Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Beware of Biologists Bearing Results

This "revolutionary" result about genes and behavior is, I think, an example of reporters being insufficiently skeptical of professorial hype.

"Some of the things we find are frankly bizarre," said Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University in Massachusetts, who helped conduct the study.

"We find that how interconnected your friends are depends on your genes. Some people have four friends who know each other and some people have four friends who don't know each other. Whether Dick and Harry know each other depends on Tom's genes," Christakis said in a telephone interview.


One surprising finding is that an individual's genetic makeup can influence the behavior of others, Fowler said: "My genes can influence the probability that two of my friends will become friends of each other."

It's only bizarre if you say it like that. Genes determine personality (at least to some extent), personality determines whether you have friends that would like one another. Some people have much more heterogeneous tastes in people than others. Yes, this poses certain problems for naive applications of network theory to human interactions, but that's only radical if you're a naive network theorist.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Maggots in the Sunset [long post]

One of the minor pleasures of literary criticism is following an image or thought as it develops, deepens, and eventually mutates. A neat example of this is the carpe diem poem in English, which moves with surprising coherence from the pretty to the frankly horrifying through a sequence of poems linked by allusions. One of the valuable things about this sequence is that it roots one of Alexander Pope's angriest passages of satire in Renaissance lyric verse, and provides an explicit bridge between the traditions.

Most of the poems in this sequence are famous, and all of them are quite obviously linked by allusion. It begins with Catullus's Poem 5 (Vivamus, mea Lesbia), as translated by Thomas Campion ca. 1600:

My sweetest Lesbia, let us live and love,
And though the sager sort our deeds reprove,
Let us not weigh them. Heaven's great lamps do dive
Into their west, and straight again revive,
But soon as once set is our little light,
Then must we sleep one ever-during night.

"The sager sort" translates Catullus's "senum severiorum," or "censorious old men," the incipient maggots in the sunset. However, they are there only as a rhetorical counter, and the general tone of the poem is celebratory, like the Catullus. It doesn't seem terribly likely that Lesbia will weigh the sager sorts; after all, who does?

A decade or so later, Ben Jonson reworked the Catullus into a song in his play Volpone (1607):
Time will not be ours for ever:
He at length our good will sever.
Spend not then his gifts in vain;
Suns that set may rise again,
But if once we lose this light
'Tis, with us, perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumour are but toys.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies?
Or his easier ears beguile,
So removed by our wile?
Except that this is a dirty old man trying to rape a woman he bought from her husband. The worms are implied, but only by the dramatic situation in which the poem is embedded. Auden remarks somewhere that "carpe diem" is a dirty old man's song, but this comes from reading the history backwards; Campion and Jonson are both translating Catullus, who was dirty but not old. Besides, the song is so jarringly effective in the play because of its inappropriateness, because it isn't what an old lecher ought to be thinking about, and because it emphasizes the general depravity of Volpone's world.

The next step in the progression is Robert Herrick (in Hesperides, 1648):
GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying :
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer ;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry :
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
Herrick is channeling Catullus-Campion-Jonson (stanza 2), but death and age are much more evident in this poem than in the previous ones. The threat of an ever-during night is fleshed out, though not yet maggoted, and the third stanza is evidently an old man writing about aging. Herrick was generally one of the least morbid poets of his generation, and the darkness is far from idiosyncratic.

Curiously, the antithesis between the recurring sun and death's "perpetual night" has become a parallel: just as the sun will set, so will your beauty. Presumably this has to do with the complex of Roman ideas about the gradual decline of the world from its Golden Age to the present, and it also evokes the fact that as you age the sun no longer seems to warm you quite so well (hence the old couples swaddled and shivering on park benches). However, the metaphor is somewhat muddled -- the sun is a lamp running a race -- and probably shouldn't be looked at too hard.

Andrew Marvell (ca. 1655) turns the lamp into a chariot, and puts the worms front and center:
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Marvell was certainly alluding to Herrick in this poem (titled "To His Coy Mistress," cf. "coy" in the Herrick) and they're often read together in English courses, but the emphasis is markedly different. "Quaint" was a common 16th cent. euphemism for "cunt"; though somewhat dated (quaint?) by Marvell's time, it was known and occasionally used -- "quaint honor" is an image, not just an abstraction. The passage is somber and grand in the way a lot of medieval work is, albeit with a lighter and wittier touch, because it is so general; it is beautiful because of the grandeur, in which the worms -- being universal and natural -- share some of the dignity of the marble vault and its "dust and ashes."

