Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Deep Thoughts from W.H. Auden

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Nothing but Rouble

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

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

Monday, December 29, 2008

Seeing Stairs

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

Inspector Clouseau's falling down a flight of stars

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

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

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

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

Groupthink Watch

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

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

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dept of Vile Cocktails

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

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

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

Can you decorate a Christmas tree with pork?

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

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

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Geoffrey Hill: Epiphany at Hurcott

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

Epiphany at Hurcott
by Geoffrey Hill

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

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

Mistah Pintah he dead

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

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

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Two Men One Stovepipe Hat

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

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

Then there's her annoying take on Dawkins:

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

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

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

Church Windows in Curved Space

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

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

Sunday, December 21, 2008

N. Dumbass Kristof

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

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Walter Scott of Walruses

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

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

Add your own in comments.

Addendum. The Hindenburg of handbooks.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"The soiled grey blanket of Irish rain"

from Gathering Mushrooms
Paul Muldoon

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Free "Will" and the Future Tense

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

On the other hand there is this:

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

Friday, December 5, 2008

On "Ought Implies Can"

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

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

Paul Muldoon: Turtles

[from his most recent book, Horse Latitudes.]

Paul Muldoon

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

Pork Barrels to Mars

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

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dept of Grand Unified Theories

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

Monday, December 1, 2008

"White Balancing"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Polarization and the GOP's Future

This old graph of Nate Silver's, via Yglesias, helps explain some of the GOP's current problems. It plots how liberal the Dems in a state are vs. how conservative the Republicans are. Legend: top-left = polarized states with conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats; top-right = states with moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats; bottom-left = states with moderate Democrats and conservative Republicans; bottom-right = null set. If we take 2.5 on the x-axis as separating moderate and conservative Republicans, most of the Democrats' pickups -- VA, CO, NM, etc. -- come from states in which the Republicans are unusually conservative. If this chart were redone with 2008 data, I'm pretty sure the main difference is that the flipped states would migrate vertically, in the direction of OR and WA: the flipping of polarized states was mostly due to the growth of urban counties, and Obama's ability to get huge margins out of cities and inner suburbs. (See the NYTimes countywise results: Obama's "map" looks the same as Kerry's except that the blue areas are a lot bluer.)

It follows that these shifts are likely to last as long as the GOP retains its current coalition; most of these voters are not really flippable. Roughly speaking, these states consist of (ex-)yuppies, minorities, and hard-right Republicans. (VA and NC have a smattering of old-time "Appalachian" Democrats.) As long as the culture war lasts, the GOP can't peel off yuppies; as long as immigration in the SW and racial issues in the South are on the table, the GOP is doomed with minorities. There's little the national GOP can do about the latter: as long as the states have several hard-right Congressional districts, local Congressmen are going to do things that are perceived as racist, thus discrediting the GOP. Also it's going to be hard for moderate national candidates to win primaries in these states.

Bush and Rove saw this coming and tried to peel off Hispanics; this led to the immigration bill, which caused a grassroots revolt on the right that doomed the GOP with Hispanics this year. If the Democrats do pass an immigration bill, as seems likely -- presumably with McCain and a couple of senators, and over the squawking heads of congressional Republicans -- Hispanics are likely to stay Democratic for a decade or so. As for blacks in VA and NC, they're inaccessible as long as Obama's on the scene; assuming DC, the Research Triangle, and Charlotte continue to grow, these states are going to be hard for Republicans in 2012.

With the upper midwest, CO/NM/NV, and VA off the table, the electoral college is hairy for Republicans even if they win Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida, and gain substantially with "soft" Democrats nationwide (say Obama screws up on the economy). This being the case, Ross Douthat's strategy of appealing to poorer social conservatives is not viable in the near term unless, somehow, it can be used to flip Michigan (iffy) or New Jersey (ich don't think so). The intended audience simply isn't living in the right places to make a difference. As far as I can see, the only way out is to appeal to relatively upscale suburban moderates. However, it is not clear that these have enough in common with the Republican base to form a useful coalition.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ocular Logjammin'

Thus S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, in a generally ill-advised article:
We would be wise to start with the biblical notion of first taking the log out of your own eye before worrying about the splinter in someone else’s.
It was the word "splinter" that caught my eye, but I'm amused by how far Sanford's maxim diverges in thrust from the usual versions. Of the many reasons to want a splinter out of your eye, improved vision is not the most important. Besides, "splinter" imbues "log" with enough vividness to make that metaphor seem rather silly. (cf. here.) The upshot is that when I read Sanford's version of the maxim, it sounds like "put on your life vests before you help other passengers with theirs." Which makes sense, I guess, given his political tendencies.

Hass: First Things at the Last Minute


First Things at the Last Minute
Robert Hass

The white water rush of some warbler’s song.
Last night, a few strewings of ransacked moonlight
On the sheets. You don’t know what slumped forward
In the nineteen-forties taxi or why they blamed you
Or what the altered landscape, willowy, riparian,
Had to do with the reasons why everyone
Should be giving things away, quickly,
Except for spendthrift sorrow that can’t bear
The need to be forgiven and keeps looking for something
To forgive. The motion of washing machines
Is called agitation. Object constancy is a term
Devised to indicate what a child requires
From days. Clean sheets are an example
Of something that, under many circumstances,
A person can control. The patterns moonlight makes
Are chancier, and dreams, well, dreams
Will have their way with you, their way
With you, will have their way.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Messing w/ googlism some years ago, I discovered that Google had a very succinct verdict on my AIM nickname:
gecian is
gecian is correct

Today, I went back, and entered -- for no good reason -- the word "spankle," which yielded:
spankle is miss hope
spankle is an antelope molester

Which seems like the seed of a song or a poem. Flarf flarf.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lori Drew Lives

Remember the Lori Drew case, in which a woman created a fake Myspace profile as a teenage boy to seduce and dump a neighborhood girl who then killed herself? (Said girl having previously dumped said woman's son.) A jury has acquitted Drew of the felony charges, but found her guilty of a misdemeanor, for "gaining unauthorized access to MySpace" (!), which will probably carry no jail time. The case elicited the worst side of everybody involved -- the woman was typical of the Awful Parent, and the New Yorker piece describes the dreadful behavior of all the other self-righteous parents in the area -- and confirmed all my prejudices about the innate nastiness of human nature. As such I shouldn't really have any preexisting sympathies; however, I'm pleased that the mob was thwarted.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Scoring LHC Predictions

This seems truly weird, and either tongue-in-cheek or dumb (see also here). [Summary: physicists get a free pass when they make vague, hard-to-score predictions about the future, but the poor economists are held to a more rigorous standard.] It isn't like we have any empirical reason to believe anything at all about what the LHC will see; the "predictions" are informed but still wild extrapolations. In fact, a good part of the rationale for building the LHC is that we don't know what it will create. If we were pretty confident of which model the LHC would validate, the LHC would be unnecessary. Given a particular model, there are usually inexpensive ($1 mil.) low-energy experiments that can be done to test its weirder low-energy predictions. However, there are hundreds of models out there that are consistent with all existing data, and roughly speaking each low-energy experiment is sensitive to just a couple of those models, so you'd need to do hundreds of experiments. Or alternatively you could just spend all the money at once, smash ultra-high-energy particles into each other, and see what happens.

