July 29, 2004

Locus politicus   {Comments: 1020}

I've been a little down on political blogging this week... sure it's been fun to see some blogs grow up a bit at the convention, but to me it also makes blogging seem as futile as ever -- so many people writing the same thing at the same time, with only slight variations. It also feels like a lot of cheerleading is going on -- of course, people are talking up the big speakers, serving as activists as much as commentators -- and while I want to see Bush get taken down as much as the next guy, my enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate has never been very strong. Where his positions are defined, I feel like we disagree as much as Democrats can, and where they're not... well, that's bad too. All that said, here are my own (inescapable) observations:

I think the convention was choreographed perfectly, and Kerry did a phenomenal job with his speech tonight -- especially given the expectations. What struck me most about this evening was the extent to which the Democrats have managed to triangulate Bush's positions, and even what have been seen as Republican values. The GOP will have very little room to maneuver if Bush is going to differentiate himself from Kerry and appeal to independent voters at the same time. (That the Democratic base seems to be swallowing this stuff whole is a tribute to the poverty of the Bush administration's policy/ideology over the past four years.) All this triangulation is political genius -- independent voters are dying for an alternative to Bush, even though they believe he is the patriotic, American choice. The convention will help change that.

The GOP response? I suspect they will do everyting possible to impeach Kerry's credibility, which is certainly an achievable goal. Specifically, they'll find ways to call him unpatriotic and unAmerican, probably by dragging up his votes in re Iraq and military funding. If they're even smarter than this, they'll introduce several substantive policy alternatives to oppose the Democrats' "propaganda" -- although Bush may not have the credibility for a move like this.

Its own beast   {Comments: 0}

I blogged about this before, but now that ArtsJournal actually has its temporary blog (the idea seems to be to have an online conference) Critical Conversation up, you should go take a look. The discussion looks to be quite lively, and there seem to be a LOT of people writing, all about the greater context and future of classical music. An excerpt:

I think we're going to see a partial collapse of the boundary between so-called classical music and neighboring spheres in the popular arena. We'll see an increasing interchange of roles: two harbingers are Steve Reich, who's become an icon of modern electronic music, and Jonny Greenwood, who's launching a career as an avant-gardish concert composer, or, more accurately, resuming the compositional career that the world fame of Radiohead interrupted. Then you have someone like Björk, whom I'm writing about now, and who lives in a lovely Icelandic world where all these distinctions are boring and marginal.
Anyway, if you have any interest in classical music and where it's going, check it out. I'll probably be writing more in the coming days, since I have a little perspective of my own.
Also, non-medical uses   {Comments: 4}

This doesn't feel much like technological progress: EMTs are putting powdered potatoes on grievous wounds to stop the bleeding. It's the kind of brilliant discovery you'd expect to find in the 11th century, not the 21st.

Picture pages   {Comments: 1}

All this week I've been posting pictures of Bloomington IN over at the Long Trip Home's Travelblog. They don't really feel like travel pictures since I spent 7 years of my life there, but maybe they'll make someone else want to travel there. I also have a photojournal in the magazine itself -- pictures from the honeymoon in Costa Rica, with commentary (although I can't say I feel comfortable yet as a caption writer -- mine are too personal or something).

July 28, 2004

Big contracts   {Comments: 2}

Shaq on getting along with his teammates:

"We're gonna be straight," O'Neal said. "I was down here the other day working out with the kid from Vanderbilt we got (second-round pick Matt Freije), and I told him, 'I'm gonna come across the block, and if I get doubled, I'm gonna pass the ball to you and you're gonna have a wide-open jumper, or (forward) Udonis Haslem is gonna come down the lane and he's gonna get a dunk, and you're all gonna get big contracts.' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'Just look at the history. Travis Knight. Horace Grant. A.C. Green.' He said, 'Shaq, you're one of the coolest guys I've met.' "
I guess it's always best to take care of the little guy...
Collective action   {Comments: 0}

It's depressing to read articles about the trade talks in Switzerland -- there's an almost fatalistic quality to all the reporting, the sense that basically nothing can rescue the Doha round. The focus, inasmuch as there is one, seems on relationship between the North and South, specifically on the issues of agricultual an textile subsidies, which have always been the most glaring inconsistency in what the rich nations call "free trade." But neither of the two blocs is really operating in any kind of unified way: the US and the EU have their own differences to work out, and the poor countries are bickering over which countries' negotiators are representing them at the Big Table.

