A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

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Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Word of the Day: Aleatory

Aleatory or aleatoric means pertaining to chance; literally, depending on a roll of the dice (from the Latin alea, a dice game). Anything exploiting the principle of randomness can be termed aleatory. An insurance policy, for example, is an aleatoric contract, in that it depends on a chance occurence (accident, death, fire, flood, or what have you).

The principle of randomness has been applied to literature, music, and other forms of art, with interesting results. The random poetry generators noted in previous posts produce aleatory verse. A mathematical process known as a Markov chain (after the Russian mathematician Andrei Markov) is used to generate the literary output. Where X1, X2, X3, ... is a series of random variables,

Pr(Xn+1 = x|Xn = xn,…,X1 = x1,X00) = Pr(Xn+1 = x|Xn = xn).

In order to produce lines of verse which resemble recognizable language, certain linguistic parameters might be defined in a random text generator, with Markov chains embedded within larger programs. For example, words might be identified by their parts of speech, and a preposition programmed always to be followed by a noun, the specific noun generated by a Markov chain.

Pierre Boulez, the French composer, has experimented extensively with aleatoric music. Barry Salt, the film scholar, in 1971 made a film called Permutations (a.k.a. Six Reels of Film to Be Shown in Any Order). Each reel contains two scenes whose implications vary depending on the order in which the reels are shown. The projectionist is supposed to roll dice in order to determine the reel order. Jeffrey Harrison, a Guggenheim fellow who's been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, and many other distinguished anthologies and journals, has experimented with aleatoric poetry. And now, in the 21st century, any dummy with a computer can attempt what in 1921 took a million monkeys.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Christopher said...

There are apparently a lot of synonyms for "random." My favorite among them is "stochastic," which has more abstract connotations. One would refer to an "aleatory process" but to a "stochastic variable." Markov can be pressed into servive in either event. Googling Markov + aleatory gets 46,600 results. Googling Markov +stochastic gets 1,130,000! Markov +random? 1,240,000.

Having nothing better to do that googling Markov's name in various combinations? Priceless.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Christopher said...

An aleatoric process, of course is what I should have said.

Markov + aleatoric gets only 511 hits.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Cicily Corbett said...

"stochastic" derives from the greek "stochos," meaning target, and implies some direction. "aleatory" derives from the latin "alea," a dice game, and does not imply probability. "aleatoric" is simply a less-common variant of the latter.

10:08 PM  

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