Thursday, December 31, 2009

Light and fissures: a continuing series

Mercian Hymns XVI
Geoffrey Hill

Clash of salutation. As keels thrust into shingle. Ambassadors, pilgrims. What is carried over? The Frankish gift, two-edged, regaled with slaughter.

The sword is in the king’s hands; the crux a craftsman’s triumph. Metal effusing its own fragrance, a variety of balm. And other miracles, other exchanges.

Shafts from the winter sun homing upon earth’s rim. Christ’s mass: in the thick of a snowy forest the flickering evergreen fissured with light.

Attributes assumed, retribution entertained. What is borne amongst them? Too much or too little. Indulgences of bartered acclaim; an expenditure, a hissing. Wine, urine and ashes.


See also here and here.

PS The Swedish for butter is "smör" (as in smorgasbord) which is pronounced vaguely like smear and is, of course, etymologically related.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Editors vs. peers

Andrew Gelman links to Bruno Frey "suggesting a change in journal review processes, so that the editorial board first decides whether to accept or reject a paper and then referees are brought in solely to suggest changes on accepted papers." As Gelman points out this is vaguely similar to what some journals (I believe the best examples are Nature and Science) already do: have editors screen the articles before sending them out to review. There's a crucial difference though: at Nature, what seems to happen is that the editors screen the article to see if its claims are interesting, and mostly leave it to the referees to figure out if the claims are true. This is sensible because the referees -- who are typically people working on similar research -- are poor judges of broader interest whereas the editors are poor judges of whether the article is true.

The downside to this is that it creates a systematic incentive to make your article seem more interesting than it is and to hide the caveats in places where the editors will miss them. Sometimes the referees will object -- this article does not explain the origin of time -- but recommend publication anyway, and the editors are unlikely to overrule the referees even if the revisions make the article uninteresting enough that it wouldn't have gone to the referees in the first place. To some extent these problems are just inherent in the idea of a prestige journal, but there are ways to get around the puffing-up. One possibility is to do away with prestige journals, publish more or less everything that seems true, and have selections like Physical Review Focus to spotlight articles that were an especial hit with the referees and/or the editors. As referees vary in their willingness to praise, this scheme isn't that great either. In some ways a better plan is to have intelligent physicists blog their favorite new papers in a given area of physics, and to sort of hope that over time blogs with good taste win out. (As physicists are interested in fame, and probably read the relevant journals anyway, this isn't necessarily too taxing to work.) The -- possibly fatal -- objection is that it gives said bloggers an inordinate amount of influence over the career prospects of young physicists.

Are you a filibuster-buster, buster?

Ezra Klein is:

The danger of reforming the Senate is that, like health-care reform before it, it comes to seem a partisan issue. It isn't. Members of both parties often take the fact that neither Democrats nor Republicans can govern effectively to mean they benefit from the filibuster half the time. In reality, the country loses the benefits of a working legislature all the time.

I strongly favor moderate-if-infrequent policy changes. It is not ideal - I find the compromised, moderate Senate health care bill highly objectionable, and of course the filibuster can be used for narrowly partisan purposes - but it is preferable to the alternative of ideologically polarized policy-making.

Ross Douthat is, and has something intelligent to say about it:

if you can't shrink the stimulus package much more substantially than the centrists have done, you shouldn't shrink it at all. There's a case to be made for a stimulus that's radically different than the one we have now; there's a case to be made for a stimulus that's like the one we have now, but a great deal smaller and more targeted; and there's a case to be made for a stimulus that's absolutely gargantuan. But thanks to the centrists, we're getting the cheapskate version of the gargantuan version: They've done absolutely nothing to widen the terms of debate about what should go into the bill, and they've shaved off just enough money to reduce its effectiveness if Paul Krugman is right - but not nearly enough to make it fiscally prudent if the stimulus skeptics are right.
My take on this is that the filibuster works fine for some things but not for others. There are two relevant distinctions: whether the bill is Frankensteinable or not, and whether it is necessary or not. I don't have sharp definitions of these concepts but here are some examples. The stimulus is a good example of a Frankensteinable bill: as Douthat says, any coherent bill -- whether left-wing or right-wing -- would have been preferable to the spineless and ineffectual thing we actually got. On the other hand, Supreme Court nominations are not Frankensteinable: a compromise appointee is an actual person, not a hodgepodge of attributes. Supreme Court appointments are also necessary, like (e.g.) the budget, which is Frankensteinable. On the other hand, a bill restricting cloning would be Frankensteinable -- a compromise could have perverse consequences that a straight-up right-wing bill would not -- but unnecessary. Finally, a bill creating a new national holiday would be neither Frankensteinable nor necessary.

The arguments against the filibuster are (1) that it frankensteins Frankensteinable bills, and (2) that it allows a unified opposition to block necessary legislation, thus paralyzing government. The obvious counter-argument is that without the filibuster there would be a great deal of sweeping and unnecessary legislation. In the narrow sense I prefer, necessity means both sides agree that the status quo is intolerable in the short-to-medium term but disagree on how to change it. (A healthcare bill is generally agreed to be necessary to deal with the Medicare crisis, but e.g. climate change isn't necessary by this def'n as a lot of Republicans believe that no action should be taken.)

I tend to believe in overdoing the checks and balances, so I'd like to keep the filibuster wherever possible. On the other hand, maybe what's needed is for the filibuster to come with a procedural price. Here's a possible set of rules:
  1. When party A proposes a (frankensteinable) bill, party B gets either to (a) introduce a competing bill and forfeit the right to filibuster or (b) keep the right to filibuster and forfeit the right to introduce a competing bill for, let's say, 12 years. Party B can still, of course, vote for Party A-sponsored bills.
  2. For all unfrankensteinable bills (e.g. appointments), the filibuster is usable on a tit-for-tat basis.

Obviously there are some definitions left to be filled in but this seems to be the right sort of approach.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Wickedness, Whips, and Life Imprisonment

David Bernstein asks "why the infliction of physical pain on someone, assuming he’s not just a suspect but been convicted of a crime, is considered beyond the bounds of human decency by all respectable sources, but locking that same individual in a cell for the rest of his life is a-ok." I'm not sure I have an entirely sound answer to this question but I think that -- at least to some extent -- the basic point is that torture degrades the torturers. There is a relevant moral difference between pushing a button that somewhere, somehow, kills someone you don't know and strangling someone with your bare hands, viz. that one of these things can be done without emotion. I think it's important that no one should derive pleasure from the punishment of others; therefore, public executions, whipping, and anything else that personalizes the process of punishment should be avoided if possible.

You might ask why I'm assuming that the relevant emotion would be pleasure rather than revulsion. This is because there's a selection effect: if you don't enjoy public executions, you can avoid them; if you don't enjoy whipping people, you can try finding work as a plumber.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Proustblogging

The Hombre from Combray has a nice way with large-scale echoes; here's an example I think is particularly appealing. First, in Vol. 1, the illustration:

We would return by the Boulevard de la Gare, which contained the most attractive villas in the town. In each oftheir gardens the moonlight, copying the art of Hubert Robert, hadscattered its broken staircases of white marble, its fountains of waterand gates temptingly ajar. Its beams had swept away the telegraph office.All that was left of it was a column, half shattered, but preserving thebeauty of a ruin which endures for all time. [...]

Suddenly my father would bring us to a standstill and ask my mother--"Where are we?" Utterly worn out by the walk but still proud of her husband, she would lovingly confess that she had not the least idea. He would shrug his shoulders and laugh. And then, as though it had slipped, with his latchkey, from his waistcoat pocket, he would point out to us, when it stood before our eyes, the back-gate of our own garden, which had come hand-in-hand with the familiar corner of the Rue du Saint-Esprit, to await us, to greet us at the end of our wanderings over paths unknown.

And the echo, in vol. 6:
If our memories do indeed belong to us, they do so after the fashion of those country properties which have little hidden gates of which we ourselves are often unaware, and which someone in the neighborhood opens for us, so that from one direction at least which is new to us, we find ourselves back in our own house.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Light and grease redux

Proust, The Captive, trans. Scott Moncrieff (mainly because that's the version that's online):
In the early-rising mornings of spring that followed, I could hear the tram-cars moving, through a cloud of perfumes, in an air with which the prevailing warmth became more and more blended until it reached the solidification and density of noon. When the unctuous air had succeeded in varnishing with it and isolating in it the scent of the wash-stand, the scent of the wardrobe, the scent of the sofa, simply by the sharpness with which, vertical and erect, they stood out in adjacent but distinct slices, in a pearly chiaroscuro which added a softer glaze to the shimmer of the curtains and the blue satin armchairs, I saw myself, not by a mere caprice of my imagination, but because it was physically possible, following in some new quarter of the suburbs, like that in which Bloch’s house at Balbec was situated, the streets blinded by the sun, and finding in them not the dull butchers’ shops and the white freestone facings, but the country dining-room which I could reach in no time, and the scents that I would find there on my arrival, that of the bowl of cherries and apricots, the scent of cider, that of gruyère cheese, held in suspense in the luminous congelation of shadow which they delicately vein like the heart of an agate, while the knife-rests of prismatic glass scatter rainbows athwart the room or paint the waxcloth here and there with peacock-eyes.

