October 31, 2004

Predictions   {Comments: 0}

With the polls all tied up, it's probably foolish to make predictions. Still, I'm pretty optimistic about things. No, we haven't seen the strong move toward one candidate or the other in the final days that was the conventional wisdom a couple weeks ago; but a tie today means Kerry has gained some ground -- however small -- and that is a good sign.

Also, it's hard for me to imagine that the Republicans can win the turnout war, at least among the GOP faithful. The Democrats I see are too energized to lose that battle, and the nature of incumbency and Bush's own flaws (as seen by "the base") handicap the Republican effort. The biggest danger might be that all those Democratic volunteers could lead to a sort of orange hat effect in the contested states, turning off swing voters instead of building turnout; but my understanding is that these efforts are targeted at likely Kerry voters rather than the undecided.

That we haven't seen a major shift in the polls obviously increases the chances of an anticlimactic Tuesday. I still think a 269-269 split is pretty improbable, but results exercizing obscure clauses of the constitution have always been less likely than the legal free for all we'll see if the electoral count and the vote count in one or more key states are close. To be sure, I don't expect things to be this close, but if they are, look for a legal battle that will destroy the new president's legitimacy, further polarize the electorate, and drag on for some time. And the worst case scenario? A concurrent major terrorist attack and the rapid disintegration of American democracy.

MORE: Matthew Gross sees a promising twist on that orange hat effect.

Google's insecurities   {Comments: 0}

This is an aggravation. My first impulse was to compare Google with Microsoft, until I remembered that GMail is still in beta. But when is this beta going to end? With the number of invitations I have lying around (if you're the last person on earth without an account, please feel free to write and ask for one), it's practically live already, so there can't be much benefit to taking it into general release. Was the strategy 1) to fly below radar after the controversy surrounding the "invasive" relevant ads, 2) to generate public interest/mystery at the moment of the IPO, or 3) something along the lines of don't be evil?

Also, if you're interested in working for Google, you should check out the Google Labs Aptitude Test. [via The Modulator]

October 30, 2004

Markets in the open firmament of heaven   {Comments: 0}

A gluttonous Baude writes about a forbidden French delicacy:

Anyway, if ortolans are so delicious and so sought-after, why not let somebody breed and grow them by the industrial cage-ful, like foie-gras geese or chickens for the slaughter? This kind of market-driven mass breeding would probably bring up the ortolan's numbers while also letting bizarre gourmands get their wicked fix. Even if civilized nations raise legal barriers, a shady factory in some backwater nation could do the job for now.
I'm no expert on the ortolan, but wouldn't such a market have come into being long ago if it were so easy to raise the birds in captivity? It's not like we see mass breeding of a lot of different game birds, especially the size of the ortolan -- and in any case I wonder if it isn't part of the charm of the whole affair to eat a wild bird (there certainly is enough ritualization of every other aspect of ortolan-eating).

But my real beef here is with the idea that market-driven mass breeding would bring up the ortolan's numbers. I'm sure it would bring more of these tasty treats within range of Will's greasy fingertips, but is raising birds in captivity and then devouring them really a solution to overharvesting and extinction? Put another way, has our consumption of chicken really perpeturated that species, or have we instead created a whole different animal? I'm not suggesting we stop eating chickens, but the idea that their domestication was somehow a good thing for biodiversity is pretty damned anthropocentric.

October 29, 2004

A renewal   {Comments: 0}

Having used every subterfuge
To shake you, lies, fatigue, or even that of passion,
Now I see no way but a clean break.
I add that I am willing to bear the guilt.

You nod assent. Autumn turns windy, huge,
A clear vase of dry leaves vibrating on and on.
We sit, watching. When I next speak
Love buries itself in me, up to the hilt.

--James Merrill, 1951

October 28, 2004

From the halls of Montezuma   {Comments: 0}

1. Via The Scope, WalMart is building a new store next to the ruins of Teotihuacan in Mexico.

2. The Washington Monthly has a piece on the scandal everyone seems to have forgotten: Abu Ghraib. Everyone, that is, except for Ogged.

