November 30, 2003

Lacuna   {Comments: 0}

I won't rule out a post or two, but basically this blog is going into hibernation for the week. Finals week here at U of C isn't until next week, but for some crazy reason all my classes have moved things up to this week, and I'm scrambling.

A couple things to chew on in the meantime: last week the LATimes had a fantastic series on the Wal-Mart phenomenon, although if you never read this article I'd start there. Also, there's this very informative (and rather optimistic) piece on India and the globalization risks to US high-tech workers.

November 25, 2003

The language of arrival   {Comments: 4}

Here's another article about the Edith Grossman's translation of Don Quixote. Especially interesting is the part about the prospects for definitive translation:

Says Grossman: "If 'definitive' means a standard against which all other translations are measured, then a translation can be definitive for 50 or 100 years. But not eternally definitive." Rutherford agrees: "All translators like to think that they're aiming at producing the definitive translation. But history shows that's not true, that translations don't last, no matter how good they are." And though a few great translations have endured - "Thomas Urquhart's Rabelais, Dryden's Plutarch, Chapman's Homer, Pope's very different Homer, Gavin Douglas's Aeneid, Marlowe's Amores, and perhaps Arthur Golding's Metamorphoses, which Ezra Pound called the most beautiful book in English," says Pevear - "these are not 'definitive translations of classic works', they are works in themselves."
This is an observation I've heard many times, and it's always suggested to me that there's a big difference between how we read literature in our native language vs literature in translation. What I mean is (for English readers) literature in English never gets updated, while literature in other languages does.

But does this really mean that Edith Grossman's Cervantes-inflected (or maybe the other way around) prose isn't as timeless as Jonathan Franzen's? Or, if it's the language that's changing, how is Shakespeare modern enough to speak to today's readers? If English changes over time, maybe important works in English are influential tethers, to which it maintains its connection... is that a good relativist def for canonical?

Industry standard   {Comments: 0}

Dell is getting rid of its call center in Bangalore:

"Customers weren't satisfied with the level of support they were receiving, so we're moving some calls around to make sure they don't feel that way anymore," Weisblatt said.

He would not discuss the nature of the dissatisfaction, but the Austin American-Statesman reported Saturday that some U.S. customers have complained that Indian support operators are difficult to communicate with because of thick accents and scripted responses.

The business about thick accents is puzzling in light of this article about Indian call center innovations:
In India, which has been most successful in stealing call-centre business from the rich countries, companies teach their operators to understand American accents and imitate them. They watch American movies together, and those who can easily comprehend Sylvester Stallone's dialogue are said to be approaching perfection. Some companies try to create an American ambience by putting little American flags on the desks and providing pizza.
Sounds like Dell's call center operation is a little backwards for the industry.
November 24, 2003

The unravelling of Medicare?   {Comments: 43}

I've been watching this Medicare bill come together, and I have a couple of basic criticisms. First of all, I'm not sure how the country is going to pay for it. The official pricetag is $400B over ten years, but even some Republicans think that estimate might be low. With 40M Americans on Medicare, it works out to $1,000 per patient, which doesn't sound like much when you consider that all 40M are either over 65 or disabled. I don't know if the estimate is based on current drug costs for seniors, but there's every reason to think drug use will rise dramatically under the plan, since the net price (for the consumer/patient) will go down. And of course, as the baby boomers retire over the next decade, more and more people will be on the plan, with fewer and fewer paying taxes. As one of those fewer and fewer, I'm concerned.

I'm also concerned about the design of the privatization experiment - Medicare will compete with private health plans in several metropolitan areas, and premiums will be adjusted based on how the costs line up the private plans. This seems at least reasonable, but then there's the provision that the government can't negotiate prices on drugs. From an efficiency standpoint, the government's biggest advantage in providing the benefit is scale, and yet this plan seeks to nullify that advantage. There are two likely motivations for this: lawmakers have an ideological agenda and want to fix the game so the government loses big; lawmakers are in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. But as a practical matter, the Canadian healthcare system uses price negotiation to great effect - to the point where some states want to use Canada as their main supplier.

