Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Without a net


One linguistic phenomenon that fascinates me more than it probably should is when a word or phrase can have opposite meanings in different contexts. Like the English word cleave (e.g. Genesis 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife”, as opposed to a meat cleaver.)

I recently watched Ken Burns’s controversial 15-hour documentary Jazz. One segment, focusing on Miles Davis’s turn to fusion and electronica, was titled “Tennis Without a Net”. This quotes the critic Gerald Early, who appears in the segment, but of course refers back to Robert Frost’s bon mot about free verse (“tennis with the net down”). The implication is that music is a game, whose spectators are judging above all the players’ adroitness in accomplishing inherently simple things under complicated artificial constraints. Free jazz has also been tagged with this undead witticism.

So playing “without a net” means making things too easy, too safe, since no one can say if you’ve gotten it wrong. But “performing without a net” can also mean taking exceptional risks, as in the title of the Grateful Dead’s 1990 album “Without a Net”. There the metaphor is the circus acrobat’s net, and the implication is that the band’s free improvisation is particularly risky, since they are performing live without the support of a predetermined musical structure.

And this reminds me again of Natalia Cecire’s fascinating attack on statistics as an “inherently puerile discipline”, because its highest priority is “commitment to the rules of the game”. (I should make clear, as I argued before, I disagree with Cecire’s opinion of statistics, but I find the framework she lays on it both creative and useful.) Are statisticians making their research too safe by performing with the net of mathematical methodology, or are humanists like Cecire setting themselves a too-easy task by playing with the net of rigorous quantitative analysis down?

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