3. Howard Kurtz has the story on the timing of the Times story about the Al Qa Qaa explosives, which has raised some questions about media bias.

4. And the intensity of the run up to the election has given rise to some great escapism. This blog (wishfully?) contemplates alternative histories, while this site is a sort of tribute to the blank page. [via MonkeyFilter]

October 27, 2004

Sounds of bones and flutes   {Comments: 0}

I've been listening to a lot of contemporary classical/art music lately. Last night I went to the 40th anniversary concert for the Contemporary Chamber Players, who used the occasion to change their name to Contempo (the name was appartently suggested by the wonderful composer Marta Ptaszynska, who advised David Sasso and me on our children's opera last year) and also to prominently (and seemingly without irony) juxtapose George Crumb's Black Angels with some solo jazz piano music by Brad Mehldau. There were also works by Chen Yi and Jonathan Harvey.

I think the inclusion of Mehldau was bizarre. It's true he's the jazz pianist working today who's most successful at creating a fusion with classical elements, but it's all late romantic stuff: difficult meters, polyrhythms, and late tonal harmonies. This kind of experimentation may stretch the limits of jazz, but it's barely even interesting coming after the textural explorations of Black Angels. These are completely different musical languages, and typical jazz listeners just don't have the musical vocabulary to deal with textural rather than melodic or rhythmic lines. This isn't meant as a criticism of jazz, or of Mehldau, whose music is plenty complex. But simply putting these two kinds of music on the same stage won't be sufficient to create a common audience.

Other ideas for building an audience for art music? I think a great deal of progress could be made with some simple, direct explication of what the hell is going on in the music. Contemporary static arts have their own layers of obfuscating pomposity, but I've always felt that the huge success of conceptual art is thanks in large part to the playful writing about it -- both by the artists themselves and critics. Where is that playfulness in writing about new music? Reading the program notes for some of these concerts, it's as though there's no consciousness about just how obscure the medium is. Instead, there's this almost high church liturgical attitude. Yuck.

Transparency   {Comments: 0}

Yesterday Slate published an informal poll of how its writers and editors plan to vote in the upcoming presidential election. It'd be nice if the rest of the media would follow suit -- it's the responsible move, and it highlights (see Jacob Weisberg's explanation for more on this) the subtle distinction between opinion and bias. I do think, though, that Steven Landsburg should be let go based on his equation of John Edwards with David Duke. (Full disclosure: one out of one writer at locussolus favored eliminating Landsburg even before his obnoxious comment.)

MORE: A reader writes in with more on Landsburg:

[I]t's amazing about Steven Landsburg, the guy has totally lost his mind... I read his book, Armchair Economist a few years ago, and it starts out quite nicely, as a popular science piece on how we can use basic economics to make sense of everyday phenomena... and ends with a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth diatribe of a libertarian gone completely crazy (he compares compulsory recycling in his daughter's elementary school to the Nazi policy towards Jews, if I remember correctly). He's a classic example of the "mad economist" phenomenon, taking his economics training and belief in free markets all too far, and it all goes wrong.

Here, too, we have a case of that. Because he believes so much in free trade, the Kerry/Edwards opposition to it takes on the paramount importance to him. So much so that he loses all touch with reality and the relative magnitude of the other things at stake in this election: the economic and political future of this country, world peace, etc.

The central feature of sane economics is realizing what are the tradeoffs at hand, which is something he completely lost track of.

You can read more of Landsburg's "mad economist" shtick at Marginal Revolutions, where he's been a guest blogger for the past week.

AND: Now Baude has cut short his vacation to defend Landsburg.

Games with numbers   {Comments: 0}

I'm getting sick of reading about how there are 33 ways the election could end in an electoral college tie. I'm sure there are 33 ways the world could end tomorrow, but that doesn't make it likely. Assuming there are only 11 states in play and none of these states elects a third party candidate, there are 2048 permutations -- only 33 of which would lead to an electoral college tie.

My sense is that while the election looks close now, there's a strong chance it will still break one way or the other before Tuesday, and the electoral college vote will magnify that shift. Maybe I'm wrong. Either way I don't nessarily think it's a bad idea to comtemplate what might happen -- after all, these possibilities could potentially devastate American democracy -- I just think we should have a care for the relevant probabilities when we do.