One final observation - not really a criticism, since I know next to nothing about it - is that a governemnt sponsored drug benefit designed to work within the marketplace like this will create huge incentives for prescription drug use, as opposed to other forms of treatment. This may be a good thing - we've come up with some pretty spectacular drugs - but it will probably affect the health care industry in ways we can't see from here. Already the profession favors drugs over all other treatments, and the biggest investments and discoveries are made in pharmaceuticals. Subsidizing prescriptions through Medicare will only accelerate the process... whether that's a good or bad thing, I'm not entirely sure, but we should at least be aware of it.

November 23, 2003

Money and power   {Comments: 3}

At breakfast this morning a friend of mine - a confirmed lib, btw - was arguing that celebs should keep their noses out of politics, or at least not use their own publicity as a platform for their political ideologies. The idea was that they aren't any more expert on these issues than anyone else, so what business do they have hogging the megaphone?

I disagree, essentially on practical grounds, since there are all kinds of interests out there that have big ($$$) megaphones in front of them. But I think the argument my friend made really gets to the heart of the basic strutural contradiction between our political and economic systems - the founding prinicple of our political system is equality among voters, but our economic system makes specific use of inequality as an incentive for individual wealth creation. This contradiction is mediated by well established political institutions like freedom of expression and equality under the law, but it's no surprise that some of the most contentious issues in our history surround these institutions.

This underlying structural tension is especially great today. For one thing, income inequality is as great as it's been in almost a century, so there's an unusually large disparity between the amounts of money individuals (or corporations) have to throw at politics. But the problem is also compounded by technology that allows a single individual (or corporation) to take the issue right into your living room. The industry operating this technology, meanwhile, is increasingly regulated in the same way as other industries, which means it responds not to the political ideal of equality, but to the economic incentive for inequality.

According to another friend of mine who's in the field, there's almost no economic research on the subject of how the media's interaction with market forces affects a political system. This surprised me, because all the groundwork should be there - but I guess political economic models are kind of forbidding in terms of their complexity. It's too bad, because there's great need for some serious analysis on this point.

Holding the world hostage   {Comments: 0}

Fred Kaplan has a helpful article on the Bush administration's quiet moves to develop low-yield nuclear weapons (among other things). This has been going on for months now, and it's obviously a major concern for anyone who prizes geopolitical stability. The hypocrisy here is astonishing when you consider our rationale for invading Iraq.

November 20, 2003

The coveted golden calipers   {Comments: 199}

Motor Trend has vindicated hybrid technology by naming the 04 Toyota Prius its Car of the Year... hopefully sales will get a nice bump. 2004 may be the breakout year for hybrids - Ford and GM are releasing models, prices at the pump are still high, and now the city of Chicago is levying a sin tax on SUV owners. (Link via apostropher.)

Making a comeback   {Comments: 17}

The Chronicle has a good article up about the Sartre revival in academia. There's a lot about Sartre's views on violence and how they fit into the context of international terrorism. Interesting that it's happening at the same time as this.

Predator/prey   {Comments: 1}

Microsoft has a new service called MSN Newsbot - basically it's a Google News ripoff, right down to the questions in the FAQ. The English language news seems to be from the UK only for the moment, although it's still in beta. Which has me wondering... why is Google News still in beta? It seems like they've had it up forever. I consider it the most legitimate news aggregator on the web, it's the first place I go for news. (MSN Newsbot won't be the second.)

November 19, 2003

What people are really thinking   {Comments: 317}

Ogged thinks Democrats are walking into a trap on the issue of gay marriage. He may be right, but my gut reaction is just the opposite - that this can be a tremendous opportunity. The American public has too big a libertarian streak to swallow a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but that's exactly how the issue will be defined. Those who favor an amendment will appear hateful and smallminded, while those who oppose it won't even have to favor an affirmative law to make gay marriage legal. Meanwhile the issue plays really well with young voters - it should get them energized and may even get them to vote.

On another note, a piece I heard on All Things Considered a couple weeks back made the interesting point that the whole context for this debate has changed. Not all that long ago progressives would have seen marriage itself as the problem; they would have pushed gay rights by working to eliminate marriage altogether - a sort of least common denominator argument, but also a protest over the inequalities of marriage. The wonderful thing about this latest development (beyond the fact that it addresses a sore injustice) is that it will bring new legitimacy to marriage as an institution by conceptually emphasizing equality between partners.