Lord Rochester (ca. 1675) gets a strikingly different texture out of the Herrick-Marvell formula by injecting an element of the sordid:

Phyllis, be gentler, I advise;
Make up for time misspent:
When Beauty on its deathbed lies,
’Tis high time to repent.

Such is the malice of your fate:
That makes you old too soon,
Your pleasure ever comes too late,
How early e’er begun.

Think what a wretched thing is she
Who stars contrive, in spite,
The morning of her love should be
Her fading beauty’s night.

Then, if to make your ruin more,
You’ll peevishly be coy,
Die with the scandal of a whore
And never know the joy.

The entreaty becomes "advice" -- "gather ye rosebuds since everybody thinks you're a whore" -- as the speaker grows progressively more insolent, and the threatened fate grows nastier and more specific. While everyone dies, only some are remembered as whores. Rochester learned his technique from the Metaphysical poets and his sensibility from Restoration society, and the juxtaposition is a good part of his importance. In this case it doesn't really do the poem much good (though the last stanza is worthwhile) but it does make it interesting, because Rochester's getting at the missing piece in Marvell's poem, which is that one grows unattractive before one dies. The ideas in this poem resurface, in 18th cent. dress, in Alexander Pope's "Epistle to a Lady":

From loveless youth to unrespected age,
No Passion gratified except her Rage.
So much the Fury still out-ran the Wit,
The Pleasure missed her, and the Scandal hit.

Writing in the third person solves the tonal ugliness of Rochester's poem; gossip is less offensive than hectoring. Besides, the come-on poem is ill-suited to social commentary for obvious reasons. Pope returns to the ungathered rosebuds, and to Rochester's sentiment, a hundred lines later, in one of my favorite passages of 18th cent. verse:

Pleasures the sex, as children Birds, pursue,
Still out of reach, yet never out of view,
Sure, if they catch, to spoil the Toy at most,
To covet flying, and regret when lost:
At last, to follies Youth could scarce defend,
It grows their Age's prudence to pretend;
Ashamed to own they gave delight before,
Reduced to feign it, when they give no more:
As Hags hold Sabbaths, less for joy than spite,
So these their merry, miserable Night;
Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their Honour died.

See how the World its Veterans rewards!
A Youth of Frolicks, an old Age of Cards,
Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
Young without Lovers, old without a Friend,
A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot,
Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot!

"Their merry, miserable Night" is the ultimate descendant of "nox perpetua una dormienda," and the "deserts of vast eternity" are filled with assed-out dowagers playing euchre. Of course, Pope isn't accusing the women of virginity -- just of the incompetent pursuit of happiness -- but the pathos of an insufficiently lived life is the same, and Pope gets it across with incredible vividness. One wouldn't normally think of "Epistle to a Lady" as a carpe diem poem at all, but the Rochester is a clear bridge from Herrick to Pope.

Note that the days get more and more unseized as we progress toward the 18th cent. -- if one can read Campion as "stop brushing your teeth and let us have sex instead," Marvell's more like "don't drag this out for years, you know you want me," and by Pope the day is irrevocably past.

Philander Chase

is the real name of an actual bishop. Though he was by all accounts an upright citizen, you have to wonder whether he wasn't too liberal in the exercise of his bishoprick.

Wikipedia has more:
He became the founder and first president of Kenyon College and Bexley Hall seminary in Gambier, Ohio in 1824. Originally the college existed in Worthington, Ohio, but Chase chose to relocate the school on the remote hill of Gambier to protect his students from the immorality (such as drinking and dancing) that could be found in cities.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Billionaires will be boys

The findings of this piece (via Grobstein) are intriguing but I'm not sure how seriously to take them. The claim that this research allegedly supports is that billionaires are likelier to have sons than daughters because it's adaptive from the POV of maximizing grandchildren. But the presentation fails to address what is, to my mind, the obvious question, which is how much of this effect is due to third-world culture. I wish, in particular, that they had a graph showing (a) regional variation, (b) ethnic variation -- I'm very curious to know if the finding is robust if restricted to Jewish or techie billionaires, for example. The Forbes list for 2008 had a rather large number of Arabs, Indians, Russians, and other poor-country rich people who would presumably abort their female offspring. I wonder how much of the effect remains when you restrict yourself to, say, techie billionaires. Collecting the data is unfortunately quite difficult, but a preliminary look at the obvious suspects -- Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Ballmer, etc. -- didn't seem to give anything like the 60% male headline number.