October 26, 2004

Collective responsibility   {Comments: 0}

The federal budget is headed for disaster. The deficit's as big as it's ever been, even with some expenses (like the little war in Iraq) left off-budget. Yes, payroll tax receipts by the government still exceed Social Security and Medicare benefit payouts, but the situation is projected to change quickly with the retirements of the first baby boomers. The situation is grim.

And it's not really being discussed. Sure, the Democrats have attacked the Bush administration for its failures to rein in spending, and occasionally someone mentions changes to Social Security. But unless you're a non-political figure (Alan Greenspan springs to mind here), mostly you're just saying that benefits won't be touched, that Americans can count on Social Security.

They can't. Social Security has to be changed, and it has to be changed fundamentally. The only real question is: how will we change it? Some have mentioned the possibility of creating private investment accounts to harness the power of the American stock market. Others are quietly talking about increasing the retirement age or reducing benefits in the distant future. But there are serious problems with both of these ideas. The first is probably not possible from a budgetary standpoint, since funds would have to be diverted from today's budget; the second requires a massive amount of political capital, since it means taking money away from younger generations. It's so much easier to leave this problem for later.

What can we do about this? Well, we can start by giving up the notion that Social Security and Medicare are about generational equity. This idea is deeply ingrained in the American psyche, thanks to the subtleties of social insurance rhetoric. Social Secrity and Medicare are, after all, entitlement programs. But where Americans see their FICA taxes as contributions into an account, the accounting folks at the Social Security Administrations are buying up government bonds with it -- essentially carrying the money out the back door to fill gaps in the general budget. When it comes time for Americans to retire, benefits are based on the taxes they have paid, but the relationship has never been linear. Each generation's retirement is paid for by the next.

There's a reason these programs were presented in terms of contributions and accounts: the architects were using this rhetoric to create a sense of entitlement in the public. This was a deliberate attempt to prevent later governments from taking away the benefit -- a lock on the refrigerator, so to speak. Now, Social Security is the most popular social program in the history of the country, and Americans guard their benefits closely -- which is why so much political capital is needed to change the program.

In all likelihood, this rhetoric did not anticipate the backbreaking budgetary dilemma faced by Social Security and Medicare today. The structural backbone of these pay-as-you-go programs is the provocative notion that economic and population growth will exceed interest rates over timeframes of thirty and forty years. As long as this is this is the case, payroll tax receipts in a given year should always be greater than the amount the population could have received by investing their contributions at the interest rate instead, which means Social Security experiences a permanent surplus. Unfortunately, population growth rates have not been so cooperative. And in the meantime, lifespans have increased, stretching the money out even more. The delicate balance between growth rates has been disrupted.

What should we do now? Americans most be educated about the true nature of Social Security. This means changing the rhetoric of social insurance to highlight the redistributions and generational contract and casting FICA as a tax rather than a contribution. Folding FICA into the income tax -- ie getting rid of FICA altogether -- might be a good place to begin this process. By changing Americans' perceptions of the program, the threshold of political capital necessary to enact changes can be lowered. Americans must come to view these programs as their collective responsibility for seniors rather than their individual responsibilities to themselves.

October 25, 2004

Izixhobo kufuneka zisebenzele abantu   {Comments: 0}

1. Dwayne Bailey has an answer for linguistic xenophobia and general anti-intellectualism.

2. Slate has a piece on game theory and the candidates' strategy in the final days of the campaign. It seems pretty much useless as an analytical tool because the problem is so complex and the real life rules aren't clear. It's not half bad as a lay introduction to game theory, though.

3. Check out this instructional piece about the No Child Left Behind Act (funny, isn't it, how they refer to it as an act...) in the form of a standardized test.

