Sunday, January 31, 2010

So thaoghaire!

Quoghoth Flann O'Brien (NB "strobh" is "strove" and "Dun Laoghaire" is "Dunleary" and everything else is determined by the rhyghymes):
Said a Sassenach back in Dun Laoghaire
"I pay homage to nationalist thaoghaire,
But wherever I drobh
I found signposts that strobh
To make touring in Ireland so draoghaire."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Link roundup

Back in 08 I used to blog links I thought were cool. Then I started using Google Reader; sharing was less work than blogging but the catch is that everyone is a compulsive oversharer (I'd put myself somewhere between Emily Gould and Grobstein) so shared items tend to be more ephemeral than I'd like. I think I'm going to periodically blog a link roundup. Here's the first. (The others will, I imagine, be a lot shorter.)

[H/t as appropriate to Grobstein, Alan, and Liz Chiang.]
  1. Rivers used to run straight before plants came along (SciAm)
  2. What people thought about Reagan in 1982 (Bernstein)
  3. Hexagonal London (Strangemaps)
  4. They voted for healthcare before they voted against it (Yglesias)
  5. Robert Solow on the financial crisis (TNR)
  6. pourquoi michael jackson est blanc (Andrew Gelman)
  7. "Orthogonal, ooh" (Volokh)
  8. The Crisis of Juvenile Prison Rape (NYRB)
  9. Auden martini (PoetryFoundation)
  10. "The internet is badgering everybody" (Brendan Nyhan)
  11. Quotes with and without quotes (Language Log)
  12. The Samuel Beckett bridge (Crooked Timber)
  13. "Eating an orange / while making love / makes for bizarre enj- / oyment thereof." (Tom Lehrer via Language Log)
  14. Toy drives checking immigration status of children (Yglesias)
  15. Can you guess what these maps show? (Flowing Data)
  16. Power laws in chess (Physics)
  17. Syllepsis gone wild (Language Log)
  18. Frozen Horse, Embuggerance, etc. (Language Log)
  19. 32 meters of Mao (Neatorama)
  20. NYC population by borough (Yglesias)
  21. X and Y: the one-track mind of Ivy Compton-Burnett (Light reading)
  22. "America's secular saboteurs" (WaPo, On Faith [for the record this link is just amusingly abhorrent])
  23. Who benefits from equality? (David Runciman, LRB)
  24. Kay Ryan: The paw of a cat (New Yorker)
  25. The Powers of Dr Johnson (Andrew O'Hagan, NYRB)
  26. Why strip malls don't have empty storefronts (Yglesias)
  27. The metamorphosis of Charlie Brown (Book Bench)
  28. Kay Ryan: Fool's Errands (New Yorker)
  29. 20 insults from P.G. Wodehouse (Cosmic Variance)
  30. Sophomore optics fail (Cosmic Variance)
  31. Geoff Nunberg channels Alexander Pope to mock Strunk (Language Log)
  32. Evolution and the Second Law (Cosmic Variance)

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Everything reminds Judis of the white working class"

John Judis of the New Republic is a hack. Perhaps as a consequence, he is a respected and influential pundit; there's something about specious, easily refutable narratives that appeals to the collective unconscious of the pundit class. Judis's general shtick is to interpret all of national politics in terms of the "white working class," and his general approach is to vulgarize the sociology (making working-class whites out to be more racist and homogeneous than they are) and misrepresent the data. Jay Cost dismantled his "realignment" theory in 2007. I tried to test his theory about racism and the 2008 election here; it doesn't seem that he looked very hard at the data.

You might think it's a step forward for him to actually plot a graph, as he does in this (drearily typical) new piece:

(If the axes are illegible, the red graph is Obama's disapproval rating and the blue graph is the unemployment rate over time.) The analysis, however, is beneath rebuttal:
What I found in Obama’s case is that at the beginning of last fall, when Washington began debating his health care plan in earnest, his level of disapproval began to exceed the rise in the unemployment rate. [Having "established" this Judis goes on to blather about white working class anger re the Cadillac tax.]
Incidentally I suspect that he's using made-up data for unemployment Nov-Jan. Surely the unemployment rate hasn't stayed exactly the same to two significant figures.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Repeating recent history