Holbo on Frum

John Holbo's enormous rant about conservatism a la David Frum is not without merit. Holbo starts from Frum's remark that many conservatives disapprove of a safety net because it leads to risky and irresponsible behavior, like not saving up to send your kids to college because the government will pay for them. This belief is definitely central to the economic views of many social conservatives; I imagine it's true as a matter of fact, but I'd tend to think of it as a feature not a bug. Holbo takes this logic to its (seemingly absurd) conclusion, which is that government should actively create hardships so that people can develop skills to overcome them.

Holbo notes that this is what aestheticism tends to imply for politics. As an aesthete, I'm not sure the conclusion is absurd, though I disagree with it. You can't scrub your ethics clean of some notion of the content and shape of a good life. Obviously there are a lot of other things that have a higher priority -- I might support meritocracy, for instance, not because I think smart people deserve pleasanter lives, but because it leads to technological progress -- but I don't think aesthetic considerations are dispensable. For instance, I think of alienation and rootlessness as fundamentally good things; I approve of big leaps, long journeys, and intense, solitary work; I tend to locate human worth at the tails rather than the middle of a distribution -- all of this drives me in the opposite direction from Frum, toward policies that are friendly to the isolated or exceptional individual; but it's aesthetics nonetheless, and I don't see any way around being informed by one's personal version of it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


As Geoff Nunberg pointed out, Obama's speech has a rather neat example of polyptoton:
The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

I knew I'd used this word somewhere and forgotten what it meant. Sure enough, Windows search yielded an old "Grammar of English" assignment on Faulkner that I can no longer decipher:
I wrote about the polysyndeton in (2) last time; along with the lack of punctuation and the doubling of nouns and verbs, it conveys a sense of breathless and somewhat confused excitement. There are several parallel items in this list, but isocolon has been avoided, sometimes by introducing additional words (e.g. shoats and grown pigs and even calves) in order to vary the rhythm. The polyptoton of “shotgun” and “shots” is also in the spirit of this near- but not-quite repetition, which creates the heavy, but not monotonous or sing-song, rhythm of the list.

Inauguration, Cont'd

The blogosphere agrees that Obama's speech was a B+ at best. (I recommend Packer and the TNR staff.) I tend to agree with this as an absolute assessment, but I do think it's better than the post-Iowa fluff or the much-praised Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech that jump-started his campaign in late 2007. As Noam Scheiber (TNR) says, the inaugural speech had a coherent historical framework, viz. that the past eight years were an unfortunate detour from the main sequence of American history, and that "America is back." The implication here is something like "for eight years, we were the kind of country that waterboards innocent people, but now we are the kind of country that elects minorities to high office." Obviously this wasn't something Obama could say, but surely it was at the back of everybody's mind.

Packer is right, too, that Obama is not a natural phrasemaker, which showed; the antitheses were less than taut, the metaphors more than a little tired. However, the first five minutes were pleasantly and unexpectedly stern, and the speech was essentially perfect up through "their full measure of happiness" (a felicitous phrase). The stuff about the Puritans was structurally necessary to set up the Washington-themed close, but came across as gaudy and not deeply felt. The policy stuff was a mixed bag; on the one hand I heard a lot of things I liked, but there was also a lot of inappropriate blather about small government, and a wholly preposterous remark about harnessing the sun and the moon and the fixed stars to run our SUVs. (He did this before at the DNC -- he should've learned from that.) The bit about foreign policy was sound and well-said, and had to be said. However, the call to service was boring and overlong, and things only drifted back into orbit a couple of minutes later with the statement that "what is demanded of us is a return to these truths" (a sentence that would've been at home anywhere in the speech). The best line was the single, beautifully timed reminder that he was black; the GW stuff was part of the structural "let's get back to the Founders" message, but could've been better written. The close, as I said, was a deeply unimpressive descent into fustian.

This is all beside the point; there was so much historical weight behind everything he said that the quality of the speech hardly mattered. And this is partly why you realized, two words into Elizabeth Alexander's (ultimately not very good) poem, that it would be anticlimatic regardless of its merits. Of course, it was impossibly dumb to write a poem for Obama's inauguration that ignored everything that was special about it, and that would have read equally well at Bill Clinton's, or Bush's, inaugural.

Incidentally, I find it extremely annoying that the only available transcript of the poem is missing the linebreaks that are obviously there in the original (you can tell from the scansion, it's in loose pentameter).

Obama's speech did, however, remind me of this:

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.