4. And an engineering professor is convinced he can build a cheaper piano. I hope he's right!

Anxiety of influence   {Comments: 1}

Four-year-old artist Marla Olmstead is apparently a prodigy (though her father doesn't like that word) when it comes to abstract art. Provocatively, she seems to be passing through periods that roughly correspond to major abstract artists of the 20th century: Pollock, Miró, Kandinsky. The thing is, I don't view these artists' styles as necessary phases in the history of art, but as works of great individual personality. What I mean is, you could very well have seen abstraction progress through the twentieth century if Kandinsky had never lived -- it might look little different, but it would still be abstraction. There are so many ways to abstract, and these great artists have influenced the historical meaning of abstraction.

So it seems strange to me that Marla would mimic these particular styles, given the fact that her father has never taken her to an art museum. Why should her development follow the happily accidental directions we took in the 20th century? I suppose we could build a theory of subconscious influence pervading every part of society, but that seems implausible as an explanation for the genius we're reading about here.

(By the way, I have a bone to pick with the article's lack of clarity on the question of the abstract vs the non-representational. All representational art is an abstraction -- it's just a matter of degree. And it seems to me non-representational art (see for example the work of at least two of the three artists mentioned above) can't be abstract at all, because it isn't abstracting from anything. The article is equally unclear on the quesion of whether Marla's work is meant to be representational or not -- it sounds like the titles for her works are picked after the fact, and in par by her parents.)

October 23, 2004

The comeback kid   {Comments: 0}

Via Kriston at BTD, here's a brief article about Bill Clinton's aspiration to succeed Kofi Annan as UN Secretary General in 2006. Kriston lustily imagines how the right would react to his candidacy, even going so far as to suggest the piece is just "anti-Clinton porn for the rabid right." But I think it's worth considering this on the merits as well, because the possibilities are huge: Clinton is the greatest political talent of this era, and he'd bring new credibility and limitless optimism to that organization. It would make the UN more powerful right at the moment when internationalism is losing ground in the world, and (despite the contempt Americans seem to have for it) internationalism is just what we need right now.

Anyway, I don't know how serious this is, but I love the idea.

October 22, 2004

Nexus   {Comments: 0}

I wrote stubbornly into the evening.
At the window, a giant praying mantis
rubbed his monkey wrench head against the glass,
begging vacantly with pale eyes;

and the commas leapt at me like worms
or miniature scythes blackened with age.
The praying mantis screeched louder,
his ragged jaws opening onto formlessness.

I walked outside;
the grass hissed at my heels.
Up ahead in the lapping darkness
he wobbled, magnified and absurdly green,
a brontosaurus, a poet.

--Rita Dove, from The Yellow House on the Corner (1980)

October 21, 2004

Economic questions   {Comments: 0}

Someone asked me: if the world is so dependent on emerging markets for growth, what will happen once all the markets have emerged? The short answer I gave was that technology will still drive growth, that it's the only underlying driver of economic gowth anyway, once all the inefficiencies have been teased out. But this broadest possible response didn't really satisfy, I guess because many people see technology as a threat to people's jobs rather than a force for overall growth -- and that's not unreasonable. I'm not sure this was the underlying issue, but do we eventually want a society without work, or with significantly less work?

Also, I've been wondering: given the importance of the state of the economy to the political process in this country and the complexity of these issues for the average voter, why is it that we don't have more economics education at the high school level? If people are going to be dealing with these issues as citizens, shouldn't they at least have some baseline of knowledge about what the economy is, what it means when it's doing badly, etc? Otherwise, there's widespread myopia about economic issues, and we see only our own circumstances (and perhaps those of our neighbors). Or maybe this is how it should be?

October 20, 2004

Form and function   {Comments: 0}

Matt Scofield writes about wikis, fact checking, and the evolution of blogs (he's riffing I guess on this post from Positive Liberty). My own feeling is that blogs work best when they're about personality rather than (news) content, and that it's usually a mistake to imagine them with the framework of traditional media. This doesn't mean they can't be news sources or perform an essential (and relatively new) auditing role for the media -- but Matt provocatively suggests that there's another format that would fit this kind of role better than the blog.

Specifically, he wants to see wiki fact-checking implemented, so that political discourse can move toward some kind of consensus. I'm not sure we can really say consensus comes out of that particular design -- it seems to me it's more about accuracy, by successive (and collaborative) approximation. But the point is still valid, because some of the most important work of the political blogopshere has to do with accuracy in the media. Wouldn't larger, more collaborative sites facilitate faster information transfers, thereby increasing the accuracy of statements and giving individuals the tools necesssary to fight misinformation? And, couldn't they therefore serve as more effective platforms for political activism? Maybe high profile political blogs with comments section already fill this role.

