Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Unlike Nate Silver, I think Specter's move is a biggish deal, because he will have to pander to Democratic interests to avoid a primary challenge from the left. Specter's potentially pretty vulnerable in a Democratic primary, as Silver says:
Specter can't be too cute about this, or he might have primary problems on the left. The Republican nominee is probably going to be Toomey, who will be an underdog against any sentient Democrat. Why should the Democrats settle for a Liberdem when they can probably get Pennsylvanians to elect a mainline Democrat along the lines of Bob Casey?
This being so, it seems like (a few random "principled" stands aside) Specter will have to become substantially less conservative, at least over the next few months, than he has been -- probably less so than Ben Nelson, Mark Pryor, and others who are tolerated only because they represent very red states. This has two interesting implications:
  1. It's not true that "the Senate's fortunes will still be determined by a group of about a dozen moderate senators from both parties" -- they will be determined by a group of moderate Democrats. The implicit justification for the Blue Dogs' "bipartisan" meddling was that they needed to make compromises to get the moderate Republicans on board. Specter's move removes this justification; henceforth the Blue Dogs will have to assume the responsibility for holding things up.
  2. The moderate Republicans are almost nonexistent. Mike DeWine and Lincoln Chafee lost in 2006; John Warner and Chuck Hagel retired in 2008; Ted Stevens, Gordon Smith, and Norm Coleman lost in 2008; and now Specter's a Democrat. Most of these were consistently to the right of Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and consistently to the left of all other Republicans, so there's now a large ideological gap between SnoweCollins and the rest of the Republican Party. I'm curious to find out how this situation develops.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Conscience Claws

Thus Karl Rove:
"It's cultural aggression," former Bush adviser Karl Rove told FOXNews.com, adding that policy changes that "inject government" into moral matters -- like the conscience clause -- will have "enormous consequences."

(The conscience clause "allow[s] physicians and other health care providers to refuse to provide medical services that conflict with their faith or conscience." The conscience claws are tearing feebly at Rove's greasy heart.)

What-the-bleep watch

Mark Taylor -- a professor of religion somewhere -- has a Truly Awful op-ed in the Times today on how specialization is bad and the idea of the department should be abolished. His suggestions for restructuring universities:
1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Note the skilful manipulation of the web metaphor. I'm impressed by how swiftly and seamlessly he goes from the internet and Santa Fe theory to "cross-cultural."
2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

I must say this prospect fills me with horror at an aesthetic level -- "I'm a professor of Time. I don't know none of that Space stuff." Besides, Taylor doesn't seem to get the rationale behind specialization, which is that there's an internal coherence to certain bodies of knowledge, e.g. physics, that has very little to do with what they're ostensibly about. This coherence is useful because it helps you see that some problems are like other, apparently unrelated, problems, which saves a lot of effort. E.g. percolation is like the onset of magnetism, which is like the vulcanization of rubber, and many of these problems -- because they're percolation-like -- can be solved by similar techniques. The original percolation problem is not particularly interesting in itself, but this is often the hallmark of a good problem to study -- most problems of actual interest are messy and intractable as posed.

I'm strongly in favor of people from different disciplines talking to each other: some very puzzling geology problems are physics problems in disguise, some physics problems have solutions that come from chemistry, and everyone needs mathematicians from time to time. But this sort of collaboration presupposes that there are physicists, mathematicians, geologists, etc. to start with. If, instead, everyone knew a mass of logically disconnected information -- everything about water, say, from creation-myths to chemistry -- no one would ever have fruitful connections to make or tools to make them with.

I don't know how far this extends to the humanities because a lot of the disciplinary boundaries are new and ad hoc, but surely it does to some extent. "Duns Scotus's use of citations" (Taylor's stock example of triviality) is in fact emblematic of the differences between medieval and modern notions of scholarship, and therefore of wider differences between medieval and modern approaches to knowledge; this sort of difference is interesting if one is trying to get a handle on e.g. Dante or Chaucer, and someone like Duns Scotus is presumably a better case to study because he's simpler, without all the irony and the literary devices.

