November 30, 2004

Non-starter   {Comments: 0}

NPR had a segment this morning about the use of starter interruptors on cars as a kind of virtual repo man -- if you don't keep up with your payments, they just deactivate your car by remote. Far be it from me to tell the down-and-out with piss poor credit what additional risk she can or can't take on, but I have a sneaking suspicion the legal system will end up making things pretty unpleasant for the lender who chooses to use this method of knee-breaking. Access to an automobile so vital in this country -- for getting to work, getting groceries, etc -- that taking it away over a missed payment or two just seems like overkill. I'm sure someone's arguing that it's the threat of losing your car that motivates you to pay, and that the dealership has no real motivation to actually demotivate your car unless you're way delinquent. But that doesn't make it any less predatory!

It would be interesting to know whether dealerships offering thusly equipped vehicles are charging less interest on the loans than they otherwise would, since they're lower risk.

MORE, or related at least: A generation weighed down by debt.

The phenomenon of latency   {Comments: 0}

The past couple days I've been rereading what I've always thought was Freud's most gripping book, Moses and Monotheism. The first half is a kind of historical adventure where he maps out his bold hypothesis about the historical beginnings of the Jewish people and their faith; the second half (which I find rather less compelling) deals with the Jewish character in broad psychoanalytic generalities that most people would probably consider racist today. Still, it's fascinating, and it gives a sense of the scope Freud felt his ideas had.

Freud's single biggest problem in psychoanalyzing a society or a religion is this notion of inherited memory. In this case, the basis for much of his analysis is the premise that Moses was an Egyptian who led the Jews out of Egypt but was then murdered by his newly adopted people in the desert. But for those events to work their way back to the surface centuries later, they first have to remain in the collective subconscious:

I must admit that I have argued as if there were no question that there exists an inheritance of memory -- traces of what our forefathers experienced, quite independently of direct communication and of the influence of education by example. When I speak of an old tradition still alive in a people, of the formation of a national character, it is such an inherited tradition, and not one carried on by word of mouth, that I have in mind.
This would be spooky, except that it's pretty much laughable today. There is no biological inheritance of memory. And yet we can talk about a lot of mechanisms for collective memory that Freud didn't quite have at his disposal, arguably derived from his work -- for instance, surely we could see how religious rituals and symbols themselves could contain this kind of information (albeit less explicitly), even absent an oral tradition. And of course, once there's an actual text in place (an event Freud puts several hundred years later in this case), there could be powerful dissonances in that text for readers to internalize. Does this mean I buy his theory of monotheism? I don't know... but it certainly serve to demonstrate the stunning intellectual influence of the latency idea.
Rage, rage   {Comments: 0}

1. A group of academics has written in support of bad academic writing. Nerve, or wit?

2. The scourge of Arial: "Arial's ubiquity is not due to its beauty. It's actually rather homely. Not that homeliness is necessarily a bad thing for a typeface. With typefaces, character and history are just as important. Arial, however, has a rather dubious history and not much character. In fact, Arial is little more than a shameless impostor."

3. Mark Liberman looks at cultural stereotypes and the Ukranian language and observes that while Urkanian is seen by many Russians as a less sophisticaed language, in this case it is "the Russophone Yanukovych who is nekulturny."

4. And the Guardian reexamines the circumstances surrounding Dylan Thomas's death.

November 29, 2004

Publicly funded private accounts   {Comments: 0}

This has always been the big problem with turning Social Security (or part of it) into a series of private accounts. Beacuse Social Security was conceived as an intergenerational contract under which each generation pays for the retirement of its parents, the only way you can fund personal accounts is to either scrap the system or step outside it. The Bush people seem to be seriously contemplating the latter. Isn't it a little deceptive to take out a huge loan to offset the costs of personal investments, knowing that we as a society will have to pay back that money later with interest?

If you're going to take out such a big loan anyway, wouldn't it be worth looking at ways to preserve the present configuration? It's not such a bad system -- yes, there are problems when you fluctuations in population size, life span, etc, but over larger time scales it should be a wash. The elegant idea is that economic and population growth will provide a bigger tax base with each successive generation, so that there's always more to pay for your retirement than there was for your parents'. So the aggregate payout for a given generation is

where e and p are the rates of economic and population growth respectively, and B is the aggregate benefit of the parents' generation (which also happens to be the amount the retiring generation paid in). The problem we're facing now is that p < 0 (the baby boom has a larger population than succeeding generations), and even worse, e + p < 0. And if you add in increasing lifespans and costs for prescription drugs (the same analysis applies equally to Medicare) then the situation looks grim.

Of course, if you're a believer in the power of capitalism and democracy to drive economic growth, then you know that e + p > 0 in the long run. Once the baby boomers are gone, the system will return to the desired equilibrium where each successive generation is richer (in aggregate) than the last. With a big enough loan, you ought to be able to ride out the storm! Of course it's hard to find a lender for a sum in the trillions, especially when confidence about your economic strength is flagging. But then, it sounds like we're looking for a big loan anyway...