Frequent readers know that I'm not crazy about political blogging -- that I find it almost suffocating because everyone is out there saying the same thing as everyone else. For the same reasons I also find it wasteful (although I suppose one could argue that this "waste" in political ideas is actually a profoundly democratic activity), so maybe the attraction of larger, collaborative sites is that they'd make the whole process more efficient. The tradeoff would be a bit of personality, but while personality does go a long way, activist and fact-checking blogs might not have voice as their focus.

Anyway, there's nothing really new about blogs; there never really was. Yes, they eliminate a lot of the transaction costs associated with publishing (although there are still significant costs associated with building a readership) and create a comfortable format, but that's about it. What's really new is the networks between and among blogs, places where political discourse can happen, artistic communities can form, obscure interests can connect. Sure, blogs can have great value, but it's of the same magnitude as the value you'd get from the same material published in any other format. The networks between them, though, have value on a different scale -- which is why there might be something to this idea of separating them out, forming wikis, or Matt's Lycea, or whatever else. This could why we see this agglutinization process with blogs becoming group blogs.

By the way, I haven't written anything here about it, but I'm always thinking about how the internet can be made to serve collective artistic ends. Sometime soon I'm hoping to have a series of posts here detailing some of my ideas and getting interested readers engaged with the process of collaborating on how to collaborate. (Will someone say my blog is the wrong format for such a discussion?)

October 19, 2004

The imprevidibility of the future   {Comments: 0}

Dan Johnson-Weinberger calls the election for Kerry, and barring any transformative events I think he's right: at this late hour, the middle can only break for the challenger. The electoral vote is looking especially promising right now for Kerry, even though most national polls are about even. Which raises the fun possibility that Kerry could lose the popular vote and still become president... wouldn't that be appropriate! (UPDATE: Not surprisingly, others are talking about this too.)

A question for Dan: what to make of Colorado's ballot initiative?

As a king might, scientifically   {Comments: 0}

1. Sean Carroll, with an accessible and important post on the anthropic principle as it relates to some current problems in physics. Don't miss this one.

2. Via Paul Musgrave, some legal analysis (PDF) of the possibilities for postponing an election in the case of a hypothetical terrorist attack. Richard L. Hasen discusses this possibility last in his article on weird outcomes for the election, but it could well be first: it's an outcome that might lead even to the disintegration of our union.

3. Josh Corey, on Bush, Kerry, Ahab, and Derrida:

I fear that the deadly metaphor of the "war on terror" has utterly usurped any possibility of being truly rational about the real dangers and enemies we face. Come Nov. 2 we may simply end up swapping Ahabs, for Kerry has been unable to invent his own rhetoric, his own frame of language, for the crisis of our times. It would be as if Ahab were put out of action but Starbuck, that most decent of men, still felt compelled to follow his captain's commands to the letter. "The letter killeth." Now more than ever we need the habits of complex thought that Derrida represented—habits of reading the global situation that could revise the killing letter. No one is flying to our rescue; instead we ourselves are flying, delivering death from above in the form of bombs and aerial views that obliterate the human face. We have to break free of Captain Ahab's language; Ahab-Bush, who up to now has gloated, like Richard III, at the ease of his task: "I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their match."
4. And finally, there's this new phenomenon of asexuality, which (not meaning to be boorish) I find somewhat alienating, in every bizarre sense of that word.
October 18, 2004

Efficiency gains   {Comments: 0}

Last week mayor Daley announced that the City of Chicago is going to privatize the Chicago Skyway by leasing it to Cintra-Macquarie Consortium for the next 99 years. The company will get all the tolls on the highway, but it takes on responsibility for maintenance and operations; the city will get $1.82 billion up front.

