Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Deep Thoughts from W.H. Auden

Four quotes from W.H. Auden:
The only way to spend New Year’s Eve is either quietly with friends or in a brothel. Otherwise when the evening ends and people pair off, someone is bound to be left in tears.

Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.

We are all on earth to help others. What on earth the others are here for, I can't imagine.

Now the leaves are falling fast,
Nurse's flowers will not last;
Nurses to their graves are gone,
And the prams go rolling on.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Nothing but Rouble

I've added a new tag, "tour de forceps," for appealing typos, because they're such an important part of das Blogg. Here's another, this time from Jeffrey Goldberg, which bizarrely turns Hamas into a purveyor of worthless Russian notes:

"Let the Israelis kill them," he said. "They've brought only rouble for my people."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Seeing Stairs

There used to be a sign in Merrill that said "Elevator and Stars" -- effaced I -- that I thought was unintentionally very pretty. The Economist has another, also vaguely appealing, example of this typo:

Inspector Clouseau's falling down a flight of stars

I wonder if replacing "stars" with "stairs" almost invariably produces something sensible and either accidentally pretty or wonderfully deflating. E.g.:

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stairs
I summon to the ancient winding star

Looking up at the stairs I know quite well
That for all they care I can go to hell

Though admittedly there isn't much one can do with twinkle twinkle little stair.

Groupthink Watch

Yglesias flags an article about how MoveOn membership, mysteriously [per article] or unsurprisingly [per M.Y.] finds its priorities lined up with Obama's. Frankly I find this worrying, esp. the grassroots deprioritizing of gay rights, & would be more than a little put out if we horse-traded gay adoptions etc. for evangelical support on global warming. Obama's choice of Rick Warren suggests a slightly excessive willingness to triangulate on culture; he needs to be checked and balanced from the left and the libertarian center, a task that the general admiration for our Audacious Leader makes harder.

(Just to be clear: I think Obama's priorities are good politics and a wise investment of political capital. But political capital must be spent as well: otherwise, you end up with higher ratings and fewer accomplishments than you should.)

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dept of Vile Cocktails

I was challenged last night to find a cocktail that mixed Scotch and wine. I knew there had to be some out there but couldn't find any immediately; morning, however, brought this:

Heather blush
3 oz. Sparkling Wine (Chilled)
1 oz. Scotch
1 oz. Strawberry Liqueur
Pour Scotch and liqueur into a champagne flute and top with sparkling wine. Garnish with a strawberry.

I imagine one of these would go a long way -- towards making you projectile puke.

Can you decorate a Christmas tree with pork?

Krugman says:
Second, the plan has to be really, truly pork-free. Vice President-elect Joseph Biden recently promised that the plan “will not become a Christmas tree”; the new administration needs to deliver on that promise.

I just love (at any level of seriousness) the idea of Christmas trees with strips of bacon hanging off them.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Geoffrey Hill: Epiphany at Hurcott

[New Criterion Jan 06: pub. in Without Title]

Epiphany at Hurcott
by Geoffrey Hill

Profoundly silent January shows up
clamant with colour, greening in fine rain,
luminous malachite of twig-thicket and bole
brightest at sundown.

On hedge-banks and small rubbed bluffs the red earth,
dampened to umber, tints the valley sides.
Holly cliffs glitter like cut anthracite.
The lake, reflective, floats, brimfull, its tawny sky.

Mistah Pintah he dead

Back in 2005/06, Jamie Montana wrote an Indicator article about Pinter's antiwar doggerel in which he wondered why Pinter had won the Nobel then (answer: politics!). I wrote a letter to the editor arguing that he'd won the prize then because he'd likely be dead in a couple of years. Looks like I was right.

Update. Actually, never mind. He was pretty dead when he got the prize. My death-foreseeing skills remain unproven.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Two Men One Stovepipe Hat

Despite the obvious theological differences I often find myself in sympathy with Marilynne Robinson, who's just been interviewed for the Paris Review series. As usual there are a couple of sharp insights:
The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.

Which is the best defense of the O.T. I've heard against the charge that it's deficient in human feeling.
We archaize Abraham Lincoln—he’s somehow premodern—at the same time that we use Marx to epitomize modernity. Yet the two of them were engaged in the same conversation. The slave economy and the industrial economy were interlocked. Marx is considered modern because he describes an ongoing phenomenon, industrialism, which once again is starting to resemble slavery—child labor and so on. You take a course as a sophomore in college called Modern Western Civilization and you get Marx and Nietzsche, but you don’t get Lincoln. The fact that they were all wearing frock coats and stovepipe hats doesn’t register.

Then there's her annoying take on Dawkins:

The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.

The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.

