Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Strange Existence (and Subsequent Non-Existence) of Albert Cribbage

(a précis)

This is not a poem, not even a prose poem.  But it shares enough quirkiness with poems I enjoy for me to find it in the spirit of National Poetry Month, so in it goes.

I found this while I was going over some of my old writing projects.  I say "projects"; these were not for any kind of organized course or anything.  I wrote (as I still do) whenever I have a bit of idle time and am able to cobble together thoughts in any particular direction.  This one struck my fancy, and the précis tag was intended to remind me to extend it into a more protracted argument, which (of course) never happened.  Other ideas distracted, and continue to distract.

Anyway, without further ado, we present:

The Strange Existence (and Subsequent Non-Existence) of Albert Cribbage

Albert Cribbage had his dream, and he spent much of his life constructing her. Blessed with the world's longest serial lucid dream, he manufactured a perfect Woman over a period of years, taking as inspiration pictures from fashion magazines (the late 80s, which he preferred, much to the disgust of his "hipper'' friends), television commercials for beauty products, and several of the mainstream literary journals. He did, after all, want her to be well read.

At last he had completed her; all that remained to bring her to life (insofar as that was possible for her) was the Kiss. He went out and purchased fine satin sheets, and a royal purple bed cover set (limned in gold cord, of course). He settled into bed, and tried to go to sleep, with great difficulty, as he had never in his life been so excited.

At length, he managed to doze off. His dream began, as planned, with him approaching his soon-to-be-loved in his bed. He leaned down, as in the fairy tales of yore, and touched his dry, trembling lips to her still, perfect ones. Instantly, she opened her eyes, and it was as if they had been waiting for each other for all of eternity. She allowed herself to be swept up even further in the kiss, and he was soon with her, under the covers.

They made love, passionately, in the semi-darkness (where all dreams are; the well-lit ones are simply optical illusions in mid-slumber), and after several exhausting but very satisfying hours, their legs became entwined as they enjoyed the smooth sleep of afterglow.

In the morning she awoke, and the memory of the past night had left a smile on her face. But, she mused, he was still not quite perfect (italics hers), and once the morning niceties (a warm shower, a generous breakfast) were done, she set out for the newsstand, where she thought the latest monthlies from Paris might just give her the ideas she needed to create a new dream lover, one she would want to keep for good...

Copyright © 1996 Brian Tung

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

When We Flew

[Another Facebook post cannibalized for National Poetry Month.  At the time I wrote this, Kobe had not yet suffered his season-ending Achilles injury.]

I was watching yet another YouTube clip of Kobe wowing us with his athleticism and wizardry, and I started thinking about how many of the highlights were in another century. Hard as it may seem to believe at the moment, there will come a day when Kobe will no longer be able to dunk. It might not come this decadehell, if MJ is any indication, it might not come the next, eitherbut it will come.

Anyway, I started getting a bit depressed about that, and so as if to bring myself out of that funk, I started scribbling some lines. And I found that it actually sort of helped, a little. I hasten to emphasize that all this has nothing at all to do with the fact that a birthday is coming up, or anything like that. That is so a coincidence.

It may read as though it's about other things, and it can be. But I really did write it with basketball in mind.

when we flew

When we flew,
we made legends.
We startled and we stunned,
and foes grasped at us in vain.
Our wings would never tire,
and our lungs never fail.
The world lived a thousand times
and never knew how close it had come,
and all because we flew
     when we flew.

When we flew,
time stood to watch,
then travelled back to watch again,
hardly daring to believe.
Space cleared space for us,
and light held us in her gaze.
The stars shone their mute fanfare
shattering their crystal spheres,
and all because we flew
     when we flew.

Now we stand,
make way while children soar.
We wear our pride like envy,
and dress our unease in longing.
We envision battles we will never fight,
and so we shall never lose.
A thousand times we'll close our eyes and ears
and sip champagne from glass slippers,
and all because we flew
     when we flew.