Incidentally, the math for personal accounts looks very similar to that equation above:

where B is your investment, and e is the return on your investment. It gets rid of the population term, but you still have to worry about the length of your retirement (ie your increasing lifespan), medical costs, etc. Also, e can fluctuate much more if you control your own investment portfolio. Both systems rely on economic growth to power retirement: social Security uses aggregate growth to hedge individual risk but exposes society to democgraphic risks that must be dealt with publicly; private accounts hedge against demographic risks but expose individuals to market risk and lifespan uncerainty that must be dealt with privately (although inevitably there will be some crossover here, since those who run out of retirement money will end up receiving social services, will get sick unnecessarily, etc). Major philosophical differences...
November 27, 2004

Ab Ovo   {Comments: 0}

Ultimately, there should be a language
in which the word "egg" is reduced to O
entirely. The Italian comes the closest,
naturally, with its uova. That's why Alighieri thought
it the healthiest food, sharing the predilection
with sopranos and tenors whose pear-like torsos
in the final analysis embody "opera."
The same pertains to the truly Romantic, that is,
German poets, with practically every line
starting the way they'd begin a breakfast,
or to the equaly cocky mathematicians
brooding over their regularly laid infinity,
whose immaculate zeros won't ever hatch.

--Joseph Brodsky, 1996

November 24, 2004

Spinach mushroom quiche   {Comments: 2}

I've made this quiche for the past three Thanksgivings. It's a good hearty vegetarian dish, important since my wife and my sister are both vegetarians. Don't skimp on the cheese -- the Gruyere makes a huge difference. Sorry if the instructions for the crust aren't comprehensive enough, but I have to get back to the kitchen. One of these days I'm just going to write a book on pies...

For the crust:
1 stick butter, chilled
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp salt
ice water

For the filling:
3/4 cup sweet yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 lb small mushrooms, rinsed and halved
1 tbsp butter
6 oz fresh baby spinach, rinsed
4 eggs
3/4 cup whole milk
1/2 lb Gruyere or other flavorful swiss cheese, grated
salt & pepper to taste

1. Combine the butter and flour with the back of a fork or a food processer until it looks like cornmeal.

2. Add a couple tablespoons of ice water and gently mix with the flour/butter mixture until the water is evenly distributed. Add another couple tablespoons of water, mix it in, and gently work the dough into a ball. It's OK to add more water if you need it, but it's better to have the dough crumbly than soggy.

3. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for half an hour or so. After it's rested, roll the dough out on a flat, cool surface. Put it in the pie plate, poke holes in the bottom with a fork, and flute the edges. Bake at 375F for about 12 minutes, until the middle starts to puff up.

4. Melt 1 tbsp butter in a frying pan on medium heat. Once the butter is hot (but before it burns!), add the onions and saute for a few minutes. Reduce the heat if necessary -- the goal is to caramelize them. Once they start to brown, add the mushrooms and saute until soft, seasoning liberally with salt and pepper.

5. Add about half an inch of water to the smallest saucepan you have. Cram all the spinach into the saucepan, put the lid on, and boil the water just long enough to steam the spinach. Drain the water and add cold water immediately (this will help the spinach it retain its bright green color instead of continuing to cook).

6. In a bowl, beat the 4 eggs together and whisk in the milk and plenty of salt and pepper.

7. Drain the spinach, squeezing out as much water as possible. Spread a layer of about half the grated cheese on the bottom of the crust. On top of his, layer the mushroom and onion mixture, the spinach, and finally the rest of the cheese. Pour as much of the egg mixture as you can over the top, and return to the oven. Bake at 350F about 25 minutes, or until a knife poked into the center comes out clean.

You can serve this at pretty much any temperature you want. I prefer it warm, half an hour out of the oven.

[updated November 29, 2007]

November 23, 2004

Poets and otherwise   {Comments: 0}

Poet-bloggers Josh Corey and Mike Snider go back and forth on the problems of difficulty and dwindling audiences, the state of their art. I don't have much to add to this, except the observation that poet-blogging has added a powerful new dynamic to poetry's audience complex. Before I started reading these blogs, the only news I had of the contemporary poetry scene was from fiction MFAs, who told of an insular and irrelevant circle of academics-by-necessity. Would you have investigated further?

But then a few months ago I started running across poets and their blogs. These sites, which combine new poetry, criticism and explication, worldly commentary, other ingeniously weird stuff, and yes, the occasional cheerleading and self-promotion -- these sites make up one of the most challenging and productive blog communities on the web. For me they've been an avenue for exploraton, a place to rediscover poetry, difficult or not. I don't know whether they will significantly extend poetry's reach, but they've certainly had a profound effect on me. Cause for hope, maybe?

November 22, 2004

The new narrative   {Comments: 0}

Venkat wants to change his eBay strategy in the wake of the sale of a grilled cheese sandwich for $28,000. This reminds me of the claim I read on Monkeyfilter that "eBay has become contemporary society's primary medium for personal narrative." Of course, this sandwich sale was about more than just compelling narrative; it was also about viral marketing. I wonder how many bloggers would be willing to post a link in exchange for a small commission?

