach, but Alexis does nothing. They ride home. Later, the Baron sends a servant to tell Alexis to take the coach and horses to the stable. But Alexis doesn’t answer: he is frozen stiff, and has been, says the doctor called to see him, for an hour. He was dead already before they left the theatre…
Next, a more light-hearted story from Blackwood’s (1867). In “The Eastern trip of two ochlophobists”, the first-person narrator writes:
When I was in Rome I remember being told that it had not been so cold for forty years, and the fact that Pss—i’s coachman had been frozen to death on the box while waiting at the opera for his mistress was adduced as a proof; on inquiries afterwards, I must own that it was satisfactorily shown that the coachman’s inability to stir proceeded mainly from drunkenness.
The coachman and his mistress (not master) have moved to Rome, and instead of being bent on assassination, the coachman has tied one on, and has gone “stiff” only in metaphor.
You will have noticed that these two tellings of the story are fictional. James’s anecdote is not. Our next stage yields a nonfictional frozen coachman, in Russia like James’s, not Rome.
On the 5th of December, during a cold spell of minus twenty [Celsius], one knew or heard — for it was expressly forbidden to speak of it — that Napoleon had stopped in the outskirts, at the gates of Vilna, had dined in his coach, chatted with the Duke of Bassano, even as his coachman died of the cold, and also that the Duke of Rocca Romana […] was so extravagant as to bring with him, in the same equipment as at Naples […] some delicate and charming horses, only to see them freeze to death at the end of the campaign (129).
This narrative has all the trappings of authenticity. It comes from the Réminiscences sur l’empereur Alexandre 1er et sur l’empereur Napoléon 1er (1862) by Sophie de Tisenhaus, countess of Choiseul-Gouffler, who was in Vilnius at the time (so I gather). The incident would have occurred in 1812.
Perhaps it did. Perhaps we have found the frozen coachman, the prototype of James’s. And yet a bit of doubt persists… In a work from 1842 — before Sophie de Tisenhaus’s, but after the incident she mentions — we find that frozen coachman were commonplace in old Russia.
It is incredible how much the poor coachmen, footmen, and postilions, are expected to endure. People will often go to the theatre or to a party, and leave their equipages in the street the whole evening, that they may be able to command their services at a moment’s notice. The coachman then finds it difficult to resist the inclination to sleep; and the little twelve-year-old postilions, not yet accustomed to watch till midnight, hang slumbering on their horses, or, winding the reins round their arms, slip down and lie cowering on the frozen snow. Many a poor coachman has thus lost his nose, or has had his hands and feet disabled, while his master was feasting his palate or his ears, or indulging a voluptuous sympathy for fictitious sorrow (Köhl, Russia, 1842 but probably published in German earlier).
In the Spectator of 1840 we find coachmen — and their passengers, in this somewhat more egalitarian society — freezing in Paris:
How the wretched coachmen manage to live at all in such weather as I have seen in Paris, is to me inconceivable; for even to the inside passengers the cold becomes to times so severe, that with all the contrivances they can think of—warm furs, hot-water bottles, great-coats, boat-cloaks, and shawls, they can scarcely go from one house to another without being frozen to death; a fate which actually befel two poor sentries, and an unfortunate donkey […] (1235).
Fifty years earlier, the grandfathers of some of those coachmen had already sat freezing at the behest of their masters.