The failure of the South to form a unified front is somewhat disappointing. In Cancun, talks had to be scrapped because these countries were able to come together behind the major issues that they all share. While those talks went down in flames, there was some hope that this coopration among developing nations would force the issues of agricultural and textile subsides. Now that coalition is looking more like an anomaly than a trial run. It's too bad: the developing world will have a hard time getting rich countries to treat them fairly if they can't muster any political clout, and they have no hope of doing so individually.

July 27, 2004

Fair weather lackeys   {Comments: 3}

I'm sick of hearing about how the Philippines is somehow responsible for the slew of terrorist kidnappings we're seeing now (OK, so as a half Filipino, maybe I'm a little biased). Yes, they "capitulated" to the terrorist demands, but what did you expect them to do? They had all of 51 troops in Iraq, accomplishing all the good that, well, 51 Filipino troops can accomplish. Weighing that good against the life of a Filipino citizen, the government decided it was time to cut its losses and get out of Iraq, and I would have made the same decision (although, like them, I am brown and spineless).

The truth of the matter is, they were only in there in the first place because the United States arrogantly declared "you're either with us or against us" and small, poor nations like the Philippines can't afford to be against the United States. Was it in their interest in any other conceivable way to have troops wandering around the Iraqi desert? Why do you think the "coalition of the willing" is made up of the scorned stepchildren of the world? They're not there out of some kind of Bushian principle; they're there basically out of opportunism. The real captiulation here was to the real bully of the world: George W. Bush.

Just stay home   {Comments: 0}

On Eight Forty-Eight this morning, Steve Edwards suggested in an interview with a representative from the Illinois Republican party (I didn't catch his name, but it's not as though these guys have much of a public face these days anyway) that the GOP might not run a candidate against Barack Obama at all, in the hopes that the lack of interest would supress voter turnout in Illinois and boost the president's chances here.

I think such a strategy is unlikely to work -- the Democratic base may well show up just to vote against George W. Bush -- but more importantly I think it's one of the most cynical political strategies I've ever come across. The GOP spokesman denied they were considering it, insisting they will field a candidate for the election, and I hope he's right. It might seem pathetic that the Republicans can't find a candidate to put forward, but a strategy of supressing the vote would be morally bankrupt as well.

July 26, 2004

Formal innovators   {Comments: 2}

Something new from ArtsJournal (no permalinks, but the entry is posted 07/25/2004 9:23pm):

This Wednesday, in partnership with the Aspen Music Festival, ArtsJournal will host a new 10-day blog - Critical Conversation - featuring a dozen of the best classical music critics in America. They will discuss whether or not it is still possible for a Big Idea to animate classical music.
This is something I don't think I've seen before: a short-term, multiplayer blog designed to get right to the heart of a tightly defined issue and then disappear (or, not really disappear, since one of the best aspects of this is the fact that there will be an online paper trail for folks to refer back to). It's rather like what the folks at de novo do with the occasional online symposium, except if I understand this correctly it will form a standalone site. I like it! Plus, the topic is of great interest and import...
Sins of omission   {Comments: 0}

Canadian poet Christian Bok has a new work out called Eunoia (meaning beautiful thinking, and also the shortest word in English containing all five vowels). It consists of five sections, each making use of only one vowel and avoiding the other four (in the manner of Georges Perec's Les Revenentes). Plus there are these other parameters:

All chapters must allude to the art of writing. All chapters must describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage. All sentences must accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism. The text must exhaust the lexicon for each vowel, citing at least 98% of the available repertoire.... The text must minimize repetition of substantive vocabulary (so that, ideally, no word appears more than once).
I haven't read any more than what's available online, but it's always amazing to see that the human mind can work even within constraints this tight to create meaning, etc. And of course it's good to see that people are still revisiting the ideas of Oulipo.

One thing: this constraint that "the text exhaust the lexicon for each vowel, citing at least 98% of the available repertoire" seems very technical, and seems to suggest that there is a complete list somewhere of the available lexicon. This isn't really surprising, given that dictionaries are available online, but it does raise the question of whether it's really fair (admirable?) to use a word list to do this sort of thing -- and then to go and exclude 2%! These methods certainly weren't available to Perec, for instance, or his translators, or to people engaging in tasks of similar technical and artistic complexity -- eg writing a brilliant villanelle. [via apostropher]

July 25, 2004

Gmail and the eccentric/incorrigible user   {Comments: 6}

Even though these days everybody and their uncle has a Gmail account, I thought it might be fun to post some observations re the service. I'm going to set aside all this business about privacy, the whole argument over which seems a little stale at this point, primarily since i'm not concerned about it in the least, and because I've hardly noticed the ad "feature".

