April 29, 2005

Deformed geometry   {Comments: 54}

1. Lenka Reznicek has the latest on the impending collapse of the concrete reactor sarcophagus at Chernobyl: "Experts warn that collapse of protective contracture can cause more grave consequences than the accident of the year 1986 itself." Lots of excellent links.

2. According to this, Google News is finally going to start using page rank (in addition to date and search term relevance) to determine how stories are displayed. I wonder if they'll refine it so that authority is limited to a particular source's expertise -- so that local papers come up first for on local stories, sports sites first for sports stories, etc. [via Threadwatch.org]

3. Daniel Green rounds up the latest assaults on contemporary poetry, including Camille Paglia's book and the David Yezzi article I mentioned last week.

4. And via stAllio! I see that the Indiana legislature has voted to adopt daylight savings time. What a shame -- Indiana's intransigence in the face of this bizarre and confusing practice may have been its most redeeming quality.

April 28, 2005

The answer   {Comments: 4}

It's nice to see that this Pistons fan is being charged for throwing a coin at Allen Iverson, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that this behavior was encouraged by Stern's response to what happened last November in Auburn Hills. Wouldn't some serious consequences for the owners in Detroit have helped to prevent this latest incident? I'll admit to being a Pacers fan (I grew up in Indianapolis), but it's not the severity of Artest's punishment that's at issue here -- it's the fact that there was essentially no penalty for the Pistons organization. A hefty (ie profit-tweaking) penalty would have given the organization some incentive to take steps to control this kind of behavior -- and it would have sent a message to fans. Undoubtedly some will read Iverson's restraint in responding to this attack as a victory for Stern's policy, but the truth is Iverson shouldn't have to deal with an attack like this in the first place.

The following unprincipled concerns   {Comments: 4}

Just a quick response to a couple of posts about whether it's even Ok to have a position on the filibuster. Steve at BTD says that all positions on the question (even yours) are unprincipled, and Will Baude responds by looking to the rules about changing rules and declaring all positions that live within these rules purely poltical.

In listing the unprincipled concerns, Steve misses the most important arguments about this on either side, which are about institutional design and democracy. Surely these are principled concerns, outwardly but also in some cases inwardly -- a casual proof of this can be seen in many Democrats' support for the elimination of the filibuster (see here) and many Republicans' opposition to the same.

Will, meanwhile, may have a different notion of the political than I do, but reducing everything that's legally possible to poltical play/counterplay is unsubtle and would seem to suggest a completely amoral world -- albeit one carefully delimited by lawyers. Is he confusing principles with rules, or rules with principles?

April 27, 2005

The same disadvantages   {Comments: 3}

1. Ray Davis on Kubrick, with an especially juicy thesis about Lolita (unfortunately I've never seen Barry Lyndon).

2. Some discussion of the origin of the term nuclear option, via Political Wire.

3. Via AFOE, Thirteen things that don't make sense, from the placebo effect to dark energy.

4. Paul from Explananda on the filibuster and democracy.

5. Alex Tabarrok on a result (from Heckman!) that's making waves but doesn't seem all that stunning to me (unless you really think that "unequal schooling, neighborhoods, and peers" are the only structural barriers black children face).

6. And Josh Corey, as usual defending the avant garde in poetry, but this time with a pause to quote a dazzling villanelle by Anne Winters.

Why and how   {Comments: 2}

Shanna Compton has a thoughtful and optimistic response to my (throwaway) comment below about Chris Hamilton-Emery's poetry publishing piece. I think I agree with almost every point she made, which makes me think we just read the article differently. Unlike Shanna, I don't have any experience with the whole apparatus of the poetry business (or with Salt), so maybe as a result I was fixated more on its unapproachability than the possibility of sidestepping it altogether (which for me, as not yet a poet, seems like the default approach, and not the other way around). Let me just state unequivocally -- and this was the point I guess I was trying to make below, albeit elliptically -- that I think there's plenty to get excited about in the world of poetry right now. It's just that to me the excitement is all wrapped up with technology and the rise of an open source/free content ethic on the internet... so, blogs. Poets are using blogs to raise their profiles, reinforce community, even to sell their work -- and all this would seem to come at the expense of traditional poetry publishing operations. No? It's these will wilting business hoops (as described (ironically? but not entirely) by the Salt piece) I found depressing, not the new energy.

