Sunday, August 31, 2008

Louis MacNeice: The Introduction

(Link. I read MacNeice's Collected a long time ago; he kind of trailed off in the forties before picking up in the late fifties, and so I gave up before this very good late poem.)

The Introduction
Louis MacNeice

They were introduced in a grave glade
And she frightened him because she was young
And thus too late. Crawly crawly
Went the twigs above their heads and beneath
The grass beneath their feet the larvae
Split themselves laughing. Crawly crawly
Went the cloud above the treetops reaching
For a sun that lacked the nerve to set
And he frightened her because he was old
And thus too early. Crawly crawly
Went the string quartet that was tuning up
In the back of the mind. You two should have met
Long since, he said, or else not now.
The string quartet in the back of the mind
Was all tuned up with nowhere to go.
They were introduced in a green grave.

Dept of Awful Puns

Strong Bad on Love Poetry


Saturday, August 30, 2008

Kay Ryan: Crocodile Tears

(from this month's Poetry.)

Crocodile Tears
by Kay Ryan

The one sincere
crocodile has
gone dry eyed
for years. Why
bother crying
crocodile tears.

This Week on the Dumping Ground

1. I'd plugged Priscilla Sneff's "Song"; Alan's set it -- rather intriguingly -- to music. Sneff, who has had a rough career so far, might be pleased to know that she's on her way to rockstardom.

2. Alan has posted a (very lightly edited) version of an IM conversation we had today, in which I pontificated on Obama's lack of worth.

Sarah Palin and "Experience"

I don't think Sarah Palin was that bad a pick on the merits relative to the alternatives on offer. (I'd still make a partial exception for Mike Huckabee.) As Gail Collins puts it:
she doesn’t seem much less qualified than Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota who most people thought was the most likely pick. Unlike Joe Lieberman, Palin is a member of the same party as the presidential candidate. And unlike Mitt Romney, she has never gone on vacation with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car.
The point is, "do no harm" wasn't really an option for McCain. And, of course, she's a she.

Update Nate Silver suggests that Olympia Snowe -- the Republican Senator from Maine -- would have been a smarter pick. I agree. It would've made a big news story, though perhaps not as big, and probably held up better, and reeked less of tokenism.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Plug: Sarah Heller

I enjoyed her poems in Realpoetik:

Everyone's Ex-Girlfriend
Sarah Heller

Everyone's ex-girlfriend keeps showing up.
She surfaces when I've only just relaxed,
when I let things be
soft. I recognize her because I've been her so well.
You have nothing to worry about,
he says. Why would I want someone
who tried so hard to hurt me?
And then the distracted look.

She used to scream at everyone,
was the first to walk out.
Everyone's ex-girlfriend
had sex with their good friends
during a phase.

Everyone's ex-girlfriend is always
meeting everyone late at night.
Busy girl. He says
Maybe I'll stop by after
and then calls from home.
I say Did you have a good time
and he says We've really grown apart.
But I can picture the tall bar stools.

You look great, they might
say to each other, shiny eyes. You always were
like that. Some things never change.
It's snowing! The snow is in their hair.

When he says It was wild to see someone
after so long, I hear Our skin was so cold.

Everyone says
I don't know who I am right now.
I feel like I haven't felt anything in a long time.

Alright, he says to her,
You're giving me a hard-on.
Really, she murmurs. She is so mean.
Her drink splashes around in her glass.
Touch it, he says.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dylan and the Poets

Whether Bob Dylan's lyrics "are poetry" is an old, half-open, and largely uninteresting controversy. Christopher Ricks thinks they are, and wrote a book (Dylan's Visions of Sin) about them; Hitchens agrees, and wrote a very funny review of Ricks's book. Hitchens:
There are also those who maintain that Dylan can't really sing. (This latter group has recently been reluctantly increasing.) Of his ability as a poet, however, there can be no reasonable doubt.
Lawrence J. Epstein disagrees --
Dylan's musical achievements are those of a performance artist. Separated from the music and the nasal twang and the startling cadences of Dylan's voice, the written lyrics can seem desiccated.
So he can't sing and he can't write. Yet both writers claim to admire him, and I -- who find myself in sympathy with both views -- also consider myself a Dylan fan. You could argue that it's stupid to pass a song through a prism, extract a verbal essence and a musical essence, analyze each and add up the scores. However, a lot of medieval songs have survived without their settings, and can be appreciated as printed lyrics. (Not to mention Campion's magnificent songs.)

Such lyric is distinguished from other contemporary poetry by being metrically adventurous and lyrically straightforward. Here's a relatively literary example, Campion channeling Catullus:

Silly Traytresse, who shall now thy carelesse tresses place?
Who thy pretty talke supply, whose eare thy musicke grace?
Who shall thy bright eyes admire? what lips triumph with thine?
Day by day who'll visit thee and say ' th'art onely mine '?
Such a time there was, God wot, but such shall neuer be:
Too oft, I feare, thou wilt remember me.

If you were to find a phrase for this sort of writing, it probably wouldn't be "brambled verbal density" (Luc Sante on the music he listens to, via Zach). It couldn't; the musical settings would have drowned out any serious verbal complexity, and this was among the formal constraints on Campion. One way to state the distinction is that Campion's lyrics, while sometimes insipid, are always well-behaved poems; Dylan's, while they contain phrases and lines better than anything in Campion, never cohere as good poems. Dylan is a good poet like the Pound of the Cantos is a good poet; most of his lines are flabby and unmusical on the page, but you can't dismiss the writing because occasionally Dylan comes up with stuff like this:

I know that evening's empire has returned into sand

the haunted frightened trees

The vagabond who's rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel

I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,

If poetry is "memorable speech," I would say all of this qualifies. Dylan is a gifted surrealist. However, there isn't a single Dylan lyric that I can read through without wincing, and few famous ones that even cohere emotionally as printed. The unity of Dylan's songs is a product of his "cawing, derisive" (Larkin) voice, not his lyrics; take the voice away and the payoff lines live in rather squalid surroundings.

