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.