A weak dollar   {Comments: 0}

Vance at BTD writes that it's a mistake for the Bush administration to call for the revaluation of the yuan because it will weaken the dollar and make it harder for the US to finance debt:

For years we have been able to fund any budget deficit cheaply because there was a large demand internationally for the dollar. The Bush administration appears to not worry about us giving up that status, and that will impact the U.S. economy for a much longer time than any short term currency fluctuations.
The problem is that financing our debt with China isn't a sustainable policy; China's ability to buy up dollars isn't infinite, and eventually what they get out of it (better terms of trade for Chinese manufacturing) won't be worth the financial risk. In such a scenario, they'll end up dumping their dollars anyway, which will throw the dollar into freefall. Meanwhile, as Paul Musgrave explains, "a large part of U.S. dollar policy is being made by Beijing." No, as opaque as the Bush admin's policy on this seems, it's about right: the dollar needs a correction, and the only way that can happen gently is with China's cooperation.
November 21, 2004

Cultivating turnips   {Comments: 0}

Here's the new website for my children's opera, The Trio of Minuet. It's still a little slow to load (I really need to tone down the photo quality) and we haven't finished adding the videoclips and some other features, but there's plenty to look at, including pictures, reviews, and a news blog that will announce upcoming broadcasts. If you live in Indianapolis or the San Francisco area, make sure to tune in on Thanksgiving Day.

Coup de gras, revisited   {Comments: 230}

I get an awful lot of visitors coming to this site looking for "coup de gras." My guess is that the phrase has entered popular usage because of its conspicuous appearance in Kill Bill 2; the relevant post has been up since Valentine's Day, but I don't remember getting any searches until the summer, after the movie came out.

The problem is, these searchers almost certainly mean to look for the phrase coup de grace, which according to the OED means a blow by which a person condemned or mortally hurt is put out of his or her misery; a decisive finishing stroke (my Pocket Robert gives a slightly more flexible definition: coup qui acheve definativement quelqu'un (qui est blesse, qui souffre)). Presumably the searchers are confused because Uma Thurman and Michael Madsen both pronounced the phrase incorrectly in the movie, leaving off the final /s/ that ought to be pronounced either in English or in French.

Coup de gras has no dictionary definition at all -- instead it was a pun on the word gras, meaning fat, which made sense since the post was about a French dinner party we threw, a veritable deathblow of fat.

November 19, 2004

After years   {Comments: 0}

Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer's retina
as he stood on the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.

--Ted Kooser, the current US poet laureate

November 18, 2004

How do you like it? How do you like it?   {Comments: 0}

1. From Waddling Thunder, more about the ortolan: "It is caught during the autumn migrations in traps called matoles, which possess some screening ability that enables them to catch ortolans rather than other birds of the same caliber, and is then caged and fattened on millet." I wonder, is that just a felicitous, general use of the word caliber, or can the word properly classify birds (ie technically, by the shot caliber used) as well?

2. From two former military men, more on the protocols for securing buildings and taking prisoners, and a strong defense of the soldier who was caught on tape last weekend. I stand by my assertion that this is an indictment of war and war's pretensions.

3. And more chili: Barrett has posted the recipe for a somewhat unconventional vegetarian pot we threw together (together) last Saturday. He makes use of two different spellings (chile, chili), but as far as I can tell the usage isn't systematic. Did he miss my post, or is the variety a riff?

Collective attraction   {Comments: 0}

Venkat links to this business about bloggers (or what the faint of heart are calling citizen journalists) as Time Magazine's person(s?) of the year, and there seems to be lots of support for the idea, calls for folks to write to Time, etc. Personally, I think it's a bit premature. Blogs are getting bigger, and they've certainly changed how and what stories are reported; but they're not by a long shot the biggest thing that happened this year. How about Karl Rove, or Zarqawi, or even better: Lynndie England... but Time doesn't have balls like that.

In some alternate reality, the Deaniacs could have made that cover. Zephyr Teachout, one of Dean's online organizers, has a fascinating article about the as yet unfulfilled promise of the internet for democracy. She touches briefly on blogs, but they don't figure so centrally because they're not that useful as an organizing mechanism. They're great for passing along information quickly -- almost always what's been said already elsewhere -- but they don't really do much. Occasional experts, maverick journalists -- these people may be having an effect -- but they (or their ilk) would be having an effect anyway. I wrote in a recent post that the networks between blogs (rather than the blogs themselves) are the really new part of the phenomenon, but I'm not sure what even those networks have accomplished from the standpoint of democracy, what they've accomplished from the standpoint of political organization.

For now at least, political organization really can't take place without some kind of physical, personal manifestation of what's happening in cyberspace. Teachout talks about meetups and other repeating events that can be used to "shift the locus of political thought and power." The idea is to build political discourse from the bottom up rather than from the top down, and to use the internet, which represents near-perfect communication for any large scale movement, as a mechanism.