The theatres and all places of public amusement are shut, when the cold is seventeen degrees of Reaumur. A custom of the Russian nobility and gentry makes this regulation absolutely necessary. Asiatic pomp prevails here, as much as at Isphan or Delhi, in defiance of ice and storms. They make their attendants wait with their carriages wherever they go, for one, or for ten hours, as it happens, let the cold be ever so violent. The miserable grins of those half frozen wretches, convince me that it is not their choice: the coachmen are sometimes frozen to death, upon their boxes (Sentimental and Mosaic Magazine (1792) 348).
We seem to be in the presence of a commonplace, a complex of received ideas concerning the cruelty of the nobility, the coldness of Russian (or Parisian) winters, and the love of liquor among the servant class. How nicely it fits together, and how suited to making various points. In Köhl, the topic is the endurance of the people; in the 1792 passage (excerpted from Andrew Swinton’s Travels, published, it seems, that same year), the topic is much the same; but in James the point of the anecdote shifts from the coachman to the lady, from exhibiting features of social class and climate to the indifference of people who have “indulged a voluptuous sympathy for fictitious sorrow” — to moral self-licensing, or experiences of art that enable it.
Our journey ends with a footnote on page 176 of Pierre Moricheau-Beaupré’s Effets et des propriétés du froid, avec un aperçu historique et médical sur la campagne de Russie (1817). The footnote cites (probably) the Commentaries by Gerard van Swieten on the Aphorisms of the celebrated physician Hermann Boerhaave (1668–1738). These were first published in the 1740s. Boerhaave, perhaps already by 1709, had made observations upon the brain of a “cocher mort de froid”…
My efforts to find the original passage in Boerhaave have proved fruitless. But I see no reason to doubt that Boerhaave really did dissect a frozen coachman’s brain. A death from whose telling no morals, it seems, were drawn.
Back to James: the Russian lady (a transposition back to Russia of the lady in Rome, who herself may be a calque of Napoleon or the theatre-loving nobility of Moscow or St. Petersburg) exemplifies, rather oddly, the woe that arises to those who recognize goods only in their “pure and abstract form”. The implication is that when we watch Lear holding Cordelia in his arms and lamenting her death what we behold is more abstract and pure than when we see, on screen, a man amid the wreckage of a tornado-ravaged town in Oklahoma holding his injured daughter in his arms.
I don’t think so. In fact I don’t think whatever differences do obtain between truth and fiction matter much in this context. The psychologists seem unconcerned by them. In the moral-licensing papers I looked at, the experimental setups often had people reading about fictitious or “what-if” cases and anticipating making decisions rather than actually making them. That the situations their subjects are asked to consider were not real seems not to matter.
The moral uplift — or the moral license — that the appreciation of narrative fictions is supposed to provide would not, then, be an effect they have qua fictions, but simply qua stories, and the relevant dimension would be not truth but plausibility. (A similar thought was suggested to me this spring while teaching Catherine Wilson’s “Grief and the poet”, Susan James’s “Fruitful imagining”, and Wilson’s reply, all in Brit. J. Aesthetics 53.1 (Jan 2013), esp. 118–119.) In particular the fable of the frozen coachman, even if it encloses a kernel of truth, owes its persuasive force rather to the complex of received ideas that it calls to mind and marshals on behalf of the various morals drawn from it.
Catarina writes that the “first and foremost commitment” of fiction is to “a ‘good story’, one that is engaging, where the pieces hold well together, where the characters go through interesting events […]” I would amend this by changing “fiction” to “narrative” (see also Nathan’s comment on Catarina’s post). Though the discussion began with the question whether literature is uplifting (or, as I would say, lends itself to uplifting interpretations), literature turns out to be something of a red herring.