I tend to be against taking a public good out of the hands of a government that 1) has an incentive to work for the public good and 2) already has the necessary expertise in place. But in this case, the sheer size of the payout blows me away. No I don't have a degree in finance, but $1.82B seems like an absolutely astonishing sum for a highway with a $40m revenue stream, especially given the limitations on toll increases. If the traffic stays constant and we assume a 10% rate of inflation and a much smaller 2% discount rate (wildly optimistic parameters for the new concessionaire) the value of this investment over the next 99 years is less than half what they paid for it. And while the traffic will probably increase some, it can't increase all that much without massively expensive changes to the relevant infrastructure.

In addition to the huge price tag, Cintra-Macquarie has to shoulder the risk that the Skyway might lsoe value over the next hundred years, whether because of economic or population decline in Chicago, a change in technology, or even significant upgrades to transportation alternatives (the much maligned Borman expressway, or perhaps a high speed rail link). I don't see what it is they're getting that's worth $1.82B. Congrats to Daley, I guess, for finding such a generous buyer!

October 14, 2004

Myrtle   {Comments: 1418}

How funny your name would be
if you could follow if back to where
the first person thought of saying it,
naming himself that, or maybe
some other persons thought of it
and named that person. It would
be like following a river to its source,
which would be impossible. Rivers have no source.
They just automatically appear at a place
where they get wider, and soon a real
river comes along, with fish and debris,
regal as you please, and someone
has already given it a name: St. Benno
(saints are popular for this purpose) or, or
some other name, the name of his
long-lost girlfriend, who comes
at longlast to impersonate that river,
on a stage, her voice clanking
like its bed, her clothing of sand
and pasted paper, a piece of real technology,
while all along she is thinking, I can
do what I want to do. But I want to stay here.

--John Ashbery, 1994

October 13, 2004

Bait & switch   {Comments: 0}

I couldn't help but be disappointed by tonight's debate. I was hoping for a strong showing from Kerry, but I felt this was the weakest of his performances. I thought as the night went on he got stronger and seemed more comfortable, but he never quite had that sharpness we saw Friday. I think part of the problem is that his factual, multi-point answers don't really work stylistically and don't work from a policy wonk standpoint either. Either an ability to communicate more policy specifics or an ability to stylize things a little more would really put him on the next level. Doing both would make him Clinton.

Bush, by contrast, had his best debate of the three. His message has filled out a little since the first debate, and the education mantra got him out of a lot of uncomfortable spots (he was aided in this by Bob Schieffer, who allowed far fewer followups than we've seen in other debates). He had all the usual bizarre tics, but he managed to be likably self-deprecating at the end, and moreso than Kerry, despite his best efforts. Bush of course benefited from low expectations in this debate since it was about domestic policy.

So, I think Bush probably took this last debate, by about the same small margin that Kerry took the first one (I still say Kerry won dramatically in the second). I don't think this outcome will have a major effect on the polls -- most of what happened tonight should reinforce views already held, and there aren't that many votes changing sides these days anyway. Nobody did anything to change the general perception much.

If there is a negative effect for Kerry (and I kind of doubt there will be), I predict it will be because of declining enthusiasm within the Kerry base -- after all, he was supposed to shine tonight on the issues that really matter to Democrats. Instead, he gave a muddled and uninspiring picture of what the priorities are. If he's elected, I'll probably end up opposing the majority of the policies he talked about tonight!

MORE: Venkat at BTD mentions that "Kerry bringing up Cheney's daughter was low." I'm glad to see someone agrees with me on this point...

AND MORE: Wow, the CNN and CBS snap polls show a clear Kerry win, and ABC's shows a draw.

October 12, 2004

Deriding Derrida   {Comments: 0}

I feel like I should be saying something in defense of Jacques Derrida, who upon his death has become an object of widespread ridicule, at least in the world of blogs. I obviously don't know whether Derrida was aware of blogs or what he thought about them, but I can at least speculate that he wouldn't have found them all that interesting. The texts we find or make on the internet are so direct and confessional -- it's rare to find anyting so crafted that we might call it art. Some think of blogging as an exchange of ideas, but the linguistic and psychological (although perhaps not the sociological) vehicles for that exchange seem, at this early date, pretty flimsy/impoverished. For the deep reader, there really isn't much to see; and for the deconstructing reader, the hypocrisies of the internet might just provide too easy a target. A goal, maybe... something to strive for?