For the most part, my experience has been good, and I can safely say that it's the best and even most reliable (and even with the occasional service interruptions easily forgiven in a public beta) free email service I've ever used. The application is my favorite yet for email, apart from Pine, which will always have a place in my heart, and which in any case is far superior to anything since developed, assuming you have a fast enough connxn.

But, I have several criticisms of the Gmail interface, most of which point back to the fact that it was developed (I assume) by a particular kind of user. The biggest omission, in my view, is the lack of a postpone feature, which means you can't write half a message and come back later. For me, this is a pretty major problem, since I usually have 30 some odd message wandering around waiting to be sent, edited, or otherwise relookedat. I don't know if this was felt to be a superfluous feature or was supposed to deter people who would use their Gmail account primarily for storage (which isn't a bad idea...), but it's led me to some inconventient circumnavigations, including frequent messages to myself. It may also have been viewed as an inefficiency in email use by those designing the application. Have these people never written a long email and wanted to think about it over night before hitting send?

Another dropped feature that irks me is the inability (or hidden ability) to edit subject lines when returning messages. Changing subject lines may also have been viewed as an inefficiency (and a problem for conversation grouping, I'll get to which in a sec), but for users who play games with this feature of the email paradigm (let's call them formal innovators), this is a real drag.

The conversation feature, which for the most part I think is a successful innovation, has a few practical flaws that might be addressed. The biggest problem is that it doesn't allow you to see branches well, so responses to mass emails are hard to manage. I recently sent out a recruting email for work, and it would be nice if I could isolate conversations with individual respondants as new conversations. This problem cuts to the heart of how conversations are managed by the application -- subject lines seem to be the exclusive determiner of how conversations are grouped, which means if you send two emails with the same subject line, they may be grouped together, even if the subject is something generic like "hello". Beware, ye writers of uncreative subject lines.

Finally, I wish it were possible to customize which fields appear when you compose a new message or begin a response. The simple ability to customize what comes up when you hit compose or reply would would make the subject line more accessible for editing, which might help solve the issues with conversation branching (although only manually, and only indirectly).

MORE: I forgot to mention the feature that got me thinking about writing this post in the first place! Gmail is NOT backwards compatible with some of the ancient browsers you run into when you're galloping the globe, which means that for instance on my trip to Costa Rica last month, it was actually somewhat difficult to find computers that would run it. This problem is exacerbated by Gmail's resource intensivity at loadup, which is just too much for some machines -- although to be fair, the load time for other free email services can be extremely frustrating too. At any rate, I have a friend who just informed everyone he was switching his primary to Gmail (the account I gave him), right before he left for Argentina. I hope he's able to access it without too much hassle.

Help wanted   {Comments: 0}

This is disturbing and reassuring at the same time: while seeking a job with the government over at USAJobs.com, I noticed a large number of postings from the VA for readjustment counselling specialists and therapists. On the one hand, it's a frightening reminder that although combat deaths among American troops in Iraq have been relatively low (thanks to Kevlar), relatively more troops are coming with life-altering injuries. On the other hand, it's nice to know the VA is finally starting to look after the peculiar needs of a whole new segment of American society -- the Iraq War vets.

More about Kevlar and its inventor.

July 22, 2004

Two steps back   {Comments: 0}

This could be a monster story, although I wouldn't be surprised if the bill gets killed in committee. Basically, Orrin Hatch wants to hold tech companies liable for copyright infringements perpetrated with their technology -- even if the technology isn't strictly designed for that purpose! Depending on how broadly it's construed, this could mean the end of everything from file sharing protocols to CD burners and mp3 players, and perhaps beyond. (Does this mean the recording industry can sue Al Gore for inventing the internet?)

Make no mistake, this bill is designed to stifle the creation of new technologies. Thanks to enforcement problems in the digital environment and the huge incentives for individuals to seek out or even distribute files online, the recording industry is fighting an unwinnable war that looks, in fact, a lot like the war on drugs: massive resources are devoted to tracking down the perpetrators, disproportionate penalties are exacted, and no progress is made. This bill solves the problem by eliminating the technology that makes the digital environment possible in the first place.

The good news is, there's no way this can happen, at least, not in the long run. The shift in our collective conception of intellectual property is already taking place, partly because of the internet and new ways of dealing with information, but also due to the influence of postmodern thought and art. This kind of mass conceptual change will ultimately be reflected in the law.