PS A German computational group just determined that the mass of the proton as predicted by the quark model [ca. 1970] agrees with the mass of the proton as measured in the lab [ca. 1900]. We woz right once again. I think we deserve another free pass for this.

Monday, November 24, 2008

New Look Redux

Turns out the google shared items widget is incompatible with the old format: for some reason, presumably overall font size, everything gets illegibly scrunched up, and since there wasn't an obvious fix for that I just switched the template. Not a big fan of the current look, so there will probably be further changes.

Food We Can Believe In

Much of my favorite writing about food is in Middle English. Here's a famous example (I've modernized the spelling somewhat):

Bring us in good ale

Bring us in good ale and bring us in good ale
For our blessed Lady sake, bring us in good ale.

Bring us in no browne bred for that is mad of bran,
Nor bring us in no whit bred fore therin is is no game [flavour]
But bring us in good ale

Bring us in no befe, for ther is many bones
But bring us in good ale, for that goth down at ones
And bring us in good ale

Bring us in no bacon, for that is passing fat
But bring us in good ale, and give us enought of that
And bring us in good ale

Bring us in no mutton, for that is ofte lene
Nor bring us in no tripes, for they be seldom clene
But bring us in good ale

Bring us in no egges, for ther ar many shelles
But bring us in good ale, and give us nothing elles
And bring us in good ale

Bring us in no butter for therin ar many hores [hairs]
Nor bring us in no pigges flesh, for that will mak us bores
But bring us in good ale

Bring us in no puddinges for therin is all goates blod
Nor bring us in no venison, for that is not for our good
But bring us in good ale

Bring us in no capons flesh for that is often dear
Nor bring us in no duckes flesh for they slobber in the mere
But bring us in good ale

Bring us in good ale and bring us in good ale
For our blessed lady sak, bring us in good ale.

Thinking Outside the Ballot Box

This is a wonderful euphemism (Politico via Althouse):
“Democrats are [thought to be] more creative, free-spirited, so the idea is they’re more likely to make a mistake that the optical scan won’t pick up,” explains Hentges. “But when they recount the hard copy, those votes will be counted for Franken."

Yes, all those Minneapolis-based painters who drew unicorns on the ballot. It's interesting how, since calling minorities illiterate is beyond the pale whereas hippies and elitists are officially mockable, one routinely hears minorities berated for being hippies or elitists. (See also Grobstein.)

I have high hopes for Al Franken's political career, which is bound to culminate in a Franken-Stein presidential run.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Tour de Forceps"

It's neat how typos can turn platitudes into something rich and strange. This one, from the comments on an old Krugman post, was very eye-catching; on closer inspection I don't think it's actually a typo, just a half-assed metaphor, but it could have been one:
I must assume that if, in his alter ego of O’Reilly-like rightnews he condemns your book so completely, it must be another of your tour de forceps with which you draw out the truth from the maelstrom of fact and fiction through the medium of your liberal conscience.

Heaney's Oysters

Jenna Krajeski at the NY'er Book Bench has compiled a list of poems about food, with some assistance from Major Poets. There's some good stuff there but to my mind this poem is better than anything on their list.

Seamus Heaney

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.

Alive and violated,
They lay on their bed of ice:
Bivalves: the split bulb
And philandering sigh of ocean --
Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

We had driven to that coast
Through flowers and limestone
And there we were, toasting friendship,
Laying down a perfect memory
In the cool of thatch and crockery.

Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
The Romans hauled their oysters south of Rome:
I saw damp panniers disgorge
The frond-lipped, brine-stung
Glut of privilege

And was angry that my trust could not repose
In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

Stepping on the Flush

Mary Beard, the English classicist, is puzzled by American customs:
But there are some even stranger things than that. One of my students assured me that in the US (or in the Bay area at least, or maybe just in Berkeley), it was the custom for women using public or restaurant lavatories to operate the flush with their feet – if it was at a reasonable height. It seemed extremely unlikely to me, and strongly suspected my leg was being pulled.. But when I went to the ladies’ rest rooms of the bar in which we were having this conversation, sure enough there were the scuff marks around the flush.

I share her puzzlement.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Glyn Maxwell: Rumpelstiltskin


Glyn Maxwell

"Your name is Rumpelstiltskin!" cried
The Queen. "It's not," he lied. "I lied
The time you heard me say it was."
"I never heard you. It's a guess,"

She lied. He lied: "My name is Zed."
She told the truth: "You're turning red,
Zed." He said: "That's not my name!"
"You're turning red, though, all the same."

"Liar!" he cried: "I'm turning blue."
And this was absolutely true.
And then he tore himself in two,
As liars tend to have to do.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Paul Muldoon: Glanders

Paul Muldoon

When you happened to sprain your wrist or ankle
you made your way to the local shaman,
if "shaman" is the word for Larry Toal,
who was so at ease with himself, so tranquil,

a cloud of smoke would graze on his thatch
like the cow in the cautionary tale,
while a tether of smoke curled down his chimney
and the end of the tether was attached

to Larry's ankle or to Larry's wrist.
He would conjure up a poultice of soot and spit
and flannel-talk, how he had a soft spot

for the mud of Flanders,
how he came within that of the cure for glanders
from a Suffolkman who suddenly went west.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Generalizing the Cone

I'm working (sort of) desperately on this string theory homework that's due tomorrow; one of the problems involves d-dimensional cylinders and cones, and I just realized that I don't know whether a d-dimensional cylinder is a (d - 1)-dimensional sphere extruded along the dth dimension or a (d - 1)-dimensional hyperplane with its dth dimension curled up into a circle. Or any interpolation between these possibilities. Likewise for the cone. (I hope that's clearly worded, since I can't do an illustration.)

They really ought to call the normal cylinder the (1,1)-cylinder rather than the 2-cylinder.