This is an attractive model, but the internet is not the silver bullet that will solve all collective action problems, at least not in the way Teachout suggests. Yes, the internet can eliminate a lot of the transaction costs associated with organizing. But collective action problems are not just about transaction costs; there's also the freerider problem, which cuts right to the heart of organizing and activism. So our failure to act isn't about the fear that others won't join us, but about our assumption that someone else will act and therefore we won't have to. This distinction is a serious problem for Teachout's argument, because it works against this notion that somehow most people will act on their "strong streak of political love and life" within the right cyberconfiguration.

Still, I see a couple other ways around the collective action problem. Anybody who's been to an actual MeetUp knows that there's a tremendous power in these things even beyond the day of. There's a sort of groupthink -- even a cultishness -- where you leave more excited than you were before, and by following up the Dean folks were able to build on that. Of course, it doesn't solve the problem of how to get people there in the first place, but once people have arrived the MeetUp becomes more of a cultural and social enterprise. Politics isn't subordinated so much as subsumed -- it's still the organizational premise, but cultural identification (which plays a crucial role in political affiliation anyway) takes over and suddenly you have a phenomenon.

More provocative, I think, is the idea is that there's simply something magical about internet communities. When I wrote the other day about Wikipedia as an interface between knowledge and social consciousness, I neglected to mention the huge collective action problem that poses: economic models simply don't predict that people will engage in this sort of collective behavior with (apparently) little direct reward. But somehow, Wikipedia exists, and dynamically so. Open source projects -- whether they're about software or politics -- have a way of getting around collective action problems. And while sometimes new systems of incentives are created that could easily fit into an economic model (bloggers who track their traffic and long for links), there are plenty of cases where there just isn't any rational explanation (bloggers who don't). I'm sure there have been attempts to explain this -- my own instinctive reaction (maybe because it works this way for me) is to talk about the refining of those American ideals, individuality and creativity, and how the internet is the great equalizing medium that allows creators to act. But that's not the whole story, because there are communitarian overtones to all of it -- yes, it emphasizes expression and personal freedom, but it's clearly not liberal. Neither is it capitalist -- within this sphere, the logic of markets and property is being completely redefined. And that other key feature of American democracy, majority rules, is confounded by the quantity and complexity of information out there and the resulting power of the pundit class. Frankly, I'm ready to call it a new underlying (and still underground) politic that we've never seen before in the history of the world. Whether it can have political relevance beyond cyberspace I don't know.

Back to Teachout for a second, let's assume for now these forces can be harnessed as part of the political process, and we can (for instance) bring a Democrat to the White House. How does a candidate who's campaigned from the bottom up actually govern? When I wrote about this problem a few months ago, I felt that it would have to mean a major transformation of the executive. This was quite possibly an understatement. Teachout is right to see tremendous untapped potential in the internet for political organization and activism, albeit not for the reasons she stated. But the bigger problem will be figuring out how to convert that activism into a governing majority, in the event (inevitable in the long term, I think) of a win. Because the motivating power structures of the internet may simply be incompatible with American democracy.

November 17, 2004

Less signal, more noise   {Comments: 0}

I've been getting some odd spam lately. Every couple days, a handful of new comments appears, linking only to Google. Sometimes (only sometimes) there are words or brief passages, but I haven't been able to discern any pattern among them, or among the affected entries. I've always understood the comment spam phenomenon to be about creating an abundance of links across the web to increase a product's Google page rank. But of course this can't be accomplished by linking to Google (unless of course you're Google -- but don't they kind of control their own destiny on this point?). So what's going on?

This reminds me of something I read on The Modulator the other day -- the new MSN Search was apparently showing Google as the #1 match for "more evil than satan." When word of their treachery got out, the folks at Microsoft quickly made some "automated relevance improvements" that changed the result. This seems like a pretty foolish opening salvo for Microsoft -- doesn't this kind of command-and-controlling just undermine MSN Search's authority? (Note that this is not analogous to Google bombing.)

November 16, 2004

There's no beginning and there is no end   {Comments: 0}

Malcolm Gladwell's piece in the New Yorker about a very personal act of plagiarism (long) is possibly the best article on intellectual property that I've ever read. Not to steal (!) his thunder, but there's a fair bit of nuance in his eventual position, and some surprisingly sympathetic writing about a woman who lifted her words from one of his own articles. This level of perspective in a writer is pretty rare, I think. (I was tempted, as I'm sure you were, to republish the entire article in my own name -- ie without attribution -- but who knows if Mr. Galdwell's editors at the New Yorker are as englightened as he is? And besides, when I've engaged in this kind of meta-plagiary in the past, it's passed unnoticed...)