July 21, 2004

The pride of Chicago   {Comments: 0}

The FT raves about Millenium Park, which just opened here in Chicago:

[J]udging by the initial public response, the park has achieved its ambitions of uniting an elitist ethic with Chicago's democratic ethos. About 10,000 listened to Shostakovich's free of charge, while hundreds more splashed about in the Plensa fountain.
I haven't yet been to see the bean, but it's on my list. I'm so glad to hear there's an attraction to trump the Frank Gehry monstrosity, which has always struck me as a bit metooish. (It's too bad, by the way, that the FT's copy editors didn't catch the omission of poor Shostakovich's symphony number. The local reporters have it as "Shostakovich's somber Symphony No 5".)

Another Chicago tidbit: Chicago radio personality Gretchen Helfrich will be making what I assume will be her blogopsheric debut over at Preposterous Universe (she'll be a guest blogger) next week. Sean Carroll (the proprietor of this Preposterous Universe) describes her show, Odyssey:

Odyssey represents exactly what you would like to hear on public radio: a spirited and in-depth examination of ideas, ranging from politics to science to the arts. Sort of like this blog, without as much whimsical self-indulgence and pictures of Godzilla. The best feature of the show is how they make every effort to generate light rather than heat, remaining interesting and entertaining while digging carefully into the issues lurking behind the topics being discussed. The opposite of the O'Reilly Factor in every way.
I actually used to be a regular listener -- like most everyone else in Chicago I went through that miserable Gretchen crush stage -- but my enthusiasm for her show has really waned in the past year or two. Odyssey's fatal flaw is that the overwhelming majority of its guests are academics, which makes for pedantry and lifeless conversation, the FT's elitist ethic. Tell me, why is it only tenured professors can talk about ideas?
Searching for Bobby Fischer   {Comments: 0}

Garry Kasparov writes (in a melancholy, even mournful tone) about the decline of Bobby Fischer, with some sharp commentary on why he might have abandoned the game and what that means for a grandmaster's (and what a grandmaster!) existence.

Related, it seems to me, is Ray Davis's observation about the way chess figured in the Real and artistic lives of Duchamp and Nabokov, specifically his point about the limits of certain games and how we perceive those limits. From the world of chess, Kasparov is a great example of someone who has negotiated those limits successfully -- as an activist in the political world and even (if the link above is to be believed) a contributing editor at WSJ!

July 19, 2004

Paul Goyette of locussolus   {Comments: 5}

Mark Liberman of Language Log brings up a confusion that's always irked me a little bit, this question of bloggers' names, pseudonyms, and site names. He takes note of the fact that some blogs have names that double as personal identifiers (apostropher, Archpundit) while others are something else entirely (Half the Sins of Mankind, Beautiful Horizons), and suggests that in the latter cases, the format "PG at Half the Sins of Mankind" be accepted as standard and furthermore referred to as blognomen. This fits with my own occasional practice (minus the blognomen part), and it would solve the problem of people referring to me (as opposed to this site) as "locussolus", which is clearly (?) a location rather than a pseudonym.

(By the way, I don't think I know anyone who more frequently (and with more authority!) suggests usage standards and new words than Mark Liberman of Language Log. I'm not sure what conclusion is to be drawn from this, but it does have some interesting consequences -- eg proposing blognomen as the name for a certain format of reference while taking blognomenclature as the name for the study of said format and alternatives would seem to predispose the "student"...)

MORE: One bit of practical disorder Mark didn't clear up: should it be "Mark Liberman of Language Log" or "Mark Liberman of Language Log"? The latter makes more sense to me in this case, but maybe others feel differently?

Blame it on the rain?   {Comments: 3}

Last Wednesday my Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Indianapolis was delayed more than three hours due to inclement weather... in Newark. And since weather-related delays and other scheduling aggravations "beyond the airline's control" aren't subject to reimbursement, my decision to take a plane (as opposed to a faster Greyhound bus!) looks a little silly.

But. Now I'm wondering if I shouldn't write them and say that it actually is in their power to control the weather -- or at least, how the weather affects my flight. They, after all, are the ones who decided to fly their planes all over the country instead of back and forth between destinations. This, in fact, is part of their business model: instead of running commuter flights back and forth between cities like the major carriers, they minimize the number of gates they have to maintain by running multi-stop flights across the country (eg Newark-Midway-Indianapolis). Unfortunately, this model greatly increases the risk of weather-related delays: whereas a back-and-forth commuter flight will suffer weather delays only when either a passenger's origination or destination have bad weather, a multistop Southwest flight can be delayed by bad weather in any of the cities it hits. And since delays "beyond the airline's control" aren't eligible for compensation, this risk is passed on directly to the passenger.