[Incidentally, the best thing in Hitchens's review is this factoid:

(Rushdie, who invented the game [of retitling Shakespeare's plays as if they were written by Robert Ludlum], came up with The Elsinore Vacillation, The Dunsinane Reforestation, The Kerchief Implication, and The Rialto Sanction.)]

Herodotus, Population Biologist

I was at a population biology talk today, where the usual cute historical snippet was Herodotus's theory of low birth rates among predators --
The lioness, on the other hand, which is one of the strongest and boldest of brutes, brings forth young but once in her lifetime, and then a single cub; she cannot possibly conceive again, since she loses her womb at the same time that she drops her young. The reason of this is that as soon as the cub begins to stir inside the dam, his claws, which are sharper than those of any other animal, scratch the womb; as the time goes on, and he grows bigger, he tears it ever more and more; so that at last, whenthe birth comes, there is not a morsel in the whole womb that is sound.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Hidden Johnson

George Packer notes that Wednesday is LBJ's centenary. It's a shame that the president who got Civil Rights through Congress -- surely the most important piece of legislation since WW2 -- is not being more widely honored. Johnson's legacy has suffered from his not being a very nice guy, and more substantially because of Vietnam; but Vietnam's over, and the consequences of Civil Rights are still with us.

At the very least, the fact that it's the Democratic Party that's nominating a black man for president is almost entirely due to Johnson. They ought to acknowledge that in Denver.

PS Like Packer, I basically assented to Hillary's infamous comparison between Johnson and King. And was delighted when it led to the following gem:
Earlier that day she had even attacked Obama using Mondale's famous line about Gary Hart, "Where's the beef?" But now she seemed to be shedding her private dismay that she could never be a charismatic politician like Obama or Kennedy, or her husband, and embracing her inner Johnson.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lieberman Lives

Bill Kristol, Ezra Klein, and Patrick Ruffini (sort of) argue that McCain should pick Lieberman. As a news story, this will mean a huge boost for McCain because it will make him look centrist. I can't imagine Lieberman being much use on the campaign trail, but that probably doesn't matter. Unless the evangelicals stay home this November, and they won't, this could be terrible for the Democrats.

Biden and HRC

Jay Cost also thinks HRC would have made a better choice for veep. Seeing him make the case, though, I'm having second thoughts:

Hillary brings just about every upside Biden brings. She brings seasoning. She brings toughness. She brings facility in debates. Meanwhile, her downsides largely overlap with his. She highlights Obama's inexperience. She is not consistent with his message of change.

See, I'm not so sure about the toughness thing. She might have pulled a John Edwards 04 and sabotaged (or done nothing to help) the ticket. It would've been the rational thing for her to do: if McCain wins, she's got a good shot at the 2012 nomination; if Obama wins, she can't run until 2016, which might be too late.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More on the Drinking Age

There's a flurry of editorials about that proposal to lower the drinking age. I'm a little surprised the story didn't die out, as the proposal obviously won't be implemented and it hasn't been an especially slow week. The Post had a particularly irritating editorial about this, in which they advised skeptical readers to "take a good look at numbers posted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving" -- as if you would trust anything coming out of a group like that. No one on either side of the debate mentions that the vast majority of underage drinkers neither binge-drink (guess this depends on how you define binge-drinking) nor drive drunk (at least, not especially often), and the current law is an unreasonable imposition on them. If your only objective in life is to reduce car accidents, then I have a brilliant idea -- raise the driving age to 25! Or 40! You would be astonished at the resulting decline in car accidents.

That said, my sense is that the college presidents' notion that binge drinking has anything to do with the legal status of booze is wrong. (cf. Finland, the UK) The most effective way to cut down on booze at parties is probably to raise the tax; party organizers are not, in my experience, immune to costs. I think this will affect parties more than individual / small group drinking, though obviously it isn't going to stop the more extreme cases, and there will be a general decline in the quality of social life. Btw, if people are that into reducing drunk driving, why not make it a felony? This has the added merit over the current approach that it might deter drunk driving among 22-year-olds. (It'd be interesting to compare DUI fatalities for 18-21 year olds back in the 60s and 70s with similar numbers for 21-25 year olds. If they are not significantly different, it's rankly unjust to let one group drink and forbid the other.)

In general, the argument is taking place on the wrong turf. The Star-Ledger suggests that the burden of proof is on people who would lower the drinking age. I disagree; forbidding a subset of adults from doing what other adults can is facially unreasonable except in the presence of a very compelling state interest. I'm willing to acknowledge the possibility that such an interest exists -- it depends on the numbers, which seem to me ambiguous (e.g. a 10% drop in drunk driving among underage drivers doesn't cut it) -- and that it really is a good idea to keep the age at 21 (in which case, wouldn't 22 be even better, as I argued last time?), but no one's trying to make that case.

Biden vs. Motherhood

I am, needless to say, with Biden on this one. You've probably heard me rant about how militant irrational groups of "moms" are a disastrous influence on politics -- on autism, crime, education, drinking, and goodness knows what else. Anyway, this is what Biden has to say, via Yglesias:
I would note parenthetically that we no longer have soccer moms in San Diego or Wilmington or Washington or Seattle, we have security moms. An abnormally high percentage of women between the ages of 25 and 40 with children, believe that they are likely to be a victim of a terrorist attack, which is not accurate but close to 40% believe that. Which has another destabilizing effect on us as a country.