Btw, I agree with one of Taylor's points, viz. that universities admit grad students in unreasonable numbers as a cheap way of filling TA slots. This isn't an easy problem to fix, however, and I'm not aware of any useful ideas.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Addendum on IL place names

The fabled water tower at Gays, Illinois:

Illinois Place Names

The concentration of ugly place names in Illinois is remarkably high: consider Rantoul, Mattoon, Centralia, Du Quoin, Kankakee, Teutopolis, Danville, Normal, Peoria, Tolono, Mcleansboro, Vandalia, and Oblong. Admittedly some of these are funny, but the majority are just hideous.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Upper-class tweets

... or not. Just to point out that I'm now on Twitter as excitedstoat. The one-sentence post is a surprisingly difficult genre. (A bit like the old Note messages from sponsor... "your forebears were eaten by four bears" etc.)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The many uses of insects

Michael Berry points out a pretty unexpected & neat application of physics.
In one of his lovely films, David Attenborough showed insects floating on a sunlit pond, and pointed out their curious shadows: unlike more familiar shadows, these underwater ones have bright edges. The reason is that surface tension bends the water near where the insects float, and the light is sharply focused by these curved surfaces. This prompted a systematic study of bright shadows, including the similar ones cast on the bottoms of rivers by little whirlpools on the surface. In these shadows, the light focuses onto a ring. That was in 1983.

The paper was noticed by Michael Gorman, a physicist at Houston. It inspired him to make a plastic lens of unusual shape, whose function is to mimic whirlpools with their ring focusing. He surprised me by announcing that he had patented this construction with the hope of profiting from it. For example, angioplastic surgeons were interested in shining a powerful laser through a tiny version of the lens, at the end of an optical fibre, and with the ring focus bore holes through blocked arteries. (At my time of life, this application is close to my heart.)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pundit, smarten thyself

Kristof, in his predictably inane column on "how to raise our IQ":
The implication of this new research on intelligence is that the economic-stimulus package should also be an intellectual-stimulus program. By my calculation, if we were to push early childhood education and bolster schools in poor neighborhoods, we just might be able to raise the United States collective I.Q. by as much as one billion points.

I wonder if he realizes that by this logic we ought to be engendering enormous quantities of children, mentally retarded or not.

Mark Liberman at LanguageLog periodically grumbles about the fact that no one ever cites standard deviations, and a mean without a standard deviation -- or some other measure of the width of the distribution -- contains no useful information. Kristof's editorial provides a good example of what this is about.

By age 5, the children in the program averaged an I.Q. of 110, compared with 83 for children in the control group.

Depending on the sample size and the variance this could be marginal, massive, or entirely insignificant.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Public-spirited pigs

George Orwell, in his essay on Dickens:
Bounder by is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough that, all through, is the implication. And so far as social criticism goes, one can never extract much more from Dickens than this, unless one deliberately reads meanings into him. His whole 'message' is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.
He elaborates on this later, in one of his more enduring insights:
A 'change of heart' is in fact THE alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug [...] two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. [...] The central problem--how to prevent power from being abused--remains unsolved.
Of course, phrasing the question like that exposes you as a system-fixer; for the moralist, the question is how to make people not want to abuse power. Or something like that -- I'm a system-fixer, and it's surprisingly difficult to talk about this matter in a non-question-begging way. Julian Barnes says,
Dickens was a change-of-heart man, Orwell a systems-and-structures man, not least because—as these essays confirm—he thought human beings recidivist, and beyond mere self-help. "The central problem—how to prevent power from being abused—remains unsolved."
This is largely right but subtly off in the opposite direction. The claim isn't that people are generally recidivist, which is too strong; but rather, as Orwell says in "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool," that
Shakespeare starts by assuming that to make yourself powerless is to invite an attack. This does not mean that EVERYONE will turn against you (Kent and the Fool stand by Lear from first to last), but in all probability SOMEONE will. If you throw away your weapons, some less scrupulous person will pick them up.
T.S. Eliot -- in his monarchist, top-hatted period -- was a change-of-heart guy, and this comes up rather unexpectedly in his letter (as editor of Faber) rejecting Animal Farm:
After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm -- in fact, there couldn't have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.
Seeing that Orwell wrote extensively on this topic and Eliot read him, this is evidence of how dense Eliot got in middle age, or how hard it is for moralists and revolutionaries to understand each other, or both.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Dept of Bad Optics

John McCain, still pouting (as he was for four years after 2000), no longer has any time for Hispanics because they didn't vote for him. The part of the story that caught my eye, however, is this:
The meeting in the Capitol's Strom Thurmond Room on March 11 was a Republican effort led by Sens. McCain of Arizona, John Thune of South Dakota, and Mel Martinez of Florida to reach out to Hispanics.
Which is a lovely bit of tone-deafness.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Rwanda as Israel

This is an interesting -- and obviously correct -- insight:

According to Gérard Prunier, everything conspired to turn Congo into a kill zone: a dying dictator; the end of the cold war; Western guilt; and a tough, suspicious, postgenocide, Israel-like Rwanda, whose national ethos, simply stated, was Never Again.

