The Samovar

… and just so you know I’m serious
April 18, 2007, 12:24 am
Filed under: Books, Neuroscience

Hmm, it strikes me that three posts in one night (and at least four in a row) about food suggest I’m a rather frivolous person. Well, hey! I’ve been on holiday for a week. What can I say? Anyway, in partial mitigation of my consumption-related posting:


I have a plan, and that plan is to read a book by every Nobel prize for literature winning author. (Well not the poetry. I can’t hack poetry for some reason.) So… opinions? Pointless exercise or not? Any of them I should particularly prioritise or avoid? Will I even be able to get copies of books by all of them? Some of them seem pretty obscure.

So far, I’ve only read 16 of them. How many have you read? (This could be a meme, but this is a very serious post, so let’s not make it one.)


Before I wrote these entries I read this paper:

The timing of action potentials in sensory neurons contains substantial information about the eliciting stimuli. Although the computational advantages of spike timing–based neuronal codes have long been recognized, it is unclear whether, and if so how, neurons can learn to read out such representations. We propose a new, biologically plausible supervised synaptic learning rule that enables neurons to efficiently learn a broad range of decision rules, even when information is embedded in the spatiotemporal structure of spike patterns rather than in mean firing rates. The number of categorizations of random spatiotemporal patterns that a neuron can implement is several times larger than the number of its synapses. The underlying nonlinear temporal computation allows neurons to access information beyond single-neuron statistics and to discriminate between inputs on the basis of multineuronal spike statistics. Our work demonstrates the high capacity of neural systems to learn to decode information embedded in distributed patterns of spike synchrony.

Good stuff.


Oh, do try poetry again! I’ve rediscovered it in recent years, and it really can be quite rewarding.

I’ll tell you how to approach it: with the best poetry, the sounds are as important as the words. I once saw Ivor Cutler perform. He started off with a poen composed entirely from nonsense syllable. Afterwards, he said “When young people are starting out writing poetry, I advise them to start with this sort of thing. After six or seven years you’ll have the hang of meter and tone and such like, and then you can try your hand at adding some meaning…People are laughing. This is because ‘m regarded as a funny man, but I can assure you I’m being as serious as I know how.”

Try these lines:
“And I shall have some peace there/ For peace comes dropping slow.”
“Spending warm summer days indoors/ Writing frightening verse/ To a buck-toothed girl in Luxembourg”
OK…so not all poetry reaches these heights…but if it’s Nobels you want, you could do a lot worse than Heaney. Or Walcott.

Currently reading Hugh McDiarmid’s Selected Poems. OK – so you need a glossary. That’s intentional. He wrote in a semi-constructed language,. You can either read it forv the tonality and rhythm, or you can slow right down and think about the meanings and associations. Try my personal favourite, The Bonnie, Broukit Bairn (Gawd! It hasn’t got the glossary. Translation on request.)

I’ll get you reading poetry, so I will!

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I want to, I just can’t get along with it though. I have been told that it’s all about reading it right, and there’s a book lying around called ‘how to read poetry’ – or some such – that comes with a CD, so I might give that a go.

Comment by thesamovar

I’ve no idea if I’m reading it “right”. I do hope not. I reckon it’s just a matter of stumbling across the right poetry. Tell me what you disliked at school and I’ll see if I can think of some suggestions.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

It’s not that I disliked it, I was just totally unmoved by it and didn’t really ‘get it’ in some sense. Possibly for the same reason that most people wouldn’t ‘get’ the mathematical ‘poetry’ of the fact and proof that two infinite graphs chosen at random are the same with probability 1. That’s sort of why I think there is something there for me to ‘get’, but that for whatever reason I don’t know enough to be able to appreciate it.

But let’s see now, what did I do at school? Hmm, I remember being very dissatisfied with reading poetry by Wilfred Owen and Wole Soyinka at school. We did others I’m sure, but none come to mind. (Whispers: I also don’t like Shakespeare. Same thing?)

Comment by thesamovar

Well there’s a mathematical way into it, too. Forget about meaning or being moved for a moment. Some poetry does exciting things with sound patterns. Eg – there’s Welsh ‘Cynghanaeth’ (sp?) in which the internal rhymes and alliteration have to be mirrored in the first and second half of the lines. Or Andrew Motions new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where he used OE patterns of alliteration. (I know more than one person who’s got into AI via OE, incidentally).

You could try some Gerard Manley Hopkins. Now, I don’t like Hopkins. On one level, it’s bilge. But he invented ‘Sprung rhythm” – a whole new pattern of meter. Then there’s Eliot. And In reckon you’d like Yeats.

Or you could try your hand at some Latin scansion with Ovid or Catullus. We spent ages at school working out what was a dactyl and what were spondii.

Try this, from McDiarmid. See how the swooshing sounds and the taccato lines portray the rapid motion of the massive, solid earth. It was the ‘Whump’ of the Gadarene swine that made me sit up.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

No – not ‘whump’. ‘Whud’. And sorry for the dodgy html.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Ed – thanks for typing out that poem. I gave it a read and so far I don’t think I’ve got that much from it. It’s sort of quite pleasing, but not much more. Yet. I will try again and try thinking about it a bit more before I give up on it though.

I don’t think the mathematical thing is for me. The thing about patterns and structures is that the ones you get in maths are so much more complex and subtle than the ones you get in everything else, that they always seem crude by comparison. Or to put it another way: if I wanted mathematical structures I’d read some maths, I turn to literature, music, etc. for the other things. So for example, I’m not particularly interested in Bach and Mozart, but I love John Coltrane and Arvo Part. Although, on the other hand I love Cubism, so perhaps not so straightforward.

Comment by thesamovar

Well…try neuroscience, then. How does poetry invoke patterns in the mind? For example…why is ‘whud’ a much better word than ‘whump’? (proving that McDiarmid is a better poet than I).

But…accepting that I don’t know mathematics…maybe the patterns aren’t as simple as you think. Yes, there’s the not-so-subtle rhymes and dum-de-dums. But then there’s things like oppositions. For example – the way McDiarmid mixes the demotic with the literary. That ‘whud’ of the Gaderene swine is an excellent example.

And then there’s the patterns you know are in there, but can’t quite put your finger on. Why is that a pattern? Surely that’s what you get from Coltrane?

Try some Yeats!

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I think you’re almost certainly right that it is more complicated than I think. I’ll think about it and also try some Yeats.

Comment by thesamovar

Or try it another way: Find your own patterns and associations and see where they take you. Sometimes you can find a lot in a small area.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Simple mathematics can be as beautiful as simple poetry. For instance look at the Pythagorean Theorem and Haiku translations and notice the simplicity and the beauty in that simplicity.

Comment by Kaz Maslanka

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