Copyright © 2012 Brian Tung

The Wolfpack and the Lone Wolves

So a friend of mine posted a link to this story, and because it involves game theory (even though it wasn't actually a game theory course) and I do, in fact, work like that, I immediately started thinking about a way to analyze it.  Actually, I think thirty students is way too many to get some of the more interesting interactions going; the wolfpack is almost certainly the way to go, especially if you're not one of the brighter bulbs.  Thirty is probably too many to deal with analytically anyway.  So let's start with three.

Suppose the three students A, B, and C have (possibly) different aptitudes, represented by a, b, and c, respectively.  These three numbers represent the probability with which each of the students answers questions correctly.  (We'll assume that questions have two answers, one right and one wrong.)  Without loss of generality, let's say that a b c.  Under which conditions will two or more of these students collude?  Without explicitly prescribing a curve, let us say that the aim of any of the students is to improve their own grade; specifically, there is no benefit to philanthropy.

We can fairly quickly conclude that two students will not collude.  Consider A and B, and suppose first that a > b, and that A and B know that (that A is a better answerer than B).  A and B compare answers.  If they coincide, then of course they both answer that way, but if they differ, they'll choose A's answer (since it's more likely to be correct than B's).  But if that's the case, then they'll both answer correctly only if A already had the right answer.  That is to say, both A and B will answer correctly with probability a.  Well, there's no reason for A to collude with B, since it helps B without helping A.

The situation is not helped even if a = b, since the only difference is that some other means must be used for breaking the tie.  No matter how the tie is broken, the answer that is chosen cannot have a greater probability of being correct than a = b, so there is no benefit to collusion for either A or B.

A similar line of reasoning applies to any other pair of students.  Well, then how about all three students colluding?  That will only happen if all three students are benefited, and A, with the highest aptitude, is the standard here.  Let's consider how A's answer would be affected by the collusion.  The first way is that A's initially correct answer would be made incorrect by collusion.  That happens if A would have answered correctly, but B and C would not.  That happens with probability a (1 - b) (1 - c).

The second way to affect A's answer is to change an initially incorrect answer into a correct one.  That happens with probability (1 - a) b c.  So, on balance, A has an incentive to collude (and therefore all students do) if

(1 - a) b c > a (1 - b) (1 - c)

For instance, if the three students respectively have 90, 80, and 70 percent probabilities of answering questions correctly, then we have

(0.1) (0.8) (0.7) = 0.056 > 0.054 = (0.9) (0.2) (0.3)

and it makes sense for all three to collude, by this metric.

Why by this metric?  What other metric could there be?  Suppose we now introduce an explicit curve: The students receive, as their final grade, not their actual raw score, but a ranking-scaled score.  The top raw score earns three points, the second best raw score earns two points, and the lowest raw score earns one point.  Two students tying at the top both earn 2.5 points, while two students tying at the bottom earn 1.5 points, and finally if all three students tie, they all earn two points.

Under these conditions, the three students will not all collude.  A, as the best student, is the most likely of the three to earn three points, and the more questions there are, the more certain that is.  If A, B, and C all collude, they will all three earn two points (since their answers will be identical).  So chuck out three-way collusion.

But two-way collusion is now even less likely than before.  As we observed, it only improves the accuracy of the inferior student.  Before, that at least did not hurt the superior student, but now it improves the inferior student's scaled score at the expense of the superior student's scaled score.  So two-way collusion is out, too.

Shall we move on to four students?  I'll save that for a later post.

Monday, April 22, 2013

i saw in yesterday your pretty when

I almost called this "in crude homage to edward estlin," but I thought maybe that would be too predictable.

Most people know about E.E. Cummings's free verse.  I first came into contact with his name, if not his poetry, from a poster in my seventh-grade English classroom.  (Does anyone remember Mr. Clancy from Redwood Junior High?  No?)  I don't think I actually read any of his poems until rather much later.  I did hear an exquisite (and in context, wholly inappropriate) love poem of his in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, entitled "somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond."