So it does.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"A Crazy Cancer-Ridden Dishonest Madman"

Matt Stoller at OpenLeft discusses McCain's so-called cancer problem. His post is representative of the left's inability to launch effective negative attacks. I love this bit:

McCain is 72 years old and he was a POW, a member of a group with high rates of illness due to ill-treatment on the part of their captors.
I know it's supposed to be a good idea to go after your opponents' strengths. But negative politics is an art, and tone-deafness of this magnitude is a serious handicap if you want to be any good at it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Devouring Seamen

I'm reading Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue, which is a general attack on modern ethical philosophy and (among other things) a defense of Aristotelian attitudes towards morality. It's a well-written and occasionally provocative book; I'll have more to say about it when I finish it, but I wanted to flag a supposed counterexample to the no-ought-from-is principle that MacIntyre attributes to A.N. Prior:

He is a seaman. Therefore he ought to do whatever it is a seaman ought to do.

Let's replace the noun to sharpen the point:

He is a homosexual. Therefore he ought to do whatever it is a homosexual ought to do.

On the idiomatic reading of the inference -- "he is a homosexual, therefore he should behave like one" -- the ought, if it's a moral ought, doesn't follow from the is. (Ask Ted Haggard.) If, on the other hand, it is a prudential ought -- if he doesn't behave like a homosexual he will cease to be a homosexual -- then the inference goes from a fact to a fact. Alternatively, it goes from a desire to continue to be a homosexual and a set of beliefs about the world and language to a course of action that would fulfill the desire. This isn't an is-ought inference, it's instrumental reasoning.

Let's try the narrow reading, which I take to be:

for all X and q (if all H's ought to do X and q is an H then q ought to do X).
p is an H.
for all X (if all H's ought to do X then p ought to do X).

Assuming ought statements obey first-order logic, this is valid reasoning; however, the conclusion has no normative force. To make the conclusion normative one would have to satisfy the protasis with an ought statement, in which case one would have deduced an ought from an ought.

Of course it's possible to construct an ethical system with very few extralogical principles; utilitarianism is an example; but you can't do it without some extralogical input, and there is no reason to suppose that a small number of universal core principles gives you a better ethics than a laundry list of ought statements. (And good reason to suppose that there's no Occam-like principle -- all known simple systems are simplistic.) So it's difficult and probably impossible to come up with a useful way to adjudicate between moral systems that's independent of whether you like the results -- which limits the power of moral reasoning to guide your actions.

NB I was misquoting from memory; Prior's original example said "sea-captain" rather than "seaman." For obvious reasons I will not correct the post.

Re: "What became of the USSR?"

There's a fairly prevalent myth that the former Soviet medal-generating machine is in disrepair, because Russia's a distant third (or fourth, depending on how you count) in the medal tally. A quick look at the tally shows, however, that this is a matter of bookkeeping. Here are the numbers:

Russia 17 + 17 + 22 = 56
Ukraine 5 + 4 + 10 = 19
Belarus 4 + 3 + 8 = 15
Georgia (!) 3 + 0 + 0 = 3
Kazakhstan 1 + 4 + 6 = 11
Azerbaijan 1 + 2 + 4 = 7
Uzbekistan 1 + 2 + 3 = 6
Estonia 1 + 1 + 0 = 2
Latvia 1 + 0 + 1 = 2
Lithuania 0 + 2 + 3 = 5

Subtotal (without Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan etc.): 34 + 35 + 60 = 129
(cf. US: 30 + 36 + 35 = 101)

So the former USSR is doing about as well as it was.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Word Rescue Squad: fist/feist

[What follows is the OED entry for fist(2).]

fist, n.2 [pr. like "feist," which is a variant spelling.]


Forms: 5 fyyst, 5-7, 9 fiste, 6-7 fiest, fyest, fyst(e, 9 Sc. feist, 7, 9 fist. Also FOIST.

1. A breaking wind, a foul smell, stink. Obs.

1440 Promp. Parv. 163/1 Fyyst, stynk, lirida. 1511 Demaundes joyous in Kemble Salomon (1848) 288 It is fartes and fyestes. a1529 SKELTON Elynour Rummyng 343 Jone sayne she had eaten a fyest; By Christ, sayde she, thou lyest, I haue as swete a breth As thou. 1605 B. JONSON, etc. Eastward Hoe IV, Fivb, Marry, fyste o' your kindnesse. I thought as much. 1611 COTGR., Secrette..a fiste. 1664 COTTON Scarron. 44 With that he whistled out most mainly. You might have heard his Fist..From one side of the skie to th' t' other.

[The entry goes on to talk about "fisting-hounds."]

Collins on Lieberman

Many people on the left have been picking on Joe Lieberman, but I think Gail Collins's snark today is one of the best:
Lieberman used to be a perfectly good senator, but somewhere along the line he began thinking of himself as being above the partisan fray, and it had a terrible effect. When he ran for vice president, he was so busy being pompous that he didn’t notice that Dick Cheney had won the debate. (Of all the negative achievements in Lieberman’s career, it’s hard to top making Cheney the most likable man in the room.)
Collins has been a bit off lately -- her columns have had the half-hearted fluffiness of stale cotton candy -- but today's column is very good.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Priscilla Sneff: Song

(Link. Sneff's work is generally not my cup of tea, but I'll make an exception for this one, mostly because of the last stanza.)


Whether he live or no
The meadow shimmer as ever
And heat render the long stems low
And the sun stroke the river

And silence take me in
Undoubling its front door
To a room like the room inside my skin,
Its broken furniture,

And I lie on the single bed
Older; the linen is taut.
My own bare arm lies under my head
Shifting little or not

When night calls to its own,
Ruffling its owls together,
And their eyes blink at the shining moon,
And the moon glows in the river.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cosmic Justice

I've been reduced to playing internet boggle to procrastinate -- it's a game I'm ambivalent about because I'm not very good at it. However, sometimes I have a stroke of luck (click image to enlarge) -- though I suppose if anyone was going to see "indolence" in the circumstances...