The parallel goes further:
On the Rwandan side, immigration officers at a freshly painted cubicle-like border post peck away at computers, the smartly dressed worker bees of a regime that has made enormous strides fighting poverty, corruption and AIDS. The streets are safe. The street lights even work. It all adds up to a small miracle, especially remarkable because of Rwanda’s recent genocide, its overpopulation and its notable lack of resources. The drive to the border takes you past one denuded hillside after another, unmistakable proof that this packed little country is definitely not a land of plenty.

And on Rwanda's current aggressiveness:
His sharpest barbs are reserved for Rwanda’s current leaders, who in his pages lie, betray, plunder and kill, massacring tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, in vicious revenge attacks. He even asserts that Rwandan death squads were reputed to carry special little cobbler’s hammers in their backpacks to “silently and efficiently smash skulls.”

I have a theory about this.

Friday, April 3, 2009

I don't know who writes Will Saletan's headlines, but (a) it's probably a single person, maybe Saletan himself, going by their stylistic consistency over a period of two years or so, (b) aren't they stunningly awful?

Shades of Gay [The heterogeneity of homosexuality]
Dish Respect [The political crackdown on IVF embryo screening]
Brainchild Abuse [Bad uses of good technology]
Vaginal Innard Course [Donating a kidney through your vagina or rectum.]
Night of the Living Dad [Software, soldiers, and the future of ghosts.]
Tip of the Juiceberg
No Chubby for Old Men
Miss Conceptions
Original Skin
Crap and Trade, Revisited
Denial of Cervix
Fetal Subtraction


Thom Gunn: The Gas-poker

The Gas-poker
Thom Gunn

Forty-eight years ago—
Can it be forty-eight
Since then?—they forced the door
Which she had barricaded
With a full bureau's weight
Lest anyone find, as they did,
What she had blocked it for.

She had blocked the doorway so,
To keep the children out.
In her red dressing-gown
She wrote notes, all night busy
Pushing the things about,
Thinking till she was dizzy,
Before she had lain down.

The children went to and fro
On the harsh winter lawn
Repeating their lament,
A burden, to each other
In the December dawn,
Elder and younger brother,
Till they knew what it meant.

Knew all there was to know.
Coming back off the grass
To the room of her release,
They who had been her treasures
Knew to turn off the gas,
Take the appropriate measures,
Telephone the police.

One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Not-so-mixed reactions to Ted Stevens

This AP headline claims that "Alaskans have mixed reactions to Stevens' case," but the article disagrees. Here are the reactions:

"We knew it all along," Pederson said after the federal government Wednesday moved to dismiss the case against Stevens. "Unfortunately, it's a little too late."

"If they had done that before, he'd still be senator," Bob Sloan, a non-denominational church pastor, said at an Anchorage coffee shop.

"It's disgusting," said Jim Murphy, a longtime Stevens supporter until he was charged. "Clearly a jury thought he was guilty. He was judged by his peers, but somehow wielded his influence and power," Murphy said. "I just think the average guy would be sitting in jail right now."

"I think it's awesome," said Chris Roberts, a 20-year resident who is a snowmobile tour operator and gift shop owner. "How could you not like a guy with the nickname of 'Uncle Ted.'"

"I think they should get rid of Begich and get Stevens back in. The only reason Begich won was because of the unjust words said against Ted," said Judy Basler, a 33-year resident of Girdwood. "You wouldn't do that to your grandpa. He's like the grandpa of our state."

Stevens's campaign manager: "Just watching this, and the misconduct that has gone on, to me seems unbelievable, but this is a step in the right direction," he said. "I just feel sad for Senator Stevens that this has been able to happen to him and have such a negative impact on his life."

Sarah Palin: "Senator Stevens deserves to be very happy today. What a horrible thing he has endured. The blatant attempts by adversaries to destroy one's reputation, career and finances are an abuse of our well-guarded process and violate our God-given rights afforded in the Constitution," she said.

Alaska Senator Mark Begich: "It's time for Senator Stevens, his family and Alaskans to move on and put this behind us," Begich said.


Not only are the reactions unmixed, they're baffling. You would think Stevens had been exonerated. Alaskans are so weird.