Somehow related is this piece of anti-Wikipedia invective from a former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, who signs off by comparing the Wikipedia to what you'd read in a public restroom. The nice thing about public restrooms, of course, is that they're public. My own experience with Wikipedia is that the entries are about as authoritive as anything you can find on the internet for free, and they have the added benefit of being editable by me. This kind of productive interface between knowledge and social consciousness is what makes the Wikipedia so valuable. Is a participatory theory of knowledge anti-intellectual? Or should this guy get off his ass and fix the inaccuracies he reads?

Note that Britannica makes no mention of the Ol' Dirty Bastard, while Wikipedia has an extensive, well referenced article. I guess the ODB wouldn't have been surprised by this.

Nightly news   {Comments: 0}

A quick point about the televised shooting in Fallujah: obviously this is a horrific thing to see, and I'm duly outraged. But I don't think it's at all like Abu Ghraib, as some have suggested. Abu Ghraib was a pattern and a policy, emblematic of this government's terror-induced, rights-defying hysteria. The soldiers who perpetrated it were wrong, but the greater outrage was that they acted within and because of an insidious new intelligence/interrogation calculus. This latest thing is different, because this kind of atrocity happens all the time in war. It ends up being more an indictment of war itself, of that unnatural discipline we expect of those who wield assault rifles in a "civilized" military.

November 15, 2004

Hollywood's choice   {Comments: 0}

Josh Claybourn and some other folks have their theories about why TV characters who face an abortion dilemma always choose to have the baby, given that Hollywood is so liberal. But they're missing some of the subtlety in the pro-choice argument. Being pro-choice doesn't necessarily mean being value-neutral on abortion. My guess is that, on the contrary, if you asked most people who are pro-choice, they would tell you that they themselves would never have an abortion, even though they defend that right for others. And this kind of defense of others' rights regardless of whether we ouselves agree with them certainly has a precedent.

So, Hollywood's characters so often choose to have the baby because most Americans see not choosing an abortion as a value. This is a completely separate issue from the question of whether Americans value the choice (and as one of Josh's commenters pointed out, the simple fact it's presented as a choice may even be a pro-choice statement). But none of this subtlety poses a threat to pro-choice rhetoric (and never has), because for those who are pro-choice, the issue is about the tradeoff with reproductive equality, and it's that side of the equation that motivates their (and, incidentally, my) position.

Agoraphobia   {Comments: 0}

Bloglutinization watch: Paul Musgrave, Joshua Claybourn, and others have created a promising new group blog called In the Agora about "politics, business, current events, or the nature of the universe and the divine." The politics is conservative, but these guys are thoughtful and wicked smart, so you'd be wise to read them.

By the way, as much as I like the single author blog format, it's pretty clear that group blogs hold an advantage when it comes to political content. Politics has both an intense audience and a steady stream of news to discuss; it's no accident that strong political group blogs and political magazines are approximating each other so closely nowadays. Then again, maybe we're actually seeing a more subtle phenomenon -- that optimistic title, In the Agora, reminds me a lot of this.

MORE (only marginally related): It's amazing -- you've surely found this too -- how many blogs go with Greek or even more frequently Latinate titles. Often (as with the case above) it seems to be about reconstituting some classical ideal, always political, usually democratic; it's also frequently the result of too much legal education, or simply too much education, period (vita escolatur). And then there's the similarly alien title of this blog, which might well have the same feel as some of these, even though it's taken from an obscure French novel that was the delight of the surrealists. Just how does the name locussolus affect your perceptions and expectations here? I wonder.

November 12, 2004

Tumble in November   {Comments: 0}

Witness this rapid gingering,
the jasmine tea green
and apple flesh creamy,
the tender risk of
paper sack to finger.
Yet we may shop
forever at the farmer's
stand nearby, your soul
(I know) a flue
opened upward and parboiled
pretty. It's true. I
know you. You're just
alike to me, what
the laundromat girl (chic
doll she) can't see.

--Shanna Compton, from Down Spooky

(You can get a copy of Down Spooky here, or you can wait for Winnow Press to publish it. Me, I'd go with the hand-stitched version...)

November 11, 2004

How science gets reported   {Comments: 0}

There's a great article in the Columbia Journalism Review about the way journalists deal with competing scientific claims. The problem is that journalists, trained to be objective, feel they have to represent both/all sides of an argument. But what gets lost is the relative validity of competing claims: in an effort to be fair, journalists often present near-consensus views side-by-side with fringe elements. This may have an influence on popular perception, which may affect public funding and political discourse, etc.

The article focuses on the physical sciences, but the situation seems far worse with social science. On these questions, everyone has an opinion. But in the public discourse (mediated, appropriately enough, by the media), the views of social scientists don't carry any more weight than those of opinionated ideologues. This has given rise to some backwards but widespread views -- for instance about the inefficiency of government and the benefits of privatization -- that have tremendous political traction but no scientific basis.

Part of the problem is just lazy and ignorant reporting. But it also goes beyond that: the postmodern focus on perspective has been stretched to the furthest possible extreme, so that now all opinions are equally valid. This is the ideology at the heart of journalists' search for balance, and its ultimate direction is literally governed by chaos theory. Science is seen as having no more authority than any other view, because authority itself is a meaningless construct. While this kind of thinking may be seductive in certain contexts, it makes no sense at all in the world of public policy, where there are measurable consequences of the policies that are implemented. It's simply incompatible with any idea of social progress.