Empty Seats

Fallows poses and resolves an interesting question:

In several previous posts I've mentioned the paradox of Olympic tickets being flat "sold-out," yet huge tracts of seats sitting empty. Many people have written in to solve the mystery. This, from Alf Hickey, reflects the consensus view:

Large amounts of empty seats are actually quite common at Chinese concerts or sporting events that claim to be "sold out." The reason for this is that a large amount of tickets are given to the bigwigs who organize the events so they can guanxi them out ["build relationships"] as needed. Since the Olympics had so many different organizing bodies, the central government, the local Beijing government and the Chinese Olympic committee, I'm sure there were vast amounts tickets given to various officials.

The reason that these tickets are not used is that by the rules of Chinese guanxi, you don't refuse a gift, especially not from someone connected enough to get Olympic tickets. So the tickets to the rowing finals are probably in the hands of people who have no desire to see the event, but just needed to stay in the good graces of some random Beijing bureaucrat. I suspect that the tickets have already changed hands more than once, passed along like a box of moon cakes that no one actually wants to eat.

The Drinking Age

So college presidents think the drinking age is too high. No surprises there. "Mothers Against Drunk Driving" thinks it's too low. This reinforces my feeling that parents should have no political power. What I would suggest, though, is that it would be sensible to have a drinking age that lines up with a natural division in one's life -- so, e.g. 14, 18, 22 are all more sensible drinking ages than 16 or 21. One problem with the status quo is that about 50% of college students can drink legally and the other 50% can't, so it's trivial to procure booze. If you really wanted to make it harder for college students to drink, it would make sense to raise the age to 22 and restrict volume per sale for anyone under 25; this would drive up the effective cost of alcohol for college students, and would partially solve the fake ID problem because everyone in your group would be illegal.

Would this reduce alcohol consumption? Probably not, because Popov is a Giffen good. On the other hand, it would spoil the current, barely acceptable status quo; and perhaps eventually lead to a rational drinking age like 18.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Note on the Veepstakes

There are basically two principles involved: 1. a lot of positive press is a good thing, 2. though veeps don't actually help much, they can screw things up pretty badly. Veeps do not bring their home states, etc.

The Dems go first so the GOP pick will be a response to the Dem pick. The Dems have five sorts of choices -- Clinton, Gore, Biden/Nunn, Bayh, and Kaine/Sebelius. I would rank them in that order. The higher-profile the veep the better; it'll focus attention on the Democrats but not on Obama, with whom the public is a little bored. I used to think Clinton would be a bad idea and to some extent I still do, but everyone else I'd have liked (Webb, Edwards, Rendell, Strickland) is out, and the remaining "sensible" options are impossibly boring. Gore would bring a lot of good feelings but might be unsound on the offshore drilling issue, which Obama wants to compromise on. If neither of those is possible, it seems like Biden is the best of the rest of the pack, being an established and articulate figure that a lot of people have kind of heard of. Nunn is a paler version of Biden. The others, besides being anticlimactic and killing the news cycle, will not attract attention and have no electoral upside, being mediocre speakers and having no real story to keep the newspapers busy. (cf. Jim Webb) There is always the danger that Clinton will be a disaster, but Republican attacks on Clinton will energize the (overhyped) PUMA types.

The Republicans have three options: Huckabee, Romney, and nonentity (Pawlenty, Crist, Jindal, etc. -- unknown figures). Romney would be a terrible choice -- 1. he has a turd for a personality, and no one liked him in the primaries; 2. he's a corporate fatcat and will hurt in Ohio. Huckabee appears not to be in the running, which I think is silly because, if Obama plays it safe and his VP announcement sinks in the press, it's a good opportunity for McCain to pick up some momentum by picking a well-known VP. Of the available candidates, it seems like Huckabee, though risky, has the biggest upside -- he's close to the Jesus freaks in Colorado, and to the Appalachian types in Ohio, and would be an effective campaigner in both states. (On the other hand it's possible that enough people are terrified of Huckabee and the religious right that he'd sink the ticket.) If Obama picks someone high-profile, McCain should go with a nonentity because he can't win the celebrity war.

The real question is whether McCain can win on "acceptability." My sense is that he can't, quite, against Obama alone -- Kerry nearly won in 2004, and did about as badly as Obama with the Appalachian types -- but might be able to against Obama/Clinton. The problem is he hasn't got too many options against Obama/Clinton.

PS I'm told that Tom Ridge isn't a nonentity. Who knew.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Beached Walrus in Abkhazia

PS Note that this post is in doubly poor taste because the men are at a funeral.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Brooks vs. Science

David Brooks wrote this idiotic column earlier this week about American individualism and Chinese collectivism. The take-away paragraph was:
If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

Mark Liberman dismantles this column at LanguageLog.
Question to Language Log: Is it correct that if you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing, while if you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim?

Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all, it wasn't a representative sample of Americans, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at the University of Michigan; and second, it wasn't Chinese, it was undergraduates in a psychology course at Kyoto University in Japan; and third, it wasn't a fish tank, it was 10 20-second animated vignettes of underwater scenes; and fourth, the Americans didn't mention the "focal fish" more often than the Japanese, they mentioned them less often.

Read the whole thing. The blog has some other takedowns of Brooks's atrocious pop neuroscience. Relatedly, Liberman describes a study showing that the use of irrelevant neuroscientific jargon makes people perceive idiotic explanations as sensible.

Bulwer-Lytton Contest 08

The Bulwer-Lytton contest is for "bad opening sentences to imaginary novels." Here are this year's winners. A few gems:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped "Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."

Leopold looked up at the arrow piercing the skin of the dirigible with a sort of wondrous dismay -- the wheezy shriek was just the sort of sound he always imagined a baby moose being beaten with a pair of accordions might make.