Welcome to Minuet   {Comments: 1}

Just a reminder - if you live in Indianapolis, you can see The Trio of Minuet tonight at 8pm on WFYI. The program is two hours long and includes some fun interviews with the people involved in the production, etc.

November 17, 2003

The problem is interpretation   {Comments: 5}

Some researches have an interesting take on the question of where the 12 note musical scale comes from:

Schwartz, Howe, and Purves analyzed a vast selection of speech sounds from a variety of languages to reveal the underlying patterns common to all utterances. In order to focus only on the raw sound, they discarded all theories about speech and meaning and sliced sentences into random bites. Using a database of over 100,000 brief segments of speech, they noted which frequency had the greatest emphasis in each sound. The resulting set of frequencies, they discovered, corresponded closely to the chromatic scale. In short, the building blocks of music are to be found in speech.
This is a bizarre result, and I wish there were more detail about the data. It seems to suggest that in the aggregate humans have some kind of perfect pitch - otherwise you wouldn't expect peaks at certain frequencies. My guess is they're actually talking (imprecisely) about the relationships between frequencies rather than the frequencies themselves - if this is true, it means functional tonality has some basis in speech, or vice versa.

Either way the main problem with this research - and it's only touched on briefly in the article - is that there's no reason our music shouldn't have affected our speech, rather than the other way around. It would be interesting to see data from a culture whose music has a different harmonic framework... would speech from middle ages Europe reflect the fifths and octaves that dominated the music of the time?

November 16, 2003

Winning chances   {Comments: 76}

Kasparov lost game two the other day, but today he apparently gave X3D Fritz quite a beating in a closed position, which is where positional play tends to be more important than tactical computation. This doesn't mean that the computer is broken, or even that Kasparov will win, but it doesn't seem to be the death knell for competitive chess.

I find this whole idea that chess will be over once computers beat the best humans regularly a little confusing. It's not about finding a solution to chess, because there's no solution in sight even with computers, and in any case they provide an excellent vehicle for continuing the search. It doesn't even seem like an undefeated computer would put chess in the realm of the purely computational, since humans with over the board experience are programming the machines with axiomatic positional expertise. Is it just a matter of pride?

Go back and sharpen your pencil   {Comments: 1767}

Here's a terrific article about Wal-Mart, it discusses (extensively) the company's posture toward its suppliers and some of the problems this kind of massive asymmetry creates.

November 12, 2003

Thoughts on Iraq   {Comments: 1376}

I haven't written directly about Iraq in a long time, but I've been particularly upset over the situation there in the past couple days. For a couple weeks now the Bush admin has been floating this idea that by replacing American troops with Iraqi police forces currently being trained, we can avoid all of these horrific casualties.

This approach is despicable. We've seen throughout the post-conflict conflict that Iraqis who cooperate with US forces are targets just as much as American forces - in fact, Iraqi police are dying at a much higher rate than American troops. Since the transfer of policing responsibilities wouldn't be accompanied by a complete American pullout, there's every reason to think the attacks will continue, and that more Iraqi police forces will die.

At the same time, Iraqi forces are surely less well equipped to deal with the threat - certainly they don't have Kevlar, which is the main reason 35 attacks per day against American troops result in so few (relatively speaking) deaths. This is plainly a political move on the part of the Bush administration to placate the American public in advance of the 04 elections in exchange for the lives of, conservatively, several hundred Iraqis.

On the broader question of Iraqi self-governance, the Bush admin seems to be pushing hard to get the Iraqis to take charge of their own country. As nice as all this sounds, it's essentially a death knell for hopes of strong democracy in Iraq - the same hopes, by the way, which have turned out to be the only even arguably legitimate reason we invaded in the first place. Without military control of the country, there is no way an Iraqi government can even start to establish the rule of law, property rights, and a host of other basic prerequisites for a functioning democratic government.

The United States has a moral responsibility to provide the security necessary for democratic reforms, and Iraqi police forces aren't going to cut it. The Bush admin must find a way to commit the necessary military resources to bring an end to this war - whether it means sending the troops American generals requested for the operation to begin with, or bringing real diplomatic pressure on our allies to assist. This pussyfooting our way to a shameful withdrawl will just leave a horrific scar on the hearts and minds of people throughout the Muslim world.

