Poetic Engineering

I stumbled upon this by an extremely oblique reference1: an essay by Edgar Allan Poe, on “The Philosophy of Composition”. Now if you were laboring under the impression that poetry is composed exclusively out of some sort of “divine madness” and springs forth spontaneously from the poet’s soul — well, Mr. Poe will gladly correct you.

Here he presents a sort of “behind the scenes”, and uses not some academic third party textbook example, but his own famous poem, “The Raven” — so instead of hearing some critic tell you what he thinks the author thought at such-and-such time, hear it from the author itself.

The deconstruction of the poem is quite total, and knowing how a magician performs a trick usually leads to a superbly anti-climactic ‘meh’ moment, so you’ve been warned.

Here’s an abstract that conveys the general idea (emphasis mine):

For my own part, I have neither sympathy with the repugnance alluded to, nor, at any time, the least difficulty in recalling to mind the progressive steps of any of my compositions, and, since the interest of an analysis or reconstruction, such as I have considered a desideratum, is quite independent of any real or fancied interest in the thing analysed, it will not be regarded as a breach of decorum on my part to show the modus operandi by which some one of my own works was put together. I select ‘The Raven’ as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.


  1. If you must know, a very brief mention (a couple of seconds), in this lecture by Gerald Sussman on the 60th birthday of Dan Friedman. 

Reddit is better than the rest (or, three cheers for Ellen Pao)

I’ve seen my share of self-described “online communities” over the last couple of decades — and they have all sucked, one way or the other. Trolls abound, the good is moderated while the bad is amplified, etc, etc. Someone the early visionaries of the internet seemed naive about this, but perhaps they just fell into the common modern habit of denying human nature.

Having gone through a bunch of such sites/forums/message boards, I have very, very low expectations from any of them — which is why I was pleasantly surprised by how Reddit managed to suck less than the rest.

Forget the trolls — trolls are par for the course on the internet; it would be very strange not to have trolls when unmoderated anonymous behavior is permitted anywhere. What stands out at Reddit is the large amount of actual human interaction, or to put it differently, the numbers of people who reach out to complete strangers and don’t start by yelling at them.

It’s quite possible that I don’t frequent the kind of subreddits that other people complain about (e.g. my 22-year old self might have had a qualitatively different experience today), so perhaps I’ve missed out on a whole bunch of drama — but kudos to Ms. Pao for whatever she did to enable this level of discourse; I know it cannot have been easy.

Reading summary, June 2015

Ok, I failed to keep track of interesting stuff I read online (can I postpone this to next month?)

I did finish reading “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. My dad gifted it to me on my birthday a couple of years ago and I’m happy I finally got to it (also, another victory for the slow and steady “drip-drip” style of reading that is well-fitted to my non-copious free time these days — I read it over a span of three months).

Highly recommend it, since it manages to be both insightful and very easy to read at the same time, which is a rare feat. You’ll come away a puzzled believer in two systems (the slow, rational one and the fast, associative one), two selves (the experiencing one and the remembering one), and two species (“Econs” who exist only inside economics papers, and real-world human beings).