Mike Hummer had been a private detective so long he could remember Preparation A, his hair reminded everyone of a rat who'd bitten into an electrical cord, but he could still run faster than greased owl snot when he was on a bad guy's trail, and they said his friskings were a lot like getting a vasectomy at Sears.

The mongrel dog began to lick her cheek voraciously with his sopping wet tongue, so wide and flat and soft, a miniature pink fleshy cape soaked through and oozing with liquid salivary gratitude; after all, she had rescued him from the clutches of Bernard, the curmudgeonly one-eyed dogcatcher, whose own tongue -- she remembered vividly the tongues of all her lovers -- was coarse and lethargic, like a slug in a sandpaper trenchcoat.

The KGB agent known only as the Spider, milk solids oozing from his mouth and nose, surveyed the spreading wound in his abdomen caused by the crushing blow of the low but deadly hassock and begged of his attacker to explain why she gone to the trouble of feeding him tainted milk products before effecting his assassination with such an inferior object as this ottoman, only to hear in his dying moments an escaping Miss Muffet of the MI-5 whisper, "it is my whey."

As a cold winter sun was just rising above the lonely French village of Vicres-le-Buffeur, the forlorn figure of a man dressed in rich Arabian silks could be seen crouching in the center of the market square, crying softly and cradling in his arms the limp and lifeless body of what appeared to be a large hamster.

It was a dark and stormy night, except when the lightning flashed, because then it wasn't dark; it sort of turned the windows into a giant disco ball for a moment, but eventually the thunder and lightning stopped and it settled down to a steady light rain, so then it really was dark, but it would probably be a stretch to call it stormy. [Beckett could've written this. -- Ed.]

And then, of course, there's that magnificent one from 2005:

As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Railton, Realism, Cognitivism, Consistency

If you have the time (a lot of it -- should be evident from posting frequency that I'm procrastinating with a vengeance) you might be interested in this bloggingheads discussion between Don Loeb and Peter Railton about moral realism. (Watch Loeb's eyes while Railton's speaking.) I had read some of Railton's stuff at college, thanks to Alan, but it was all very meta-ethical and nonconstructive, and seemed liable to dismissal on "show me an absolute moral truth and I'll show you a contradiction" grounds. The video makes it clearer what Railton's truths are: stuff like "you should keep your promises." (See also: this Boston Review piece.) The "evidence," such as it is, comes from history and psychology. I find his position pretty unappealing, because (1) he disqualifies all forms of local feeling (patriotism, etc.) as not moral, (2) intuitions even about cheating are not quite the same everywhere -- in Tanzania, where I grew up, it's generally considered legit to cheat an out group, (3) it is not true outside of Ann Arbor that everyone believes in tolerance. Now I happen to agree with Railton's sentiments, but I'm bemused at any historical analysis implying that people have always held universalist values.

Defenses of moral truth often come down -- implicitly -- to the claim that the fact/value distinction is fuzzy, and denying moral truths is like solipsism. The difference is that we all agree, fairly strongly, on what the natural world is like, and philosophical justification is a formality; however, we do not generally agree on morality, and I have no consistent intuition about the existence of moral truths.

There's an interesting bit (ca. 30:00 to 40:00) on cognitivism: cognitivists claim that moral assertions are statements about something, whereas non-cognitivists claim that they are assertions of attitude -- e.g. yay red sox. (The BR article has a nice example of the semantic dangers here.) Non-cognitivists are obligated to explain how logic and consistency apply to moral statements, if they do. The if is something I've wondered about in the past, and it still puzzles me. There are some trivial cases of "moral reasoning" -- Killing pinnipeds is bad. A walrus is a pinniped. Therefore, killing walruses is bad. -- in which the premises do seem to imply the conclusions. However, I dunno about the law of the excluded middle: either one ought to kill walruses or one ought not to kill walruses. Seems to me it could plausibly be both, or neither. (The trouble here is, of course, that practical reasoning is a matter of weighing evils against each other, and "ought" is too blunt a term to be any use.)

PS Hilary Putnam argued, in "Mathematics without Foundations," that object talk can quite generally be re-expressed as modal talk and vice versa. I imagine this applies to the debate over cognitivism, and potentially settles it. Now where's my prize.

Simile of the Day

Darkness, black moth the light burns up in.
(Charles Wright, China Trace)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Generic Ballot Question

There's a meme (too prevalent to link to: but includes Krugman, Brooks, etc.) that Obama must be doing something wrong because he's underperforming the "generic Democrat," who's winning in a landslide. I used to think they polled a counterfactual about the Presidential election, but it turns out the actual question is:
If the election for the U.S. House of Representatives were being held today, would you vote for (the Democratic candidate) or (the Republican candidate) in your congressional district?

Now put that together with this snippet describing this year's Republican candidates. Isn't it plausible that at least some of that Republican weakness has to do with the godawfulness of their congressional candidates?

I finally understand Benford's Law

Benford's Law states that the first digits in various lists of randomly distributed quantities -- the weights of rocks, the lengths of rivers, death rates, populations of settlements, or income tax returns -- are distributed nonuniformly. The first digit is 1 around 30% of the time, 2 about 18% of the time (and cumulatively 1, 2, or 3 about 60% of the time) -- and 9 less than 5%. The practical significance of this is that if you were to forge a list -- say on an income tax return -- you would do well to distribute the first digit according to Benford's law rather than evenly. (I was reminded of Benford's Law by the Chinese medal tally -- their methods are, as I said, transparent from the medal count alone.)

Why is Benford's Law true? Suppose not: suppose the first digits of some list, say the length of rivers in meters, were distributed evenly (which is intuitive). Now let's express them in feet (let's approximate 1 m = 3 ft). If the first digit in meters was four or five (or in some cases three or six) then the first digit in feet is 1. On the other hand, for the first digit in feet to be 9, the first two digits in meters must be between 30 and 34. If we started with even distributions of first and second digits in meters, it follows that, in feet, the lengths begin in 1 about 30% of the time, and in 9 about 3.3% of the time. This makes no sense at all because there's nothing special about meters -- the distribution of first digits ought to be the same no matter which units you count in.