April 25, 2005

Repellant and inauthentic behavior   {Comments: 1}

1. Jan Frel on Arianna's big idea: "I think the Huffington Post will eventually deal a great deal of harm to pundit celebrity because these elites have shed the media that distributed them to fame, and jumped into an arena where any 'anonymous individual' has access to the same tools they do to communicate, imitate, and criticize."

2. Eugene Volokh makes some reassuring observations about the inclusion of commas and periods within quotation marks and the generalization of this practice to other kinds of punctuation (eg question marks).

3. Via Political Wire (appropriately enough), here's the story of how Ratzinger ascended to the papacy. It's not quite Godfather 3, but it has its moments of intrigue. (By the way, if you think those Curio Cardinals seem powerful now, you should check out this bit from the post below: back when, they got to choose the date Easter was celebrated.)

4. This article on poetry publishing (recommended by Shanna Compton) might depress you if you care about poetry (either as reader or writer). One piece of rather hopeful advice it misses, though, is this: start a blog.

5. And here's an update on the aproximately 15,000 objects stolen from the Baghdad museum during the first days of the American invasion.

April 24, 2005

All other nights   {Comments: 2277}

Why is it that Easter doesn't come at the same time as Passover every year? There are so many gorgeous echoes and expansions of the Passover story in the gospels that it would seem natural to have them come at the same time, for maximum aesthetic effect. And yet they don't.

As it turns out, the church decided to decouple Easter from Passover at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, according to this Wikipedia entry because "some dioceses were determined not to have Easter correspond with a Jewish calendar." (More here on the Hebrew calendar.) I haven't been able to find any further explanation of why they had this attitude; it's easy enough to speculate that this was early (Freudian!) anti-Semitism, but it may just have been part of the desire every religion has to create its own calendrical arcana. Either way, the confusion in the wake of Nicaea lasted for well over a millenium and seems to have been one of the reasons for the adoption of the Gregorian calendar (the one used by this blog, incidentally) in 1582.

All this doesn't much satisfy my need for narrative elegance, but it does seem very human...

April 22, 2005

The movement that achieves the form   {Comments: 0}

David Yezzi has a piece here bemoaning in the movement away from form in poetry over the last century. As someone who likes to play with poetic forms, I'm somewhat sympathetic, but at the same time I think there's something small about equating form with meter and rhyme (which seems to be his direction in the article). I guess this is because I think of sonic and visual effects in poetry as formal elements as well -- and certainly these continue to play a powerful role in contemporary poetry, metrical or otherwise.

A friend of mine is a composer (actually he's the one who composed this), and occasionally I've asked him whether he considers a piece of contemporary music to be tonal or not. His response is always to explain that the definition of tonal has really expanded. It's more now than just whether a piece makes use of the same harmonic structures as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; instead tonality has come to mean any system that uses sound to create context, expectation, release, etc. Tonality in this expanded sense could therefore be about foregrounding texture as the main expressive element rather than rhythm or melody.

I think it's probably worth adopting the same sort of expanded view of form when we're talking about poetry today. Poems written without meter or rhyme can still have great formal complexity because their sonic, visual, or structural effects can contain implications that strengthen, subvert, color, or confound their meanings. This is not to say that all contemporary poems make meaningful use of these kinds of formal effects, but surely the best ones do. And in this they have something in common with the best metrical and rhyming poems of the past, which found a way not just to satisfy those formal constraints, but to incorporate them meaningfully.

The Third Eye   {Comments: 5}

1. This story just came to my attention: apparently "little-known writer" Sophia Stewart claims that she was the originator of the story for the Matrix trilogy, and there is substantial evidence to back up her claim. Even more incredible is the media's failure to cover this story -- some have blamed it on Stewart's race, while others point to the fact that the defendant in the case is AOL-Time Warner.

2. The New York Times has a little travel feature on Oak Park, IL. I live in Oak Park, so I've been to most of the places mentioned, and I'd like to put in a good word for Mama Thai on Madison over perennial favorite Amarind's. Mama Thai is cheaper, lighter, tastier, and more vegetarian friendly -- and the decor is less larded up with kitschy foreign artifacts.

3. stAllio! has a couple interesting papal tidbits. Here's the new pope's statement on whether communion should be denied to politicians holding views contrary to those of the church (eg John Kerry); and here's why he may have some difficulty getting his papal website set up.

4. Here's an article about a study showing the deleterious effect of excessive emailing on IQ. My first reaction is to think that the notion of IQ must not be formulated very well if "constant changes of direction" mean you have a less supple mind.