Plucks, warbles, blinking lights

(See Mohan Matthen, “The sense of time passed”, at NewAPPS.) Is there a primitive feeling of duration? There are bodily feelings which can stand proxy for the passage of time: they are not perceptions of passage (and so don’t raise questions about the perception of temporally extended objects) but of qualities that change in fairly regular ways with the passage of time (like the level of water in the reservoir of a clepsydra). The bladder fills, the stomach empties: and if the one feels full or the other empty, it must have been some time since the one was emptied and the other filled. Muscles and joints complain about the body’s inactivity, the eyes get fatigued. If there is a primitive “feeling of duration” perhaps it is a sort of “summary” feeling that tracks the aggregate of such feelings…
It is noteworthy that the feeling is associated with the durations of “durable” acts like sitting (as contrasted with “instantaneous” acts like turning one’s attention to a new object). In such cases there are bodily concomitants (and mental: retrospective judgments of fairly brief temporal intervals whose terminus ad quem is the present are determined in part by the number of events that have occurred in the interval [Hicks, Miller, Kinsbourne 1976], as if we had an “event buffer” that fills up with over time as new events are perceived).
Even if there is a feeling associated with the interval of three hours one has been sitting, there aren’t feelings associated with e.g. the interval of two hours that one has also been sitting or with the last five minutes of sitting. The feeling in question is not of duration simpliciter but of the temporal interval of an event that has been interrupted or that has ceased. It’s not as if the perception of passage consisted, so to speak, in the continuous monitoring of the position of an inner clock hand.
On the contrary, it seems to me that if there is a distinct primitive feeling of the passage of time, it is a feeling that has to be evoked. While you’re sitting, you are continuously feeling pressure on various parts of your body (though not always attending to those feelings); but I’m inclined to doubt that the feeling of passage works in that way. If so, then the difference between my experience five minutes ago, before I realized I’d been sitting three hours, and my experience now, does not consist merely in my attending to feelings of passage which were there all along. It arises only with the cessation or interruption of an activity.

Famed scientist makes historical error

I know: “Dog Bites Man”. But I think it’s symptomatic.
Source: Pierre Daguin, Traité élémentaire de physique (41879) 4:17
In The Nature of Physical Law, Feynman writes that Olaus Roemer, “having confidence in the Law of Gravitation”, concluded that discrepancies in the times of observations of eclipses of Jupiter’s moon Io were owing to the fact that the velocity of light is finite (and so takes longer to reach the Earth when the source is farther away).
Roemer’s results were reported anonymously to the French Académie des Sciences in 1676. A manuscript note cited in the paper below shows that Cassini too had arrived at the view no later than August 1676.
Newton’s Principia was published in 1687, over ten years later. Roemer could not have had confidence in a Law not yet published.
It’s an elementary mistake. It could have been corrected in a few minutes. But scientists often permit themselves to commit errors on historical matters so grievous that, were they to have committed analogous errors on scientific matters, they would be utterly embarrassed.
Feynman likewise gives a misleading account of the discovery of Neptune. He writes that after John Couch Adams sent his proposal to the Royal Observatory,
‘How absurd,’ said [the Royal Observatory], ‘some guy sitting with pieces of paper and pencils can tell us where to look to find some new planet’ (Feynman 14).
Feynman’s version makes a good joke, but it wrongly implies that Airy, the Astronomer Royal, rejected out of hand Adams’ calculation of the orbit of the new planet, and worse that Airy would not have searched for new planets on the basis of calculations. In fact, as soon as Airy read the just-published paper of Le Verrier, Adams’s French rival, in late 1845, he rushed to make the relevant observations.
Feynman’s book had at least one edition after it was first published in 1965. The edition I’m reading is the 1994 Modern Library edition with an introduction by James Gleick. Gleick’s companionable introduction makes no mention of mistakes by his “rough-hewn, American” author. I don’t suppose that doing so could be demanded of him.
One could argue that the book is a classic, whose mistakes should no more be corrected than Joyce’s when he implied that the Sundam Trench is over 8000 fathoms deep (it’s less than half that deep). But Ulysses is fiction. Feynman’s book is not, and readers are likely to accept on his authority its claims in history, not just in physics. Gleick might not have felt it necessary to correct those claims himself, but he or the editor at the Modern Library could have had someone do it. There’s no point, though admittedly there is profit, in perpetuating falsehoods.