MORE: Fight back against reactionary anti-intellectualism. [via Keywords]

Editing, please!   {Comments: 0}

I'm not particularly an Anne Rice fan, but this is interesting: she's gone on Amazon and defended herself from the harsh customer reviews of her latest book, Blood Canticle. It's well known that many authors obsess about their Amazon rankings and even impersonate customers in order to challenge reviews they're not happy with -- remember the flap when a glitch at Amazon Canada briefly published reviewers' true identities? But I haven't heard of such an openly defensive move from a respected author before, and it strikes me as a major retreat, one that just puts more power in the hands of largely unaccountable customer reviewers. This advice wasn't written by or for Rice, but she'd do well to read it, both for inspiration and ammunition.

October 11, 2004

Who among us   {Comments: 0}

1. Timothy Noah has more on the idea (brought to my attention by Haggai below in comments) that Bush's bizarre mention of Dred Scott was actually an allusion to Roe v. Wade; Greg at BTD is skeptical, or at least sees something more (!) subtle.

2. Scott Dadich at the NYTimes confirms what I have long suspected: Bush's bumper sticker is better. [via Political Wire]

3. And linguist/TV personality Geoff Nunberg has a great parable about the dangers of faulty intelligence.

October 10, 2004

The feeling the everlasting feeling   {Comments: 0}

If you, like me, are one of those who enjoyed diagramming sentences when you were in grammar school -- and by the way, I think it's only fair to include linguists in the bunch (because what is linguistics if not an extension of our primal urge to diagram sentences?) even though their diagrams are in ways more sophisticated and may even have the purpose of explaining ambiguities not admitted by any schoolbook I recall -- but if in any case you are a diagrammer, then you should read, courtesy of ALDaily, this cute article about the art of diagramming sentences, about just what it is that compels us to diagram, and -- although the article, mostly a fond and untechnical reminiscence, touches on the point only obliquely -- about the inadequacies of diagramming, a mathematical exercize rather than an investigation of the aesthetic or the poetic, when it comes to really telling us anything about how to write a sentence.

October 9, 2004

Batting 0 for 2   {Comments: 0}

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the debate last night was a tie -- obviously partisan operators aren't saying that, but the general idea is that each candidate seemed to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish, short of vanquishing his opponent outright, and so each candidate's supporters viewed the night as a victory. The snap polls seem to bear this out.

My own snap poll of one found that Kerry won convincingly, improving the fluidity, sharpness, and clipability of his performance over the last debate (which I thought was somewhat overhyped as a Kerry victory -- it was more of a Bush loss). Readers of this blog know I'm not a big fan of Kerry's, that I've basically held my nose to support him in light of the alternative. Well, the debate last night was the first time I've been really impressed with his performance. He was concise, informed, witty but dead serious. He also seemed (to me at least) much more empathetic than Bush, whose whole tough love shtick is starting to grate.

I do feel that Bush did much better in this debate than the last one, although I have a much harder time gauging his performance since I'm pretty much repulsed by everything he says. (Can it be that people are actually inspired by this man?) But while the Bush folks will probably get some momentum out of this "tie," it will be Kerry who gains in the long run. He's solidifying his image as a man capable to leading the country -- and slowly but surely putting to rest the notion that he's wishy-washy and inconsistent. He now represents a legitimate choice, and as we get closer to the election, I predict independent voters will break toward him.

MORE: Political Wire has follow up numbers that are more in line with how I read the debate.

October 7, 2004

Lucifer in Starlight   {Comments: 0}

On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.
Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend
Above the rolling ball in cloud part screened,
Where sinners hugged their spectre of repose.
Poor prey to his hot fit of pride were those.
And now upon his western wing he leaned,
Now his huge bulk o'er Afric's sands careened,
Now the black planet shadowed Arctic snows.
Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

--George Meredith, 1883

(Baude reminds us that it's Natl Poetry Day in Britain, but posts an American poem! Also, here's Ray Davis on why English isn't a (R)omantic language.)