I can't find the link but the sharpest point I've heard about MA and healthcare reform is that if the House Democrats give up, they will nevertheless be attacked in November as having been "for it before they were against it." Of course, it is unlikely to be the determining factor in the midterms -- if the economy is doing moderately well, the Democrats will avoid getting clubbed, etc. -- but it seems clear that (1) the Dems cannot salvage political capital regardless of what they do so they might as well pass the damn bill, (2) if Obama really takes the bill back to the Senate and spends another year on healthcare reform, he will look increasingly out-of-touch. Very few people care about healthcare reform; the best thing to do is to ram the Senate bill as-is through the House, and if that can't be done then to give up and pick other fights. (And please NOT cap-and-trade.)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Chewing (out) the fat

I've been making bits of this argument for years and maybe I should put it together. Here goes:

1. It is rational to trade off longevity for other kinds of benefits. Actually, it is not only rational, but commonly done. As Gary Becker says, most deaths are suicides: if one's overriding objective in life were to live as long as possible, one would live quite differently from the way people actually do.

2. Different people will presumably want to make their longevity-happiness tradeoff in different ways; there are no objectively right or wrong ways to do this; in the absence of externalities and other compelling reasons, the state should let them make such tradeoffs for themselves.

3. In a society with universal healthcare (e.g., Britain) it is sometimes claimed that fat people are a burden on the healthcare system. This isn't actually true. Fat people cost more per year of life, but less overall. (e.g. This study shows that the lifetime medical expenses of the obese/smokers are less than those of "fit" people.) Remember, the life expectancy even for obese people is somewhat higher than the retirement age. Therefore, healthy people generally spend their additional years of life as parasites rather than as generators of wealth. [In a society like the US the situation is unjust to the fat. Obese people, smokers, and others who are less likely to live past 65 are subsidizing the medical expenses of those who live past 65. There seems to be no compelling economic reason to provide this kind of incentive for living past 65.]

4. Life expectancy is not a sound measure of welfare any more than GDP per head. As Krugman argues here, the French put up with earning less because they get to take longer vacations. Similarly, obese alcoholics might be fine with heart attacks because they get to drink bacon martinis while they are alive. These are both, in principle, rational tradeoffs, though in both cases you can imagine conditions (acquiring expensive new obligations, being on your deathbed) where people regret their rationally made choices.

5. Exceptions should, I suppose, be made for the case of serious physical addiction, in which the addict seriously wants to change his lifestyle but can't. For long-time smokers I imagine this is a substantial fraction of the relevant demographic, but for drinkers, stoners, compulsive eaters, and non-exercisers it's a relatively small segment. e.g. there's a large grey area between drinking enough to increase your chances of liver cancer and drinking enough to be unable to go without booze; this is presumably where most regular drinkers fall.

6. Unlike smoking or public drunkenness, obesity does not obviously hurt other people. (Except on airplanes. I don't really have a problem with charging people extra if they don't fit in their seats.)

7. Arguably being obese increases your chances of being unemployed and therefore on public assistance. (And maybe it increases your chances of being poor and hence a beneficiary of progressive tax credits and/or welfare policies.) I'm pretty sure, however, that the causation goes the other way, and that whatever residual effect there might be is largely explained by anti-fat discrimination. If one could establish that being fat or a smoker made you sufficiently unproductive per hour that you were on the whole a ward of the state in times of full employment I would probably change my mind on this entire issue.


So to sum up etc. (1) I don't see that society has a compelling reason to want people to make the health/pleasure tradeoff in a way that's maximally skewed toward health. (2) One could argue that by feeding kids healthy food when they're young you avoid the tradeoff altogether because they learn to enjoy the mashed yeast. I am deeply skeptical of this: in general, food can be arbitrarily healthy and arbitrarily good for you only to the extent that the ingredients are arbitrarily upscale. This is unworkable for a large number of people. (The usual ways of dealing with lousy ingredients, e.g. spicing the hell out of everything a la Indian food, come with health costs.)

I should note that the basic reason I care about this issue is that I think Megan McArdle's right that there's something very Victorian and moralistic about the (blue-state) public's attitude to fat. I find this sort of hardworking/lazy dichotomy extremely irritating esp. since the "upright" classes tend to be smug, rich, and liberal.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Are badgers "demure"?