5. Yesterday Mark Liberman posted a telling excerpt from 19th century British poet Arthur Hugh Clough on the sorry state of the English language in his time. I'm an enthusiastic proponent of the idea that variation indicates linguistic change, but somehow I still cringe when I hear or read certain kinds of grammatical errors. Why is this? And whence the complete breakdown of rationality on these questions (see eg Heidi Bond's flame war with Witty Sex Kitten)?

6. And thanks to the friend who spotted me a flickr pro account. These suped-up hot rod accounts (along with the push to give them away) are totally sweet, and I'll be updating mine with some frequency.

April 21, 2005

Act locally   {Comments: 2}

In a comment to this post below, stAllio! makes the point that local elections are where votes really count... and of course we all know this but don't seem to do anything about it. But this might provide another way of looking at Quiggen's idea for social preferences. A rational voter will see that her vote has more of a chance of being decisive in a local election, and weighing that against the effect a given outcome will have on her. The fact that we're less likely to vote in local elections suggests that the increased chance of influencing the local result is at least counterbalanced by some decrease in the value of the outcome. That decrease might result if local elections are simply less relevant to our lives as individuals than national elections, but I doubt this is even the case to begin with. More likely there's something else weighting the national elections, like increased media attention -- or Quiggen's social preferences.

April 20, 2005

Daydreams   {Comments: 0}

What excites me most about these newly discovered ancient texts is the prospect of puzzling over the nature of their relationship with the literature of later years (eg now). Here's what I mean by this. Obviously there are some ancient texts that occupy the center of the Western tradition; this is not only because they are compelling in and of themselves, but also because they've been written about over and over again by subsequent (and subservient?) authors. And the arrangement begs the question: was it the depth of these ancient texts that set the course of Western thinking, or is the thinking of these ancients continually being subtly reinvented by those who come after?

It's not clear whether any of these newly discovered texts are complete, but there are certainly some pieces (work by Sophocles, or previously unknown Gospels) that might have had some claim to influence had they not been lost. This would seem to present a sort of found experimental design for thinking about these questions of influence -- do the newly discovered works prefigure later Western thought, or do they suggest unexplored paths? Obviously it's not a question that will be concusively answered, but it certainly provokes.

ALSO: Mark Liberman has more on the text fragments in question. Near the end he mentions the Urim and Thummim, the two stones Joseph Smith used to translate the golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was inscribed in an unknown language. I have always been fascinated by this story because the relationship between the stones and the plates (Liberman refers to "an older optical technology") is unknowable. It's certainly not translation in any sense that I would use the word; I've always been left with the impression that the plates themselves were entirely outside the process. So why include them at all in the story?

Apparently I am not the first one to have this concern.

April 19, 2005

Hyperlinking headnodders   {Comments: 1938}

1. Pejman Yousefzadeh makes the case for choice, primarily on ideological grounds. Maybe he avoids the question of efficiency because it's less important to him than liberty (broadly construed), but that's where the debate really has to live -- ultimately isn't the issue about the tradeoff between efficiency and liberty?

2. Laputan Logic warns against Golden Ratio fanaticism, with some interesting examples of where claims of its relevance have been groundless.

3. Folks in Chicago have been flocking to this rusty water stain underneath the Kennedy Expressway that (to some at least) looks like the Virgin Mary. Lenka Reznicek has a photo of the phenomenon.

4. And for those who are concerned about the new pope's conservative pedigree, it might be worth taking a look at this article by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, on religion and environmentalism. [via the stinging-nettle]

April 18, 2005

The fullness of time   {Comments: 4}

What makes the estate tax so interesting, of course, is that it's about our mortality as much as it's about our money. Maybe this is obvious, but it strikes me that in the case of estates, people are amassing their fortunes with the specific goal of influencing events beyond their deaths -- seeking, in some fanatical capitalistic sense, immortality. And while calling it fanatical may be incendiary, and human nature obviously plays a role, there is something vaguely distasteful about it. Didn't Martin Luther's revolution involve just this sort of revulsion?

I'm not, of course, saying the earthly results of this behavior are always bad; in fact they're probably usually for the best. But at the same time, I don't see any reason why we should create a special incentive for people to use their wealth in this way. Yet this is exactly the state of things sans estate tax -- wealth transfers are taxed during our lifetimes, so by contrast not taxing them in death amounts to an incentive. IMHO, our tax policy should be abyss-neutral.