I may as well say that although his deconstructive approach to grammar is refreshing, I find some of his poems orthographically grotesque.  Not for the reasons most frequently cited; I have no problem with his lack of capitalization (I do that myself in chats), or his exuberantly nested parentheticals, or anything pedestrian like that.  No, what bothers me are the superlatively trivial things, like not having a space after commas (see above, you have no idea how that killed me to accurately reproduce his title), or before parentheses, and that sort of thing.

Anyway, because of the renown of his free verse, not many people know that he wrote sonnets, too, and intensely romantic ones at that.  Sonnet XCII of his 95 Poems is one of his better known ones; it goes

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

                                                                    i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

(It's a good thing that all I had to do was cut and paste; I don't know that I could have elided all those spaces otherwise.)  Anyway, here's my tyro's try at the same kind of thing, and at least it's honest, it's a thing I feel (and doggone it, I shall put spaces where I will):

i saw in yesterday your pretty when

i saw in yesterday your pretty when
and past a rise your beautifully where
(i do lose during you my now and then,
and inside you(r inside) my here and there).
since draw me to your captivating why
(a finger may mislead, i have no who
that cries the how you tear), i heard them sigh
your fragile yes or maybe noes to do.
with you i have no ask or answer (no
inquire or wonder, neither no believe,
no yet or still, no if (or so, or so)
for(giving life, where is no is to grieve))
but breath demanding breath, each every day
in death for(little death) you to replay.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Tung

Monday, April 15, 2013

Daybreak (a Chinese poem)

Another offering for National Poetry Month, but something a bit more unusual this time.

Every now and then, I'll attempt a Chinese poem.  Because I'm not as fluent as I'd like to be, this effort is invariably a little stilted, but (I hope, at least!) progressively less stilted each time.  Before I say any more, here first is my latest attempt in the original Chinese:



Now, those of you who speak Chinese will probably recognize this as somewhat stilted (which is true), while those of you who don't have no idea what I just said.  I'll explain in a moment, but before I do so, allow me to put on my professor hat and insert a few thoughts on Chinese poetry.

I make no secret of the fact that I find Chinese writing to be the most beautiful.  By that I don't mean that I find Chinese prose better than prose in other languages; I mean the actual written characters.  But because I actually do read Chinese (about 60 to 80 percent as well as I'd like to, but that's a story for another time), I instinctively see the meaning behind most of the characters before I see their form.  I often wonder what it's like to see those characters from the perspective of someone who has no idea what they say.

At any rate, one of the appealing features of Chinese writing is that the characters (which are almost universally monosyllabic) are distinct and individual pieces of art, and a Chinese poem puts that all together in a composite that's a piece of art (when properly conceived) at multiple levels.

Because the monosyllabic characters are all distinct, one can easily tell from the above that this poem consists of four lines of five syllables each.  That may remind some of you of the poem's more famous Japanese relative, the haiku, which is three lines of five, seven, and again five syllables.  In fact, I would say thatin Western minds at leastthat is the defining characteristic of the haiku, is that it contains seventeen syllables in that arrangement.

Writing these poems gives me some insight, though, why that conception isn't accurate, even with respect to Asian poetry in general.  (I think it's a remarkably trivial characterization, not the least because it's totally underspecified.  See the postscript, for instance.)

In the first place, there's a difference between Chinese syllables and English syllables.  The majority of Chinese words are polysyllabicthat is, they consist of compounds of two or more charactersbut nevertheless, the characters retain a distinct identity that is different from that of English syllables.  The characters are less subordinated to the line, so to speak.  That is more true of older writing than of modern writing, and also more true of poetry than of prose.

From a more technical perspective, Chinese poetry has its constraints that roughly map onto English meter and rhyme.  For instance, the above poem belongs to a form called 五言絕句, which means (broadly translated) five-character quatrain, which it clearly is.  This form prescribes a simple rhyme scheme: the end of the second line must rhyme with the end of the fourth line.  And they do: the characters in question are spelled, in hanyu pinyin, guāng and xiāng, and even if you don't know a darned thing about Chinese spelling, I think you can tell that the two characters rhyme.  (The macrons over the a's indicate that the tones match, too, which they must do.)