John Clare thinks so. This poem describes the rather horrific old sport of badger-baiting. (It's not clear whether "badgering" refers to what people do to badgers or what badgers do to other animals.)

The Badger
John Clare

When midnight comes a host of dogs and men
Go out and track the badger to his den,
And put a sack within the hole and lie
Till the old grunting badger passes by.
He comes and hears - they let the strongest loose.
The old fox hears the noise and drops the goose.
The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry,
And the old hare half wounded buzzes by.
They get a forkéd stick to bear him down
And clap the dogs and take him to the town,
And bait him all the day with many dogs,
And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.
He runs along and bites at all he meets:
They shout and hollo down the noisy streets.

He turns about to face the loud uproar
And drives the rebels to their very door.
The frequent stone is hurled where'er they go;
When badgers fight, then everyone's a foe.
The dogs are clapped and urged to join the fray;
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for hours and beats them all.
The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray,
Lies down and licks his feet and turns away.
The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold
The badger grins and never leaves his hold.
He drives the crowd and follows at their heels
And bites them through - the drunkard swears and reels.

The frighted women take the boys away,
The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray.
He tries to reach the woods, an awkward race,
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase.
He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles, groans and dies.

The biosphere on a rotisserie

Michael Hoffman's review of Frederick Seidel quotes this poem, which makes me want to read Seidel:

from Evening Man
Frederick Seidel

To Ninety-second Street and Broadway I have come.
Outside the windows is New York.
I came here from St. Louis in a covered wagon overland
Behind the matchless prancing pair of Eliot and Ezra Pound.
And countless moist oases took me in along the way, and some
I still remember when I lift my knife and fork.
The Earth keeps turning, night and day, spit-roasting all the tanned
Tired icebergs and the polar bears, which makes white almost contraband.
The biosphere on a rotisserie emits a certain sound
That tells the stars that Earth was moaning pleasure while it drowned.
The amorous white icebergs flash their brown teeth, hissing.
They’re watching old porn videos of melting icebergs pissing.
The icebergs still in panty hose are lesbians and kissing.
The rotting ocean swallows the bombed airliner that’s missing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Counting Badgers

There was a Language Log post the other day about how some phrases seemed to return more Google hits when you searched for them with quotes than when you searched without quotes; this clearly oughtn't to happen because every phrase which contains "badger hair" contains the words "badger" and "hair." I would suppose Google is finding all the results but just not doing a very good job of estimating how many there are.

I tried the following variant on this: I googled strings of the form "badger badger ... badger" (i.e. arbitrarily long sequences of the word "badger" -- and I had quotes around the string to get rid of e.g. the Wikipedia page for badgers, which has a lot of nonsequential instances of "badger") and wanted to see if the hit count was monotonic with the length of the string -- which, again, it ought to be as any string of the form "badger badger badger" contains a string of the form "badger badger." I was amused to find out that this is not in fact the case. Something weird happens with the seventh "badger," the hit count goes up from about 10000 to about 85000 and I have no real sense of why.

(For instance I also tried this with the string "seal seal seal... seal," which was well-behaved.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dept of Voluminous Drivelers

(Wildly overpraised) poet and translator Richard Howard, blurbing the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright version of Proust:

Twice amended to bring it to documentary decorum and the kind of textual completion Proust himself could never achieve, the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation of the Search, buffed, rebuffed, lightened, tightened, and in the abstergent sense, brightened, constitutes a monument which is also a medium—the medium by which to gain access to the book, the books, even the apocrypha of modern scripture. A triumph of tone, of a single (and singular) vision, this ultimate revision of the primary version affords the surest sled over the ice fields as well as the most sinuous surfboard over the breakers of Proustian prose, an invaluable and inescapable text.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

"The Voluminous, Prosaic, and Drivelling Monk"

The fifteenth century was a low-water mark for English poetry, inter alia because of the accidentally pernicious influence of Chaucer. So in Chaucer's day words like make, lerne, etc. had the final e pronounced (as in modern German). So for instance a typical Chaucerian line like

