I greatly appreciate James Annan’s awarding me his successorship as curator of the Woody Guthrie award for multiple reasons. First and foremost, those are in many senses, not least among them the literal, huge shoes to be filling.
I have met many a mensch in my blogging and usenetting career. James and I have been reading one another’s writings for some considerable time now, and in a very real sense we became acquainted, in the 1990s, although it was only recently that we found ourselves in the same city for the first time.
I think in some ways we think alike actually, James and I, but in the end it must be admitted that he thinks alike far better than I do. You may have heard of the rest of the gang, of whom certainly the most famous was the late John McCarthy, intellectually the most rigorous of the early Artificial Intelligence celebrities. When I first showed up, McCarthy was at the center of most of the interesting conversations, often holding forth against various, of course less stellar, intellectual lights with various green inclinations. The barrier to entry to the fray was low, and a few young grad students and young ne’er-do-wells bravely entered it, probably all of us who had friends carrying around McCarthy’s LISP book at the same instant, and so, unlike the hoi-polloi, were somewhat awed by him. But nevertheless we tried to hold our own, and some extraordinary discussions ensued.
Though eventually McCarthy moved on, the vitality of the group hung on. Here’s a thread from 2005 where several of us pitch in, where the clarity and precision of James’ thought is clear for anyone with the wit to see it.
So nowadays, James appears to be more serious, lacking the time or willingness to suffer fools, while some of us stick to it like a bad habit. I didn’t meet him (or Julia) until quite recently. I found conversation with them delightful and amazing if a bit old-fashioned. I think of them as somehow refugees from a time when science was science and England was England and all was right with the world. This is not to say that they are so opaque as to miss the absurdity of the modern, nor so pleasantly disposed as to be incapable of being sardonic (as the linked example shows). Rather, it is their coping mechanism that is somehow a relic of a more civilized time, when science could actually be conducted with diligence and dignity, chips fall where they may.
I’m pretty confident, to be honest, that James and Woody Guthrie would not have gotten along all that well, either philosophically or culturally, much though I admire both men. It’s nice to have the trophy back on the American grassland where its namesake and his unique voice originated. And I have to admit that, informal a thing as it is, I have coveted it a bit.
But I never expected to receive it from James. While I have never seen much sign of careless reasoning from James, while I find his insight into statistics, stochastic processes, modeling, and the whole world of “uncertainty” hidden under the famed tricolor banner, deep and impeccable, and while I greatly enjoy his company, and indeed we do think alike in some ways, we are not natural philosophical or cultural allies ourselves. To receive an award from someone who agrees with you and wants to advance your agenda is a good thing, but how much more flattering to receive it from someone who has a different point of view on the world. It is an honor for me, but still more it speaks well for James.
Here’s the thing itself:
And indeed, the internet is like a guitar in exactly that way.