Benford's distribution is a sort of fractal: it's the only distribution of first digits that is invariant under conversion from meters to feet, or pounds to kilograms, or people to families, or geese to gaggles. What's special about Benford's distribution is that all the digits of the logarithms are distributed evenly. Since log (ab) = log a + log b, and even distributions stay even whatever you add to them, it follows that a logarithmically even distribution (i.e. Benford's) stays logarithmically even upon rescaling.

It follows that we shouldn't expect Benford's Law to hold whenever we don't expect our descriptions to be scale-invariant: e.g. telephone numbers, last digits in random lists of integers, or any variable with a normal distribution, which implies a characteristic size -- e.g. heights.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Review-Essay

Zach comments, regarding Helen Vendler:
her willingness to invent the content she ascribes to poets and then discover it tends to carry her to not their most sparkling lines.

Maybe their most sparkling lines wouldn't be a very good place to start though honestly.

This is an interesting pitfall of the review-essay. A periodical like, say, the New York Review of Books invites important people to review books at great length. Their essays are later collected into books, which are expected to have a measure of organic integrity and to be important works of criticism.

These aims are not entirely consistent. There are three types of audience for an essay about a book of poetry -- 1. those to whom the poet is new, and who would like to know what his work is like; 2. those who know the poet's earlier work, and want to know how the new book compares with it; 3. those who have read the book. A review-essay, qua review, is meant for 1. and 2.; qua essay or chapter of forthcoming book, for 3.

When I read a review, I expect a generously illustrated description of the writer's style, and a fair account of his (or her) sensibility. This does involve quoting the brightest passages, because -- like most people who still read poetry -- my first question about any book is how well it's written, and the high points are relevant evidence. When I read an essay on someone whose work I know, I'm looking for an angle on the writer -- or on modern writing and how he fits in. In this case, Zach's right: the obvious starting points are crap.

So how does one reconcile these things? Auden had an ingenious solution that worked for him in Forewords and Afterwords, but probably wouldn't for anyone else. As John Berryman wrote:
It is hardly unfair to say that Auden, over the years, has done one of two things with books entrusted to him for comment: either he wrote about what interested him at the moment, making some spidery connection with the book in hand, or, with books he felt keen about, like Cyril Connolly's vivid Enemies of Promise, he quoted from them at agreeable length.

(The book, as a result, is an excellent piece of Audeniana.) Or one could, like Vendler, give a themed guided tour of the book -- a "Phallic aspects of Chicago" -- that includes its high points and also fits into one's overall interests. There is some misrepresentation involved here, no doubt, but the point is to get people to read the book, which they will if the quotations are appealing enough.

In my experience, Vendler's are. But this is all extremely subjective.

"Caucuses" redux

Matthew Yglesias is also unhealthily obsessed with "The Caucuses" --
The intensity of the desire to imbue these events in the Caucuses with extraordinary significance keeps running far ahead of any kind of actual logic of reasoning.

(Events in the caucuses did have extraordinary significance, as Yglesias and everyone else agreed at the time.)

Schaich on Abkhazia (dated)

Dave Schaich has everything you needed to know about the Georgian situation in 2005.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Why does China win so many gold medals?

So here are the Chinese medal tallies from the past four Olympics (in reverse chronological order, g/s/b):


The tally so far this year is 9-3-2. The disproportionate spike in gold medals is interesting because every other country with a large (>10, hence statistical) medal count has a relatively even distribution -- like China 92/96. Is China dominating relatively uncompetitive events?

Now there's a name...

Meet Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon, a Thai weightlifter born Chanpim Kantatian, who "changed her name in 2007 'for good luck.'" It appears to've worked; she won a gold.

Call me Theartistformerlyknownasjaroenrattanatarakoon.

Charles Wright: Sunlight Bets on the Come

More obsessive Charles Wright posting, cf. here. This poem is from The New Yorker:

Sunlight Bets on the Come

The basic pleasures remain unchanged,
and their minor satisfactions—
Chopping wood, building a fire,
Watching the elk herd
splinter and cruise around the outcrop of spruce trees

As the deer haul ass,
their white flags like synchronized swimmers’ hands,
Sunlight sealing—stretched like Saran wrap—
The world as we know it,
keeping it fresh-flamed should tomorrow arrive.

Media Bias: Conspiracy Theory Edition

There's some superficial plausibility to this in the abstract: Wolfson: Edwards' Cover-up Cost Clinton the Nomination. (The idea is that if Edwards had been pushed out pre-Iowa, then Clinton would've won Iowa and Obama would never have caught fire.) However, it reads as the nuttiest of media-bias-killed-Clinton stories. No wonder they didn't expose the Edwards affair -- it would've hurt Obama!

And I don't really buy the claim that Edwards was stealing the Clinton vote in Iowa. The exit poll data do not show Edwards running strongly with seniors or women or lower-income voters; in fact Clinton was winning her support base outright. The Edwards contingent -- actually, a lot of the Edwards vote was redirected from candidates that failed the 15% viability threshold -- is disproportionately upper-income, middle-aged white guys. These voters went heavily for Obama in Wisconsin.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Light and Grease

From Charles Wright's Littlefoot:

I remember the way the mimosa tree
........................................................buttered the shade
Outside the basement bedroom, soaked in its yellow bristles.

I love the winter light, so thin, so unbuttery,
Transparent as plastic wrap,
Clinging so effortlessly to whatever it skins over.

In Kingsport, looking across the valley toward Moccasin Gap
From Chestnut Ridge,
...................................the winter-waxed trees
Are twiggy and long-fingery, fretting the woods-wind.