There's an important truth somewhere in the neighborhood of this remark; it really is the case, for instance, that the New Social Sciences are uninterested in predicting and discovering interesting new phenomena, and this makes them intellectually drab. But Dawkins et al would reply that they'd be writing about cutting-edge research except that someone has to push back against the idiots in Kansas, and this involves writing about old, well-understood science. And there's something tiresome about the literary world's what-the-bleepish fondness for quantum mechanics.

Church Windows in Curved Space

The notion that church windows are thicker at the base because glass is a viscous liquid is an urban legend. In fact, glass probably isn't a liquid and church windows are thicker at the base because they were cooled while upright. Probably because no one really understands the physics of glass, though no one thinks it's useful to call it a liquid -- glass doesn't flow on observable timescales.

This is by way of preamble to a neat idea in David Nelson's book Defects and Geometry in Condensed Matter Physics, viz. that glassiness is due to geometrical frustration. When liquids crystallize quickly (upon rapid cooling, say), they form the locally optimal structure, which, for spherical atoms, is an equilateral triangle in two dimensions and a regular tetrahedron in three dimensions. Equilateral triangles are a tiling of the plane, so the local crystals line up and there are no glasses in two dimensions; regular tetrahedra are not a "tiling" of space, so the tetrahedra can't line up to form a global crystal arrangement, and get jammed in place to form a glass. One fascinating consequence of this is that glasses should (1) not exist in some uniformly curved 3D spaces, like the 3-sphere, that are tiled by tetrahedra; (2) exist in curved two-dimensional spaces, like the surface of saddle, where equilateral triangles are not a tiling. Apparently this is consistent with computer simulations.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

N. Dumbass Kristof

Regular readers know of my general lack of respect for Nicholas D. Kristof, the whiny halfwitted Times columnist. I try not to read him because whenever I do I'm moved to post about why he's an idiot. Occasional lapses are, however, inevitable. In his latest column, he says liberals are tightfisted about giving to charity, and spend too much of their giving on frivolities like the arts. He doesn't stop to consider that, by and large, liberals don't believe in charity as a useful way of organizing the safety net, whereas a fair number of us approve of running the arts on charitable donations. Depending on the precise politics, this may or may not justify not giving to charity absent a better solution, but it seems like a point that one should at least engage. There are fairly serious problems with outsourcing the safety net to Mother Teresa or the clowns who buy up Sudanese slaves to "redeem" them, not least that the semblance of activity makes it difficult to garner public support for saner and more equitable programs.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Walter Scott of Walruses

This title is an example of what linguists call a snowclone. Turns out there's a whole blog, The Rosa Parks of Blogs, dedicated to this breed of snowclone. (via LL) Strongly recommended, of course. It's a fun exercise in absurdism: as usual with these things, a mechanical scheme probably generates more truly awesome stuff than a conscious mind, but I can't resist a few of my own (all alliterating) --

the David Duke of dirigibles
the Stanley Fish of stockings
the Bob Herbert of Hegelians
the Beowulf of blowtorches

Add your own in comments.

Addendum. The Hindenburg of handbooks.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"The soiled grey blanket of Irish rain"

from Gathering Mushrooms
Paul Muldoon

You discovered yourself in some outbuilding
with your long-lost companion, me,
though my head had grown into the head of a horse
and shook its dirty-fair mane
and spoke this verse:

Come back to us. However cold and raw, your feet
were always meant
to negotiate terms with bare cement.
Beyond this concrete wall is a wall of concrete
and barbed wire. Your only hope
is to come back. If sing you must, let your song
tell of treading your own dung,
let straw and dung give a spring to your step.
If we never live to see the day we leap
into our true domain,
lie down with us now and wrap
yourself in the soiled grey blanket of Irish rain
that will, one day, bleach itself white.
Lie down with us and wait.

[N.B. Source mislabels the poem as "Milkweed and Monarch."]

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Free "Will" and the Future Tense

As people interested in such matters know, the consensus since Jespersen has been that English has only two tenses, a past and a present, because the future tense is indicated by an auxiliary verb -- will -- rather than an inflectional ending. I find this argument unconvincing, because it relies on a definition of "tense" that seems entirely arbitrary. Anyhow, I realized while reading the linked post why the past tense survived in the Germanic languages and the future didn't: it's because there are three, or fewer, root systems in all the Indo-European languages I'm aware of: present, past, and past pple. (e.g. L. habeo habui habitus) The Latin future tense comes from tacking "future" inflectional endings onto present tense roots; English, having lost its inflections, uses auxiliary verbs to indicate the future. The distinction doesn't seem terribly important; it isn't as if they have a different set of roots for f.t. verbs.

On the other hand there is this:

"For example, because of the Kawesqar's nomadic past, they rarely use the future tense; given the contingency of moving constantly by canoe, it was all but unnecessary."