First Thoughts on the Inaugural

I heard it in patches, and read the prepared text -- my preferred mode of assimilation. It was an excellent speech by political standards; and a good one by any standards, being coherent and well-put-together. That said, the last sentence was atrocious bombast:
Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.
I think it's unjust of Obama to attribute bad prose to our children's children.

A few highlights/flags:
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

signals foreign policy realism, new Iran policy.
We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers.

note the nod to Richard Dawkins, the not-so-subtle repudiation of evangelical excesses. More on this theme here:
We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to
raise health care’s quality and lower its cost.
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

i.e. Close Guantanamo? Will he?

Friday, January 16, 2009

A Proto-Indo-European Kenning

Don Ringe's series of LL posts about etymological reconstruction and "wanderwords" -- words that were transmitted back and forth among ancient languages, so that their etymology is very hard to fix -- are a little technical but very fascinating. I especially liked this bit about the etymology of "iron," which is conjectured to be a loanword out of Celtic into Germanic.
Moreover, if the word was originally Celtic, we can hazard an etymology (Cowgill 1986:68 fn. 10). Celtic *īsarnom can reflect earlier *ēsarnom, by the sound change discussed above; the latter can reflect *ēsh2r̥-no-m, derived from PIE *ésh2r̥ ‘blood’ (Hittite ēsḫar, Skt. ásr̥k) by lengthening the root vowel (a derivational process called “vr̥ddhi”) and adding a well-known suffix. As Warren Cowgill pointed out to me some thirty years ago, there are at least two good reasons why iron might be called ‘blood-metal’; the fact that it rusts is one of them.

The other inference from "blood-metal" to "iron" is extremely Norse in sentiment (see my old post on kennings); I wonder if that's how the etymology really went, in which case it would seem that kennings must have been more commonplace in Celtic (and other?) languages than I would have thought.

Brooks vs. Quantum Mechanics

Brooks channels what-the-bleep in favor of behavioral economics:
Once there was just Newtonian physics and the world seemed neat and mechanical. Then quantum physics came along and revealed that deep down things are much weirder than they seem. Something similar is now happening with public policy.

Quantum mechanics is just as "neat and mechanical" as classical mechanics, which is why it caught on. It was clear from the beginning how to do quantum-mechanical calculations, and in what regimes the answers would limit to Newtonian physics, which clearly described the everyday world. This is why quantum mechanics is a terrible analogy for behavioral economics. As far as I know, all the behavioral work so far consists of a bunch of trivial psychology experiments that have no coherent message; there are no quantitative or even qualitative predictions; and it is not clear that behavioral "theory," such as it is, limits to classical theory when it should (and when is classical economics true, exactly?).

Oh, and I don't know what this means:
Mechanistic thinkers on the right and left pose as rigorous empiricists. But empiricism built on an inaccurate view of human nature is just a prison.

But facts are facts, no matter what human nature is. An empirical finding is, say, that when you give a pretentious idiot a column at the Times, he tends to spew pretentious garbage. Said pretentious idiot might be driven to this by difficult and ill-understood forces, but the fact that it happens is just a regularity of nature. You don't, after all, need to get the chemical structure of the air right to realize that clouds portend rain.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ask not what the Iranians can do...

I'm relatively pro-Israel -- relative to the people I know -- for now, because as I see it the Palestinian public is radicalized past all hope, and unlikely to accede to anything in the near future. (On the other hand, there is no doubt that the Israelis have been gratuitously brutal.) I'm also relatively pro-Iran, which has been ostracised for decades for no compelling reason. Therefore, I want to like this idea of R.W. Johnson's:
As it is the US has hugely strengthened Iran by handing Iraq over to Shi’ites and an Obama administration might try to capitalise on that by making a US-Iranian deal the cornerstone of Middle East politics, thus reducing Syrian, Saudi and Egyptian leverage. Iran would obviously be greatly tempted by such a deal. But if Obama and Ahmadinejad really could reach a deal it would probably be very bad news for both Hizbullah and Hamas, who might get cut off from Iranian aid. If that happens, I can’t see much joy for Palestinian militancy.

