Thursday, December 31, 2009

Light and fissures: a continuing series

Mercian Hymns XVI
Geoffrey Hill

Clash of salutation. As keels thrust into shingle. Ambassadors, pilgrims. What is carried over? The Frankish gift, two-edged, regaled with slaughter.

The sword is in the king’s hands; the crux a craftsman’s triumph. Metal effusing its own fragrance, a variety of balm. And other miracles, other exchanges.

Shafts from the winter sun homing upon earth’s rim. Christ’s mass: in the thick of a snowy forest the flickering evergreen fissured with light.

Attributes assumed, retribution entertained. What is borne amongst them? Too much or too little. Indulgences of bartered acclaim; an expenditure, a hissing. Wine, urine and ashes.


See also here and here.

PS The Swedish for butter is "smör" (as in smorgasbord) which is pronounced vaguely like smear and is, of course, etymologically related.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Editors vs. peers

Andrew Gelman links to Bruno Frey "suggesting a change in journal review processes, so that the editorial board first decides whether to accept or reject a paper and then referees are brought in solely to suggest changes on accepted papers." As Gelman points out this is vaguely similar to what some journals (I believe the best examples are Nature and Science) already do: have editors screen the articles before sending them out to review. There's a crucial difference though: at Nature, what seems to happen is that the editors screen the article to see if its claims are interesting, and mostly leave it to the referees to figure out if the claims are true. This is sensible because the referees -- who are typically people working on similar research -- are poor judges of broader interest whereas the editors are poor judges of whether the article is true.

The downside to this is that it creates a systematic incentive to make your article seem more interesting than it is and to hide the caveats in places where the editors will miss them. Sometimes the referees will object -- this article does not explain the origin of time -- but recommend publication anyway, and the editors are unlikely to overrule the referees even if the revisions make the article uninteresting enough that it wouldn't have gone to the referees in the first place. To some extent these problems are just inherent in the idea of a prestige journal, but there are ways to get around the puffing-up. One possibility is to do away with prestige journals, publish more or less everything that seems true, and have selections like Physical Review Focus to spotlight articles that were an especial hit with the referees and/or the editors. As referees vary in their willingness to praise, this scheme isn't that great either. In some ways a better plan is to have intelligent physicists blog their favorite new papers in a given area of physics, and to sort of hope that over time blogs with good taste win out. (As physicists are interested in fame, and probably read the relevant journals anyway, this isn't necessarily too taxing to work.) The -- possibly fatal -- objection is that it gives said bloggers an inordinate amount of influence over the career prospects of young physicists.

Are you a filibuster-buster, buster?

Ezra Klein is:

The danger of reforming the Senate is that, like health-care reform before it, it comes to seem a partisan issue. It isn't. Members of both parties often take the fact that neither Democrats nor Republicans can govern effectively to mean they benefit from the filibuster half the time. In reality, the country loses the benefits of a working legislature all the time.

I strongly favor moderate-if-infrequent policy changes. It is not ideal - I find the compromised, moderate Senate health care bill highly objectionable, and of course the filibuster can be used for narrowly partisan purposes - but it is preferable to the alternative of ideologically polarized policy-making.

Ross Douthat is, and has something intelligent to say about it:

if you can't shrink the stimulus package much more substantially than the centrists have done, you shouldn't shrink it at all. There's a case to be made for a stimulus that's radically different than the one we have now; there's a case to be made for a stimulus that's like the one we have now, but a great deal smaller and more targeted; and there's a case to be made for a stimulus that's absolutely gargantuan. But thanks to the centrists, we're getting the cheapskate version of the gargantuan version: They've done absolutely nothing to widen the terms of debate about what should go into the bill, and they've shaved off just enough money to reduce its effectiveness if Paul Krugman is right - but not nearly enough to make it fiscally prudent if the stimulus skeptics are right.
My take on this is that the filibuster works fine for some things but not for others. There are two relevant distinctions: whether the bill is Frankensteinable or not, and whether it is necessary or not. I don't have sharp definitions of these concepts but here are some examples. The stimulus is a good example of a Frankensteinable bill: as Douthat says, any coherent bill -- whether left-wing or right-wing -- would have been preferable to the spineless and ineffectual thing we actually got. On the other hand, Supreme Court nominations are not Frankensteinable: a compromise appointee is an actual person, not a hodgepodge of attributes. Supreme Court appointments are also necessary, like (e.g.) the budget, which is Frankensteinable. On the other hand, a bill restricting cloning would be Frankensteinable -- a compromise could have perverse consequences that a straight-up right-wing bill would not -- but unnecessary. Finally, a bill creating a new national holiday would be neither Frankensteinable nor necessary.