Naturally American anti-intellectualism also feeds this spiral away from science. Like any other industry, the media is responsive to the tastes of its market, and a big part of journalistic balance is responding to the median audience view. But the American audience doesn't seem all that receptive to science (unless there's a commercial application), and there's probably even a synergy between that anti-intellectualism and the way the media frames scientific issues.

There's no obvious solution to this problem. The article urges journalists to treat "fringe scientific claims with considerable skepticism," but this is just a symptom of a much larger problem. It would help if the media were more tightly regulated -- ie not exposed to the same market pressures that act on other industries. The media has a unique position as the keeper of information in a democracy, and its operating incentives should be structured with that responsibility in mind. It's probably harder to fight the underlying pseudoliberal ideology that all opinions are created equal, but philosophical trends are leading away from the postmodern thinking that spawned that view, so maybe there's hope.

November 10, 2004

Try this at home   {Comments: 0}

1. This could change the world of premium vodka forever (although the research design -- trying the vodkas after each successive filtration -- likely intoxicated the later results).

2. Xmas Resistance: "You know this annual consumer frenzy wreaks havoc on the environment, filling landfills with useless packaging and discarded gifts. Yet, every year, you cave in and go shopping." [via Unfogged].

3. And in case you're confused about how to split costs when you're on a date, PG explains how to find "a good balance between letting him be chivalrous without getting too unfeminist."

Hearing distinctions   {Comments: 0}

Scientific American glosses some new research on absolute (perfect) pitch and tonal languages. The result -- that speakers of tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese are more likely to have absolute pitch -- is interesting enough, but the article seems to miss the distinction between absolute and relative pitch.

In tonal languages, the meaning of a word is partly derived from how the speaker's pitch changes over the course of that word. Note that it's the change in frequency, rather than the absolute frequency, that supplies this meaning. The article confuses the issue, equating this ability in speech with absolute pitch in music, defined here:

Fewer than one American in 10,000 has absolute pitch, which means they can identify or produce a note without reference to any other note. Also called perfect pitch, this skill requires distinguishing sounds that differ by just 6 percent in frequency.
But the ability to "identify or produce a note without reference to any other note" has nothing to do with tonal languages, where tones only have meaning with reference to other notes. The musical ability that corresponds to this skill is relative pitch. This doesn't make the result less interesting; on the contrary, it suggests some relationship between the how relative and absolute pitch are wired. But it's still a crucial distinction.

By the way, a six percent difference in frequency is a lot bigger than it sounds. It works out to about a half step -- something any amateur musician (and probably the vast majority of listeners) can distinguish. Provocatively, the half step is also the smallest unit of pitch in Western music (there are other musical traditions tuned much more finely), so the definition may be a bit loaded. If the goal is to study absolute pitch across musical cultures, it would be wise to come up with a definition that's not specific to one!

MORE: A reader writes in to say the article may have meant that speakers of tonal languages actually use the same pitches (to some unspecified level of precision) every time they use a particular word, even on different days. This would surprise me, but I suppose it's possible.

November 9, 2004

If it wasn't for disappointment   {Comments: 0}

Venkat makes the point that the chief justice doesn't have all that much more power than the other justices, and that it should be worth elevating Thomas if it gets a new moderate justice on the court. I agree in principle, but I also think there might be some important intangibles here. To outsiders it may seem like the power to decide who writes opinions isn't all that important, but inside this is an enormous power -- it allows the chief justice to control not just the way the ideas are framed, but also the historical significance of the participants. And my guess is that history and legacy are overriding concerns for those who sit on the court.

Meanwhile Matthew Gross argues for Dean as DNC chairman. I've been pretty nostalgic for Dean over the past few weeks too (yes, even before the election), but I think the man is probably less important than his methods: specifically, I'd like to see the Democrats modulate and refine the grassroots and internet approach that helped him win so many supporters early on.

November 8, 2004

The new federalism   {Comments: 0}

Suddenly liberals are becoming states' rights advocates. LI, taking in the historical landscape of progressive movements, proposes "retrenching progressive legislation on the national level and re-forming it on the state level, and in bonds between states." The idea is that since the blue states generate so much more of American wealth, they end up subsidizing federal policy for the red states. So, why not put social programs in the hands of states, so that the money can be spent in places where people actually care about such things?

Well maybe, but for the moment it seems a little xenophobic in a country that hasn't really been torn asunder yet. This would basically signal the Democrats' retreat on social policy: the whole point of these programs is to help those who can't help themselves, but this would essentially write them off, at least in the red states. Is the larger goal to win ideological converts by sowing social ruin? This ends in full-fledged revolution, the secession Lawrence O'Donnell was talking about on McLaughlin the other day.