July 16, 2004

The prosody of sarcasm   {Comments: 2}

Mark Liberman writes extensively on the inflections of "couldn't care less" vs "could care less" in support of his view that the latter is NOT a consciously sarcastic recasting of the former (contra Pinker). It caught my eye because I've always been awfully concerned about the correctness of "could care less", and the sarcasm explanation had never occurred to me before... but what's really interesting is his commentary on the prosody of sarcasm:

There's no such thing as sarcastic intonation. Not in English, anyhow, and I doubt that any other language has such a thing either. Nor is there sarcastic stress, sarcastic pitch, sarcastic voice quality or any other mode of speech production that means "what I'm saying now is the opposite of what I mean."
This really surprised me, because I think of "tone" (possibly a nontechnical term...) as being the primary way we apprehend sarcasm and irony. Just thinking through some instances in my head though, I can't hear a good counterexample. Does this mean context is the only marker for sarcasm? If so, it should be just as easy to convey in a written form as over the telephone -- and <sarcasm>we all know this to be the case</sarcasm>.
July 15, 2004

Rumor has it   {Comments: 2}

I can't figure out what to make of widespread speculation that Cheney will be replaced on the ticket. It seems incredibly unlikely to me, both that the Bush administration would even consider it or that they'd actually go through with it. Cheney may be a liability for Bush, but so much of Bush's campaign message is about who Bush is -- he's loyal, confident, and shoots from the hip -- that replacing his running mate could seriously damage his bid. This is the same problem Bush's had in Iraq all year -- the American people have lost patience with Iraq and want out, but there's no way that he can capitulate without tarnishing his public persona.

So, is the White House floating trial balloons? It seems unlikely to me.

ALSO: The New Republic links to this memo from a Republican polling firm with some strong insights into where undecided voters will end up. It's not a pretty picture for Bush, but I would caution that world events are a huge wild card that could rearrange voters' priorities pretty quickly...

Clearly, if these undecided voters were leaning any harder against the door of the Kerry camp, they would crash right through it.

The Bush campaign needs to focus on two goals with these crucial voters -- improve their perceptions about the jobs and economy AND more sharply and aggressively define John Kerry. Any advertising that does not either sharply define Kerry or get the truth out about the growing economy appears to be a waste of resources in this environment, an environment in which the President's image is polarized and generally fixed.

If the Bush team can improve these voters’ perceptions of the jobs and the economy, it would improve the President’s job approval and image ratings. Couple that improvement with a worsening in their view of Kerry and the President can greatly improve his chances of capturing these voters.

Short of accomplishing these two goals or some other significant event, these voters appear poised to break heavily AGAINST President Bush in John Kerry’s favor which would hand Kerry a lion’s share of these states.

If these undecided voters are the exclusive target (as the memo indicates) then dumping Cheney might be a good idea. The problem is that Bush will lose some of his base in low turnout if he gives up Cheney... whether that would offset votes gained among undecideds from picking an economic specialist running mate I obviously couldn't say, but I suspect the point is moot: Bush won't dump Cheney, for the image-preserving reasons I state above, but also because to a great extent Bush's image is his actual persona.
July 14, 2004

Developing story   {Comments: 0}

The latest: Barack Obama will be giving the keynote at the Dem convention in Boston. It's obviously a huge boost for him, and surely brings a feeling of validation to those of us who've been saying he's hot stuff all along. It's a chance for him to soak up some national attention, and his positive message is just what the Democrats need to be focusing on.

Yes, it'll be a great way to start his senatorial career -- if he can get by Mike Ditka, that is. The brutish, big shouldered former Bears coach is appearing publicly this afternoon , and there's reason to think he'll announce his candidacy. There's a little poetry in it -- isn't a sexist bully like Ditka the perfect person to replace the effeminate Jack Ryan and his decidedly unrepublican sexual proclivities?

Obviously Ditka would be a powerful candidate in Illinois, but would he be able to beat Barack Obama? My gut reaction is that he'd have a very good chance, but the Tribune suggests that Ditka has some dirty laundry, if you can call it that: belonging to a men-only golf club, not being registered to vote. These things won't play well in Illinois, although they may play as part of Ditka's message, and they might well energize his base/fans.

Also in re not getting too discouraged if an angry Ditka candidacy emerges, it's important to remember that Obama's candidacy has been through every kind of bizarre twist in this senate race already. His chances appeared to dwindle when Peter Fitzgerald opted not to run for reelection, and then again when so many candidates threw their hats into the Democratic primary. But he's come out on top... hopefully he will again.

UPDATE: Ditka is not running. The press is spinning it as being about his inability to stand up to a background check, which if true wouldn't be all that surprising. Either way, this is good news for Obama supporters, who would have had to change their whole campaign to deal with a celeb opponent.