Thicker than water   {Comments: 2}

Will Baude makes a smart point about the estate tax and estate gifts, the gist (wth Will's usual rhetorical flourishes) being that we view post mortem gifts differently depending on whether the recipient is a family member or not, and that perhaps we shouldn't. He hasn't convinced me to oppose estate taxes yet, but I think I agree on this point at least: large gifts should be taxed regardless of who the recipient is. (And certainly they should be taxed long before wages, which we should be doing our best to incentivize.)

What's really important here is not the notion of passing wealth through some kind of blood line, but rather the concentration of wealth through time. Does it really make any difference (to Kleiman, for example) whether the recipients of the relevant super-wealth are sons and daughters or Will's young, well-liked proteges? Either gift distorts the very American ideal of equal opportunity for all. Meanwhile the very idea of family is accompanied by all kinds of confusion even before money gets involved. As far a gift to Harvard goes, I don't know whether it would even be taxable if made during one's lifetime (wouldn't a university qualify for tax free gifts?), but the standard on this point should be the same whether the giver is living or dead.

MORE: Just a couple quick points about Will's response... it seems to me that both sides of this argument things begin to fray at the edges. I certainly agree that the gift exemption is a good idea, and even for the reasons Will suggests. But I also think that large estates (per the law before the recent changes) should be taxable just as any other wealth transfers would be. This seems reasonable regardless of whether the person has "earned" the transfer or not, which avoids Will's question about what it means to earn.

As for charitable contributions, I wasn't trying to make a statement about whether those contributions should be tax deductible or not (in fact, I tend to think charitable contributions should probably never be tax deductible); instead I just wanted to point out that the treatment should be the same whether the person is giving while alive or as part of an estate. This is complicated by the question of who pays the tax (either the recipient, as income tax with the donor writing it off, or the donor, as income tax before the gift), but I believe the consequences for the recipient will be similar mathematically regardless of when the tax is levied (?).

Will is right, of course, that the public policy on this question is philosophically incoherent; the reason for this is that the philosophical position being espoused is somewhat extreme (shall we say it has a pinkish hue?), and therefore practically unachievable. This doesn't mean, however, that we need to throw out the policy for being too compromising. Philosophical coherence doesn't have all that much relevance to policy anyway; usually the aim is to find a solution that's functional and practical (especially in a democracy).

April 17, 2005

Electoral math   {Comments: 3}

One of the big problems in game theory (or maybe in people's heads) is the stark fact that people vote at all, given the fact that there's so little chance of casting the deciding vote. The probability of casting the deciding vote in any election is around 1/n where n is the number of voters. For most elections, that 1/n term is infinitessimal, but for voting to pay off in the game theoretical sense, the ratio of the value of the time one expends voting to the value of seeing one's candidate elected would actually have to be smaller than the 1/n term. As much as I hate George Bush, I can't say that seeing him out of office was 100 million times more valuable to me than the 20 min I spent voting (especially since my life expectancy isn't even close to 100 million minutes long). Still, I somehow found the time to pull the lever.

John Quiggen suggests here that some kind of "social" preferences (the quotes are his), beyond the usual sort of rational individual preferences, might account for the fact that people vote. There are a couple of ways of thinking about this. The social benefit perceived by the voter could be cumulative, that is, equal to the sum total of individual benefits in the entire country. This would easily offset the 1/n likelihood of casting the deciding vote because the multiplier would be n or greater. Alternatively, the perceived social benefit could be derived in some other way; however, it would still have to be the same order of magnitude as n in order to overcome the unlikelihood of an individual voter casting the deciding vote.

For me the obvious problem with this is that we don't see a lot of other spontaneous political activity on the part of those who vote. As a rational calculation, if these social preferences are actually large enough to get us to the polls, then shouldn't everybody (or at least, everybody who votes) be out there working night and day for political causes, writing letters, volunteering, etc? There are some who do these things, but they number far fewer than those who actually go out and vote.

A couple ideas might temper this problem somewhat. Quiggen has as interesting sugestion that the social benefit of victory in an election doesn't just take into account the winner, but also the size of the win; this might temper the effect somewhat. Another interesting possibility has to do with our perception of odds; I believe it's Richard Thaler who talks about the way extremely small or large probabilities tend to be perceived as less extreme; certainly this would be relevant to the questions above.

Ultimately though I think the most interesting answers to the question of why people vote are going to be those that look at tradition, habit, socialization, morality... these kinds of inputs don't have to counteract the extreme probabilities involved because both their origins and their payoffs are internal. This doesn't mean the idea of "social" preferences -- even the cumulative sort described above -- aren't relevant; an elegant solution might involve involve these very preferences, but restricted (through democratic tradition or ethics) to the voting booth.