(I like long sentences a little too much for my own good.) Cf. also here and here. I should note in passing that one of the reasons Proust is a difficult writer is that he's got to be read both somewhat fast (so that you remember the bits in the earlier vols. that correspond to bits in the later vols.) and somewhat carefully (so that you don't skim past the good bits). Had one but world enough and time, I think one would want to do the whole thing at something like five hours a day over two weeks.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Two thoughts on translation

From an old college paper on A.E. Housman's version of "Diffugere Nives":
We don’t like being preached at in verse—there is no tradition of 20th cent didactic verse in English—but are willing to overhear a sermon and listen to it seriously as long as it is addressed to someone else. In general, we are willing to accept much in a translation that we would consider intolerably silly in an original English poem, and this is what gives translation some of its power to alter the linguistic climate. [...] What Housman has achieved is a poem that sits squarely in the English tradition but is, at the same time, not quite an English poem. The objective of this type of translation is to make the poet speak good English, but not house-train as regards structure or subject matter. (A parallel that comes to mind is the Ascot scene in “My Fair Lady.”)

From the preface to my final project:
These poems are meant to bear the same sort of relation to the original as an umbrella does to the dome of St. Paul's: they are roughly the same shape and serve a similar purpose.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Four specious arguments

Below are four things I used to believe, not that long ago, but have since given up on. I'll follow up -- maybe -- on why I don't believe any of these things any more in subsequent posts. Note that I don't currently believe any of these arguments, though I still agree with several -- perhaps most -- of the premises.

1. Majoritarianism and the Constitution. As a formalist by instinct, I've always been drawn to originalism, at least meant narrowly as a criterion for judges. Laws ought to change their meaning only if the Legislature thinks so, or else we're going to be run by the whims of unelected judges. On the other hand, I've never had much time for the founding fathers or the Constitution per se; on the substance of current issues, whether gay marriage or internet privacy, "what would James Madison do?" is almost never a germane question. (Similarly, one would not expect "What would Barack Obama do?" to be relevant to 22nd cent. debate.) If you put these together, that seems to imply that the constitution should be a lot easier to amend than it is, and that judges should be textualists in their interpretation. At least, this is what one would want in an ideal world: in practice, judges should defer to the executive except in extreme cases.

2. Means-testing. The government wastes rather a lot of money on providing "universal" public services that are largely used by the wealthy. Examples of note are major public universities, some transportation systems, roads and highways in expensive suburbs, etc. From a redistributionist point of view, the purpose of government is to take money from the rich and give it to the poor, not to spend it on the rich; this would be the worst sort of nanny-state behavior. It would be better to tax the rich (possibly less) for goods specifically intended for the poor, and to let them fund their own roads and hospitals.

3. Inequality and poverty. Poverty matters; inequality per se does not. It's OK for there to be arbitrarily large differences in income and lifestyle as long as (a) no one is starving or is otherwise deprived of necessities, (b) there is some degree of social mobility for the poor (i.e., "equality of opportunity"). In general, wealth and happiness are non-zero-sum; there is usually a trade-off between efficiency and equality of outcome; one should maximize efficiency under the constraint that no one is living in actual poverty.

4. Unilateral military intervention. National sovereignty is stupid and immoral. When one believes that other countries (or cultures) are engaging in abhorrent activities, it is reasonable to invade if one has the power to do so. The United Nations is not a representative world government as it consists largely of dictatorships, the UN Human Rights committees are worse because dictators are disproportionately interested in being on them; in any case, the UN has no legitimacy. In general, rich western governments have at least as much legitimacy (in the normative sense) as the local warlord when it comes to representing the interests of the citizens of, e.g., Sudan or Iraq. [I should note that I still think this is true normatively; however, one must also consider the descriptive sense of legitimacy, and the impact thereon of the fact that occupying troops tend to corrupt over time.]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Douthat's new blog

I used to enjoy Douthat's old blog at the Atlantic, which I thought was a much better medium for him than the Times column. The thing about Douthat is that he's only any good when he's reacting to someone; it was a common feature, I think, of all his best posts on the old blog that they began with a longish quote from someone -- esp. his recurring sparring partners, Will Saletan, Damon Linker, and Will Wilkinson, all of whom are dumber and worse writers than Douthat. (Even if I agree with them more often.) His columns, by contrast, have been kind of flat and formulaic, and sometimes (the one about the "audacity of the pope") extremely silly. (His book reviews, on the other hand, are often good because he's reacting to the author.)

Anyway, he seems to be back to blogging, now at the NYT, and his blog is -- at least as of now -- a lot better than his columns.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Defining the origin-of-life problem

Gowers wants to do a Polymath project on the origin of life. This problem has been around for a long time now -- Schrodinger wrote a not-very-good book about it in his decadent Irish phase -- and part of the trouble with it is that it's hard to make precise. As Gowers explains, some statistical physicists have been trying to model life using sandpiles etc., with the working definition that "self-organized criticality" -- the persistence of structure on various length scales, hence some manner of fractal structure -- defines life. This is an unsatisfactory approach because (1) having order on various length scales does not imply fractality, which requires that the order must be the same, which isn't necessarily the case with life unless you buy some version of the Gaia hypothesis; (2) it presupposes a property of early organisms -- that they formed multilevel ecosystems -- that isn't a priori obvious. There are similar issues with Conway's game of life and some of the computer-science approaches that involve looking for self-generated Turing machines (!) in simple games.

On the whole I'm unconvinced that the problem is a good one for a mathematician (or physicist) at present, although -- like all semi-masturbatory projects -- it might stimulate developments in pure mathematics. The hard part is not finding an algorithm that generates "life" from the "primeval soup" for some definition of life and primeval soup; it is finding one that gets the gross features of real primitive life right. The existence proof is not the issue. One needs to think harder about testability than Gowers seems to want to: there are probably a gazillion different automata that give structures that are lifelike, but are any of them relevant to what happened in the primeval soup, and how would we know?

It's not obvious, either, that there is a math-problem/toy-model/"universal" aspect to biogenesis. As I understand the rough story, it goes something like this: given a primal soup with appropriate ingredients and dreadful weather, you can form (with some finite probability) a very primitive self-replicating strand of some (probably zipping) molecule. This is more or less what the Miller-Urey experiment suggests. The gaps in this story are essentially about rates -- would the amino acids survive for long enough to run into each other, what's the lifetime of an RNA strand, etc. -- and have no math content. The next question is how an RNA strand turns into a self-replicating proto-cell. Once again, this is mostly a question of rates; it's clear that a cell is more stable than a strand, once formed. There's a whiff of universality here -- for some simplified model of e.g. 3 cell ingredients, a spherical cell ingesting amino acid at a constant rate r etc., you can ask what the conditions are for life to be stable for long enough that cells can diffuse out -- they're unlikely to be motile at first -- into new environments before they suffocate in their own waste. In principle this might give you constraints on the origin of life. However, it seems exceedingly unlikely that a model of this kind would make testable nontrivial predictions. To get any further one would have to separate the essential and accidental features of the most primitive cells, and I'm not sure we're in a position to do that. The simplest organisms still existing today are wildly unrepresentative being the ones that survived.

The Straw Wee-Wee

I think Steven Pinker gives Gladwell more than his due, but his diagnosis here is spot on:
The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.

On the other hand, the structure described here is a paradigmatic strawman argument. One rarely knocks down a straw man for the sheer pleasure of it. The point of strawmanning is to introduce a counter-assertion that can be defended narrowly -- the "trite" version, which only an idiot, i.e. straw man or Gladwell's typical reader, would disagree with -- but is meant to sound like a broad (and usually indefensible) statement. And I must say that Pinker's evident irritation gives me some pleasure: this is, after all, a guy who straw-manned all of Western thought in The Blank Slate.

PS Gladwell's "igon values" reminded me of this old running joke Grobstein and I had about eigenworthlessness.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The butterknives of others

Hilary Mantel in the Guardian, via Light reading:
I need not explain why I was reading a list of school reunions, when my eye fell on what follows: the address of a girls' school in Llandudno, and the notification that it was the "Final Old Girls' Reunion". Next April it will occur; the information tolled in my ears: why is it the last, how can anyone know? It may be that the organiser has just got tired of doing all the work: that fewer and fewer old girls are turning up, that some of them are shrill and grubby and have vodka bottles in their bags, and piercings, and toyboys in tow: or that Llandudno is just too hard to get to. But sadder explanations suggest themselves. Are there only two old girls left, and has one of them been given a bad prognosis? I can't help thinking what it would be like, two sassy old dames crumbling a final scone together, replacing in its saucer the teacup drained of Darjeeling, polishing their noses with a crumpled tissue: "Well, Blinky, old thing . . ." "Well, Nodders, old girl . . ."; brushing crumbs from their laps, laying down the final butterknife, stepping into separate taxis to go their final ways. Surely there's a short story in it. But it's not mine, is it? It's one for Jane Gardam.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Casual Squawk

I think this is a rhetorical question. But consider these lines of poetry that Yeats wrote at some point in the 20th century:

I had a thought for no one's but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

Are they better described thus:

The plainest, most straightforward language in the poem, in some ways, comes at the very end—final words, not uttered in the conversation, are more private and more urgent than what has come before. ... That closing passage of interior thoughts [...] makes the poem feel, to me, as though not simply heard but overheard.

or like this?