You know the Dem primaries lasted too long...

... when, three months later, RealClearPolitics spells Caucasus as caucuses. (Though I always thought Georgia had a primary!)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Orwell's Diaries

George Orwell's diaries will gradually be digitized on this blog -- the first entry went up today. Not the brightest of starts but it should be worth the occasional visit, esp. as it grows.

(Orwell's editorials are definitely worth reading. For instance, from the Jan 1944 archives:

However, this honours-list business [i.e. the knighthoods etc.] has one severely practical aspect, and that is that a title is a first-class alias. Mr X can practically cancel his past by turning himself into Lord Y. Some of the ministerial appointments that have been made during this war would hardly have been possible without some such disguise.)

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Higgs Mechanism and Mass

There's been a fair bit of LHC buzz in the media and on the blogs. Everyone mentions the Higgs mechanism, of course, which no one particularly seems to understand -- not surprising, because it's a fairly subtle business. The most frequent misconception is that the Higgs mechanism gives gravitational mass to other elementary particles; this is incorrect, because the standard model doesn't have gravity in it.

There are two kinds of mass in physics, inertial and gravitational. Inertial mass is the m that appears in Newton's law F = ma (the ratio of force applied to acceleration achieved) or in Einstein's equation E = mc^2. It's basically a measure of how hard you've got to push something to get it to move, and has nothing to do with gravity. Gravitational mass is a measure of how strongly objects attract each other. Empirically these masses are the same; this is the content of Newton's law of gravity. The Higgs mechanism explains why particles have inertial mass -- it's because (very crudely) they have to push against the Higgs field to move. (The Higgs boson is a ripple of the Higgs field, just as a photon is a ripple of the electromagnetic field.) This story, for obvious reasons, doesn't go very far towards explaining gravity.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Whole Nother Math Joke

So, um, have you heard

the one about Noah’s instructions to the animals when they departed the ark: “Go forth and multiply”. The snakes, who were back then called adders, insisted “We can’t multiply; we’re adders!” Noah’s reply: “Use logs”.

Incidentally, a bit of Anglo-Saxon pedantry. "An adder" comes from the Anglo-Saxon "a naedre"; the n later drifted to the article. Carson Mitchell once told me about a few other examples of this process, but I don't remember them.

LHC Predictions

Sean Carroll discusses what the Large Hadron Collider (i.e. the big new accelerator at CERN) might find once it's turned on in about a month. I don't know how accessible his post is, but note a couple of highlights. 1. The LHC is unlikely to find anything particularly relevant to string theory. 2. The prospects for finding additional dimensions are less bleak. Contrary to popular belief, the extra dimensions are a feature and not a bug of string theory, because there are independent reasons to want them to exist; their existence might not tell us anything definitive about string theory. 3. His remark on why there are probably no more quarks out there -- because each generation of quarks is supposed to come with a neutrino, neutrinos are light and should have been observed -- is plausible and new to me. 4. Note the proliferation of borderline plausible ideas (unparticles, technicolor, baryogenesis), most of which must be wrong. This experiment is seriously overdue.

I don't know how invested I am professionally in the LHC's success. If particle physics takes off once again, other branches of physics will become relatively less fashionable and this might hurt hiring. On the other hand, there might be interesting condensed matter physics ideas that apply at the new scales. And if current trends in NSF funding continue we might all be screwed regardless.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Charge of the Right Brigade

Eve Fairbanks has a good article on the GOP's hilarious recruiting problems:
In eastern Arizona, Republicans had to settle for their tenth choice; in Staten Island, the GOP's bottom-tier selection garnered an electoral challenge from his own disgruntled son--and then died. In Indiana's competitive 2nd district, the under-funded Republican challenger frittered away his precious money flying to Alaska to film pro-ANWR-drilling YouTube videos, one of which had to be aborted because he was overwhelmed by swarms of mosquitoes. In North Carolina's Bush-loving 11th, which failed Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler claimed for the Democrats with a 2006 upset win, the party finally settled on Asheville councilman Carl Mumpower--but, almost immediately after being nominated, Mumpower, like an immune defender cell gone wrong, began attacking the host body, calling for President Bush's impeachment and then, last week, briefly refusing to do any more campaigning. It turns out this is what you get for nominating a lawmaker who was, up to that point, primarily known for conducting his own extra- judicial crack busts.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Vendler on Lowell, without the text

Auden said somewhere that he read reviews mostly for the quotations. Helen Vendler's brilliant review of Lowell's later poems is best read that way; the text doesn't really add much to the passages, but the quotations were good enough to make me read Lowell, whom otherwise (confessional, deranged, megalomaniacal) I wouldn't have bothered with. Follow the link for the full version, here is the meat of the thing: [I've boldfaced the bits that really got to me]

They won't stay gone, and stare with triumphant torpor,
as if held in my fieldglasses' fog and enlargement.

Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, hushing
all becoming. I'm for and with myself in my otherness,
in the eternal return of earth's fairer children,
the lily, the rose, the sun on brick at dusk,
the loved, the lover, and their fear of life,
their unconquered flux, insensate oneness...

raw hamburger mossing in the watery stoppage,
the room drenched with musk like kerosene—
no one shaved, and only the turtle washed.
He was so beautiful when we flipped him over:
greens, reds, yellows, fringe of the faded savage,
the last Sioux, old and worn...

lovely the flies that fed that sleazy surface,
a turtle looking back at us, and blinking.

The lizard rusty as a leaf rubbed rough
does nothing for days but puff his throat
on oxygen, and tongue up passing flies,
loves only identical rusty lizards panting:
harems worthy this lord of the universe—
each thing he does generic, and not the best.

I, fifty, humbled with the years' gold garbage,
dead laurel grizzling my back like spines of hay

Spring moved to summer—the rude cold rain
hurries the ambitious, flowers and youth....