UPDATE: I should have been clearer about the probability I mentioned above about the chances of an individual casting the decisive vote. Quiggen links to this paper (PDF) which explains (in the appendix):

If n individuals vote in an election, then the probability of a vote being decisive is roughly proportional to 1/n (see Good and Meyer, 1975, and Chamberlain and Rothchild, 1981). This result is derived based on the empirical fact that elections are unpredictable. Let f(d) be the predictive or forecast uncertainty distribution of the vote differential d (the difference in the vote proportions received by the two leading candidates). If n is not tiny, f(d) can be written, in practice, as a continuous distribution (e.g., a normal distribution with mean 0.04 and standard deviation 0.03). The probability of a decisive vote is then half the probability that a single vote can make or break an exact tie, or f(0)/n.

For example, if a Democrat is running against a Republican, and the difference between the two candidates' vote shares is expected to be in the range +/-10%, then the probability is about 1/(0.2n) = 5/n that a single added vote could create or break a tie. The exact probability of decisiveness depends on the election and one's knowledge about it, but even if an election is expected ahead of time to be close it is hard to imagine a forecast vote differential more precise than +/-2%, in which case the probability of a decisive vote is still at most 1/(0.04n) = 25/n. In practice, we see 10/n as a reasonable approximate probability of decisiveness in close elections, with lower probabilities for elections not anticipated to be close. Gelman, King, and Boscardin (1998), Mulligan and Hunter (2002), and Gelman, Katz, and Bafumi (2004) estimate these probabilities in more detail for elections for Presidential, Congressional, and other elections.

Some game-theoretic models have been proposed that suggest instrumental benefits for voter turnout (e.g., Feddersen and Pesendorfer, 1996), but these models also imply that large elections will be extremely close, and so they are not appropriate for real elections where the margin of victory varies by several percentage points from year to year. Under a coin-flipping model of voting, the probability of decisiveness is proportional to 1/(n^.5), but this model once again implies elections that are much closer than actually occur (see Mulligan and Hunter, 2002, and Gelman, Katz, and Bafumi, 2004).

This is why I said about 1/n at the top, but I should have been more specific. For the purposes of my main argument (ie that individuals should exhibit socially conscious behavior all the time if they do when they vote), it doesn't matter too much.

MORE: Hei Lun explores this issue further at BTD.

April 15, 2005

A rake in the garden   {Comments: 0}

A rake in the garden. The garden
is rotting. The house and the yard.
The garden is rotting. A rake in
the pond. The pond and the swimming.
The house and the yard, the garden
and pond. Outside the neighbors
a rake in the garden. The rake,
it is rotting. The yard and the pond.
Out past the neighbors a woman is
walking. Out past the neighbors
a rake in the yard. The pond and
the swimming. The woman is walking.
The rake in the garden. The rake
in the yard. Out past the neighbors.

--Joshua Beckman

Press pound for more options   {Comments: 4}

Heidi Bond explains some area codes by remembering rotary phones: areas with larger populations (New York, LA, Chicago) got codes with lower digits (212, 213, 312) because these take less time to dial on a rotary phone. Maybe it's because I've only used a rotary phone a very few times in my life, but the elegance of this system really blew me away.

A couple observations. First of all, my immediate relaction was to think about how it would suck to live outside one of these population centers -- because after all, having to dial a 7 instead of a 2 is practically a death sentence. But actually, it's not the people who have these numbers who benefit at all, it's the people who dial them who have it easy -- so the burden is much better distributed than it might seem. The system was both efficient and reasonably equitable.

Also, considering the amount of attention paid to the convenience of these numbers, I wonder why they picked 911 as the number to call in an emergency. At first I thought maybe 911 had come along after rotary phones were already gone, but according to this page on the history of 911, that isn't the case.

April 14, 2005

Exogenous cultural factors   {Comments: 9}

1. Some bloggers are apparently being pressured into drug use by this bizarre DEA publication. [via The Modulator]

2. Raffi Melkonian clarifies his defense of Charlie Trotter's foie gras exclusion here, invoking not animal cruelty, but rather menu coherence! Meanwhile Barrett at TMC has written a couple of colorful posts on the fiasco. More here on foie gras.

3. Caleb McDaniel may still be looking for advice on tipping the baristas at the local coffee shop; Paul Musgrave wonders to what extent tipping variations are culturally determined. I'm inclined to disaree with Caleb's assertion that tipping is in the strictest sense a gratuity; it's hard to see this exclusively as a gift when expectations are imposed (ie putting out a tip jar), especially when future encounters are at stake. For Paul the simple answer is: to a very great extent -- although we may well have different definitions of culture.