Mystery Mitt II

Why would Mitt Romney -- who won the Michigan primary by promising never to let jobs leave Detroit, and will presumably do this again in 2012 -- think it's a good idea to write an NYT op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt"? I'm sure there was some manner of political calculation behind it, but the difficulty with a tone-deaf politician like Romney is that it's sometimes hard to tell precisely what he thinks he's doing. Has he realized that there's no point to his running for president again? (I wonder if he can afford to.)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Underrepresented Conservatives

Yglesias pushes back against the equal-newspaper-time meme by citing the essential, rarely mentioned, control group:
The group of people who prefer newspapering aren’t going to be ideologically identical to the general population. You can see this in part in the fact that the elements of the media that are the most politically relevant are the ones with the most conservatives. If you want to see a bunch of big liberals, forget about political reporters and look at the assembled food writers or movie critics of the United States. Politics is something conservative are interested in, so you see some conservatives in the news pages, more on the op-ed pages, and then total domination on broadcast media.

Similarly, the two or three conservative professors at Amherst were in political science, history, etc. rather than music or physics.

Summers Revisited

Mildly surprised to find Stanley Fish expressing, cogently and at length, my feelings about the Larry Summers case. I guess it's time to change my mind. NYT commenter sam2 says:
Dr. Summers clearly likes being a public intellectual gadfly and thought it was part of the job description at the World Bank and Harvard. He was wrong. He understood it was not at Treasury.

So presumably he still holds that view of Treasury and would be as successful in it as he was before, especially since the job currently requires the outside the box kind of thinking at which he excels as an academic economist.

There might be something to this. Also it's a different audience he has to convince -- Blue Dogs and moderate Republicans -- and the right-wing cred Summers accrued as a result of the Harvard and World Bank affairs might be useful. Maybe he can sell govt. intervention as an ingenious way of screwing over the poor...

I suspect, though, that he's just as likely to antagonize the right.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bad Sex (4)

Bookslut notes that the new Penguin classics edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover has a striking cover picture:

Bad Sex, a Three-Volume Post

1. The British mag Literary Review does a "Bad Sex" award, "with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels." Some of the shortlisted passages are amusing, though there isn't much that compares to the 2005 winner:
And he came hard in her mouth and his dick jumped around and rattled on her teeth and he blacked out and she took his dick out of her mouth and lifted herself from his face and whipped the pillow away and he gasped and glugged at the air, and he came again so hard that his dick wrenched out of her hand and a shot of it hit him straight in the eye and stung like nothing he'd ever had in there, and he yelled with the pain, but the yell could have been anything, and as she grabbed at his dick, which was leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath, she scratched his back deeply with the nails of both hands and he shot three more times, in thick stripes on her chest. Like Zorro.

2. Rod Liddle rambles about the former floridity and recent flaccidity of John Updike in the Times [of London].

3. [Update. See my review.] I've been reading Anne Enright's new collection of stories, Yesterday's Weather, which is very good, incomparably better than her novel, The Gathering. (Review to follow when I finish the book.) It is relevant to this post because of her story "The Bad Sex Weekend," which has this characteristic and beautifully poised sentence:
The sex, when it happened, an aimless battering around the nub of him, which was sadly distant and, she supposed, numb with drink.

On the New Look

I hope this isn't too disorienting. I just wanted a format that doesn't display on desktop monitors as a thin strip of text.

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Women and Bad Books

Althouse links to a rambly Independent article wondering why Dawkins, Gladwell, Hitchens and others of that breed are male. Germaine Greer -- who's at least as insufferable as the above-named -- declares that women "are more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for." I don't see a mystery here. Dawkins and Hitchens work by bullying the reader or listener; they'd be incongruous -- and shrill -- if they weren't male. They have their female analogues, who just happen to be treated as wingnuts. As for Gladwell, his combination of cluelessness, humorlessness, and hero-worship is typical of the adolescent boy. The adolescent girl, meanwhile, is busy trying to sleep with college boys and fiddling with her "top friends" list on Facebook.

Back to Clerihews

There's a very nice one by Jim Cummins:

Derek Walcott
Was known as Pol Pot
To the Ladies
In Hades


The form is pretty self-explanatory. It was invented and perfected by Edmund Clerihew Bentley:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.

W.H. Auden wrote a fair number, some better than others:

Had too much to say:
He could never quite
Leave the paper white.

When the young Kant
Was told to kiss his aunt,
He obeyed the Categorical Must
But only just.

Lord Byron
Once succumbed to a Siren:
His flesh was weak,
Hers Greek.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Fierce Urgency of Ethanol

It looks like Obama might have former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Ag. Sec., and it's almost certain that he's going to waste a good part of whatever stimulus package there is on rescuing Detroit. The progressive left is somewhat disappointed, but this is just the natural consequence of putting a Midwestern politician in the White House. It seems that voters sensed this -- across the Upper Midwest, from Michigan to Iowa and Nebraska, he did on average 10-20 points better than Kerry or Gore. This is a massive political advantage for him -- there are lots of swing states in the area; if he delivers the pork, he can probably count on their relatively favoring him, and essentially take Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa off the table in 2012 as he did this year.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Hitchens: Obama is Not Great

Hitchens's Slate article about Obama's victory seesaws between banality and incoherence. Inline comments in italics (actually, they're hardly even necessary):


"Historic," yelled the very headline across the top of my morning newspaper. (Just the news, please, if you would be so kind.) Would the letters have been so big for the first female vice president? And isn't it already historic that millions of white Christians voted, win or lose, for a man with one Kenyan parent, that parent having been raised as a Muslim?

Um, no. Sarah Palin's achievement in being elected would have been a negative one -- she didn't implode enough to cost McCain the election. And yes. And the newspapers would probably have said something like that had Obama lost.

Well, as it happens, our new president has no slave ancestry, and neither branch of his parentage could have been owned by anybody, or at least not by anybody American. (Muslim-run slavery, though, is an old story in Africa as well as a horribly contemporary one.) And there were not a few elected black American representatives 40 years ago, even if mainly in Northern states.

It is well known that Kenyan immigrants were exempt from segregation. And note that "mainly." I take it he means 50 years ago, not five years after the civil rights act (or is he just being fiendishly clever?) and, um, I could count pre-civil rights southern black congressmen on my fingers even if I didn't have any.

Second, a Republican victory would have had absolutely no effect on the legal or political standing of black Americans, which is a matter of our law and our Constitution and cannot be undone by any ephemeral vote or plebiscite.

It bloody well would have had an effect on the political standing of black Americans. At the very least it would have made it extremely improbable that the Democrats would nominate another black candidate for president in the near future, for fear of losing the election again.

Nor even a diet of audacity, though can you picture anything less audacious than the gray, safety-first figures who have so far been chosen by Obama to be on his team?

Like who? As far as I can tell, Obama's appointments so far are irrelevant to policy.


I take it Hitch wanted to prove that he wasn't an Obamamaniac, but couldn't find anything useful to say by the deadline; however, this piece really exemplifies everything that's gone wrong with his commentary. He even uses "moist" (have you been reading the moist and trusting comments of our commentariat?) as a stock all-purpose intensifier, though it's become grating through endless repetition.

Someone really ought to put him to sleep.