Less radical is Dan Johnson-Weinberger's common sense suggestion that states reconfigure their tax codes to drop sales taxes, which aren't subsidized by the federal government like income or property taxes are. Sounds like a good idea for Illinois... but of course, it's looking like the federal tax code is about to change pretty dramatically anyway.

Too many chiles   {Comments: 0}

Wondering about something in light of recent posts by Balasubramani and Baude: what's the difference between chili, chile, chilli, and chilly? The OED lists chili and chile as variants of chilli, from the Nahuatl -- although I suspect this preference for chilli is a sign of the OED's Britishism. The fourth variant isn't even listed, even though I've seen it all over the place in the context of Indian or Thai food.

I'd be interested to hear how others use these words. In my own personal universe of usage, chili refers to the dish Will made last week (along with the beany varieties -- apologies to Will's girlfriend), and chile is the many varieties of fresh or dried pods you use in Mexican and Southwestern cuisine (also used to make chili); I make no distinction betweem chilli and chilly, but I think of them as being largely the same thing as chile, except in an Indian or East Asian context (ie you can't make chili with chilly or even chilli). Anyway, it's amusing that we throw around all these cuisine-specific variants even though the referents all have the same (agri)cultural provenance.

November 7, 2004

Collective unconscious   {Comments: 0}

There's some interesting discussion over at Metafilter -- it seems Google Image Search doesn't return any of the pictures from Abu Ghraib, and people are wondering whether there's an underlying agenda. I don't know anything about how Google's image search technology works, but if the model is anything like their web search model, then links and associations (with words on the elevant page) should be the most important inputs, and I remember a hell of a lot of blogs linking to and talking about those photos a few months ago. Also, recent photos news should have a higher search priority than older ones.

I guess it's possible that Image Search ignores this last qualifier because users are looking more canonical pictures (they're making power point presentations or something). But Google says explicitly that recent news photos may appear first in the results. And while there's some evidence that the webcrawler for this service only updates every six months, its bizarre that they wouldn't piggyback the Google News results (which are minute-to-minute and often include photos), especially when they say they will. And of course, it's already been more than six months since the first photos went public.

So anyway, I'll be happy to entertain more speculation about how Google Image Search is such dated technology that it won't return the most talked about and controversial pictures of the year. But I also think it's worth considering the possibility that there's something else going on here.

November 5, 2004

Until the desired constellation appears   {Comments: 0}

1. Todd at Frolic reviews Bjork's recent album, suggesting that "the heavy traffic of bootleg remixes of Bjork music has freed the singer to ignore the dictates of the pop format."

2. Venkat Balasubramani discusses the subtle subversion of Bollywood by Hollywood (or is it the other way around?), after this post by Tyler Cowen.

3. Not surprisingly, Daniel Drezner's Foreign Policy piece about the influence of blogs focuses on political discourse. It's mostly storytelling, but there's some valuable insight into the future value of blogs as well.

4. And via Language Log, here's a ranking of the top 100 speeches of all time, with some audio. Obama's keynote isn't there yet, but it will be.

Enabler   {Comments: 0}

If you're still in the first stage (denial), this (forwarded by a reader) certainly won't help, especially if you read this analysis just a little bit differently. And there are plenty of related links in this article from a couple days ago. But don't get too excited... there's plenty of strong countering analysis out there as well.

November 3, 2004

Euphemistic values   {Comments: 0}

A lot of commentary this morning is about how moral values was the most important issue to voters yesterday -- and of course moral values is really a gloss for gay marriage. I don't doubt that the issue was decisive -- in Ohio, for example -- but it's just not fair to say that it was the most important issue to voters. By presenting the war in Iraq and the war on terror as two separate issues, the polling data misses the point that there are two very different notions out there of how America's foreign policy should work. This was the most important issue to voters -- but it was an issue on which they split evenly. The poll hid that split on what's really one issue in two different categories.

MORE: This is really starting to piss me off, this idea that somehow there's a new cultural mandate because of the election results. Exit polls showed only about one fifth of voters felt that moral values were the most important issue in this election, and that's clearly a minority. Yes, it is likely that the presense of these voters (due to the ballot initiatives concerning gay marriage and/or the strong evangelical get out the vote effort) pushed the president over the top in Ohio and therefore won him the election. But that doesn't mean it was the most important issue to Americans in this election, and it sure as hell doesn't represent a statement of American will.

EVEN MORE: Freedman, Yglesias, and Brooks, via Ogged.

The art of losing   {Comments: 0}

It's pretty clear this morning that Kerry should concede. The numbers just don't add up for him, and this will really start to stink if he holds on much longer. I'm heartened that Bush has shown some sensitivity by choosing not to give a victory speech, but it won't be long before this becomes dangerous political fuel for the now all-powerful GOP.

It's hard to overstate the importance of these election results. No, it wasn't the most important election in recent memory (as some claimed); that happened four years ago. But Bush has massively changed America in the past four years, and now we've validated all that, giving him both an electoral mandate and a strong governing majority. We'll now see the dismantling of Social Security, the final end of our friendship with Europe, and a Supreme Court retooled to push Bush's backwards cultural agenda for 40 years after he's out of office.