4. And some literary bloggers have banded together to leverage their influence: collectively, they'll choose a book to recommend every couple months, and the impact of these choices should have a considerable effect on the industry. Can other blog communities find similar ways to increase their profile by acting collectively?

Chalk   {Comments: 4}

Here's a cool way of celebrating National Poetry Month. Something similar to this happens here in Oak Park (though it's not limited to April) -- someone goes around stencilling poems on the sidewalk with spray paint. I'll try to post a picture of the phenomenon later.

The above link comes by way of Shanna Compton, who's also celebrating National Poetry (Writing) Month in kind of an interesting way: she's writing a poem (almost) every day, but then expunging it shortly after it's posted, so that you have to visit at just the right time to catch it. Nothing yet today...

April 13, 2005

Institutional grand strategy   {Comments: 0}

Matt Yglesias has an interesting column up suggesting that the Democrats take this opportunity to scrap the filibuster. He (along with Nathan Newman) takes a broader view of progressive politics through recent decades, arguing that the filibuster has worked against liberal change in more cases than it's worked in favor of it. This does seem to be the case, and Yglesias argues that it has to do with the very nature of progressive politics:

The liberal difficulty is what it always has been -- getting new stuff passed into law. The public's instinctive skepticism toward novelty is re-enforced by the fact that the American political system puts into place an uncommonly large number of veto points at which legislation may be blocked. New bills must pass two separate legislative houses, each representing different sorts of constituencies; acquire a presidential signature; and pass muster with the Supreme Court. The filibuster merely enhances this tendency, already an outlier in the democratic world.
It seems to me he's overdramatizing the difficulties of getting legislation passed. This is not a closed system: when, given a strong majority of Americans supporting a piece of legislation, does it fail to pass (without major political consequences)? And should we really pass major reforms without supermajority support? Successful institutions usually slow things down, and for good reason -- it wouldn't do to have a legislative revolution every time a new majority comes to power. I'm not sure Social Security would would have survived the past few months without the threat of Democratic filibuster. The rights of the minority should be protected -- this notion that the filibuster is somehow undemocratic seems to be everywhere, and it betrays a pretty narrow view of democracy as exclusively about executing the will of the majority. Actually, democracy in its American incarnation has been about balancing the will of the majority with the protection of the minority -- is the Bill of Rights antidemocratic because it limits the power of the majority? The filibuster's supermajority requirement is a similar protection, except that the "rights" are not defined, and usually the minority is much larger.

If I were going to make an argument in favor of the filibuster, I think I would focus on the changing role of the courts for progressives. Recent decades have seen a lot of leftward changes despite conservatives' use of the filibuster because the court system has consistently expanded individual liberties through broader and broader readings of the Constitution. On these issues, progress has been much faster because the courts have actually been a more streamlined mechanism for political change than Congress (a truly incredible assertion, if you think about it). We might consider this state of affairs to be a sort of institutional imbalance -- a necessary response to the planned barriers Yglesias talks about in that quote above. So, the courts wouldn't have to intervene if Congress were capable of doing the right thing in the first place, but it because of the filibuster. Of course, the problem with changing all this is right now that the courts themselves are at issue; eliminating the filibuster would result in a stacked, and likely long lived, conservative judiciary.

MORE: I guess that last paragraph still seems a bit muddled. My point is just that if we're going to look at institutional design issues in the Congress and how those issues have affected progressive legislation, we should also be looking at where the courts fit into that picture, and how the balance might change in the event the filibuster is eliminated.

April 12, 2005

The proverbial gutter   {Comments: 5}

1. Amardeep Singh has an interesting discussion of Saul Bellow's Nobel Lecture, which was apparently a bit of a response to Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman. How much things change! Or maybe not: Henry Farrell discusses the politics of literary criticism here.

2. Vincent Henderson of Blogos has a post about transliteration in response to a William Safire On Language column that's no longer online. I point it out because it's the first time I've seen the question of the relationship between Poutine (the accepted French spelling for Putin) and putain (if you'll pardon my French) raised anywhere. I still don't know, though, how the Russian leader's name is perceived by French speakers, or how it would be perceived if spelled Putin.

3. If the French are trying to make Putin's name sound less offensive, some American censors are having fun with John Ashcroft, overdubbing his last name anywhere the word asshole appears. Maybe this will catch on?