Unfortunately, I don't think it makes sense. Iran wants to be the dominant player in the Middle East; it has essentially succeeded at this, through its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the American fiasco in Iraq. This being so, I don't see what the Americans have to offer Iran, politically, to make them give up the regional prestige that comes from backing anti-Israeli militias.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Enduring Conservative (SC) Majority

The Supreme Court has another evil 5-4, this time apparently saying that the exclusionary rule doesn't apply to searches in which police officers mistakenly thought they had probable cause. This is irremediably bad if true: the po-lice are already quite good at inventing probable causes for drug arrests, and -- seeing as cops are sometimes suggestible and occasionally stupid -- will be incredible at coming up with reasons why they honestly thought they had probable cause. I don't really see that the principle has any more teeth left than a meth-head:
“When police mistakes leading to an unlawful search are the result of isolated negligence attenuated from the search, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, the exclusionary rule does not apply,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony
M. Kennedy
, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

So police have sweeping powers to pull people over as long as they're not systemic or reckless about it. Do they just need a new excuse each time?

Ginsburg's remarks are on point:
“Negligent recordkeeping errors by law enforcement threaten individual liberty, are susceptible to deterrence by the exclusionary rule, and cannot be remedied effectively through other means,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

Not, in particular, through the political process, which is systemically and recklessly in favor of not letting people get off on technicalities.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Lubricating the Guardhouse

Filling out a visa application earlier today I had to look for the uppercase version of the German eszet character (looks like lowercase beta) -- apparently the correct thing to do is to substitute ss, so straBe -> strasse -- and found this snippet on Wikipedia:

In Fraktur typeface and similar scripts a long s (ſ ) is used except for syllable endings (cf. Greek sigma) and sometimes this has been historically used in antiqua fonts as well, but in general it went out of use in the early 1940s along with Fraktur typeface. An example where this convention would help disambiguation is “Wachstube”, which was either written “Wachſtube” = “Wach-Stube” (mil. guard-house) or “Wachstube” = “Wachs-Tube” (tube of wax).

Somehow I don't feel like these are truly separate ideas.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dept of Loose Seals

Gail Collins's new column has a running gag that's very reminiscent of "Arrested Development." You should read the entire thing, but what I'm talking about is this:


“These folks are not potted plants,” said the senior adviser David Axelrod.

Already we have a big break with the past. The Bush White House so totally regarded senators as potted plants that it was a wonder that senior aides didn’t attempt to water them.
the Democrats’ job now is to figure out how to make sure the current economic crisis is solved in a way that allows him to deliver on his promise to do something big and ambitious about health care — and his other signature issue, energy/global warming. The Republicans’ job is to try to limit the big spending to tax cuts and short-term building projects. If the final bill passes by 80 or 90 votes, it’s probably going to be because it’s a watered-down mess.

Which is the sort of thing that nobody wants. Unless they live in a pot.
I agree with the sentiment, of course. One should also flag the following bit of information, which will probably resurface:
We are rooting for Burris to make it into office, since any Roland who names his kids Roland II and Rolanda is bound to provide a welcome diversion in the gloomy months ahead.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Folded Dragon Hidden Cavern

Robert Bridges presumably knew that Gerard Manley Hopkins was gay, but I wonder if that's what he had in mind here:

therefore the poem [the Wreck of the Deutschland] stands logically as well as chronologically in the front of his book, like a great dragon folded in the gate to forbid all entrance, and confident in his strength from past success. This editor advises the reader to circumvent him and attack him later in the rear; for he was himself shamefully worsted in a brave frontal assault, the more easily perhaps because both subject and treatment were distasteful to him.

(via Mark Ford's new piece in the NYRB). The sexual implications of backloading one's oeuvre are obvious in hindsight.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Going Burristic

I'm a little mystified by Harry Reid's continued grandstanding re the IL senate seat. It's pretty clear that Burris didn't pay Blago -- he doesn't have the money, he isn't that dumb, even Blago isn't dumb enough to have asked -- and given that, I don't see what the Senate's grounds are. Governors are under no constitutional obligation to choose the best man for the job; they may, and do, use whatever criteria they like; they may actively seek corrupt or bad appointees (if e.g. they want someone they can easily unseat in the future); in fact, as far as I know it is perfectly legal for a governor to consider only people who are willing to pay him a million dollars, as long as he doesn't collect. The Amar/Chafetz argument that the appointment violated due process because some candidates were unfairly excluded is patently silly. And it seems politically expedient to drop the matter rather than to drag it out for another month. The seat is up for election in two years; Burris can't win a statewide Democratic primary (he lost to Blago!); there's no reason to think that he'll be in the public eye at all if Reid backs down.

I understand why it's politically expedient for Obama to oppose the Burris pick: Burris = Blago + Black power, both of which are toxic to him. But (1) he'd clearly rather see the issue dead somehow, (2) he isn't the one doing the shouting, Reid is, and I don't understand why Reid thinks this is a good idea.