Otto’s revenge

Octopus Arm
Source: Mary Somerville, On molecular and microscopic science (J. Murray, 1869) 247
Don’t mess with the Octopus! This eight-armed cephalopod, living in an aquarium at Sea-Star Aquarium in Coburg, Germany, didn’t like the bright light overhead in his living quarters. So he put it out by squirting it with water—several times. Aquarium workers kept a watch at night to find out what was going on. It seems that in addition to blowing out his aquarium light Otto likes to juggle his hermit-crab aquarium-mates; he also amuses himself by redecorating (“Otto the octopus wreaks havoc”, Telegraph (UK) 3 Nov 2008).
Octopuses are masters of disguise; they are among the smartest of invertebrates.
  • They are capable of “observational learning”, that is, of learning by observing the behavior of other octopuses.
    Graziano Fiorito and Pietro Scotto, “Observational learning in Octopus vulgaris”, Science 256, no. 5056 (Apr 1992) 545–547.
  • They can learn to open jars containing prey.
    Graziano Fiorito, G. B. Biederman, Valerie A. Davey and Francesca Gherardi, “The role of stimulus preexposure in problem solving by Octopus vulgaris”, Animal Cognition 1.2 (Oct 1998) 107–112; doi 10.1007/s100710050015.

718 Frequencies

How a political convention looks to its radio-frequency coordinator (see the lexicon below for a guide to the acronyms):
In total, 718 frequencies were used or reserved for use during the convention, said Jim Schoedler, POLCOMM 2008 DNC RF coordinator. They broke down as follows:
  • 207 wireless mic frequencies
  • 144 frequencies used for two-way radio, including repeaters
  • 111 frequencies for RF intercom
  • 96 frequencies for IFB for talent
  • 43 microwave channels
  • 117 held in reserve or identified for other purposes
[…] Schoedler knew there wouldn’t be much frequency shuffling required as broadcasters moved from the Pepsi Center to INVESCO Field.
“When I compare[d] the two, we found they are not very different. Both facilities act as a shield to a certain amount of RF and are fairly similar,” he said. That knowledge gave Schoedler confidence that a frequency assigned for use at the Pepsi Center should be acceptable for use at INVESCO, he said.
However, there was one notable exception: use of 7GHz COFDM camera transmitters, he said. “There are STL and TSL signals basically shooting over the stadium,” he said. “Testing by Denver stations revealed that the use of the 7GHz channel for COFDM microwave camera transmission from inside the stadium would interfere with the STL and TSL transmissions passing overhead. To resolve the issue, no 7GHz COFDM camera transmission was allowed at INVESCO Field,” he said.
Making sure that devices don’t interfere with each other required “purity-testing”. Not this kindthis kind. (The page I quote here describes the setup at the 2004 Democratic Convention. I assume that the 2008 Convention required similar testing.)
For four days, the Fleet Center presented the most hostile RF interference environment on the planet. Most local broadcasters had other obligations so the DNC enlisted the help of experienced local ham radio operators, many of whom were electrical engineers. Coordination was handled by Louis Libin of Broad-Comm.
Peter Simpson, KA1AXY (left) worked for the DNC RF frequency coordination and interference enforcement team. Three days prior to the start of the DNC, each piece of RF-generating equipment needed to pass RF-purity testing. Peter insured that each piece of RF equipment entering the area possessed an "RF tested-OK" sticker. No sticker, no entry.
Louis Libin is chairman of the Political Conventions Communications Committee, which handles frequency coordination at both conventions. He describes the challenge facing engineers at these events:
This year is the worst spectrum year ever for all different types of use. For instance, in St. Paul, we are able to use the lower UHF channels and divide them up for walkie-talkie use, IFBs and things like that. In Denver, we are stuck for spectrum because none of the channels in the lower UHF band are available. The FCC has granted us an STA to use business band, and as far as I know, this is the first time that we’ve ever used business band for broadcast-related uses.
We have made very strict, but necessary, guidelines for spectrum use that the networks and stations have all adopted. We also have other types of guidelines that have never been implemented before, such as the number of feet inside or outside that you need to separate the wireless mic from the receiver before you can use the mic. We’ve never had that before. Somebody is going to be only separated by10ft from his receiver; it’s great that they have a wireless mic, but the fact is that they are using that whole channel, and it’s actually putting a signal out that’s going far and has the potential to cause interference.
Between the mathematical and the natural, there’s a “technical sublime”, an awe at the scale of operations like these—a scale that defeats the imagination, even though the object of wonder was made by us.
Already in 1832, the spectacle of the railroad, conquering the vast American landscape, gave rise to feelings of a “technolgical sublime” (Leo Marx, The machine in the garden (Oxford, 2000; orig. publ. 1964), 195, quoting an article in Scientific American, 1832):
Alpine scenery and an embattled ocean deepen contemplation, and give their own sublimity to the conceptions of beholders. The same will be true of our system of Railroads. Its vastness and magnificence will prove communicable, and add to the standard of the intellect of our country.
That prediction has, sadly, not been confirmed. Not by the railroads nor by any of our more ethereal systems of communication.
Lexicon: RF = radio frequency; IFB = interruptible feedback (the transmission of instructions, etc. to on-air talent by way of wireless earphones); CODFM = coded orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (a way of improving the efficiency of RF communication by dividing a wide band of frequencies into many narrow bands); STA = special transmission authorization (granted by the FCC); STL = studio-transmitter link; TSL = transmitter-studio link; UHF = ultrahigh-frequency (the soon-to-be-obsolete TV frequency band).
Two-tiered strategy holds RF interference to a minimum in Denver”, Broadcast Engineering, 10 Sep 2008.
Ipsos, “How they’d put a bug in Palin’s ear tonight”, Daily Kos 2 Oct 2008. Very informative; refers to the preceding.
Stephen Lawson, IDG News Service, “Political Conventions Will Be Abuzz With Wireless Data”, PCWorld, 22 Aug 2008; available also at