... how artificial Yeats's manner of writing was. As a rule, this artificiality is accepted as Irishism, or Yeats is even credited with simplicity because he uses short words, but in fact one seldom comes on six consecutive lines of his verse in which there is not an archaism or an affected turn of speech.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Went to a talk by ex-BBC producer Roy Davies today, about his new book The Darwin Conspiracy, which supposedly proves that Darwin stole Alfred Russel Wallace's ideas rather than coming up with them independently. Davies' argument in the talk was three-pronged: (1) Darwin was provably mendacious, (2) Darwin's 1840s work on evolution was entirely wrongheaded, and there's no reason to believe that he was on the right track before Wallace's letters reached him, and (3) Darwin lied about when Wallace's letters reached him, on the evidence of a bunch of 1850s Indonesian naval timetables that show when the mailboats came and went from wherever Wallace was at the time. Davies' work seems either comprehensively false or largely correct, as his story hangs together quite well. I have no idea of how sound the detective work on (3) is, but if (1) and (2) are true then (3) is plausible anyway. The main evidence for (1) is that Darwin silently edited his Beagle diaries between the 1839 edition and the 1844 edition to insert a bunch of material semi-plagiarized from Edward Blyth and possibly Vestiges of Creation. As for (2), Davies claims that Darwin's 1840s work on evolution was mostly based on the idea that species swam across the sea and found themselves in new surroundings where they had "somehow" to adapt to survive; and that Darwin hadn't thought of survival of the fittest at this point. As someone who's utterly unfamiliar with 19th-century biology, I'm curious to know if Davies is entirely making this up.

As for how this fits into the larger picture, it's of no consequence whether Darwin or Wallace came up with the theory of evolution, or whether Darwin was a crook. But it's always seemed to me -- and here of course I differ from Davies -- that Darwin/Wallace get way too much relative credit for their contributions to evolutionary theory. The story as I see it goes something like this:

1. Early 1800s geologists find out that the geography of the earth changes over time, sometimes relatively fast. The earth appears to be pretty old. Native species seem well-adapted to their changing environments; this is implausible in the extreme if everything was created at once. Therefore, some sort of adaptation must happen. Also, there are fossils.

2. The species native to some (old) islands are highly distinctive, whereas those from recently isolated islands are similar to the mainland varieties. The pattern of similarities in archipelagoes, in particular, -- Indonesia, the Galapagos -- seems strongly suggestive of a common ancestor from whom the varieties diverged over time because they were isolated. This gets you the "descent with modification" part.

3. A half-assed analogy with Malthus leads to the claim that descent with modification is due to "survival of the fittest" while competing for scarce resources. This claim was largely unsubstantiated (it's more a conjecture than anything else) and had huge problems, e.g., that with "blending inheritance" -- the naive belief that characteristics "blend" during reproduction, which I think everyone believed at the time -- mutations are unlikely to survive.

4. Gregor Mendel discovers that inheritance is particulate rather than blending, i.e., that black + black = white 1/4 of the time, and basically invents genetics. I don't know if Mendel thought about the implications for evolution, but this is really the key point that makes natural selection work.

5. 20th-century geneticists -- people like Morgan, Fisher, and Haldane -- turn genetics into a proper experimental science and construct the theory of evolution through natural selection, or, if you like, prove Darwin's conjecture using Mendel's theory.

In terms of importance I would rank these 4-1-5=2-3 -- and that's without discounting 3. as derivative of Malthus. First of all, 3. is conceptually shaky without 4., and vague besides; this is evident from e.g., the fact that the next major advances in evolutionary theory came through 4. via 5. This is rarely the case with true scientific breakthroughs. Second, I feel like 4. would have led immediately to 3. once people started taking Mendel seriously. This is because 1. and 2. had opened up the question of the variation of species (which is why they are important advances).

It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Darwin discovered evolution like Democritus discovered atoms, but not, I suspect, a complete falsehood.

PS Wallace was a spiritualist and a teleologically minded type so it's probably a good thing he didn't grow too influential. Besides, he was no Marsellus Wallace.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Misreading Ashbery in bed

There's something about John Ashbery's poems that invites subconscious misreadings that aren't, however, obviously deleterious. For instance I initially read an old poem of his that begins

The tires slowly came to a rubbery stop


The trees came slowly to a rubbery stop

The switching of verb and adverb is uninteresting because one smoothes out meter in one's head all the time; however, the adventitious image of a rubber plantation, I think, sort of helps the poem.

Similarly, he's got a new thing in the LRB that goes

Others, looking out
over the bay’s mild waters could barely distinguish
a message

which, naturally, I took to be the baby's mild waters, which is evocative; I suppose the image literally means a baby passed out in a tepid pool of piss, but there's a cluster of more pleasant connotations floating about barely distinguishably. And I've done this with other work of his too, presumably because of the vague grab-baggy nature of Ashbery's poems. Or maybe I'm just unusually prone to stairs-and-stripes-isms.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Discontinuities in Maggots

Michael Berry's old Physics Today article on singular limits opens with this brilliant analogy:
Biting into an apple and finding a maggot is bad enough, but finding half a maggot is worse. Discovering one-third of a maggot would be more distressing still: The less you find, the more you must have eaten. Extrapolating to the limit, an encounter with no maggot at all should be the ultimate bad-apple experience. This remorseless logic fails, however, because the limit is singular: A very small maggot fraction (f approaching 0) is qualitatively different from no maggot (f = 0). Limits in physics can be singular too [...]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Having your bishoprick both ways

A letter in the LRB about the English Reformation:
My putative ancestor Myler Magrath went one better, being at the same time both Catholic bishop of Down and Connor and Protestant archbishop of Cashel. He accumulated a number of other dioceses and about 70 livings. His true religious beliefs remained safely ambiguous: he married (an option not open to Catholic clergy) twice but raised his children as Catholics. The success of his policy of open-mindedness in theological matters is evident in the fact that he lived to be 99 or 100 (his year of birth, 1522, is an estimate), which was good going for an Irish clergyman during the Reformation.

Michael McGrath

Friday, October 9, 2009

Triplets, etc.

Francis Crick's What Mad Pursuit is what I'd like all scientific memoirs to be, or literary memoirs for that matter; it's mostly about the "logic" and the (loose and miscellaneous) methods that working scientists use to do things. As an exposition of the science it isn't particularly good; the main problem, I think, is that there aren't any figures, and without figures a lot of the talk about model-building and crystallography can seem baffling. [I was reminded of Steven Weinberg's general-audience talk at Illinois a couple of years ago: he was trying to explain spontaneous symmetry-breaking without slides, and tried to make up for his inability to conjure the right mental image by gesticulating wildly.]

What Crick does brilliantly is explain why he chose to go into biology (the "gossip test" -- if you find yourself gossiping about something it's probably something you want to work on), how he spent years reconstructing molecules from X-ray diffraction patterns, how the genetic code was decoded, etc. His basic take on Rosalind Franklin is plausible: he felt that she was overly cautious because she wanted to appear "professional," which was natural for a woman in the field at the time, even when a slapdash and unrigorous approach was likely to work better. This still makes her a tragic figure, of course, but for different and more believable reasons than the generic victim story. George Gamow, who briefly worked with Crick on the genetic code, gets a rather appealing cameo, as does William Bragg.

The chapters on the discovery of messenger RNA and the decoding of the genetic code are particularly good. The story with the genetic code goes something like this: Crick was interested in the question of whether bits of RNA -- which is half of the double helix, and has sticky ends, and which Crick assumed to be floppy -- could accidentally get zipped up while wandering through the cell; he figured that if so they'd be unable to make proteins, and certain traits might end up "suppressed." In particular, certain mutants might end up "canceling out" by gluing onto each other. Clearly they would have to be somewhat far apart on the strand of RNA to be likely to do this. However, when this prediction was experimentally tested they found that suppressor mutants -- which it turned out did exist -- were usually near each other, so the original hypothesis wouldn't do. Eventually they figured out that the reason the suppressions happened was as follows: a lot of mutants are deletions, and the genetic code is read three characters at a time. Therefore, a sequence that made sense as:


upon a single deletion turns to

i.e. everything to the right of the deletion is garbled, whereas if you have three deletions nearby you get

i.e. the damage is localized, and the original instructions can more or less be deciphered. This was confirmed after a lot of hard work and some clever experiments.