Han felt that Love dorste yow disple[a]se

is actually an 11-syllable line in good iambic pentameter. However, even by the time of Chaucer's death the final e was falling out of use, and by the early 15th-cent it was gone altogether. Unfortunately, 15th-cent poets took it as axiomatic that (1) what Chaucer wrote was metrical, and (2) Chaucer pronounced words they way they themselves did. This led to an essentially complete cluelessness about meter and rhythm that affected all their work, which was, as it happens, not free of other faults. Eventually, English verse became metrical again in the 16th century, because people stopped imitating Chaucer and found other models in (e.g.) Italian where all you had to do was count syllables; the process of writing ten-syllable lines leads one fairly directly to iambic pentameter if one has a decent ear. Of course it took about 200 years longer to realize that Chaucer was metrical too if you pronounced the final e, but that his successors were not.

All of this is by way of introducing George Saintsbury's wonderful evisceration of John Lydgate, the most famous -- at his time -- of Chaucer's disciples, which I've excerpted below.


It is thus reasonable to fix his career as lasting from c. 1370 to c. 1450.
If this be so, his life was not short: and it is quite certain that such exercises of his art as we possess are very long.

Of Chaucerian vigour, Chaucerian pathos, Chaucerian vividness of description, Lydgate had no trace or tincture.

To these defects he added two faults[...]: The one is prosodic incompetence; the other is longwinded prolixity. [...] It is enough to say that, even in rime royal, his lines wander from seven to fourteen syllables, without the possibility of allowing monosyllabic or trisyllabic feet in any fashion that shall restore the rhythm; and that his couplets, as in The Story of Thebes itself, seem often to be unaware whether they are themselves octosyllabic or decasyllabic—four-footed or five-footed. [...]

The Temple of Glass, partly in heroics, partly in rime royal, is one of the heaviest of fifteenth century allegorical love-poems, in which two lovers complain to Venus and, having been answered by her, are finally united. It is extremely prosaic; but, by sheer editing, has been brought into a condition of at least more systematic prosody than most of Lydgate’s works. The Assembly of Gods is a still heavier allegory of vices and virtues presented under the names of divinities, major and minor, of the ancient pantheon, but brought round to an orthodox Christian conclusion. The piece is in rime royal of the loosest construction, so much so that its editor proposes a merely rhythmical scansion.[...]

Lydgate has not lacked defenders, who would be formidable if their locus standi were more certain. The fifteenth century adored him because he combined all its own worst faults, and the sixteenth seems to have accepted him because it had no apparatus for criticism. When, after a long eclipse, he was in two senses taken up by Gray, that poet seems chiefly to have known The Falls of Princes, in which, perhaps by dint of long practice, Lydgate’s metrical shortcomings are less noticeable than in some other places, and where the dignity and gravity of Boccaccio’s Latin has, to some extent, invigorated his style. Warton is curiously guarded in his opinions; and a favourable judgment of Coleridge may, possibly, be regarded as very insufficiently based. The apologies of editors (especially those who are content with systematised metre, however inharmonious) do not go very far. On the whole, though Ritson’s condemnation may have been expressed with characteristic extravagance and discourtesy towards the “voluminous, prosaic and drivelling monk,” nobody can dispute the voluminousness in the worst sense, and it is notable that even Lydgate’s defenders, in proportion as they know more of him, are apt to “confess and avoid” the “prosaic” and to slip occasionally into admissions rather near the “drivelline.” It is to be feared that some such result is inevitable. A little Lydgate, especially if the little be judiciously chosen, or happily allotted by chance, is a tolerable thing: though even this can hardly be very delectable to any well qualified judge of poetry. But, the longer and wider that acquaintance with him is extended, the more certain is dislike to make its appearance. The prosodic incompetence cannot be entirely due to copyists and printers; the enormous verbosity, the ignorance how to tell a story, the want of freshness, vigour, life, cannot be due to them at all. But what is most fatal of all is the flatness of diction noticed above—the dull, hackneyed, slovenly phraseology, only thrown up by his occasional aureate pedantry—which makes the common commoner and the uncommon uninteresting. Lydgate himself, or some imitator of him, has been credited with the phrase “gold dewdrops of speech” about Chaucer. He would hardly have thought of anything so good; but the phrase at least suggests an appropriate variant, “leaden splashes,” for his own.