The arguments against the filibuster are (1) that it frankensteins Frankensteinable bills, and (2) that it allows a unified opposition to block necessary legislation, thus paralyzing government. The obvious counter-argument is that without the filibuster there would be a great deal of sweeping and unnecessary legislation. In the narrow sense I prefer, necessity means both sides agree that the status quo is intolerable in the short-to-medium term but disagree on how to change it. (A healthcare bill is generally agreed to be necessary to deal with the Medicare crisis, but e.g. climate change isn't necessary by this def'n as a lot of Republicans believe that no action should be taken.)

I tend to believe in overdoing the checks and balances, so I'd like to keep the filibuster wherever possible. On the other hand, maybe what's needed is for the filibuster to come with a procedural price. Here's a possible set of rules:
  1. When party A proposes a (frankensteinable) bill, party B gets either to (a) introduce a competing bill and forfeit the right to filibuster or (b) keep the right to filibuster and forfeit the right to introduce a competing bill for, let's say, 12 years. Party B can still, of course, vote for Party A-sponsored bills.
  2. For all unfrankensteinable bills (e.g. appointments), the filibuster is usable on a tit-for-tat basis.

Obviously there are some definitions left to be filled in but this seems to be the right sort of approach.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Wickedness, Whips, and Life Imprisonment

David Bernstein asks "why the infliction of physical pain on someone, assuming he’s not just a suspect but been convicted of a crime, is considered beyond the bounds of human decency by all respectable sources, but locking that same individual in a cell for the rest of his life is a-ok." I'm not sure I have an entirely sound answer to this question but I think that -- at least to some extent -- the basic point is that torture degrades the torturers. There is a relevant moral difference between pushing a button that somewhere, somehow, kills someone you don't know and strangling someone with your bare hands, viz. that one of these things can be done without emotion. I think it's important that no one should derive pleasure from the punishment of others; therefore, public executions, whipping, and anything else that personalizes the process of punishment should be avoided if possible.

You might ask why I'm assuming that the relevant emotion would be pleasure rather than revulsion. This is because there's a selection effect: if you don't enjoy public executions, you can avoid them; if you don't enjoy whipping people, you can try finding work as a plumber.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Proustblogging

The Hombre from Combray has a nice way with large-scale echoes; here's an example I think is particularly appealing. First, in Vol. 1, the illustration:

We would return by the Boulevard de la Gare, which contained the most attractive villas in the town. In each oftheir gardens the moonlight, copying the art of Hubert Robert, hadscattered its broken staircases of white marble, its fountains of waterand gates temptingly ajar. Its beams had swept away the telegraph office.All that was left of it was a column, half shattered, but preserving thebeauty of a ruin which endures for all time. [...]

Suddenly my father would bring us to a standstill and ask my mother--"Where are we?" Utterly worn out by the walk but still proud of her husband, she would lovingly confess that she had not the least idea. He would shrug his shoulders and laugh. And then, as though it had slipped, with his latchkey, from his waistcoat pocket, he would point out to us, when it stood before our eyes, the back-gate of our own garden, which had come hand-in-hand with the familiar corner of the Rue du Saint-Esprit, to await us, to greet us at the end of our wanderings over paths unknown.

And the echo, in vol. 6:
If our memories do indeed belong to us, they do so after the fashion of those country properties which have little hidden gates of which we ourselves are often unaware, and which someone in the neighborhood opens for us, so that from one direction at least which is new to us, we find ourselves back in our own house.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Light and grease redux

Proust, The Captive, trans. Scott Moncrieff (mainly because that's the version that's online):
In the early-rising mornings of spring that followed, I could hear the tram-cars moving, through a cloud of perfumes, in an air with which the prevailing warmth became more and more blended until it reached the solidification and density of noon. When the unctuous air had succeeded in varnishing with it and isolating in it the scent of the wash-stand, the scent of the wardrobe, the scent of the sofa, simply by the sharpness with which, vertical and erect, they stood out in adjacent but distinct slices, in a pearly chiaroscuro which added a softer glaze to the shimmer of the curtains and the blue satin armchairs, I saw myself, not by a mere caprice of my imagination, but because it was physically possible, following in some new quarter of the suburbs, like that in which Bloch’s house at Balbec was situated, the streets blinded by the sun, and finding in them not the dull butchers’ shops and the white freestone facings, but the country dining-room which I could reach in no time, and the scents that I would find there on my arrival, that of the bowl of cherries and apricots, the scent of cider, that of gruyère cheese, held in suspense in the luminous congelation of shadow which they delicately vein like the heart of an agate, while the knife-rests of prismatic glass scatter rainbows athwart the room or paint the waxcloth here and there with peacock-eyes.