The power of infinity

Source: Jennifer & Kevin McCoy, Eternal Return. Edith-Ruß-Hauses für Medienkunst, Oldenburg (exhibition 20 May–16 July 2006).
Imagine a universe like ours, but with an important difference. In this universe Fred Hoyle was right. No Big Bang, no Big Crunch, just an everlasting Steady State. Everything that can happen, does, infinitely many times.
Baseball is like that, if you ignore the fact that it hasn’t been around forever, and probably won’t be around forever. But in a sport where almost 2500 games are played each season (it used to be fewer, of course) and which has had over a hundred seasons, many unlikely events have occurred.
From the “Stat of the Day” blog at Baseball Reference comes an example. Only once since 1956—and perhaps since the beginning of baseball time—has a pitcher picked off three players in an inning. Tippy Martinez, pitching the tenth inning in relief for the Baltimore Orioles against the Toronto Blue Jays, picked off Barry Bonnell, Dave Collins, and Gene Upshaw. The game is beautifully described by Tom Goodman, who follows up the climactic play with this:
He picked off the side, I said to myself over and over. He picked off the side. I slumped back into the chair. I wondered whether anyone else was listening to this game. I looked at my watch. It was nearly eleven o’clock. I thought maybe I should call someone to let them in on this game, but I didn’t dare tear myself away from the radio.
The Orioles won the game later on a home run by Len Sakata, an infielder who’d been sent in to catch during the crucial inning.
Sources: Tom Goodman, The Greatest Game Never Seen, Swing and a miss, 14 Jul 2004. See also Childs Walker, “Unforgettable win by '83 O’s remembered”, Baltimore Sun, 24 Aug 2008.

Patron saints of the library

St. Isidore. Source:
Wikipedia Commons
What with budget-cutting, FBI snoops, and book-stealing, libraries need all the help they can get. In the US, the patron saint of libraries is St. Jerome, translator of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin; in Europe St. Lawrence (probably the first of that name) watches over them. The patron saint of that branch of the Library of Babel known as the Internet is Saint Isidore (lnglabeng.png,lnglabfr.png), best known for his Etymologiæ, an encyclopedia of ancient learning that became the most-used textbook of the early Middle Ages. The Hindu protector of libraries (and of learning generally) is the elephant-god Ganesh.