Subjugating power   {Comments: 0}

It's a little dismaying that I'd never even heard of Elfriede Jelinek, winner of this year's Nobel for lit. But a quick look around the web suggests that almost nobody (speaking English, that is) knows anything about her. There seems to be plenty in the way of German resources, but unfortunately I don't have any German, and therefore can't bring them to you.

There are books in translation, though, and based on the descriptions Amazon has, her work sounds fascinating. This page calls her "the younger counterpart of Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard" who's one of my favorite authors, albeit largely for stylistic reasons that probably aren't the basis for the comparison. It sounds like she fits squarely in a postmodern tradition, perhaps moreso than any other Nobel winner we've seen. From the Nobel Academy: "The nature of Jelinek's texts is often hard to define. They shift between prose and poetry, incantation and hymn, they contain theatrical scenes and filmic sequences." Of course, if "filmic sequences" aren't enough for you, there's always this actual film.

UPDATE: In the time it took me to write this post, someone added a Wikipedia entry.

MORE: This article in the Chronicle (which may not be available to non-subscribers, I can never tell) describes some of her recent work as "a kind of polyphonic monologues that do not serve to delineate roles but to permit voices from various levels of the psyche and history to be heard simultaneously." Notwithstanding my comment above, this sounds very much like Bernhard. I'll let you know for sure once I've actually read something...

October 5, 2004

Hatchet men   {Comments: 0}

Just a few words on the debate. Despite all of the hype about how it would be more important than usual because of the changed landscape after last week's debate, I doubt what happened to night really matters that much. If it was supposed to have the effect of rallying the candidates' respective bases, then it was probably a success on both sides -- it was a vicious debate with lots of unnecessary roughness, and neither of the candidates came away smelling very good. It was certainly a lot less substantive than what we saw Friday.

Cheney looked especially bad because of his hunched over/inclined posture and constant hand wringing. This just reinforced the view a lot of us have that he's the evil mastermind behind the Bush administration's policies. He also seemed tired at the end of the debate. I have to wonder about his strategy of declining to respond -- was it about not having anything to say, fatigue, or just disgust at the whole proceeding? Edwards, by contrast, seemed almost too eager to respond, and I often had a hard time seeing the relationship between the answer and the question. The strangest answer was on Cheney's daughter, when he lavished Cheney with praise but then didn't tie it directly to the Bush administration's policies. It seemed almost inappropriate, and Cheney did well by not answering.

Anyway, as I said above I don't think this debate means a whole lot in the context of the election. It might have some significance for Edwards's career beyond a lost election, although his performance wouldn't convince me to support him next time out. Maybe it was the lack of details, or maybe it was just his presentation, but I thought he had a hard time articulating the message of hope he had during the primaries. It seems strange to say, but maybe Kerry can do better.

October 4, 2004

Disfluent false starts   {Comments: 0}

1. If you care at all about social science methodology, here's a surprisingly readable article about the underlying mathematical problems when people talk about the effect the death penalty has on homicide rates.

2. The New York Times supplies a great introduction to literary life on the web. They fail to mention NaNoWriMo, which is gearing up for another run with a shiny new website, but maybe that doesn't constitute "literary life" in their view...

3. The folks over at Language Log are sure doing their part to clarify last week's debate. They've peformed various analyses of the transcript and brought their linguistic expertise to some of the rumors you may have been wondering about. For those who would try this at home, Cameron Marlow (via Taegan Goddard) has some tools you can use.

October 2, 2004

Divination   {Comments: 0}

Always be ready for the unexpected.
Someone you have dreamed about may visit.
Better clean house to make the right impression.
There are some things you should not think about.

Someone you have dreamed about may visit.
Is it an old friend you do not recognize?
There are some things you should not think about.
Who is the stranger at the door?

Is it an old friend you do not recognize?
Notice the cool appraisal of his eyes.
Who is the stranger at the door?
You sometimes wonder what you're waiting for.

Notice the cool appraisal of his eyes.
Better clean house to make the right impression.
You sometimes wonder what you're waiting for.
Always be ready for the unexpected.

--Dana Gioia, from Interrogations at Noon