Crick's basic message -- especially to physicists going into biology -- is that theory in biology requires a lot of the nimbleness that this story exemplifies; one has to keep one's perspectives fairly short, and getting too far ahead of the evidence has disastrous consequences. A corollary is that existence proofs, which he calls "don't worry theories," showing that there is an imaginable structure or pathway that does something, count for little in biology.

A final point I found interesting: the question of the uniformity of the genetic code across all sorts of organisms. This is a somewhat puzzling fact, and it seems apparent that there must have been some sort of bottleneck. Crick couldn't think of anything particularly good so he suggested panspermia; Carl Woese and Nigel Goldenfeld (and others, I imagine, but I'm not too familiar with the literature) have since been working on a less unappealing answer, which has to do with the fact that bacteria and archaea reproduce largely by squirting DNA at one another.

Unfortunate collective nouns

Culled from Twitter, where ADL and I have been spewing these:

A rump of rabbits, a slump of sloths, a rash of rats, a wallop of walruses, a mob of marmots, a bungle of baboons, a squeam of weasels, a blubber of whales, an embolism of emus, a gooch of gibbons, a blur of bloodhounds, a marmalade of marmots, a smegma of skylarks, a flagrancy of flies, a squelch of squirrels, a scab of seagulls, a froth of ferrets.

I won't bother with the attributions as they should be obvious.

ADDENDA: a proliferation of porcupines, a muddle of mustelids, a lap of lamprey, a bolus of bonobos, a pomp of possums, an opulence of opossums

Monday, September 28, 2009


A Gate at the Stairs
Lorrie Moore

Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson


Lorrie Moore and Denis Johnson are both novelists best known for their short story collections (Birds of America and Jesus' Son). While I enjoyed both of these novels, I don't think either comes off on the whole; along with Anne Enright's Gathering, they are good examples of what happens when novels with interesting material suffer from structural flaws; in each case, I think the flaws have to do with the fact that short stories (and esp. collections) require less careful arranging than novels. Each of these novels is, in its own way, clumsily contrived; they all feel over-planned, as is often the case with work that isn't planned carefully enough.

Johnson's 600-odd page book aims to be a grand panoramic novel about Vietnam; the theme might induce a sinkiang feeling but shouldn't, Johnson's very good on people in the more advanced stages of rage and fuckedupness. Tree of Smoke is filled with the usual Johnsonian menagerie of memorable characters: Kathy Jones, who grieves for her dead Adventist husband by having uncomfortable sex with the first white man she finds, and stalks leanly and hungrily through the novel; the Colonel, legendary and drunk, with his crackpot theories about the CIA's proper place; the Houstons, all id, whom the war neither kills nor strengthens but can still scare shitless; etc. All of this is very well done: so, on the whole, is the main character Skip Sands, who's the straight guy to Kathy and the Colonel until he unconvincingly goes apeshit and ends up running guns in Thailand. But all of this is spread out among reams of deadweight: local color, formulaic barroom scenes, a Vietnamese subplot involving a double agent (in general the Asian characters are lousy), and more than you ever wanted to hear about jungles and temples. The book is arranged chronologically, beginning (disastrously) with the JFK assassination and walking the characters through the major stages of the war; the interleaving of stories is often distracting, and generally makes the first quarter or so of the book quite painful. The second half is better and less portentous, but even here it's not entirely clear that the stories add up to more, interleaved, than they would as e.g. a book of 'Nam-themed short stories.

A Gate at the Stairs is a coming-of-age novel with 9/11 as backdrop; thankfully it doesn't have much to do with 9/11 but, once again, the Big Themes are too blatant to work. Unlike Tree of Smoke it has a plot, sort of: Tassie Keltjin is a "quasi Jew" from rural Wisconsin who goes to college in a random midwestern college town and gets enmeshed in the relatively complicated life of Sarah Brink, a middle-aged woman who tries to adopt a child with her sleazy husband and hires Tassie as the babysitter. The child they end up with is half-black: various cultural difficulties ensue, which end up with Sarah setting up a support group for minority parents to get drunk and blather -- unconvincingly, superficially, and at inordinate length -- about minority issues. Meanwhile Tassie has an affair with a "Brazilian" who turns out to be an Islamic terrorist. When Tassie goes home that winter she finds that her brother is about to enlist and her mother is insufferable. Everything eventually disintegrates at the end of the spring semester; Tassie goes home for the summer and her brother gets sent off to Afghanistan and dies. Tassie gets weepy and reflective, takes a semester off and then goes back to college.

Nevertheless, this novel has its merits; it's beautifully written in bits, and social -- and other -- events are sharply observed. Sarah Brink is worked out with extreme precision. There are two reasons that none of this really helps in the end. The first is that the plot is too obviously contrived to get the social (and intellectual, and whatever) commentary in, the deeper problem though is that the commentary is shallow and boring. Two examples: 1. Tassie supposedly has her mind aflame with Simone de Beauvoir, Chaucer(!), etc., from her (pre-plot) first semester, but her second-semester classes are almost entirely an excuse for Moore to satirize academic silliness and out-of-touchness. The satire isn't good enough to excuse the breach of character. 2. Tassie is paid to babysit the Brink baby and all the other multicultural babies while their parents go on about culture downstairs. From time to time someone uses an agricultural metaphor, and the narrator reminds you that she's from a farm and knows what a backhoe is. This gets substantially less endearing about the sixtieth time.

What these novels have in common is that they're too easy to categorize. They seem to have been written along the following lines: "let me write a novel of type X. Where shall I set it? What sort of characters do I need? What themes or battles should I include?" This is both overambitious -- both books would have been better if the authors knew their limits -- and lazy, because the framework of a book ought to be revised to deal with the obvious fact that some bits work a lot better than others, or have diverged from the main plot. This is also part of what was wrong with Anne Enright's The Gathering -- deadweight like the Lamb Nugent plot was left for the reader to sift through because taking it out would have involved rearranging the book, which would have been too much trouble.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mere Integration

After that last, rather hastily written post (I've been swamped with work lately), I realized I should have read the SEP article on Parfit's repugnant conclusion before blogging about it. The provenance of the repugnant conclusion is different from what I'd expected: Parfit was apparently led to it by the puzzle of what it means to call a state of the universe better or worse than another if they have different people in them. (This is called the non-identity problem: not related to Quine's maxim "no entity without identity," which a rudimentary acquaintance with Actual People will discredit.) One could argue that two worlds with different sets of people in them are simply incommensurate -- this is one of the ways around the repugnant conclusion -- because "it would be better" is meaningless except as "it would be better for X," where X is a specified actual entity. I'm somewhat sympathetic to this dodge, but it seems overly strong because as phrased it doesn't allow quantifiers. (It's clearly sensible to state that nuking Dresden in 2045 would be bad for anybody living in Dresden in 2045.)

The situation is a little different for the intertemporal version of Parfit's paradox: here, one's measuring the same person's utility at different times. The form of the paradox is identical, however: you have a 50-year high-quality lifespan, ceteris paribus it's good to add 25 years of acceptable but unstellar life, it can't be bad if you even out your quality of life over the 75-year lifespan, rinse wash repeat. One could argue that my self at 50 is different from my self now and I'm within my rights to be a total asshole to my future self -- in which case the good-for-whom point still works -- but I don't buy it. That said, regret is an odd business: gratifications delayed are often gratifications forgone; gratifications indulged lead to syphilis. And it might be true that different parts of one's life are more different from one another than the lives of two different people of the same age, though I wouldn't really buy that either.

Of the eight responses that the SEP offers to the mere addition paradox, about half -- average utilitarianism, steplike or branched utility functions, and the claim that there are no lives remotely worth living -- work pretty much identically in the temporal context. The claim that no lives are worth living is, in fact, on safer ground in this version because it's less susceptible to objections of the happy-space-alien variety. The dumb response, viz. that transitivity doesn't hold, remains dumb. The responses denying that it makes sense to compare two worlds with different people, however, are unintelligible in this context; one is led to believe that they were never particularly good dodges, though some of them might be useful for other purposes. It might be that other dodges along similar lines can be found, but I'm dubious.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Generally rather be caught dead than link to lesswrong; however, this post on the "Lifespan dilemma" is sort of interesting if you can grit your teeth and deal with its spectacularly awful prose. I haven't read the post esp. carefully but it seems like there are two aspects to the idea: (1) a lot of math that seems basically irrelevant, (2) the clever idea of reformulating Parfit's paradox in terms of years of life rather than numbers of people. Personally I don't think Parfit's paradox changes when you formulate it in terms of lifespans than numbers of people -- the correct unit is clearly people-years, rather than people or years -- but I guess this might not be widely accepted.