Visualizing large graphs

Start with a set of nodes (picture them as dots). Suppose there are n nodes in all (say 3), numbered from 1 to n. Construct an n by n table (if there are 3 nodes, it will look like a blank tic-tac-toe board). Put a 1 in the entry in row i, column j to indicate that there is an edge from node i to node j. (Edges can be pictured as arrows connecting the dots.)
The result is called a directed graph, “directed” because each edge has a starting and an ending node. (In the case of 3 nodes, the table will look like a finished game of tic-tac-toe, with 1s for Xs and 0s for Os.) The table is called the “adjacency matrix” of the graph.
A sparse matrix is a matrix most of whose entries are zero. A sparse adjacency matrix corresponds to a graph with rather few edges. Airlines don’t schedule direct flights between every pair of cities they serve; instead relatively few cities are joined directly, so that in most cases to get from one city to another you’ll have to go through a “hub”. The adjacency matrix that corresponds to the airline graph will be sparse.
All this by way of introducing some striking images. A research group at AT&T (more research! less spying!) has put together a gallery of large graphs. The sparse matrices represented in the gallery come from the Sparse Matrix Collection at the University of Florida. The collection contains 1890 matrices from a wide range of projects: fluid dynamics, quantum chemistry, network analysis… The example below is described only as arising in connection with an optimization problem.
From Infosthetics via 0xCD. If you like matrices, visit the Matrix Market at NIST.

Words for music

1,219,096 lyrics from 71,565 performers (as of 28 May 2008). For example:
D’un bout à l’autre de la semaine
Sur les boulevards dans les faubourgs
On les voit traîner par centaines
Leurs guêtres sales et leurs amours
Dans des chemises de dix jours
Sous la lumière des réverbères
Prenant des airs de Pompadour
Ce sont nos belles ferronnières
Ce sont nos poupées, nos guignols, nos pantins
Écoutez dans la nuit
Elles chantent ce refrain:

C’est nous les mômes, les mômes de la cloche
Clochards qui s’en vont sans un rond en poche
C’est nous les paumées, les purées de paumées
Qui sommes aimées un soir n’importe où
Letras de Música
Nous avons pourtant
Coeur pas exigeant
Mais personne n’en veut
Eh ben tant pis pour eux
Qu’est que ça fout
On s’en fout!
Nul ne s’y accroche
Il n’y a pas d’amour
Les mômes de la cloche!
At a sister site you can download charts and guitar tablatures of many of the same tunes. The charts include popups showing chord diagrams for each chord—very slick.

Paper Made

Technorati sometimes speak slightingly of paper as “dead trees”. That is an injustice. Paper was a great advance in the material culture of writing—and so too of thinking. How many brains would be incapacitated if they did not have pencil and paper to aid them? Computers have changed our habits only a little.
Note. Much of what follows is paraphrased from the page at Mémoires vivantes referred to below; this in turn is extracted from Michel Esteffe & Paul Delage, Saint-Cybard d’Antan.
By way of Isabelle Rambaud’s weblog, I paid a virtual visit to the Musée du Papier in Angoulême (Isabelle Rambaud is an archivist and conservator now working in the département of Seine-et-Marne). The museum is located in the factory of the most famous manufacturers in the region, Joseph Bardou, best known as the maker of Nil brand cigarette papers. (An earlier trademark ‘JoB’, from the initials ‘JB’, will have been familiar to some older readers of this age.) The factory at Saint-Cybard manufactured not only cigarette papers but also “muslin” paper, “serpent” paper for envelopes, and so on.
Je ne fume que le Nil
Source: Mémoires vivantes; this rendition
probably by Léonetto Cappiello (1875-1942).
Like many of its counterparts in the US and Great Britain, Joseph Bardou regarded its employees, two-thirds of whom were women, as a family, and provided medical services and child-care facilities for them. At its peak the factory employed 200 people. It was eventually sold by the heirs of Bardou in 1968, and ceased operations in 1970.
Machine à enchevêtrer
Machine à enchevêtrer. Source: Mémoires vivantes.