Chess goggles   {Comments: 298}

Garry Kasparov, the best human chess has to offer, is engaged in another battle (I wrote about the last one here) against a machine. The first of four games ended in a draw even though Kasparov had the initiative early, but he seems to be in good spirits at least. And then there's this:

Adding a bizarre twist to the game, Kasparov, commentators and the audience all wore 3D glasses so they could see the chess pieces and board "floating" in front of the screen - a move which some have criticised as a distracting gimmick.
Not sure what this has to do with chess, but Kasparov doesn't seem to mind.
November 11, 2003

Jurisdictional questions   {Comments: 175}

Linda Greenhouse has a great analysis (nothing yet from Dahlia Lithwick, so far as I can tell) up in the New York Times about the Guanatanamo case and the question of mounting executive vs judicial power. She reads the Bush administration's insistance that the court not hear the case as "a direct challenge to the court's sense of itself", a broad assertion of executive authority. It's odd that they didn't predict this sassy response from the court, which has always seemed pretty intent on keeping a hand in things. But then, hubris is one of this administration's many tragic flaws.

The other interesting thing about this constitutional conflict is the complete absence of Congress from the scene. Congress has just as much responsibility as the court (and in fact more direct power) to limit the powers of the president, but in recent years they've shown themselves to be pretty much impotent on that front - witness the complete refusal to check the president on the way to the invasion of Iraq. Obviously Republican majorities have something to do with this, but it's not as if we're hearing major protests on the other side of the aisle. It's especially frustrating when you consider that Congress is the most representative part of the government, which ideally means it speaks with the voice of the people...

A word from your sponsor   {Comments: 3}

So I'm finally starting to get some comment spam, mostly from evil pharmaceutical companies in response to this post. I haven't decided whether to use some kind of prophylactic software, but I'd be grateful for any suggestions/referrals.

The strangest thing though is that some of the spam seems to be coming from the FDA, or at least from someone who wants to publicize it... wtf?

Higher powers   {Comments: 0}

Yesterday the WTO reaffirmed its earlier ruling that the president's steel tariffs are illegal. But:

Administration officials said President Bush had not decided whether to lift the temporary tariffs, which increase the cost of imported steel by as much as 30 percent and were meant to give the ailing steel industry a three-year respite from international competition.
It's not clear how Bush will be able to say he has a free trade agenda after fighting hard for agricultural subsidies, protecting the steel industry, and now maybe flouting the WTO on the way to a trade war with Europe.

Exacerbating the problem may be the president's contempt for the European powers on other issues - Iraq and Kyoto - which has them trying to play an activist role in the 2004 elections:

The European Union has made the president's decision more difficult by aiming its proposed sanctions at products in states considered pivotal in the 2004 election - threatening, for example, to impose tariffs on citrus fruit imported from Florida.
Another group who no doubt will find this unsettling is the president's pro-trade, conservative base.
Questions of travel   {Comments: 80}

It looks like pressure from the White House is going to win the day on travel to Cuba - for all their threats, I can't see Democrats resorting to a filibuster. It's too bad, I've been wanting to go to Cuba for years, and I have a honeymoon coming up... but a $250,000 fine isn't my idea of a romantic wedding gift.

The president's statement on this (which unfortunately I can't find in a story at the moment) was that Americans who travel to cuba and spend dollars there are prolonging the pain of the Cuban people. I take this to mean that our policy is basically to starve them out of subjection. Forget for a moment the fact that this policy hasn't worked in 40 years, that it hasn't worked in the DPRK, or in Iraq for that matter, where it was widely condemned before we finally had to get violent. But some US farmers actually have trade deals in Cuba - by this metric, aren't they also prolnging the Cuban people's pain? And they're subsidized too!

November 10, 2003

Where to go from here   {Comments: 484}

Just a quick note to point out the new blogs on the blogroll. They are Empty Days, A Frolic of My Own, Suburban Guerrilla, Southern Exposure, Latino Pundit, and The American Sentimentalist, which has a short essay up likening the El to a cathedral.