It's getting late   {Comments: 0}

Edwards spoke a while ago, and it looks like the outcome of the election will hinge on a count of the provisional ballots and any absentee ballots which were received over the weekend. It's a long shot for sure, given the vote totals the networks are reporting, but it's at least mathematically possible, and I'm glad the Kerry campaign is insisting on reviewing it -- it also will give them time to challenge on other points, if there are any.

I didn't sign on to Steve's pledge, and my inclination at this moment is to think there's too much at stake here not to see this process through and have every vote counted. I'm not suggesting that irrational or baseless legal action be taken, and I'm well aware that I said just the other day that a legal battle could "destroy the new president's legitimacy, further polarize the electorate, and drag on for some time." But I also think that stability and conciliation will be pretty much impossible during a second Bush presidency anyway, so the tradeoff there doesn't look all that bad.

A side note: I think the networks that called Ohio have done a tremendous disservice to the American electorate. For as much talk as there's been in the last four years about the need for precision in the reporting of election results, not to mention all the talk in the past couple weeks about the importance of Ohio, the announcement came without any consideration of the question of the possibility provisional ballots. The result is that any challenges will appear to be less meritorious than they actually are, and will therefore be more politically divisive.

Unconvinced!   {Comments: 0}

The election has basically been called, but the numbers on the Ohio Secretary of State website don't add up. Cuyahoga and Lucas counties still have a large number of votes outstanding that are likely to be mostly Demcratic. In addition, provisional ballots were expected to number in the hundreds of thousands. This is not over yet.

UPDATE: Now the Kerry campaign is challenging the media on that Ohio result.

November 2, 2004

To pass the time   {Comments: 0}

1. If you're bored out of your mind with the trickle of red and blue on television, the new Onion is up, and some of the stories are killer.

2. There's also Muriel Rukeyser's delightful poem, The Conjugation of the Paramecium .

3. And farmers in India have discovered a new use for Coca-Cola that's a little disturbing, assuming it's not just urban (!) legend. The ingenuity of it reminds me a little of this.

Election day   {Comments: 0}

Lots of controversy this morning over registration and voter fraud. And what struck me most as I voted this morning was the incredible fragility of it all. There's nothing, save civic responsibility, to stop someone from abusing the system, whether by intimidating voters, impersonating someone else, or registering elsewhere and voting twice. There was of course no check of identification at my Oak Park firehouse, and the poll workers were about as unsophisticated as can be. This in the same county famous for the slogan "Vote early, vote often."

Yet we still choose our government this way, and there's probably no other way to do it. American democracy is a balancing act between the will of the majority and the rights of the minority, and the voting process, which is the embodiment of the majority's will, cannot work unless the rights of the minority are protected. This means, among other things, a secret ballot; and because of this necessary privacy, it's inappropriate to employ the kind of strong enforcement techniques -- carefully checked lists, unique identifiers, or even a requirement that every citizen vote -- that might seem like intuitive solutions to the casual observer. I find it both astonishing and inspiring that voting manages to work anyway.

November 1, 2004

Ceteris paribus   {Comments: 0}

1. Today is the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, for those of you who haven't yet turned 28.

2. ALDaily links to the latest piece debunking the crack baby myth. It seems that the "permanent underclass" phenomenon may be caused instead by bad urban policy.

3. And take a good close look at this guy's name. Surely there's a conspiracy in there somewhere...

Iterated madness   {Comments: 0}

Will Baude has been talking about an iterated not-a-PD game over at Crescat, and I don't get it. He says that "even though a strategy is completely dominant in a single-play of the game, there can still be other possible equilibria, given the right set of prior expectations." No argument there. But those iterated strategies are still about maximizing utility, which is precisely the reason you can get a different outcome in an iterated PD (especially when it's infinitely repeated) than you would in a one shot game.

Here's Will's game:
  Astor trusts Astor betrays
Spade trusts 10,10 3,8
Spade betrays 8,3 0,0

The dominant strategy in both the one shot and the repeating game is to trust. Betraying just leads you to get less points, regardless of which player you are. In the iterated game, the strategy should be to get to (trust, trust) as soon as possible... so, if you're not sure if you'll get betrayed the first time out (which is silly, since your opponent would have no rational reason to betray) then shouldn't you respond with trust anyway, in the hopes that you can coordinate there? Even if you betray, there's no reason your opponent should betray on the next round, because even if you (irrationally!) keep betraying, she'll still get more points by trusting than she would be betraying.

The only way I can see to get to the equilibrium Will's talking about is if one of the players is irrational or if for some reason you have incomplete information (ie you can't calculate what's rational behavior on your opponent's part). Absent one of these circumstances, Will's strategy seems oddly like a case of beating your opponent into submission when she was on your side to begin with -- and paying 2 utils per turn for the thrill!