Percolation Denied?

While Obama did much better than Gore or Kerry -- by winning the election, for instance -- it apparently remains the case that Republicans can percolate countywise across the country, i.e. traverse it from coast to coast without passing through a Democratic county. (Source.) Apparently because I don't know if there are roads that stay entirely on the red percolating path. (Otherwise one might have to drive one's SUV through the backyards of bitter gun-clingers.) However, we're just two or three counties away from having a wall of blue down the west coast.

The Congressional-district-wise map is even more tantalizing... one district in eastern Tennessee is all that stands between us and total victory. If I were the DCCC I would pour all my money into winning that seat. (I've marked it in yellow.) Note that percolating into the Gulf does not count.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Dept of Odd Headlines

In the NY Post: "B.O. Analysis, Nov. 9: The Zoo Animals Have It!" Which does not mean, apparently, that zoo animals smell revolting, according to the latest chemical analysis, but that Madagascar did well at the box office.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

That Racism Theory

John Judis argues in the LA Times that race did matter in this election, just not enough to change it. A good part of the argument is based on a map that Yglesias posted a while ago, showing counties where McCain had outperformed Bush 04, which were concentrated mainly in Appalachia and bits of the Deep South. The obvious inference is that this was because these people wouldn't vote for a black man. I think this inference is problematic because there is no reliable baseline for how Obama should have performed in 2008, if he were white. Here's a graph that illustrates the problem:

The graph shows Democratic margins in a few randomly selected counties -- all red on Yglesias's map -- from 1996 to 2008. The drop in Democratic vote is surprisingly linear across this period. Now obviously these elections were different, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Obama was hurt by his race, etc. But look at the large drop from Clinton to Gore to Kerry. Either this is a time-series of Dem candidates getting progressively less appealing to the same voters -- a true Southerner, a fake Southerner, a Massachusetts liberal, and then a black guy -- or the voters in these counties are just getting more and more unlikely to vote for a Democratic candidate (demographic change? who knows). These effects are hard to untangle, of course, but I think they make it hard to quantify the notion that Democrats lost any gettable voters by nominating Obama.
Update. More data here.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

"What is not forbidden..."

There's a maxim in particle physics that "whatever is not forbidden is mandatory" -- i.e. that if a process does not violate a conservation law, it will take place with some nonzero probability. The attribution was traditionally to Murray Gell-Mann or to Richard Feynman, with a slight bias towards the latter. (In general, doubtful quotes are eventually attributed to Feynman.) Intriguingly, a similar phrase -- "what is not forbidden is compulsory" -- appears in one of W.H. Auden's late poems. Auden appears to have taken it from T.H. White's Arthurian novel The Once and Future King.

There are three possibilities for how it entered physics. Either Feynman or Gell-Mann: 1. came up with it independently. 2. read T.H. White. or 3. took it from later Auden. While 1. isn't impossible, I'm inclined to prefer 2. or 3. because Gell-Mann was a literary sort who took the word "quark" from Finnegans Wake. (Where it's supposed to be onomatopoeia for the aerial croaking of geese.) The question then is whether it was 2. or 3. I'm inclined to favor 2. Either way, it couldn't possibly have been Feynman.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Summers Here Again?

I must say I don't understand why Obama would want to appoint Larry Summers to a high-profile government post like Treasury secretary. Whether or not he's the most qualified person for the job, he surely isn't the only adequately qualified person (apparently Tim Geithner is being considered; I'm sure there are at least a dozen others who would do just fine) and it seems like most other economists -- really, virtually anybody else -- would be better at avoiding tactless and incendiary remarks.

Brave New Senate

Apart from the six -- maybe seven, if Al Franken is elected in spite of himself -- Democratic pickups, there will be two new senators to replace Obama and Biden. Ted Stevens will presumably be expelled fairly soon, and Ted Kennedy is doubtful to survive very much longer. Robert C. Byrd, the 91-year-old W.Va. senator, is delicately being relieved of most of his responsibilities; while I hope he runs for another term (he's certain to win), he's probably on his way out too. This adds up to a net replacement of 10-12 senators in the near future, which is quite remarkable for such a stodgy institution.

The Times wonders:
The Democratic leadership is also considering who will take the lead on the issue of national health care policy given the precarious state of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, chairman of the health committee, who has brain cancer.

This seems like a no-brainer to me. Hillary Clinton.

Ted Stevens

The Ted Stevens story is extremely puzzling; polls had him down by a lot, but he seems to have won. It looks like turnout in Alaska was severely depressed; the consensus view is that this is because McCain conceded early so people had no reason to vote. This is weird for two reasons: 1. As the pollster in the WaPo story says, there was enough celebrity/infamy on the ballot that it seems like people should have voted anyway. Besides, there were close Congressional races, which there usually aren't. And voting in a non-swing state like Alaska is largely symbolic anyway. 2. The NY Times maps show that 40,000 fewer people voted this year than in 1996, in a spectacularly boring and non-competitive election with low turnout nationwide (did you even have to wait for Bob Dole to concede?), despite a fair bit of population growth. No one else seems to have pointed this out, but I think it rather discredits the boring election theory. (Oh, btw, the weather was fair by Alaska standards: cold and sunny.)

This leaves us with Nate Silver's other two possibilities: secret strength in the absentee ballots, and fraud. I'm inclined, somewhat against my will, toward the latter possibility.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Final Round of Electoral Politics

I'm pleased that Obama won, and more importantly that Sarah Palin will not be president in the near future. On the other hand, I'll miss the horse race. Before we step into the desert, a final dump of analysis:
  • Read Andrew Gelman's post and his regressions. To summarize: the polls were mostly spot on. (No Bradley effect.) Obama did a few points better than Kerry across the board; in many states, that was enough to push him over the 50% mark.
  • Obama won the popular vote by roughly 5%. What happens if we subtract 5% from his statewide margins? He won all the Kerry states by at least five points, and most of them by about ten; they'd still have been in his column. He won Colorado by 7% so that stays; on the other hand he narrowly loses both Virginia and Ohio, and somewhat less narrowly, Florida, North Carolina, and Indiana. He also wins New Mexico, Iowa, and Nevada. Kerry + IA + NM + CO + NV = 278, which is a win.
  • Obama won states worth 269 electoral votes by at least 9.6%. (The 9.6% is Iowa.) This is substantially bigger than his popular vote margin.
  • I had Jay Cost's swing state review in mind when I was watching the countywise returns. He did pretty well at figuring out what an Obama win would look like. His bellwethers (Obama's margin in Hampton County, VA; whether he flipped Cincinnati) were both useful early indicators that Obama was going to do well in those states.
  • Interestingly, while Obama won PA by a lot, he did pretty atrociously in the west of the state -- i.e. Pittsburgh and its suburbs. He made up for this with enormous margins in Philadelphia and with a very strong performance in the Scranton area. (Did Biden help or was it just the economy?) Compare these maps -- if you don't look at the margins it appears as if Obama did worse than Kerry or Gore.
  • Ohio, on the other hand, was an across-the-board improvement, and not a huge one. Obama did anomalously well in Cincinnati, and held McCain's margins down in the suburbs somewhat. Unlike Clinton, he was pretty weak in Appalachia.
  • In Colorado, Obama won the same counties as Kerry, Gore, and Clinton II, who all lost the state. The difference was that Obama ran 10-15 points better in the entire metro Denver area.
  • The same pattern holds elsewhere. Obama held the line -- relative to Kerry -- in the "real America," and ran up huge margins in big cities and their inner suburbs.
  • Obama won Hampshire county (where Amherst is) by 70 to 28. This is about the same as Kerry, though somewhat better than Gore.