Friday, December 5, 2008

On "Ought Implies Can"

The naturalistic fallacy consists of deductions from the way things are to the way things ought to be. Most intelligent Pinkerites know this, and have a second-string argument lined up: they argue that since ought implies can, cannot implies ought not, and therefore the negative findings of psychologists have legitimate deductive moral consequences. (Dennett makes this argument somewhere; Will Wilkinson makes it online.) This seems to me a serious misreading of "ought implies can." In general, when social scientists find "facts" about human nature, these tend to be probabilistic, and tend to have large numbers of counterexamples. The following form of argument -- people are like X, X'es can't Y, therefore people can't Y, therefore they can't be expected to Y -- usually has counterexamples; a 10% rate of counterexamples wouldn't stop an academic psychologist, let alone David Brooks, from making the first claim. Therefore, "ought implies can" entails "people cannot be obligated to be outliers," or "the average life is basically ethical." But this is not by any means a universal axiom of moral systems; it's a fairly strong assertion, which is inconsistent with Plato's cave, with Augustine and Calvin, and presumably with Nietzsche.

"Ought implies can," for sociobiological "can," is a conversion rule of the same general type as utilitarianism. It isn't a fatuous rule but it doesn't, like, follow from first principles.

Paul Muldoon: Turtles

[from his most recent book, Horse Latitudes.]

Paul Muldoon

A cubit-wide turtle acting the bin lid
by the side of the canal
conjures those Belfast nights I lay awake, putting in a bid
for the police channel
as lid-bangers gave the whereabouts
of armoured cars and petrol-bombers lit one flare
after another. So many of those former sentries and scouts
have now taken up the lyre
I can’t be sure of what is and what is not.
The water, for example, has the look of tin.
Nor am I certain, given their ability to smell the rot
once the rot sets in,
that turtles have not been enlisted by some police forces
to help them recover corpses.

Pork Barrels to Mars

It irritates me that NASA gets to spend $2.3 billion on the Mars Rover, a mission of little scientific merit, and that the $4-7 billion being spent on the LHC is considered exorbitant. "Space science" isn't even science, it's geography. Which, sadly, makes it automatically appealing to the public, and therefore an impeccable candidate for pork-barrel spending.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dept of Grand Unified Theories

If liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are relatively smart, and polarization is on the rise, esp. in relatively wealthy (and "therefore" "intelligent") regions, could this be because the Flynn effect is radicalizing the electorate?

Monday, December 1, 2008

"White Balancing"

John Harwood has a "heartwarming" yet mildly amusing anecdote about how he tried to meet with Obama:

Early in the campaign, in September of ’07, when Obama was beginning to be a sensation in Iowa, but nobody knew exactly how big a sensation, he was drawing big crowds, and I covered Iowa caucus campaigns for more than 20 years, and you see when somebody has something exceptional going, and I pressed for an interview with the campaign.

Usually early in campaigns, it’s pretty easy to get interviews with these guys before they really take off. And at this – but Obama was becoming kind of a rock star and his campaign said, “No, we don’t have time.” Finally they agreed and said, “Okay, after this event in Storm Lake, we’re going to give you ten minutes. We’re going – he’s going to meet and greet after his speech, they’re going to wind up the motorcade, and you get your ten minutes, and then we go.”

So that happened; I was with a freelance crew. When you work in TV, you hire freelance crews in states you go to, and you’ve never met these people before. And I learned as we were riding over to the event that these two guys were relatively new to videography. They had been in a rock band a few months before. And so at the appointed time, I stand in the right place with some of Obama’s aids and my producer and the crew, Obama comes over, and I commence an interview about income inequality and what are you going to do to narrow the gap between rich and poor, and about 30 seconds into his answer, the videographer says, “Stop, my battery is dead,” at which point the Obama campaign people said, “Okay, we’ve got to go, you had your chance, but we’re going to be late.” And Obama, thank goodness, said, “No, we’ll wait, we’re going to give the guy his interview.”

So the sound man went to go get another battery out of his van, and he goes running away, it’s about five blocks away, it takes him five minutes, he comes back, and I’m not kidding, he says, “Dang, I forgot my keys.”

So he gets his keys, and at that point the people – the campaign said we really have to go now, and Obama said, “No, we’re going to wait.” He went back and he got the keys, and we recorded the interview, he gave me his full ten minutes, it was a great interview, I was so happy, the motorcade goes off, we go back to the satellite truck to screen the tape, and there’s something that you may have seen people on television do at the beginning of interviews, where they hold up a white sheet of paper in front of the camera, it’s called white balancing, so that the camera can kind of get a fix on the colors, and right as we popped the tape in, the guy says, “Dang, I forgot to white balance.” So we watched the tape, and Obama is green as a martian, and we could not use any of it. Nevertheless, that calm, that steadiness, that sense of generosity, he got some benefit out of that over the long run from me.