I'm an average utilitarian* with respect to Parfit's paradox, despite the somewhat compelling counter-argument that this should lead one to prefer having thousands of people mildly tortured to having one waterboarded. I would like to reconcile this with a system where, like Parfit, you have a floor of utility for a life to be "worth living," and (unlike him) adopt average utilitarianism for people above the floor and stoatal utilitarianism for those beneath it. There seems to me no a priori reason why one shouldn't use different metrics for lives that are worth living and lives that are not, and this metric matches my intuitions best, even if it seems inelegant.

And I think I'm also an average utilitarian* with respect to timescales, which sort of explains why I hold the views on longevity (i.e., that there's no intrinsic merit to it) that I do. I should emphasise that these actually are my intuitions on the matter; I'm not trying to be contrarian, I just actually disagree that longer lives are better. The appropriate measure is utility per second averaged over one's life; a longer life is better to the extent that one can expect this to increase -- e.g., as an adolescent you'll probably increase your average happiness by staying alive a little longer; this also accounts for situations when you're 65, dying, and want to be kept alive long enough to e.g. check out an impending grandchild before you kick the bucket. One could also argue that as you grow older you've read and experienced more and therefore find life richer; therefore there's a steady upward trend to one's utility per second. I don't think this is true beyond a point, though, and there's a tradeoff here which Wordsworth's one good poem is very good on: one gets contemptible, stiff, and dull with age. Some of this has to do with the physiological processes that cause aging, but I feel like some of it also has to do with just having been around for a long time.

* I'm not a true utilitarian. However, like most people I'm a utilitarian most of the time, so it's meaningful to ask whether I count average or stoatal utility.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Summer reading update, II

Birds of America, Lorrie Moore

I've been reading a lot of short stories lately; I attribute this to intellectual laziness -- the form is inherently middlebrow and readable-in-bed -- and the fact that, because I never got into the form, there's a lot of excellent stuff I haven't read. (Alice Munro, for example.) There's a canned still-life-y quality to a lot of otherwise good stories (recent Trevor, Updike) that I find off-putting, but fortunately, Lorrie Moore doesn't go in for this at all. In one of these stories, a woman dying of lung cancer buys a new house with her adulterous husband and ends up shooting the ex-gardener who's taken to robbing couples (incl. this one) while asking them to sing duets. In another, a girl with Romanian parents ends up as a librarian (or something, I read this one a while ago) and has her love affair disintegrate into a hilarious pile of Tom Swifties. And so on. The writing is generally taut and occasionally brilliant, generally less lyrical than Trevor or Enright, but there is some brilliant imagery -- like the cancer, "dismantling as it came."

Cheating at Canasta, Collected Stories, After Rain, William Trevor

It's odd that Trevor, by critical consensus the best or 2nd-best short story writer around, isn't better known. I mildly prefer his old work (in the Collected of '92) to the more recent stuff, which tends towards elegy and occasionally maudlinness. There are tons of Trevor stories, most of which I haven't read, but I think it's fair to say that he tends to do one of three things. First there are the extended prose poems ("Cheating at Canasta," "After Rain") that are usually about loss and sometimes ("Cheating") come off and are spectacular. Second there are the slightly grotesque comic slices-of-life (here's a good example) that have been getting less funny and less interesting over the years but are still really good. Third there are stories about vaguely upperclass Irish Protestants and their rather stiff ways -- Trevor's an Irish Prot and knows a lot about these people -- and these are stark, sentimental, or a slightly revolting combination of the two.

Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark

This is a peculiar novel, a kind of pomo autobiography. On the whole it's worthwhile but it isn't The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or The Girls of Slender Means. The narrator is a female novelist who's trying to make ends meet as she finishes her first novel, in around 1950, which is approximately (but not quite) when Spark was a hard-up female novelist writing her first novel. She's also a Catholic, as Spark was. In the novel she finds a job as a secretary for the Autobiographical Association, a six-person group that its leader, Quentin Oliver, ends up turning into a cult of paranoid speed addicts, partly under the influence of the narrator's novel which he manages to steal. (This is all quite entertaining.) The plot interestingly resembles that of Spark's first novel, The Comforters, in which another Spark-like character discovers that her life is being typed out as a novel by a ghost with an irritatingly loud typewriter. It's been years since I read The Comforters, so I can't really develop the parallel, but I can't really decide whether Loitering is deliberately recalling The Comforters or if it's just that all Spark novels with Spark-like characters use the same metafictional devices.

A Spot of Bother, Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon's first novel, The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime, a crime story of sorts with an autistic narrator, was generally well-reviewed and a bestseller. A Spot has many of the same virtues, but isn't as good a novel. The basic plot goes something like this: a retired middle-class man slowly loses his mind because he thinks he has a tumor (which is in fact just eczema) around the time his daughter's to marry someone he disapproves of. Around this time he accidentally walks in on his wife having sex with an ex-coworker, which doesn't help. The book is at its best when it tries to get inside the old guy's head, but the other characters aren't terribly interesting and -- esp. the gay son and his problems finding true love -- take up too much of the plot.

When you are engulfed in flames, David Sedaris

Sedaris is going to read here in Oct, so his stuff was available discounted at the bookshop. I liked this book a fair bit; the anecdote about Sedaris and the local pedophile in Normandy was especially good, as was the one with the obstreperous old woman who's Sedaris's neighbor in New York.

The first three books of Rabelais, trans. Thomas Urquhart

Urquhart's 17th cent. translation of Rabelais is a delightful bit of Renaissance writing in its own right -- it's a triumph of phrasing and of filthiness, two things that are quite close to my heart. Apart from a wonderfully evocative rendition of dialogue overheard at a party, the first few chapters are a little hard to get into. However, once we're past Gargantua's childhood, the book swiftly gets more readable; Rabelais is fond of lists, and some of them go on for many pages, but 1. it's obvious where they end, and 2. they're quite entertaining in their own right. The plot is without suspense -- Gargantua and Pantagruel always win -- and is mostly just a vehicle for the gags, which are generally hilarious. This might be the best book I've read in a while.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Juggling Patterns

Throwaway remark by Freeman Dyson:

There was also a performing juggler who happens to be a professor of mathematics. He stood on the stage, simultaneously juggling five balls in the air and proving elegant theorems about the combinatorics of juggling. His theorems explain why serious jugglers always juggle with an odd number of balls, usually five or seven rather than four or six.

Intuitively the idea is that there are some patterns of throws that only work with odd numbers and some that only work with even numbers -- e.g. the cascade (odd) and the fountain (even), of which the cascade is easier. There are also more complicated patterns, such as the Mills mess and Rubinstein's Revenge, that work only with three balls and aren't easily extended.

For a more scientific take, there's a SciAm article here. There's also, apparently, a seminal paper by Claude Shannon that appears in his collected works, but I can't find a copy online.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Less is Moor

I was rereading that old Wordsworth poem "Resolution and Independence," a masterpiece of solipsism in which Wordsworth keeps asking a leech-gatherer -- his noble savage -- the same question, "What occupation do you there pursue? This is a lonesome place for one like you," etc., and not listening to the answer. (Lewis Carroll did a wonderful parody in Looking-Glass, which I mildly prefer to the original.) The poem is not a particular favorite of mine, though the Victorians loved it (as they loved anything maudlin and uplifting, and the poem is objectively a pretty good one) -- but this caught my attention:

Upon the margin of that moorish flood
Motionless as a cloud the old Man stood,
That heareth not the loud winds when they call
And moveth all together, if it move at all.

This is mostly typical Wordsworth: the simplicity and the sneakily bizarre metaphor (how very cloudlike of the old man not to break up into fragments when he tries to walk). And the "moorish flood" is described a few stanzas earlier as

Beside a pool bare to the eye of heaven
I saw a Man before me unawares:

What's interesting about this is the contrast between these two descriptions. The poem is set on a desolate moor; the beauties of this landscape, as of Wordsworth's verse when it comes off, are due to limpidity rather than gorgeousness. Yet moorish clearly is tainted by Moorish and its associations with Oriental exoticism and richness; a flood, though it retained its old meaning of generic body of water, is also a bit much for a pond, and is in fact used in its modern sense in l. 2 of the poem. (OED gives an earlier version of this line as "Beside the little pond or moorish flood," which is atrocious but shows that Wordsworth knew he was talking about a pond.) There is also an archaic adj., moorish, which means soggy and is even further from the point. Maybe Wordsworth was being sloppy (which is possible), and maybe he was deliberately using the half-buried pun (which would be very unlike him), but it seems likelier, given the floods and clouds and such, that he was attempting half-assedly to bring sublimity into the poem.