Child of ten, three quarters animal,
three years from Juliet, half Juliet,
already ripened for the night on stage—
beautiful petals, what shall we hope for....?

The virus crawling on its belly like a blot,
an inch an aeon; the tyrannosaur,
first carnivore to stand on his two feet,
the neanderthal, first anthropoid to laugh—
we lack staying power, though we will to live.
Abel learned this falling among the jellied
creepers and morning-glories of the saurian sunset.

"O Christmas tree, how green thy branches—our features
could only be the most conventional,
the hardwood smile, the Persian rug's abstraction,
the firelight dancing in the Christmas candles,
my unusual offspring with his usual scowl,
spelling the fifty feuding kings of Greece,
with a red, blue and yellow pencil....I
am seasick with marital unhappiness—"

The fires men build live after them,
this night, this night, I elfking, I stonehands sit
feeding the wildfire wildrose of the fire
clouding the cottage window with my lust's
alluring emptiness. I hear the moon
simmer the mildew on a pile of shells,
the fruits of my banquet...a boiled lobster,
red shell and hollow foreclaw, cracked, sucked dry,
flung on the ash-heap of a soggy carton—
it eyes me, two pinhead, burnt-out popping eyes.

The thick lemony honeysuckle,
climbing from the earthroot to your window,
will open more beautiful blossoms to the evening;
but dewdrops, trembling, shining, falling,
the tears of day—they'll not come back....

The Puritan shone here,
lord of self-inflicted desiccation,
roaming for outlet through the virgin forest,
stalking the less mechanically angered savage—
the warpath to three wives and twenty children.

Sometimes, my mind is a rocked and dangerous bell;
I climb the spiral stairs to my own music,
each step more poignantly oracular,
something inhuman always rising in me—

Risen from the blindness of teaching to bright snow,
everything mechanical stopped dead,
taxis no-fares...the wheels grow hot from driving—
ice-eyelashes, in my spring coat; the subway
too jammed and late to stop for passengers;
snow-trekking the mile from subway end to airport...
to all-flights-canceled, fighting queues congealed
to telephones out of order, stamping buses,
rich, stranded New Yorkers staring with the wild, mild eyes
of steers at the foreign subway—then the train home,
jolting with stately grumbling.

star-nosed moles, [in] their catatonic tunnels
and earthworks...only in touch with what they touch.

I want words meat-hooked from the living steer,
but a cold flame of tinfoil licks the metal log,
beautiful unchanging fire of childhood
betraying a monotony of vision....
Life by definition breeds on change,
each season we scrap new cars and wars and women.
But sometimes when I am ill or delicate,
the pinched flame of my match turns unchanging green,
a cornstalk in green tails and seeded tassel....
A nihilist has to live in the world as is,
gazing the impassable summit to rubble.

Serfs with a finer body and tinier brain—
who asks the swallows to do drudgery,
clean, cook, peck up their ton of dust per diem?
Knock on their homes, they go up tight with fear,
farting about all morning past their young,
small as wasps fuming in their ash-leaf ball.
Nature lives off the life that comes to hand;
yet if we knew and softly felt their being,
wasp, bee and bird might live with us on air;
the boiling yellow-jacket in her sack
of zebra-stripe cut short above the kneeescape...
the nerve-wrung creatures, wasp, bee and bird,
felons for life or keepers of the cell,
wives in their wooden cribs of seed and feed.

I too maneuvered on a guiding string
as I execute my written plot.
I feel how Hamlet, stuck with the Revenge Play
his father wrote him, went scatological
under this clotted London sky.

I watch a feverish huddle of shivering cows;
you sit making a fishspine from a chestnut leaf.
We are at our crossroads, we are astigmatic
and stop uncomfortable, we are humanly low.

I've gladdened a lifetime
knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope;
the net will hang on the wall when the fish are eaten,
nailed like illegible bronze on the futureless future

Terminal Legal Incompetence

From the Times's feature on hospitals repatriating illegal immigrants:
A few weeks later, Judge Fennelly ruled. “This Court,” he wrote, “sails on uncharted seas.” He acknowledged that his decision might provoke dissent but opined, “As Aquinas once stated, ‘The good is not the enemy of the perfect,’ ” inverting and misattributing Voltaire’s famous quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
The judgment was later declared invalid. Which is good. This shit will not stand.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Electoral Realignments

Paul Rosenberg has a post with electoral college maps from 1896 to 2004. The analysis isn't especially interesting, but it is useful to have all the maps on the same page, and they basically speak for themselves. The trouble with a lot of writing about realignments is that they ignore the distinction between the following processes: (1) party platforms or attitudes change, and voters gravitate to the party that they think represents their opinions (e.g. the South after 1964), (2) the demographics of a state change because of migration (e.g. retirees moving to Florida), (3) the population of a state changes because of immigration or poor birth control (e.g. Texas had eight electoral votes in 1876 vs. fifteen for Indiana, now it has 30-something vs. 10), (4) economic changes force a change of heart about things like welfare (e.g. Michigan and Ohio and the dying factories). 2-4 happen more or less together (though one of them is usually the dominant effect) but are quite different from 1. Kevin Phillips's "emerging Republican majority" was entirely a (1), whereas the current changes in the southwest and Virginia are mostly a (2).

Nunn Better?

Chris Orr suggested a couple of months ago that Obama should pick Nunn as veep for the sake of headline writers worldwide. Nunn's presumed advantage in this regard might not be as strong as was thought: consider, for instance, the RCP blog headline "Is Kaine Able?" Webb, who sadly refused to be vetted, had immense potential (Webb of deceit, pornographic Webb sites, Webb cams, etc.); of the others, Biden, Dodd, and Reed are perhaps not entirely hopeless. ("The Dude, a-Biden"? Maybe not.) Sebelius (she bilious? ugh) is the worst.