In addition, the tones of the characters must follow certain arrangement rules.  Chinese characters generally have one of four different tones, of which the first two might be called "level" tones, and the last two "deflected" tones.  [EDIT: I should add here that originally, there was only one level tone and three deflected ones.  The one level tone evolved, in Mandarin, into the first two tones, while the second and third tones evolved into the last two Mandarin tones.  The fourth original tone, the so-called entering tone, disappeared from Mandarin, and characters with that tone were haphazardly distributed amongst the surviving tones.]

The tones in the first couplet must complement each other, as must the tones in the second couplet.  That is to say, for every level-tone character in the first line, the corresponding character in the second line must have a deflected tone, and vice versa.  The same is true of the third and fourth lines.  For instance, the above poem has the following pattern of tones (if we denote level tones with = and deflected tones with ×):


What's more, the patterns are traditionally restricted.  One does not generally see ===== or ×××××, or =×=×=, or anything like that.  Some variation is permitted (as is true of English poems, too), but is fairly carefully circumscribed.

In addition to all this is the usual transcendant pressure to make the expression of the form "beautiful" in some ill-defined (and probably undefinable) way, so that it isn't just a bunch of syllables, nor a bunch of syllables conforming to some rules, nor even a bunch of sensible syllables conforming to some rules.

I don't know Japanese at all, really, so I have no idea if some of these considerations apply (or if there are others in their place), but I certainly do not expect that haiku are simply seventeen syllables in a particular arrangement.  I have heard, for instance, that some reference to the seasons is expected, and that the syllables are not really syllables, but mora (the Japanese unit of speech timing), and so forth.

Anyway, enough of this palavering.  Here's a rough English translation of the poem:


The stars gleam in the nighttime,
but the dawning sun drowns them all out.
We venture into the world in our youth,
but thinking always of our hometown.

No, it's not deep, I never said it was!  I'm working on it!

P.S.  Because I'm unable to let a post go without some nerdery involved: Suppose that one uses a vocabulary of English words that are (with equal probability) one, two, or three syllables long.  What is the probability that an arbitrary sequence of words totalling seventeen syllables can be broken into lines of five, seven, and then five syllables without breaking a word?

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Passion of the Play

Another offering for National Poetry Month.

This is for all those who feel that sports is incapable of being an art, or poetry, or beauty.  (I don't think any of those read my blog, but I suppose you never know.)

the passion of the play

You throng who find in contests but
an infinite procession of
bats, balls, and running, jumpingwhat
you miss!  (Look at the sky above:
Do you see only endless dots?
Or in the rolls of history,
but names and datesbereft of thoughts
and love, and prideexclusively?
A narrative from breath to breath
we savor in our champion's flight:
War without anger, without death;
Force without peril, without spite.
Drink you of whiskey or of wine,
imbibe you spirited design!

Copyright © 2013 Brian Tung

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Slowness of the Post

Once again, it's National Poetry Month here in the States.  (Do I have any international readers?  Actually, do I have any readers?  Sometimes it's hard to tell, hint hint.)

I can't just be posting old ones, though, so this one is kind of new.  I started this and had the opening quatrain and the ending couplet a couple of years ago, but then gave it up.  This is my rather indifferent attempt, I'm afraid, at filling up the inside.  Don't worry, I'm not giving up my day job; I like that one a bit too much.

[EDIT: And I just noticed that this poem has extra bonus enjambment.  So, umm, yeah.]

the slowness of the post

When lovers in years past took quill in hand
to add to their epistolary chain
the latest, best-wrought link, they might complain
about the slowness of the post.  They planned
their thoughts for days, while trains traversed the land
with bundled hearts and holes, delayed by rain,
or frailty, or the smugness of the sane.
(But, yes, this did make love more tragic.)  And
now, though we write in liquid crystals, though
we fancy we eliminate the tragic,
anticipation, overnight, is no
less puzzling, no less vexingno less magic.
    Look to the skyyes, look, her answer, soon
    look for it ere the waning of the Moon!