4. In case you've forgotten, there's a whole buttload (after the last two items I couldn't resist this execrable (!) and highly offensive pun; but at least it gives me a chance to offer up buttload/boatload as yet another eggcorn example) more pictures from Abu Ghraib that have never been released and probably never will. This should make Raffi Melkonian happy.

5. And speaking of Raffi, I seem to have missed this rich post/paper of his over at Crescat (discovered so late thanks to Professor Bainbridge) about the wine-induced revolt in Southern France in 1907. Maybe Raffi will tell us his sources?

April 11, 2005

All thorn, but cousin to your rose   {Comments: 66}

Just to clarify: I don't think translations of poetry are worthless; in fact, I think they can be quite valuable, on the one hand because they allow (rudimentary) access to poetry that would otherwise be completely inaccessible, and on the other because they can be works of art in their own right. But Eliot was also right when he said that poetry separates people across language lines: poetry deals in the intimacies of language, where even the best translators can't follow. When Baude says that "a translated poem necessarily bears the hand of the translator," he misses the point -- elminating the translator's voice isn't nearly so hard as just getting the damned words to work out -- to combine the semantic and the sonic elements in the same way while using completely different semantic and sonic palettes.

This doesn't mean the poem Baude posted in English isn't worth memorizing, and I actually liked it a lot. But it can't tell us what the original poem was like; for that, we need to learn Polish. So it seems strange to think of this activity as memorizing a poem by Milosz; and it's perhaps even stranger that this translation could wander the internet without any mention of the translator's name! Often poets present their translations of other poets' works among their own poems, attributing them, for instance, to Robert Hass, after Czeslaw Milosz. Maybe I'm confused and these are actually freer than translations; but it strikes me as a good way of thinking about what actually happens when we translate poetry.

My senior year at IU I had a class with Douglas Hofstadter on poetry translation. At the time, Hofstadter was working on his translation of Pushkin's famous novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, and his approach was to adhere as strictly as possible to the rigorous metrical and rhyming schemes required by the poems (inlcuding Onegin) he chose to translate. For him, translation was about finding a way to deal with these technical problems, and there was perhaps more elegance than subtlety. This approach led him to make some rather absurd claims (for instance that James Falen's translation of EO was "perfect"), but it also generated a lot of poetry. Hofstadter's nemesis (his own word) was Nabokov, who also famously translated Onegin, but without any of the metrical or rhyming constraints, claiming that it was simply impossible to do without butchering the masterpiece.

My point in presenting these two views is to stake out some ground between the two. In some sense I wish that Nabokov had tried his hand at a metrical Onegin; surely this would have been no more disrespectful than the translation he ultimately created, and it might well have put to rest the question of EO translation into English. On the other hand, one can't enter into this act of translation with any pretentions about getting it right, or even getting it close. It is necessarily an exercize, and an impossible (although not necessarily futile) one at that.

Meditation at Lagunitas   {Comments: 2}

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you
and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

--Robert Hass, 1979

April 10, 2005

Strained metaphor   {Comments: 0}

1. Here's a piece from Kerry Howley about Monodvino, the wine documentary I've been dying to see: "wine emerges as an experience open to invention and reinvention, a nebulous pleasure that can be captured only fleetingly in the strained metaphor of a critic or the romance of an Italian estate before it is reconceived as something wholly different." (Also, why am I so distracted by the closeness of Mondovino to Mondavi? Is this some kind of insidious pun?)

2. Will Baude is memorizing poems for national poetry month, but he's complicated matters a bit by picking one by Czeslaw Milosz. Does this even make sense, given that the words he's mesmerizing are English? At the very least, he should tell us that Robert Hass, or whatever other poet was involved, was the translator. (On this point, also, let me recommend to him and others John Crowley's excellent novel The Translator, which to all appearances takes place in Baude's home town of Bloomington IN.)

3. Finally there's this experiment in online jounralism that launched recently; it's a collaborative online news source for Bluffton SC. I find it interesting that they don't seem to have any local advertisements up yet (although they do mention ads in their policy section). They're probably hanging back for now in order to avoid giving the impression that they're exploiting users -- I wonder what their strategy is for making that shift?

April 8, 2005

East Garfield   {Comments: 2}

Here are some pictures I took earlier this week in Chicago's East Garfield neighborhood. The research project I work for is expanding to inlcude preschools from different neighborhoods, and so I've been driving around East Garfield doing a block-by-block survey of educational and childcare services, and also just generally trying to get a sense of the place.