The back office of the world   {Comments: 1}

Here's a cute article on the whole call center phenomenon, in all its globalized glory:

In India, which has been most successful in stealing call-centre business from the rich countries, companies teach their operators to understand American accents and imitate them. They watch American movies together, and those who can easily comprehend Sylvester Stallone's dialogue are said to be approaching perfection. Some companies try to create an American ambience by putting little American flags on the desks and providing pizza.
Some people seem to find this offensive, but I don't mind it so much - it's the kind of globalized job that encourages education, which can only be a good thing in the long run. And on a personal level I'm serioiusly impressed with anyone who can learn a completely different accent just for a job in a call center!
Turning the tables   {Comments: 0}

Here's a cool twist on the usual story of utility privatization: The cities of Peoria and Pekin are using emminent domain laws to try to buy the local water company. They think they can provide the water more cheaply, since they don't have to pay state and federal taxes and have much of the necessary infrastructure already in place. The motivation is money - they hope to use the expected savings as revenue to beef up their budgets. (Sorry there aren't any good links on this... I heard the story on WBEZ this morning, but the report isn't online yet.)

November 6, 2003

Voldemort?   {Comments: 5}

Listening to the news about Bush's new law against "certain types of abortion" has brought me to the exhausted conclusion that we're losing the language war here. I'm not sure what's being gained by referring to the procedure as "dilation and extraction" - doesn't this sound worse than you-know-what? And then you get things like this which just look bad.

If pro-choicers put all this energy into clarifying the real issue here - that men are never put into the position of having to choose between their own life and their pregnancy - we might get more traction.

A historical joke   {Comments: 0}

Here's an interesting thesis (via Bookslut) about why J.M. Coetzee got the Nobel Prize in Literature this year.

Coetzee doesn't write realism: His novels cannot be pinned down to a history, be it apartheid South Africa or Bush's increasingly authoritarian America. Yet it's hard to believe that the Nobel committee, in coming to its judgment, wasn't moved by the way Coetzee's most astute writing speaks to this moment. A moment when an ill-conceived campaign against an ill-defined enemy risks creating in its wake a culture of surveillance, military hubris, anonymous internment, torture, more violence and counter-violence, and, among America's citizenry, an immobilizing paranoia.
What I've read of Coetzee's merits a Nobel either way, but I wouldn't be at all surprisied if this were the case. It will be interesting to see if these circumstances in America lead to similarly great American fiction.
It's official   {Comments: 0}

Indiana Governor Joe Kernan has decided to run in 2004 after all - great news for Democrats in general, although not so much for Joe Andrew and the other folks already in the primary, I guess. Kernan should be a strong candidate: obviously the circumstances of his taking office will help him, but he's also getting a reputation as practical and down to earth. His choice of Kathy Davis for Lt. Governor was very popular, and she should make an excellent running mate.

It's interesting that the announcement comes right after two major defeats for Democrats in gubernatorial races. This Indiana race will be closely watched nationwide because the Republican candidate will almost certainly be former White House budget manager Mitch Daniels.

November 5, 2003

Unclogged   {Comments: 1567}

Fantastic news: scientists well have discovered an extraordinary new treatment for heart disease, which is the number one cause of death in the United States. The treatment works by introducing genetically engineered cholesterol into the bloodstream:

It's called ApoA-I Milano. The original molecule was found in the blood of an Italian family with unusually healthy arteries - despite high levels of fats in their blood and low levels of protective "good" HDL cholesterol. Now a genetically engineered version of this "good" HDL cholesterol protein has been tested in a small human trial.
What intrigues me about this is the way they discovered it - basically they're using technology to speed up a natural evolutionary process. I suppose one could argue that all medical technology does that - but in this case, scientists stumbled upon the evolutionary phenomenon in progress and took every advantage of it. The result may be a coup de grace in the fight against heart disease.
Los laberintos Latinos   {Comments: 0}

Here's another data point in the trend toward group blogging: Southern Exposure focuses on all things Latin American. Randy Paul says he'll be posting there, although I'm glad to see Beautiful Horizons will stay up.

November 4, 2003

Politically correct   {Comments: 1}

If you still think of the networks as liberal, you should take a look at how and why CBS dropped its miniseries on the Reagans. It's hard to see this as anything but a capitulation to widespread conservative condemnation - surely a sign that 1) the networks are motivated by money, not politics, and 2) conservative viewers form a massive and massively important block that the networks are acutely aware of.