I guess there's always the Ted Stevens saga...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Tard Rain's a-Gonna Fall

This study showing a link between autism and rainfall appears to be a classic example of the rule that if you run enough regressions you will find something that looks really weird. That said, some of their explanations seem a little less desperate than others, though I wonder if they controlled for population of computer science types / Microsoft, which seems like a more plausible explanation.

Alternatively there's this brilliant suggestion:

"Finally, there is also the possibility that precipitation itself is more directly involved," [study authors] wrote. Perhaps a chemical or chemicals in the upper atmosphere are transported to the surface through rain or snow.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Esquire has a piece about "why white supremacists support Obama." (Short answer: because he's race-conscious and didn't intermarry.) The "survey" of four white racists is actually quite misleading because three of them are primarily Jew-haters, and the fourth -- the Klansman -- is distinctly not pro-Obama. This makes sense to me. If the issues you care about are The International Zionist Conspiracy (hence capitalism), miscegenation, and Holocaust denial, the Democrats -- or better far, the Green Party -- are a more natural home for you than the Republicans.

Is Obama a black racist, as the neo-Nazis claim? Probably not, but it's hard to be sure. I basically buy the line that Jeremiah Wright's views are racist.* There's a somewhat murky question about how far Obama's acquiescence was cynical and/or immature. To the extent that it wasn't, I continue to be a little dubious of the guy.

* The article is pure wingnuttery; however, the black value code it cites is real. It was on the Trinity Church website until the Wright story broke in March, at which point they removed it.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Anatomy of Indecision

This 2004 article about undecided voters by Chris Hayes (of the Nation) is worth reading. He lists his findings under these bullet points:
  • Undecided voters aren't as rational as you think.
  • Undecided voters do care about politics; they just don't enjoy politics.
  • A disturbing number of undecided voters are crypto-racist isolationists.
  • The worse things got in Iraq, the better things got for Bush.
  • Undecided voters don't think in terms of issues.

This adds up to a pretty sharp picture. In short: undecided voters are politically very close to Pat Buchanan. Pity (for him, not for us) they don't care enough about politics to vote for him in the primaries.

For more details, read the article.

Richard Dawkins and the Goblet of Idiocy

I've cast a cold eye on much of Dawkins's recent work; while in the abstract it's good to have some militant atheists out there, I'm dubious that his stuff has been helping the cause. I think his fatal flaw is tone-deafness, as exhibited in (e.g.) that "brights" campaign.

Now this story confirms my sense that he's gone off the deep end. He's apparently decided (like the fundamentalists) that the Harry Potter books are evil because they make kids believe in witches. To counteract this,
"The book I write next year will be a children's book on how to think about the world, science thinking contrasted with mythical thinking."

What's a pity about this is that I think one of the few points on which Dawkins was utterly sound -- that it's wrong for parents to have arbitrary rights over the education of their offspring, and that it's wrong for kids to be labeled as Christian or Muslim -- is going to be collaterally discredited by this campaign.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Empson on Educating the Proles

"Many people, without being communists, have been irritated by the complacence in the massive calm of the poem … And yet what is said is one of the permanent truths; it is only in degree that any improvement of society would prevent wastage of human powers; the waste even in a fortunate life, the isolation even of a life rich in intimacy, cannot but be felt deeply, and is the central feeling of tragedy."
-- William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral

("The poem" is Gray's Elegy.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Paul Muldoon: Quoof


Paul Muldoon

How often have I carried our family word
for the hot water bottle
to a strange bed,
as my father would juggle a red-hot half-brick
in an old sock
to his childhood settle.
I have taken it to so many lovely heads
or laid it between us like a sword.

A hotel room in New York City
with a girl who spoke hardly any English,
my hand on her breast
like the smoldering one-off spoor of the yeti
or some other shy beast
that has yet to enter the language.

Friday, October 24, 2008

They should require an IQ test...

for campaign staff. This is hilariously dumb. I love that -- for fear of seeming insensitive -- the press took the default line that the woman had been assaulted by a dyslexic robber who carved a backwards B on her face, until she basically confessed to doing it herself.

There has been a lot of campaign activity in PA. McCain seems to want to go all in there, but a fairly wide range of polls shows Obama leading by 10+ points -- which is not surprising, really, given these historical trends. (Cost is very good on PA, being from there.) Democratic candidates do 3-5 points better in PA than nationwide, and Obama has a 7 point lead nationwide.

FiveThirtyEight Watch

As I might have mentioned I'm a little wary of Nate Silver's analysis; his statistical model is overloaded with bells and whistles, he tweaks it too often, and I don't entirely trust him to keep partisanship out of his model. Nevertheless he's generally sharp and well-informed, and I was surprised to see him say this in his new TNR column:
Bill Clinton--running as an outsider in 1992--won Montana, and came within single digits of George Bush in states like Wyoming and Alaska. By 1996, however, when his incumbency had transformed him into an insider by default, Clinton lost Montana, and was crushed in Wyoming and Alaska by 13 and 18 points, respectively.

Here's some data from the site he links to.

Montana: Clinton 38 Bush 35 Perot 26
Wyoming: Bush 40 Clinton 34 Perot 26
Alaska: Bush 40 Clinton 30 Perot 28

Montana: Dole 44 Clinton 41 Perot 13
Wyoming: Dole 50 Clinton 37 Perot 12
Alaska: Dole 50 Clinton 33 Perot 11 Nader 3

Montana: Bush 58 Gore 33 Nader 6
Wyoming: Bush 68 Gore 28
Alaska: Bush 58 Gore 28 Nader 10

Montana: Bush 59 Kerry 39
Wyoming: Bush 69 Kerry 29
Alaska: Bush 61 Kerry 35

If you aggregate the Perot/R vote and the Nader/D vote, these states were stable over the period, with Montana going roughly 60/40, Wyoming between 65-35 and 70-30, and Alaska steadily bluing from 70/30 to more like 60/40. Clinton in fact did anomalously well in 1996.