April 6, 2005

Et super hanc petram   {Comments: 29}

I'm sure others have mentioned this, but I've been struck at the difference between the way Catholicism has been portrayed now, after he death of the pope, and how it's been portrayed by the media through the priest abuse scandals of the past few years. Obviously the occasions are different (!) but I wonder if there isn't, for some reporters anyway, an attempt here to balance coverage somehow. Or, is there a widespread (and overt) irony in the reporting that I've missed? Another possibility is that there's a distinction being drawn here between American and worldwide Catholicism: the former has been made ridiculous by scandal and juxtaposition with postmodern America, while the latter is awe inspiring, or even just quaint in its traditions. And if this is the case, maybe the coverage now is more condescending than sensationalist?

April 4, 2005

Hinges   {Comments: 2}

On the etymology of the word cardinal (from the Online Etymology Dictionary):

1125, "one of the ecclesiastical princes who constitute the sacred college," from L. cardinalis "principal, chief, essential," from cardo (gen. cardinis) "that on which something turns or depends," originally "door hinge." Ecclesiastical use began for the presbyters of the chief (cardinal) churches of Rome. The adj. sense of "chief, principal" in Eng. is attested from c.1440. Cardinal numbers (1591) are the primitive "one, two, three," etc. as opposed to ordinal numbers "first, second, third," etc. Cardinal points (1549) are "north, south, east, west." The cardinal virtues (c.1300) were divided into natural (justice prudence, temperance, fortitude) and theological (faith, hope, charity). The N.Amer. songbird (Cardinalis virginianus) is attested from 1678, so named for its resemblance to the red robes of the cardinals.
I don't know why I was surpsied to find that the birds and even the cardinal numbers are named for the Catholic kind, but I was. More about cardinals here.
April 3, 2005

The legitimacy of profit   {Comments: 0}

Daniel Henninger's premise in this WSJ piece is so obviously flawed: he apparently thinks the reason people create art is for financial gain, and yet the whole history of human creativity stands in defiance of such a claim. There are plenty of other breakdowns in his argument -- the gross inefficiency of the music industry, despoiled as it is by agents and producers, might be the biggest one -- but his real problem is that he misconstrues the motivations for creating art to begin with and therefore misses the central idea of this ethical sea-change.

Has the lack of a good old fashioned enforceable intellectual property right deterred people from putting their photos, their words, even their music online? Not if they're amateurs -- and to the extent that eliminating peer-to-peer file sharing would prevent those amateurs from self-distributing, it's simply not an acceptable solution. The government should be working to protect the rights and creative potential of the amateur and the small-time professional artist, not the industry of ready bystanders who divert the profit from creative talent. Maybe Henninger's problem is he has too much faith that the current system works, and that under it artists are being what they deserve.

April 1, 2005

Nonblack nonraven   {Comments: 1}

As far as I'm concerned, the joke is on the anyone who thinks the blogosphere is overwhelmingly dominated by white men. What the true proportions are they can't know, and I certainly don't, but there are plenty of nonwhite, nonmale bloggers out there. These folks just don't read them!

It works like this: as a reader of blogs, you read that which you come across, probably because you start with something you're familiar with, and in all likelihood you stay there. These folks are talking about the blogosphere like it's a conversation about politics. It's not. There are people out there writing about anything you (or more relevantly they) can think of, and if more of the political bloggers are male, then more of the personal bloggers are female.

The problem here is that some observers have defined blogging as a conversation about the dominant politics -- and now they're wondering why only the dominant political demographic is participating. Small wonder females and minorities would be less interested in such a conversation, given their current levels of representation in that politics and the historical abdridgment of their rights by it. Apparently they've chosen to write about different things instead. Maybe instead of worrying that they're not writing about politics, we should find out what it is they are writing, and read it.

Heroes   {Comments: 0}

In all those stories the hero
is beyond himself into the next
thing, be it those labors
of Hercules, or Aeneas going into death.

I thought the instant of the one humanness
in Virgil's plan of it
was that it was of course human enough to die,
yet to come back, as he said, hoc opus, hic labor est.

That was the Cumaen Sybil speaking.
This is Robert Creeley, and Virgil
is dead not two thousand years, yet Hercules
and the Aeneid, yet all that industrious wis-

dom lives in the way the mountains
and the desert are waiting
for the heroes, and death also
can still propose the old labors.

--Robert Creeley, 1959 (Creeley died yesterday at the age of 78; obits are here, here, and here.)