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

Monday, July 6, 2009

Gerbil Goods

As Todd Purdum said in that Vanity Fair piece, Sarah Palin's political appeal is rather strongly linked to her "obvious fertility." Politicians like that come with an intrinsic sell-by date, beyond which -- unless they've managed to get themselves elected to high office -- they have, for all practical purposes, expired. I would put Palin's sell-by date at around 2014, when she'll turn 50, though with some care she could probably extend it as far as 2016.

However, Fred Barnes's notion that she can "win Alaska's lone House seat in 2012 and oust Democratic senator Nick Begich [sic] in 2014. A term in the House and another in the Senate--nothing would do more to groom her for the White House than this and transform her into the best Republican candidate for the presidency in, say, 2020, when she'd be 56," is absurd. Why would anyone be interested in her when she's 56?

Meanwhile, Douthat -- who was, infamously, one of the first to back her for veep last May -- has a column about how Sarah Palin was roughed up by the media. The column is rather silly on the merits, with a moment of the Douthatic sublime:

In a recent Pew poll, 44 percent of Americans regarded Palin unfavorably. But slightly more had a favorable impression of her. That number included 46 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Americans without a college education.

That last statistic is a crucial one. Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology.

If you're going to misrepresent statistics to support your pet themes, you should at least put some effort into massaging them so that they seem to say what you want them to.