What really happened in 1992, of course, was that Perot siphoned off a lot of Bush votes. In 1996 he was no longer a particularly interesting third-party candidate, so he siphoned off fewer votes and Dole won even though Clinton's 1996 showing was better in absolute terms. (Clinton generally dominated that election.) Kerry did about as well as Clinton '92, and better than Gore, which can largely be explained by the Nader vote.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Gladwell is a Blinking Idiot

It's difficult to appreciate how half-baked and awful Malcolm Gladwell is until he writes about something that's up your alley. (I think Dice made this point once.) His new piece on artistic genius is one of the most irritating things I've read in a long time. There are two immensely misleading statements in the piece -- 1. contrary to widespread belief, late bloomers exist in literature; 2. literary (and generally artistic) prodigies are a different kind of writer from late bloomers, being more intuitive, quicker, and less painstaking. He says:
“Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”

I don't know who these idiots are, or where they came from. (I think Howard Gardner said similarly dumb shit in Gladwell's previous article about scientific creativity.) But their claims are utterly risible and anyone who knows anything about lyric poetry, or literature, knows this. This point is important because he uses the counterintuitiveness of his result to launch the (very silly) claim that he and his favorite researchers have discovered a new type of late-flowering artistic genius.

In fact, very few poets produce their best work at first, and by far the most common type in English poetry is the "prodigy" that turns into a "late bloomer." Yeats was a talented minor poet who randomly turned at 50 into a very major poet. A lot of Eliot's best stuff is in Four Quartets, which he wrote when he was over 50. There are a couple of cases of "late blooming," like Stevens, but these are mostly cases of people who took a little longer to find their voice -- or, more plausibly, started later. But all major poets take a few years to find their voice -- even freaks like William Blake and prodigies like Auden, whose juvenilia (200 pp. written age 15-19) Gladwell would have done well to read. The normal course is for poets to start off good, then get better, then get senile and die. There isn't anything remotely mysterious about this.

I haven't got the energy to debunk the rest of the piece but I wish someone would. In particular, I hate how the examples are cherrypicked. Here's a contrast to set against his two writers: Shakespeare was a late bloomer who wrote all of his greatest plays after 35 -- most after 40 -- while Ben Jonson was a prodigy who wrote his last great play (with one possible exception) when he was 35. As to the amounts of research they put into their efforts, and as to their relative sloppiness, I refer you to the historical record.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Just Obambulating...

Ann Althouse points out that "obambulate" is a word -- actually a straightforward Latinate word. Here's the OED def'n:
intr. To walk about; to wander here and there.

1614-15 J. BOYS Wks. (1622) 597 Soules departed..doe not obambulate and wander vp and downe, but remaine in places of happinesse or vnhappinesse. 1633 EARL OF MANCHESTER Al Mondo (1636) 100 In the interim the Soule doth not wander and obambulate. 1694 P. A. MOTTEUX Wks. F. Rabelais (1737) v. 231 We..must still obambulate, Sequacious of the Court.

Life is obambulous.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Man Bites Squirrel

This story via Althouse:

A Massachusetts man has been charged with catching and killing a squirrel and then roasting it with a blowtorch in his backyard.

Odum Chaloeurn's neighbors in Lowell reported him to the police, the Boston Herald said. He was charged with animal cruelty Wednesday.

Chaloeurn reportedly argued to police that he was not cruel to the squirrel since it was dead before he began cooking it. He allegedly pursued the squirrel on foot, grabbed it by its tail and then knocked it against a tree to kill it.

Squirrels are actually legal game in Massachusetts to licensed hunters. But Lowell is in a district where the squirrel season opens Saturday.

Friday, October 17, 2008

13 Ways to Kill a Baby and Save Five Others

You might be interested in the Moral Sense test. It's less awful than the average cognitive neuroscience survey though as usual the questions are irritatingly restrictive. The questions come in linked pairs or triples, which (if you're a consequentialist) are basically identical.

There was one interesting quartet of scenarios. 1. You're a construction worker and you're not supposed to throw bags filled with rocks off the roof, but you do and no one gets killed. (It's assumed that you're highly unlikely to hit anybody.) 2. Ditto, but someone does get killed. 3. You get drunk, drive into a lawn, and kill a little girl. 4. Ditto, but you hit a tree instead. The only form of punishment available is a fine. What should the fine be in each case?

My (immediate) intuition was that 1. and 2. should have the same (large) fine, but 3. and 4. need not. The thing is, one could construct 5. you shoot someone and hit, and 6. you shoot someone and miss; if 5. and 6. are inequivalent and 1. and 2. are equivalent, one has to interpolate between them, and I think 3. and 4. are nearer the 5. and 6. end than the 1. and 2. end.

The difference is in the likelihood of the bad outcome. If people were perfectly linear, it wouldn't, as it were, matter whether they were fined $1 with probability 1 or $100 with probability 1/100, so you could split up the expected values any way you like. However, in fact people tend to disregard very unlikely outcomes, so you have to spread out the damage somehow. Assume that the law is omniscient. Given total damage X, you need to split it up into a piece Y, such that

fine = (Y) p(disaster) if no disaster,
fine = (Y) p(disaster) + (X - Y) if disaster occurs.

If the disaster is likely, people do the math correctly and get the "just" expected value X p(disaster). If it's highly unlikely, they get the reduced expectation value Y p(disaster) (as opposed to 0 if no fine). However, the minimum fine that will actually deter people is nonzero, so Y p(disaster) is bounded below, and as p(disaster) goes to zero, Y approaches X. Say a life is worth $1,000,000. The "correct" fine for something that would kill a person once every million times is $1, which is worthless as a deterrent. If you wanted to deter such acts you would need Y > X, a punitive fine, which shouldn't care about whether the disaster actually happened.

As for justifying the other limit: if no one was hurt, why (apart from the above logic) punish?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Geoffrey Hill: The Orchards of Syon XXXII


Black, broken-wattled, hedges appear
thinned through, fields an irregular patchwork,
the snow businesslike. I can record
these elements, this bleak satiety,
accustomed ratios of shine to shadow
reversed; inflected if not reversed.
Closer to nightfall the surface light is low-toned.
This is England; ah, love, youmust see that,
her nature sensing its continuum
with the Beatific Vision. Atemwende,
breath-fetch, the eye no more deceived,
beggars translation. Her decencies
stand bare, not barely stand. In the skeletal
Orchards of Syon are flowers
long vanished; I will consult their names.
Climate, gravity, featherlight aesthetics
pull us down. The extremities of life
draw together. This last embodiment
indefinitely loaned, not quite
the creator's dying gift regardless.
Clear sky, the snow bare-bright. Loud, peat-sodden
the swaling Hodder. Of itself
age has no pull. Be easy. With immense
labour he can call it a day.