Copyright © 2013 Brian Tung

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Post-Easter Puzzler

Recently, a good friend gifted me a bag of Easter SweeTarts, with ducks and bunnies in place of the usual round candies.  They come in five flavors, which are officially blue raspberry (blue), cherry (pink), grape (purple), orange (orange) and green apple (green).  (This according to Wikipedia, at least.)

I don't like the blue ones, so because I'm that way, I culled those out and they're still sitting in front of me in a bowl.  The rest I ate at my leisurethough rather less leisurely than is quite becoming, I'm afraid.

At some point, near the end of the bag, I wondered what the probability was, if I pulled out two candies at random, that they'd have the same flavor.  I looked at the candies that were in there, and it was a simple matter to figure the answer out.  It wasahh, but then I'd be giving the puzzle away. 

I then turned to look away and puckishly reached into the bag and pulled out a pair of green apples.  (Those are my second favorite, after the artificial grape ones, which, as you'll know if you eat them, taste nothing at all like actual grapes.)  I wondered if that affected the probability at allfiguring that if anything, it would have reduced the oddsbut after looking in and doing some quick figuring, I found that the odds were exactly the same as before.

"Hunh!" I thought to myself in surprise, and (if you know me at all, you know what happened next) I wondered what the odds were of that.  As it so happens, that's not a question you can answer rigorously at all, without knowing the priors.  But perhaps you can rigorously answer

Q1: What were the odds of drawing a matching pair of candies?

I reached in again, and this time pulled out a cherry and a grape; I did it again, and pulled out a matching pair of grapes.  So this time, I thought, for sure there must be a change in the odds of drawing a match, but when I looked in again, the odds were once more exactly the same as the first time.  What's more, I reached in again, pulled out a pair of green apples, looked in one last time, and the odds were again exactly the same as before!

Q2: Knowing there were no blue raspberry candies at all, how many of each of the other flavors were there, before I pulled out the first pair of green apples?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

In Crude Homage to Edna St Vincent Millay

[From my Facebook page, originally written in February 2010, and here lightly edited.  I've been thinking about posting poetry here a bit, especially as it's National Poetry Month and all.]

Sonnets are convenient lunchtime reading material: short, yet dense with rhythm and sense (when reasonably well written). I've been working my way haphazardly through a collection of sonnets by Edna St Vincent Millay, one of the great romantic poets—at least, so say those who would know. Not to put too fine a point on it, I like them. What's more, I've been informed that it is a prominent chick-lit marker for the protagonist taking herself (over) seriously when she reads or even quotes poetry by Millay.

Well, I am nothing if not self-aggrandizing (often in the guise of self-deprecation), so despite my obvious gender challenge—being a guy—I have taken it upon myself to attempt a quasi-imitation of Millay. ("Aping" might be more apt a word.) I have used, as she does, the sonnet form (of a fittingly quasi-Petrarchan variety), and I have also taken as my subject unrequited affection, a common enough Millay theme. I have not, however, tried generally to affect the effortless facility with which she, Yoda-like, twists normal English word order like a pretzel. (I believe that the subject is permitted to precede the predicate at most once per stanza.)

By the way, Millay's name being two and a third dactyls lends itself conveniently to the limerick form. So as a kind of appetizer, and by way of introduction:

To Ms Edna St Vincent Millay,
I now offer this humble assay.
    For her sonnets are kings
    Of romantical things
And just what they're about none can say.

And perhaps you'll find that you like the appetizer better than the main course anyway.

in crude homage to edna st vincent millay

Your lips not once did tender mine, and yet

I loved you—no, and never once your hand
grasped mine in supplicating fever, and
I loved you still—nor even did you let
your eyebrows knit, or mouth to trembling set,
and still I loved you. (Once, perhaps, unplanned,
to quell persistent pity's keen demand,
you touched my head, as one would with a pet.)
Thus singularly blessed I count those days
where in a wondrous haze I hoped (or guessed)
that glances cast in jest were courting plays
to clasp in rapt amazement to my breast.
    And so I say—in seeking Love's mad thrall—
    you loved me best who loved me not at all.

Copyright © 2010 Brian Tung

EDIT: This sonnet can be considered a kind of lame reply to this one by Millay.