The business with Moors and moors is somewhat interesting though, and Moore could be done with it if one felt inclined. Paul Muldoon had this theory that Ted Hughes called his first, moorish, book Moortown to repudiate Marianne Moore and her ornate, Moorish, poems. Muldoon was mocked for this at the time: it's doubtful that Hughes had even read Moore. Maybe there's something to be said for this line of inquiry, though. Rather than foxes and hedgehogs or Alices and Mabels, could we have Moorish and moorish poets?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Attacking Chemistry Like a Shark

Freeman Dyson's NYRB review of The Age of Wonder loses interest in the book about halfway through, and meanders into some rather embarrassing attempts to find parallels between the modern world and the late-18th century consensus of wonder. (I haven't read the book itself, but Dyson fails even to mention that the central event of the so-called "Age of Wonder," at least as far as poets were concerned, was the French Revolution. It is not clear whether this is due to his narrowness of perspective or the author's.) Here's Dyson the master analogist:
Each achievement of our modern pioneers resonates with echoes from the past. Venter sailed around the world on his yacht collecting genomes of microbes from the ocean and sequencing them wholesale, like Banks who sailed around the world collecting plants. Mullis invented the polymerase chain reaction, which allows biologists to multiply a single molecule of DNA into a bucketful of identical molecules within a few hours, and after that spent most of his time surfing the beaches of California, like Davy who invented the miners' lamp and after that spent much of his time fly-fishing along the rivers of Scotland.

However, the first half of the review has some delightful bits, including:
  1. "I have felt a more high degree of pleasure from breathing nitrous oxide than I ever felt from any cause whatever—a thrilling all over me most exquisitely pleasurable, I said to myself I was born to benefit the world by my great talents." (Humphry Davy)
  2. Coleridge invited him [Davy] to move north and establish a chemical laboratory in the Lake District where Coleridge and Wordsworth lived. Coleridge wrote to him, "I shall attack Chemistry like a Shark."

And the book seems worth reading, even though, as I said, Dyson's review is narrow and tendentious, and some of that might have come from the book.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Stoat's Vocab

(x-posted from STOATUSblog)

Schott sez:

Co-vocabularists anxious to differentiate between weasels and stoats should not be confused: they are weasily recognizable being so stotally different.

Always glad to see stoats in the news but as visceral appeal goes I think "stotally" is awfully drab compared with "stoatally." Why the difference? I would tentatively attribute it to that old remark of Fowler's:

Another suffix that is not a living one, but is sometimes treated as if it was, is al; & it will serve to illustrate a special point. Among recent regrettable formations are coastal, creedal... Now, if al were to be regarded as a living suffix, it would be legitimate to say that coast and creed are now English words, & could have the suffix attached straight to them; but if it is tried with analogous English words, the resulting adjectives shoral, hillal, beliefal, and trustal show that it is not so [...] the other requirement -- that if both elements are Latin, they should be properly put together; coastalis and creedalis are disqualified at sight for the Latin because of the -oa- and -ee-; costal & credal would have been free from that objection at least.

We have been desensitized to coastal, of course, but I would say that creedal still seems half-bred and feral to me, and so, of course, does stoatal, which makes it peculiarly apt, being stoatlike.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Taking the Wand from Gawande

While I liked Atul Gawande's healthcare article in the NY'er, I think his Times op-ed today is an airy and fatuous summary. The takeaway message of the NY'er article, to my mind, was that deep cultural shit -- matters that had to do with initial conditions -- had a great deal to do with whether healthcare ended up being cheap or expensive in a given region. The upshot of the article is that if doctors would behave decently, and not act on the perverse incentives the system offers them, everything would work fine. (In all fairness, Gawande also talks about local community meetings -- sort of a healthcare version of a PTA -- keeping the doctors in line. But he can't be serious about that.) The problem is that he just sort of waves his magic wand instead of suggesting a concrete institutional framework to keep the doctors in line.

To my mind the important finding of Gawande's work is that there is in fact a lot of waste in the system: that the rising cost of healthcare includes the substantial cost of medical profiteering. The problem is that solutions like this -- "a unified local system focused on quality of care" -- are terribly unsustainable, as Gawande acknowledges at the end of the NY'er piece. Why would anyone care about giving patients just the right amount of care if they could make a ton of money by ordering unnecessary procedures instead? (Competition is apparently empirically not an answer; if it were, then one would have better healthcare in towns that weren't dominated by large monopolies like the Mayo Clinic, as people can't as a rule choose to go to the ER in the next town. Per Gawande this is not the case.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Schott noise redux

I don't really want to remember all my entries, but I thought they picked one of the weaker ones.

Invisible Manhole
The Canterbury Fails
Rabbit Restructured
Squeak, Memory
Finnegans Asleep
The Poodle of the Baskervilles
The Lord of the Ringtones
Meth in Venice
The Old Man and the Puddle
The Raccoon is a Harsh Mistress
The Recount of Monte Cristo
Gristly is the Night
The Test Prep of Henry Adams
Mugshots in Courage
On the Interpretation of Screams

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Summer political philosophy update

A long, disconnected, and incomplete rant:

There are two different sorts of political disagreement among non-idiots -- disagreements about the likely consequences of policies, and disagreements about values. In practice, people tend to conflate these, esp. where there isn't an academic consensus, and adopt narratives that suggest that policies they disagree with would be disastrous regardless of values. This is usually, though not always, dishonest; few problems can be solved by dominance reasoning.

I'd describe myself as a left-wing individualist; I'm antagonistic in the abstract to most forms of communitarianism, unions, small-business-worship, homeschooling, extended families, nationalism, ethnic pride, segregation, etc. (And yes, from my perspective left-wing and right-wing communitarianism are similar phenomena.) On the other hand, I believe a fair bit of the negative communitarian case against modernity and modern liberalism: I'm not convinced that progress makes people happier; I agree with Naomi Klein (whom on the whole I dislike) that corporate interests corrupt politics, and that either politics must be insulated from big business or big business must somehow be shrunk (I'd prefer the former); I buy the conservative belief that diversity and urbanization spoils the sense of community and the real benefits that come with it (though I'd say, if so then fuck the sense of community). Etc.

I'm unsympathetic toward libertarianism largely because I don't believe libertarian arguments. The value system, on the whole, I'm not that antagonistic towards. I'm in favor of wide personal freedoms, a moderately strong system of property rights -- that is, I would like property rights to be strong enough that they are predictable, which is a pretty powerful constraint -- and flexible employment. (On the other hand, flexible employment includes people with preexisting conditions; the current system, where some people simply can't afford to lose their jobs, strikes me as intensely wrong. Similarly, I think that people in general ought to have the right to free speech de facto and not just de jure; one shouldn't be liable to starve for protesting.) Lateral mobility seems at least as important as upward mobility, esp. assuming long lives and rapid technological change; I'm in favor of a reasonably strong safety net that allows people to change jobs in mid-career. And I just don't think any of this is possible without big government and high taxes. I am quite strongly against outsourcing the safety net to families, charities, etc. because they're bound to be discriminatory in ways I disapprove of.

I tend to distinguish between liberties that I consider valuable in themselves, e.g. the right to say almost anything you like with a reasonable shot at finding an audience, the right to a fair trial, the right to a decent education, etc., and those that are administratively useful, such as most property rights, the right to leave your money to your kids when you die, the right to read Joyce to your five-year-olds, etc. I don't really have a problem with curbing the second kind of liberty if it serves any purpose and can be done predictably and systematically. (I'm a big fan of the rule of law: retroactive punishment, arbitrary seizure, etc. seem deeply wrong in themselves.) I approve of stuff like McCain-Feingold. Similarly, I don't have a problem with laws mandating that private establishments can't expel people for certain kinds of free speech, even if that seems somewhat anti-property rights.

I disagree with the linear-programming approach towards social policy, the notion that policies are best thought of as constrained optimization problems. The way I see it it's only necessary for things to work well enough, or even not terribly, while satisfying as many constraints and desiderata as one wants to impose. Arguments that some policy change would make some system less efficient tend not to move me; the relevant question is whether they would make the system intolerably less efficient. I have a similar sort of attitude toward meritocratic objections to affirmative action (though for unrelated reasons I'm ambivalent about AA itself). If the govt forces companies to employ grossly unqualified people, or makes it impossible for e.g. whites/Asians to find reasonable employment or colleges, then that's obviously a bad thing; if not, I don't much care in principle if "The Best" people don't get the best jobs. The exception to this is some areas in which there's social utility to having a rat race because it makes people work extremely long hours, which leads to socially beneficial outcomes (e.g. research/some engineering jobs); in such cases, meritocracy provides the only sensible form of organization.

In general, I don't find meritocracy (or its flip side, equality of opportunity) a useful concept. Opportunities are never going to be equal -- even if the state ran education, some kids would get the best nannies -- and in any case it's not obvious that people with better genes deserve better outcomes. (The only argument for meritocracy I believe in has to do with encouraging hard work.) Some talent will inevitably be wasted; what matters from the point of view of progress is that meaningful opportunities should exist for people with exceptional abilities, and this condition is weaker and more enforceable than equality of opportunity.