(I like long sentences a little too much for my own good.) Cf. also here and here. I should note in passing that one of the reasons Proust is a difficult writer is that he's got to be read both somewhat fast (so that you remember the bits in the earlier vols. that correspond to bits in the later vols.) and somewhat carefully (so that you don't skim past the good bits). Had one but world enough and time, I think one would want to do the whole thing at something like five hours a day over two weeks.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Two thoughts on translation

From an old college paper on A.E. Housman's version of "Diffugere Nives":
We don’t like being preached at in verse—there is no tradition of 20th cent didactic verse in English—but are willing to overhear a sermon and listen to it seriously as long as it is addressed to someone else. In general, we are willing to accept much in a translation that we would consider intolerably silly in an original English poem, and this is what gives translation some of its power to alter the linguistic climate. [...] What Housman has achieved is a poem that sits squarely in the English tradition but is, at the same time, not quite an English poem. The objective of this type of translation is to make the poet speak good English, but not house-train as regards structure or subject matter. (A parallel that comes to mind is the Ascot scene in “My Fair Lady.”)

From the preface to my final project:
These poems are meant to bear the same sort of relation to the original as an umbrella does to the dome of St. Paul's: they are roughly the same shape and serve a similar purpose.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Four specious arguments

Below are four things I used to believe, not that long ago, but have since given up on. I'll follow up -- maybe -- on why I don't believe any of these things any more in subsequent posts. Note that I don't currently believe any of these arguments, though I still agree with several -- perhaps most -- of the premises.

1. Majoritarianism and the Constitution. As a formalist by instinct, I've always been drawn to originalism, at least meant narrowly as a criterion for judges. Laws ought to change their meaning only if the Legislature thinks so, or else we're going to be run by the whims of unelected judges. On the other hand, I've never had much time for the founding fathers or the Constitution per se; on the substance of current issues, whether gay marriage or internet privacy, "what would James Madison do?" is almost never a germane question. (Similarly, one would not expect "What would Barack Obama do?" to be relevant to 22nd cent. debate.) If you put these together, that seems to imply that the constitution should be a lot easier to amend than it is, and that judges should be textualists in their interpretation. At least, this is what one would want in an ideal world: in practice, judges should defer to the executive except in extreme cases.

2. Means-testing. The government wastes rather a lot of money on providing "universal" public services that are largely used by the wealthy. Examples of note are major public universities, some transportation systems, roads and highways in expensive suburbs, etc. From a redistributionist point of view, the purpose of government is to take money from the rich and give it to the poor, not to spend it on the rich; this would be the worst sort of nanny-state behavior. It would be better to tax the rich (possibly less) for goods specifically intended for the poor, and to let them fund their own roads and hospitals.

3. Inequality and poverty. Poverty matters; inequality per se does not. It's OK for there to be arbitrarily large differences in income and lifestyle as long as (a) no one is starving or is otherwise deprived of necessities, (b) there is some degree of social mobility for the poor (i.e., "equality of opportunity"). In general, wealth and happiness are non-zero-sum; there is usually a trade-off between efficiency and equality of outcome; one should maximize efficiency under the constraint that no one is living in actual poverty.

4. Unilateral military intervention. National sovereignty is stupid and immoral. When one believes that other countries (or cultures) are engaging in abhorrent activities, it is reasonable to invade if one has the power to do so. The United Nations is not a representative world government as it consists largely of dictatorships, the UN Human Rights committees are worse because dictators are disproportionately interested in being on them; in any case, the UN has no legitimacy. In general, rich western governments have at least as much legitimacy (in the normative sense) as the local warlord when it comes to representing the interests of the citizens of, e.g., Sudan or Iraq. [I should note that I still think this is true normatively; however, one must also consider the descriptive sense of legitimacy, and the impact thereon of the fact that occupying troops tend to corrupt over time.]