The blogmap is still free   {Comments: 1}

The Chicago Transit Authority has been considering a fare hike for 2004 to rectifty its budget problems, but as you might expect, folks aren't very happy. Today some Chicagoans were actually protesting, in anticipation of the decision at tomorrow's board meeting. The last meeting was an open session with the public:

Some accused CTA staff of waste and laziness, and of failing to look at alternatives to fare hikes and service cuts carefully enough. Riders suggested raising fares during rush hours only, or only on trips that originate or end downtown. Some suggested cutting the price of passes and making them more easily available.

Under Mr. Kruesi's proposal, the basic fare would increase to $1.75, while the price of a transfer would drop to a quarter. The price of weekly and monthly passes, as well as the one-, two- and five-day passes marketed primarily to tourists, would not change.

Outside the meeting, Mr. Kruesi told reporters that criticism comes with the job, and said he heard almost equal opposition to fare hikes and service cuts. Mr. Kruesi said riders cannot avoid both.

But this doesn't have to be the tradeoff. The CTA operates independently from the city, the idea being that a healthy transit system should be pay for itself. But does this really make sense? Obviously some riders are over a barrel here, because they have no other way to get to work. But increased fares will create an incentive for other riders to drive to work instead - which means more traffic. My point here is simply that there may be some benefits created by the transit system that reach beyond just the customers - and that those benefits might be worth paying for, out of general revenues.
Pots and kettles   {Comments: 5}

Randy Paul over at Beautiful Horizons nods to this somewhat condescending editorial from the New York Times on Bolivia and globalization. While I agree with the assertion that the poor in a place like Bolivia are working against their own long term interests when they engage in "counterproductive populism", I find the whole line of argument misleading.

It's important to recognize that on the scale of industries within a single country, trade liberalization has big winners and losers, especially in the short term. In the US for instance, getting rid of agricultural subsidies would be a terrible thing for American farmers in the near term, even though the conventional economic thinking says the country as a whole would benefit. The same is true for some groups Bolivia, so it's no surprise that some Bolivians are mobilizing against the liberalization - they may well be working in their own interests, in the short term.

November 3, 2003

Your mutual funds   {Comments: 2}

Not too many folks seem to be writing about the latest revelations about the mutual fund industry. Maybe it's just hard to get excited about another story of corporate America bending rules for its own advantage? But in this case, it's coming at the expense of ordinary Americans - very possibly including you, if you have a job with any kind of pension plan (a whopping ninety-five million Americans own shares of mutual funds).

What's perhaps even more troubling is that there are specific laws designed to prevent this kind of thing - they just aren't enforced. Instead, the SEC is doing surveys to find out where the problems are! We need to take this stuff a little more seriously. By letting the industry regulate itself, we're leaving massive financial incentives in play, and we've seen where those incentives lead. Unless we create some serious consequences for these crimes and actually start monitoring the industry before problems appear, we should expect more of the same.

November 2, 2003

Lock the gates and stay at home   {Comments: 2}

WFYI Indianapolis has a new feature up about The Trio of Minuet, and there's a link back to this blog. I understand Trio is on the cover of their print publication as well. Nothing new as far as air dates, but I did see a rough cut the other day and they've done an incredible job with it!

Common sense must be respected   {Comments: 0}

The Guardian has an excerpt of Umberto Eco's new book on translation, Mouse or Rat? It sounds sober enough:

In the course of my experiences as a translated author I have always been torn between the need to have a translation that respected my intentions, and the exciting discovery that my text could elicit unexpected interpretations and be in some way improved when it was re-embodied in another language.

What I want to emphasise is that many concepts circulating in translation studies (such as adequacy, equivalence, faithfulness) can also be considered from the point of view of negotiation. Negotiation is a process by virtue of which, in order to get something, each party renounces something else, and at the end everybody feels satisfied since one cannot have everything.

Language Hat got the link from Gail Armstrong, who's also gathered up some comments about about the new collective translation of Proust. The response is mostly positive, but I'll probably buy Edith Grossman's new Don Quixote first... Carlos Fuentes has an ecstatic review in today's Times, and I've been dying to reread DQ anyway.