I don't think, however, that the current American educational and penal systems -- by and large -- offer meaningful opportunities even to talented poor kids in inner cities or Appalachia (never mind the third world etc.); the existence of an underclass of this kind seems to me a natural consequence of massive inequality, and also of the fact that there is, as of now, a de facto safety net for middle-class whites. If middle-class people were likelier to be locked up for trivial offences and suffered the same sorts of consequences as the urban poor habitually suffer -- if enough suburban stoners ended up with AIDS -- we might have a humane prison system. Similarly with busing and inner-city schools. The obstacle here is that it's easier for the middle class to move out, insulate itself, and use its advantage in political clout to prevent busing; and the very poor end up trapped in ghettoes. I don't see how it's possible to address this sort of thing structurally without ensuring a more even distribution of wealth -- though that is unlikely to be a sufficient condition.

One of the aspects of the communitarian critique that I find particularly interesting is the notion of the decline in the dignity of work -- in pre-industrial societies, a higher proportion of jobs required skill or strength; the fashioning of worthwhile objects gave a meaning to one's life, outside of consumption, that it is substantially harder to get out of a job at McDonald's. (As Gregory Clark points out, it seems likely that the extent of structural unemployment -- the fraction of the populace that hasn't got the skills or the ability to do any kind of job that there is the demand for -- will rise to a reasonable fraction of the populace.) This is a natural result of globalization -- there is a market for only the best books, art, and (to some extent) science; both a small community and a large one naturally sustain roughly the same number of writers, and therefore a world splintered into disconnected islands would allow for a much greater fraction of the populace to take some pleasure in their skill. What the reader gains from having access to the best stuff being done is, however, enormous [though what does that mean? I don't think it makes people objectively happier], and in the end I do believe in progress.

I started writing this down because I figured it would help me organize my thoughts; apparently it hasn't. I'll skip the bit about aesthetics for now.

Friday, August 7, 2009

"The Weathery Yawl"

from Farewell to Florida
Wallace Stevens


I hated the weathery yawl from which the pools
Disclosed the sea floor and the wilderness
Of waving weeds. I hated the vivid blooms
Curled over the shadowless hut, the rust and bones,
The trees likes bones and the leaves half sand, half sun.
To stand here on the deck in the dark and say
Farewell and to know that that land is forever gone
And that she will not follow in any word
Or look, nor ever again in thought, except
That I loved her once ... Farewell. Go on, high ship.


My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime
Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.
The men are moving as the water moves,
This darkened water cloven by sullen swells
Against your sides, then shoving and slithering,
The darkness shattered, turbulent with foam.
To be free again, to return to the violent mind
That is their mind, these men, and that will bind
Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me
To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dept of Prewritten Op-eds

I don't understand how Gates's actions in being an asshole and Crowley's in arresting him for it can reasonably be considered morally equivalent, and how Obama can be said to have erred in calling the arrest stupid. Crowley was, after all, an officer on duty, with enormous discretionary powers; he arrested Gates for public disorderly conduct, because Gates yelled at him before a public that consisted mostly of other cops (I find it quite plausible that he lured him out of the house precisely so that he could arrest him, according to the common practice, but never mind that for now); and the charges were immediately dropped at the station. These are clearly not all the facts of the case: a complete account of the facts would include the fact that Lucia Whalen, who is olive-skinned, called the cops because a mysterious "older woman" (age? sex? location?) asked her to, and would require a resolution of (1) whether Gates told Crowley he'd speak to his mama outside, and (2) whether Whalen -- or the older woman -- told Crowley upon his arrival that Gates was black. We still don't know all the facts, but we know more than we used to. And obviously, this "new shit coming to light" has utterly changed the (olive-skinned? btw, why not cardboard-skinned? It seems closer to reality) complexion of the case.

Or not. Still, I find the editorializing about this extremely irritating. There's a weak case, pace Bob Herbert, that Crowley arrested Gates because he was black; that Gates was being an asshole seems closer to the point. Sally Quinn, an obnoxious "centrist" who does the WaPo religion blog, says the "dirty truth" about Gates is that he's, um, not a very nice guy; so what? Frank Rich exasperatingly declares that the Gates arrest, just like the Obama election, the Sotomayor nomination, and the Kerchief implication, shows that whites will soon be a minority in America and are unhappy about the proliferation of black lesbian mayors. Thomas Frank says -- correctly -- that Gatesgate is a distraction from the health care debate, and -- absurdly -- that the Democrats should distance themselves from elites because "liberal patricians are forever astonished to discover that the professions and institutions and attitudes that they revere are seen by others as arrogance and affectation." It's the-matter-with-Kansas over again: why can't we bury our (enormous) differences on issues that are not healthcare and pretend to be like ignorant racist rubes so that we can get healthcare, etc. But it's precisely this attitude that has led the Democrats to get increasingly tough on crime in order to appeal to "working-class whites," and has produced a situation in which no one but newspaper columnists and Jim Webb dare to talk about prisoners' rights. And it isn't like we've got much to show for it.

Surprisingly, though, MoDo wrote a pretty good column about Gatesgate.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Credulous Clive and the Gang of Six

Clive Crook is basically an honest and independent-minded libertarian, but he occasionally runs off the rails, usually in the last paragraph of an article. E.g. when he declared last year that Sarah Palin stood for "all those other laughable redneck notions that made the United States what it is." Or in today's FT piece:
If health reform does go down to defeat, it will not be because of Republican opposition, but because of dissenting conservative Democrats and disaffected moderates in the country at large. In disappointing these people, Mr Obama has badly miscalculated.

It strikes me as terribly misguided to take the centrists seriously. As everyone keeps pointing out (e.g.), centrist Democrats have spent most of their energy gutting such provisions -- the public option, employer mandates, etc. -- as would control costs, while whining about how health care reform costs too much. I don't know if there's any good-faith interpretation of their concerns and suggestions other than that they're intellectually incoherent; even if there is, it's hard to see what this has to do with "disaffected moderates in the country at large." As Yglesias points out here, the Gang of Six collectively represents under 3% of the population of the US, with a heavy bias toward rural areas; disaffected (or other) moderates mostly live in or near cities. Besides, one supposes that the median voter depends less on special interests than rural Democratic senators representing Republican states.

I don't know how someone who's been following politics reasonably closely could think of the Senate's recent "compromises" as more than an inane and mechanical exercise in taking any policy proposal and hollowing out the parts that its advocates consider important. (Douthat had a good post on this in Feb.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Schott noise

There are some fairly amusing entries in Schott's weekend competition (modernized proverbs); my favorite of the lot is definitely
"All rows lead to Rahm." (John Mihalec)

(which I think would have been still better as "roads.")

Here's a compleat list (I think) of my entries, most of which are buried along with the other 900:

Discretion is the better part of Valerie Jarrett.
Don't clone your chickens before they've hatched.
History retweets itself.
Make love not warts.
An Englishman's home is his collateral.
Old soldiers never die; they just turn into zombies.
A watched POTUS frequently boils.
All firefighters must pass.
Too many books spoil the Roth.

Summer reading update

Some stuff I've been reading:

Chekhov's short novels. trans. Pevear/Volokhonsky.
This book collects five of Chekhov's stories that are long enough to be novellas. I like Chekhov's work a lot -- he's the only sensible Russian -- and these novellas are more engaging than most of his short stories because you can assemble a richer cast of characters in a hundred pages than in ten. The Duel, in which an effete former aristocrat and his mistress lead amusingly miserable lives in provincial Russia until he ends up fighting a duel with an explorer who wants to kill him on eugenic grounds, and Three Years, in which an unattractive and uninteresting but rich man ends up marrying a country girl who accepts him to get away from the country, are particularly good. The translation is iffy, and has some peculiar bits of tone-deafness, as e.g. when people's eyes "grow unctuous" when they look into the distance.

Arthur and George. Julian Barnes
Arthur is Conan Doyle; George is the half-Indian son of a country pastor who ends up getting arrested for allegedly mutilating horses and sending his dad batty anonymous letters signed "God Satan." The first half of the novel follows Arthur's life and George's in parallel until Arthur is famous and George is discharged from prison; after that, Doyle takes up George's case and, after making a sufficiently vigorous fuss in public, gets George exonerated. The characterization is solid (Doyle is particularly good as a somewhat goofy amateur), and the writing's always good and occasionally very good. Lots of entertaining turn-of-the-century social history as well, esp. about seances and such (Doyle apparently had mystical tendencies).

Orley Farm. Anthony Trollope
This is not one of Trollope's Barchester novels: it's a very long novel about a lawsuit that has to do with a forged will. The main plot isn't of great interest -- it's all quite predictable -- but some of the subplots and characters are very good. The good-hearted but somewhat buffoonish local aristocrat, the evangelical seller of worthless metal furniture, and the various kinds of lawyers are very sharply drawn; one gets a much more tangible impression of Victorian social life from Trollope than from, say, Dickens. That said, one needs to be tolerant of the preachy bits.