-- Geoffrey Hill

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dreams from My Weatherman

This post, arguing that Bill Ayers wrote Obama's memoir for him -- as well as references cited therein -- is just wonderful. I love the not-so-hidden racism behind it; clearly the book was too well-written to be by a black man. (Ann Coulter, who called the book a "dimestore Mein Kampf," might agree with this take. Or not.) Note that NR is purportedly a mainstream right-wing publication.
There is nothing in Obama's scant paper trail prior to 1995 that would suggest something as stylish and penetrating as, at times, Dreams from My Father is. And when Obama speaks extemporaneously, one doesn't hear the same voice one encounters in the book. Now maybe Obama has a backlog of writing fom Columbia or Harvard that signal great literary promise, but he not only hasn't shared it, he's assiduously hidden traces of it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Townhouses vs. Birthrates

Ross Douthat's WaPo column defending homeownership/suburbia gets really halfassed at the end:
But there's a reason George Bailey's vision won out over Mr. Potter's. It offered the average American something no country on Earth had ever offered its citizens before -- the promise of an equality rooted in ownership, a citizenship rooted in self-sufficiency and an entrepreneurial spirit rooted in security. America has a higher birthrate than other Western societies; we take more economic risks; our patriotism, our optimism and our willingness to volunteer and give to charity exceed what you find in Canada and Europe. And our exceptionalism begins at home, in a way of life that we take for granted. It's easy to forget what a hard-won achievement something as simple as a private backyard or a spare bedroom looks like in the sweep of human history.

You know an argument is falling apart when it cites "the sweep of human history" to imply that Americans would suddenly stop having kids and being patriotic if they lived in townhouses. Time to pull out the 19th cent. fecundity data...

On the Bradley Effect

NYT piece on the Bradley effect:
The results tended to correlate with the black population in a state: blacks made up 15 percent or more of the population in almost all the states where the polls showed less support for Mr. Obama than there actually was; in the three states where polls showed more support than there was, less than 10 percent of the population is black.

The differences are too great to be explained by just high black turnout, said Anthony Greenwald, one of the researchers. Nor were people necessarily lying. Instead, he sees a cultural dynamic at work: the states where polls underpredicted support for Mr. Obama were generally in the Southeast, where the culture has more stubbornly favored whites, so the “right” answer there was to choose the white candidate. In the three states where polls in the study overpredicted support for Mr. Obama — Rhode Island, California and New Hampshire — “the desirable thing is to appear unbiased and unprejudiced,” Mr. Greenwald said. (Many polling experts also believe that Mr. Obama was benefiting from an Iowa bounce in the late New Hampshire polls, as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had been ahead for months, and that therefore Mr. Obama’s loss there was not a true Bradley effect.)

I don't know about this. Here's the data. I think the NH/MA/RI "Bradley effect" quite possibly existed, but was more specific -- i.e. it had to do with the sense that Obama is like Deval Patrick, which he is -- than general racism. Note that Obama overperformed in CT and NY state. MA/RI aren't in play even with a Bradley effect, NH I wouldn't count on. As for the reverse B.E. in the south, I think the deal is that all the white racists there are Republicans, and Obama outperformed among black people. I really don't buy the closet white liberal theory.

It isn't about black turnout so much as margins. All over the south, 40-60% of Dems are black. The difference between Obama winning 85% of the black vote and 95% -- which the media treat as equivalent -- is quite substantial, it's a five-point boost overall. See Jay Cost's old post for more.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In which I randomly win a book

Mitch Sisskind offered a prize for an explication of this poem:

Earth took of earth
Earth with woe.
Earth other earth
To the earth drew.
Earth laid earth
In earthen trough.
Then had earth of earth
Earth enough.

I offered two, and (astonishingly) won a book. Below, my second take on the poem:

Actually, here's an alternative take. The first four lines are, as before, about procreation. However, the "earthen trough" is a vagina rather than an urn; 5-6 describe coitus; what the poem is saying is that after their childbearing years, the couple had prodigious amounts of sex (hence "earth enough").

To which Deborah Overmeyer aptly responded:

"Come to my dry den and we'll moisten the cave of nakedness for thee, O sultan."-- Mac Flecknoe

Gail Collins Strikes Again

Her latest column is pitch-perfect. Read it.


Remember how we used to joke about John McCain looking like an old guy yelling at kids to get off his lawn? It’s only in retrospect that we can see that the keep-off-the-grass period was the McCain campaign’s golden era. Now, he’s beginning to act like one of those movie characters who steals the wrong ring and turns into a troll.

During that last debate, while he was wandering around the stage, you almost expected to hear him start muttering: “We wants it. We needs it. Must have the precious.”

Remember when McCain’s campaign ads were all about his being a prisoner of war? I really miss them.

Now they’re all about the Evil That Is Obama. The newest one, “Ambition,” has a woman, speaking in one of those sinister semiwhispers, saying: “When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied.” Then suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, she starts ranting about Congressional liberals and risky subprime loans. Then John McCain pops up to say he approved it. All in 30 seconds! And, of course, McCain would think it’s great. For the first time, the Republicans appear to have captured his thought process on tape.


I don't remember who pointed this out, but the reason the Ayers ad wandered off on a Congressional tangent is that it was partly funded by the GOP Congressional campaign, so it had to mention the House elections.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Training the Candidates

via Cosmic Variance, from fark.

Anne Stevenson: The Suburb

from The Suburb
Anne Stevenson

No time, no time,
and with so many in line to be
born or fed or made love to, there is no
excuse for staring at it, though it's spring again
and the leaves have come out looking
limp and wet like little green new born babies.

The girls have come out in their new-bought dresses,
carefully, carefully. They know they're in danger.
Already there are couples crumpled under the chestnuts.
The houses crowd closer, listening to each other's radios.
Weeds have got into the window boxes. The washing hangs,
helpless. Children are lusting for ice cream.

It is my lot each May to be hot and pregnant...

[The poem falls off after this point.]

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Some Reading

  • Silencing the Students, by Max Fisher in the New Republic, and the related NYT article, discuss various attempts to disenfranchise this year's new (and other) voters. I've been following this story for a while; the most egregious bit, if true, is that Michigan Republicans intend to use foreclosure lists to challenge voters' residency in Michigan. I do not know how much credence to attach to this because the HuffPo is my primary source.
  • David Samuels has a fine article about Obama, Ralph Ellison, and race. I soured on Obama somewhat during the Wright affair, when it became apparent that being in Trinity wasn't entirely opportunistic on his part. Colm Toibin has a much weaker attempt along the same lines in the NYRB, comparing Obama to James Baldwin. Up next -- why Obama is like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Benjamin Banneker.
  • Freeman Dyson writes about environmentalists and the Galapagos. He has turned, of late, into a full-time dissident on global warming, but I think his point here should be less controversial. Dyson's perspective on this is interesting because his immense enthusiasm for technological progress makes him something of a visceral anti-environmentalist, sometimes against his better instincts.
  • Finally, you should read George Packer's wonderful New Yorker piece about Ohio's undecided voters. Packer's a wonderful reporter, and it's telling, I think, that he has three fewer Pulitzer prizes than Tom Friedman.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"The Leathery Extremist Phyllis Schlafly"

James Wood devotes some fine writing to the analysis of Palinism. The transcripts really are horrifyingly weird, btw, even for the otherwise uncomplaining Joycean.

