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Ted Pudlik

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Invisible Cities

A collection of prose poems (short stories?) by Italo Calvino. Some describe it as a novel, but that it is certainly not. I have enjoyed many of them, more than the few excerpts below would suggest.

Although I’ve read Calvino before (The Castle of Crossed Destinies in college), I picked it up this collection because of Tufte’s Envisioning Information. In it, Calvino is quoted as writing that a city consists of,

relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past: the height of the lamp-post and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamp-post to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window; the firing range of a gunboat which has suddenly appeared beyond the cape and the bomb that destroys the guttering; the rips in the fishnet and the three old men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the hundredth time the story of the gunboat of the usurper, who some say was the queen’s illegitimate son, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there on the dock.

There are many other arresting passages; for example, after a city’s fall,

in marble funerary urns they planted basil; wrought-iron gratings torn from the harem windows were used for roasting cat-meat on fires of inlaid wood.

p. 106

But what I most enjoyed was the short fable of bridges and stones:

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.

“But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks.

“The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.”

Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he asks: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? Is is only the arch that matters to me.”

Polo answers: “Without the stones there is no arch.”

p. 82

I think this is a good metaphor for social science. One is ultimately interested in learning something about human nature and the forces that shape the sweep of history. But to do so, one needs to study the particular: understanding of the big is built from the study of the small, “without the stones there is no arch.”

Yet, as Kublai says, the stones are not interesting in themselves. This reminds me of a recent post by Alex Tabarrok, criticizing a psychology study that failed an (approximate) replication:

In my view, Gilbert et al. are caught on the horns of a dilemma. If the studies don’t replicate they aren’t interesting and if the studies replicate but only under extremely precise conditions they also aren’t interesting. We are interested in general features of the human condition not in descriptions of the choices that 75 female and 19 male Israeli students made at a particular point in time. Moreover, if changes in wording matter then surely so does the fact that the original study was on Israeli’s in 2008 and the replication used Americans in 2013 (a lot has changed over these years!) and so must also a hundred other differences. But if so, what’s the point?

Marginal Revolution: What is Replication