Middlemarch. George Eliot
Should've read this long ago, but the length always put me off. On the whole I really liked the novel; on the other hand, I'm not sure it had to be as long as it is. There are two main plots -- in the first, a girl looking for enlightenment marries an old scholar-clergyman and ends up miserable and in love with the clergyman's nephew; in the second, a doctor with newfangled ideas and a vague interest in medical research tries to set up a practice in a backward provincial town, and ends up heavily in debt and married to a woman with expensive habits. The trouble with the book is that the first plot, which is well-handled while it lasts, loses its interest around p. 200 when the pedantic old fart dies; after that, the heroine just kind of hangs around as a dea ex machina for the rest of the book. The second plot -- the deterioration and eventual disgrace of the doctor -- is fascinating and beautifully done; however, it alternates with a fair amount of less interesting material, like the courtship between a feckless and tedious young man and his plain, penniless, and tedious childhood sweetheart. Eliot's more of a psychological novelist than e.g. Dickens, but Middlemarch is very good on the politics of the Reform Bill etc. And the heroine's practical but intellectually limited sister is a minor triumph.

The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Grahame
Had to read this, seeing as stoats are involved. There are some very pretty passages on the river and the seasons and such, but by and large Grahame's prose is a little too lush. Also, the book suffers from a serious lack of ermine. That said it does get at a lot of "universal" themes, like the meaning of home and the nature of friendship, in a pleasantly oblique way. And there are amusing bits, like the episode with the seafaring rat. I'd probably have liked this book a lot better as a kid.

The Emigrants. W.G. Sebald
If you're new to Sebald, The Emigrants isn't the ideal place to start; I'd suggest Austerlitz, which is at least formally less peculiar, being a novel. The Emigrants consists of four stories about people whose lives were bent out of shape permanently -- and in two of the cases somewhat indirectly -- by the Holocaust. As usual with Sebald there's tons of good stuff -- I'm particularly fond of the shock-therapy patient in the asylum in Ithaca, and the painter in decaying Manchester who was obsessed with dust. I started this book a long time before I got around to finishing it.

A Tale of a Tub. Jonathan Swift
Johnson thought this was greatly superior to the rest of Swift, and I tend to agree; it's bracingly insane and the writing's a lot more vigorous -- a lot closer to good 17th cent. prose -- than in e.g. Gulliver. The "tale" is a transparent allegory about the theological differences between the Catholic church, the Dissenting (Puritan) churches, and the C. of E.; most of the fun is, however, in the digressions and footnotes. A "tub" is a Puritan's pulpit.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Gates, Obama, and Basic Inequalities

I shouldn't have been surprised that a lot of people took Obama's remarks about Gatesgate as a slur on the Cambridge cops in general and -- naturally -- on white people in general; people are, after all, hypersensitive about being called racists. That Obama was obviously right is neither here nor there.

Much of the outrage (Althouse, e.g.) supposedly has to do with Obama's admitting that "he didn't know all the facts of the case" and -- allegedly therefore -- that he had no right to say anything about it. This is illogical. Given a number x that's less than six, I know that x is less than ten regardless of what x actually is. Similarly, in Gatesgate, one can reasonably assume that the police report puts things in about as pro-cop a light as possible. Well, the police report doesn't offer a remotely valid justification for the cop's telling Gates to step outside so that he could arrest him for being "tumultuous." (If Gates had a sense of humor about this, he might appreciate the wonderfully Yeatsian adjective.) Therefore, one can sensibly assume that, whatever turns out to have happened, it isn't going to justify what the cop did.

It's hard to escape the sense that a certain white demographic (even in Boston!) is very fond of playing the victim.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Space Age and other follies

Tom Wolfe op-eds about NASA:

Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that
hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable ... how far-seeing ... but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?

My feelings about this trend are mixed. On the one hand, manned space flight is silly and NASA is better off dead, except for spin-offs like the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station where people can do experiments of nonzero scientific value. Many such experiments have nothing to do with astronomy -- e.g. it's desirable to do precision experiments on the superfluid transition in liquid helium in the absence of gravity to avoid pressure gradients between the top and bottom of the bucket. The superfluid transition is important because it's a straightforward, realizable sort of phase transition, and phase transitions are a central idea in physics. (Particle physics and astrophysics are full of hypothetical phase transitions, like the one in the early universe when the electroweak force split up into the electromagnetic and weak forces, which are hard to study directly.)

On the other hand, as we've found with the Large Hadron Collider etc., NASA is still a more attractive candidate for pork-barrel spending than physics. The increasing unpopularity of space flight has gone along with the increasing unpopularity of fundamental research; all of this has ultimately to do with the fading memory of the mushroom cloud, which was a great PR stunt for physicists, and the fact that there are no longer the Soviets to compete with. (The Chinese won't do because they're already a large part of the American scientific establishment.) It's not clear what the outlook for useless but intellectually important work is, without some kind of nationalistic motive driving it.

I blogged last year that it seemed outrageous to me that NASA's budget was comparable to the LHC's. I still believe it's outrageous, but maybe the best-case scenario for physicists is to ride the coattails of some vast, dumb militaristic craze. The alternative is to pretend that physics is going to help cure global warming, or something like that, but I doubt that the war on climate change will ever lead to the recklessness with regard to cost-benefit analysis that is perhaps necessary for physics to be as well supported as it used to be.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

New blog of zero general interest

I should note that I've started a physics blog that's essentially a repository of arxiv and Physical Review links. There's also some rather solipsistic commentary that you may or may not find useful.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Douthat finds Pope channeling Douthat

In his new column, "The Audacity of the Pope" (nice-ish title; to be followed, no doubt, by the trilogy Dreams from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost), Douthat interprets the new Papal encyclical as suggesting a fusion (a cross, perhaps?) between social conservatism and big government that sounds a lot like Douthat's agenda:
Why should being pro-environment preclude being pro-life? Why can’t Republicans worry about economic inequality, and Democrats consider devolving more power to localities and states? Does opposing the Iraq war mean that you have to endorse an anything-goes approach to bioethics? Does supporting free trade require supporting the death penalty?

These questions, and many others like them, are the kind that a healthy political system would allow voters and politicians to explore.
In other words, the Pope is a bit of a compassionate conservative.

To repeat an old, obvious, point, the central problem for compassionate conservatism is that in order to win it's got to appeal to minorities; however, minorities and white evangelicals don't like each other very much, and it's hard to find a politician that appeals to both groups. Bush tried to build a coalition that the Pope would presumably have approved of, but it collapsed disastrously with that immigration bill. This issue has remained vexed because of the increasing importance of the southwest, where social conservatives are rabidly anti-immigrant. (It should not be surprising, btw, that people who talk about "local communities" are usually racists.)

The current conservative coalition is sustained by a quid pro quo between social conservatives who don't care much about economics, and corporate interests that don't care much about social issues. (I guess there's also a primarily racist-nationalist wing, mostly white, male, and disgruntled.) All three of these groups are politically toxic, even -- to some extent -- to one another, which is why the Republicans are in deep political trouble. But it seems like even so they fit better together than they do with, e.g., minorities or union members.

Friday, July 10, 2009

John Hodgen: For the man with the erection lasting more than four hours

from Poetry, Jul/Aug 09

For the man with the erection lasting more than four hours
by John Hodgen

He’s supposed to call his doctor, but for now he’s the May King with his own maypole.
He’s hallelujah. He’s glory hole. The world has more women than he can shake a stick
at. The world is his brickbat, no conscience to prick at, all of us Germans he can ich
liebe dich at. He’s Dick and Jane. He’s Citizen Kane. He’s Bob Dole.
He’s Peter the Great. He’s a tsar. He’s a clown car with an extra car.
Funiculì, Funiculà. He’s an organ donor. He works pro boner. He’s folderol.
He’s fiddlesticks. He’s the light left on at Motel 6. He’s free-for-alls.
He’s Viagra Falls. He’s bangers and mash. He’s balderdash. He’s a wanker.
He’s got his own anchor. He’s whack-a-doodle. King Canoodle. He’s a pirate, Long John
Silver, walking his own plank. He has science to thank. He’s in like Flynn. He’s Gunga Din,
holding his breath, cock of the walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He’s Icarus,
hickory dickerous, the mouse run up the clock. He’s shock and awe. He’s Arkansas.
He’s the package, the deal, the Good Housekeeping Seal. He’s Johnson & Johnson.
He’s a god now, the talk of the town. He’s got no place to go but down

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Anagrams for Kristof

Nicholas D. Kristof, despite being a halfwitted columnist, has a name that anagrams well:

Cad Froths Oilskin
Factoid Slosh Rink
Chordal Fists Oink
Acid Florists Honk
Cordial Fish Knots
Cordial Fists Honk
Sardonic Folk Shit
A Codfish Link Rots
A Ditch Roofs Links
A Chinks Drool Fist
A Dick Lifts Honors
A Dick Lofts Rhinos
A Sickish Old Front
A Frocks Hind Toils
A Frock Stolid Shin
A Frocks Hid Tonsil
A Chinks Odor Flits
A Chinks Stolid Fro
A Chink Sod Florist