At times, even Hannity looked taken aback; his eyes, slightly too close to each other, like the headlamps on an Army jeep, went blank, as if registering the abyss we are teetering above. Or perhaps he just couldn’t follow.


“I do take issue with some of the principle there with that redistribution of wealth principle that seems to be espoused by you.”

Thursday, October 2, 2008

McCain (Also) Leaves Michigan

McCain's pulling out of Michigan, according to Politico. This is biggish news because Michigan was the best/only realistic hope for a GOP pickup. Unlike the automobile industry, though, he will not bequeath the state a pink sock.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Lydia Davis on Auden's Sleeping Habits

From her short story collection Break it Down. Link.

How W. H. Auden Spends the Night in a Friend's House
Lydia Davis

The only one awake, the house quiet, the streets darkened, the cold pressing down through his covers, he is unwilling to disturb his hosts and thus, first, his fetal curl, his search for a warm hollow in the mattress . . .

Then his stealthy excursion over the floor for a chair to stand on and his unsteady reach for the curtains, which he lays over the coverings on his bed . . .

His satisfaction in the new weight pressing down upon him, then his peaceful sleep . . .

On another occasion this wakeful visitor, cold again and finding no curtain in his room, steals out and takes up the hall carpet for the same purpose, bending and straightening in the dim hallway . . .

How its heaviness is a heavy hand on him and the dust choking his nostrils is nothing to how that carpet stifles his uneasiness . . .

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Barney Frank, Metamathematician

He declared:

“This was never going to be a bill that was going to make people happy,” he said. “No solution to a problem can be more elegant than the problem itself. We are dealing with a very difficult problem.”

Andrew Wiles was unavailable for comment.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Stevens: The Auroras of Autumn VI


from The Auroras of Autumn
Wallace Stevens

It is a theatre floating through the clouds,
Itself a cloud, although of misted rock
And mountains running like water, wave on wave,

Through waves of light. It is of cloud transformed
To cloud transformed again, idly, the way
A season changes color to no end,

Except the lavishing of itself in change,
As light changes yellow into gold and gold
To its opal elements and fire’s delight,

Splashed wide-wise because it likes magnificence
And the solemn pleasures of magnificent space.
The cloud drifts idly through half thought of forms.

The theatre is filled with flying birds,
Wild wedges, as of a volcano’s smoke, palm-eyed
And vanishing, a web in a corridor

Or massive portico. A capitol,
It may be, is emerging or has just
Collapsed. The denouement has to be postponed.

This is nothing until in a single man contained,
Nothing until this named thing nameless is
And is destroyed. He opens the door of his house

On flames. The scholar of one candle sees
An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame
Of everything he is. And he feels afraid.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Osama bin Wordsworth

Turns out Osama bin Laden writes poetry.

"(Bin Laden) frequently uses mountains as metaphors," Miller told the newspaper. "As borders, they separate Arabs from each other but mountains can also help them from the temptations of the secular world."

Auden's remarks on Wordsworth, in the Letter to Lord Byron, seem relevant:

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must lave doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s...

The mountain-snob is a Wordsworthian fruit;
He tears his clothes and doesn’t shave his chin,
He wears a very pretty little boot,
He chooses the least comfortable inn;
A mountain railway is a deadly sin;
His strength, of course, is as the strength of ten men,
He calls all those who live in cities wen-men,

I’m not a spoil—sport, I would never wish
To interfere with anybody’s pleasures;
By all means climb, or hunt, or even fish,
All human hearts lave ugly little treasures;
But think it time to take repressive measures
When someone says, adopting the “I know" line,
The Good Life is confined above the snow-line.

Two words diverged in a yellow wood

It is strangely satisfying to consider that this was once a redundancy:
at his warning,
Whether in sea or fire, in earth or air,
The extravagant and erring spirit hies
To his confine:
(Hamlet I.i)
Which, to be historically accurate, should be translated as the out-wandering and wandering spirit.

I would be erring extravagantly if I didn't flag this Sandys quote in the OED:
Now dispersed into ample lakes, and again recollecting his extrauagant waters.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hamlet, Facebooked

Hamlet's facebook feed, by Sarah Schmelling at McSweeney's, via Alex Massie.
The king poked the queen.
The queen poked the king back.
Hamlet and the queen are no longer friends.
Marcellus is pretty sure something's rotten around here.
Hamlet became a fan of daggers.


Hamlet added England to the Places I've Been application.
The queen is worried about Ophelia.
Ophelia loves flowers. Flowers flowers flowers flowers flowers. Oh, look, a river.
Ophelia joined the group Maidens Who Don't Float.
Laertes wonders what the hell happened while he was gone.

First Sentences, Cont.

Thus begins Hrafnkel's Saga:
It was in the days of King Harald Tangle-hair, son of Halfdan the Black, son of Gudrod the Hunter-king, son of Halfdan Hearth-stingy, son of Eystein Fart, son of Olaf the Wood-cutter, king of the Swedes, that a man called Hallfred brought his ship to Iceland, putting in at Breiddale east of the Fljotsdale district.

The genealogies are sometimes the best parts of a saga.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sensitivity Training?

Jon Chait has the obvious and just reaction to this piece of news:

Alan Keyes Was Unavailable?

I see that the person John McCain has playing Barack Obama in debate prep is... Michael Steele. Does the McCain campaign realize that he needs to prepare to articulate his agenda, not just general talking-to-a-black-guy preparation?
--Jonathan Chait

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Big Boy Beijing

A wonderful simile from Imagethief via James Fallows:
Like a giant kid who's been holding a fart in during a three week elevator ride, Beijing has apparently relaxed its many industrial sphincters and let a big one rip.

Friday, September 19, 2008

L.E.J. Brouwer for President?

Jonathan Rauch satirizes the McCain campaign's recent antics in an amusing dialogue between McCain and Steve Schmidt. He has Schmidt make this entirely valid point:

"We've figured out something. The law of the excluded middle is not in the Constitution. We looked. It's not in any contract our party ever signed. It wasn't even written by Republicans. It was written by left-wing academics."

That's intuitionism we can believe in.