Friday, February 29, 2008

Math on the Brain

Many people know that before I succumbed to the unremunerative way of all things literary, I was a young mathematician. I like to say that I have an affinity for math, literature, and philosophy because they're all nonempirical, pure works of the collective (and sometimes private) human imagination. Here are a couple of math-and-brain-related entries worth noting:

Jim Holt, "The Numbers Guy":

By “pure luck,” Dehaene recalls, Mehler happened to be doing research on how numbers are understood. This led to Dehaene’s first encounter with what he came to characterize as “the number sense.” Dehaene’s work centered on an apparently simple question: How do we know whether numbers are bigger or smaller than one another? If you are asked to choose which of a pair of Arabic numerals—4 and 7, say—stands for the bigger number, you respond “seven” in a split second, and one might think that any two digits could be compared in the same very brief period of time. Yet in Dehaene’s experiments, while subjects answered quickly and accurately when the digits were far apart, like 2 and 9, they slowed down when the digits were closer together, like 5 and 6. Performance also got worse as the digits grew larger: 2 and 3 were much easier to compare than 7 and 8. When Dehaene tested some of the best mathematics students at the École Normale, the students were amazed to find themselves slowing down and making errors when asked whether 8 or 9 was the larger number.

Dehaene conjectured that, when we see numerals or hear number words, our brains automatically map them onto a number line that grows increasingly fuzzy above 3 or 4. He found that no amount of training can change this. “It is a basic structural property of how our brains represent number, not just a lack of facility,” he told me.

The Reactionary Epicurean, "There are numbers and then there are Numbers...", on the stages of mathematical development:
At some point, every visually-inclined student of mathematics hits a wall. It happened to me at the end of my freshman year in college (I had to integrate a function over a 5-dimensional hypertorus in my Vector Analysis final, and nearly passed out from the visual strain), and it's almost an impossible feeling to describe if you haven't experienced it yourself.

The bottom of your stomach drops out as you realize that mathematics is deeper and more sublime than the constrained, geometric mockery of mathematics you have been doing up to this point. There is a moment of existential horror; an understanding that the "gift" of visualization you possessed was actually a curse, that it kept your understanding of conceptual structures chained down and crippled for so long. At this point there is a choice...

The only way to develop abstract intuition that encompasses and goes beyond what you have is to tear down the geometric intuition that you worked so hard for throughout your educational life. The devoted student must return to the formalistic methods of Stage 1 and apply them over and over until true conceptual insight breaks through and floods the brain like dawn breaking over the arctic after 6 months of darkness. The process is something akin to meditation, and beyond the first epiphany there are countless higher epiphanies. Each layer of abstraction and conceptual depth must be absorbed by the brain in its entirety, and the absorption requires a return to Stage 1 and an abandonment of the hard-won inuition that has served the student to this point.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Failure of Imagination

Chris Anderson has an excerpt of his next book, titled "Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business" over at Wired. He begins by recounting the two great inventions of disposable razor magnate King Gillette: the disposable razor and a new business model, where you give the durable product away for cheap or free and make your profit from the disposable or serial product. Cellular phones and their calling plans, video games and their consoles, cable boxes and cable all partake of this now-ubiquitous model.

It's a great analogy. But Anderson stumbles in his transition.

Over the past decade, however, a different sort of free has emerged. The new model is based not on cross-subsidies — the shifting of costs from one product to another — but on the fact that the cost of products themselves is falling fast. It's as if the price of steel had dropped so close to zero that King Gillette could give away both razor and blade, and make his money on something else entirely. (Shaving cream?)

No! For one thing, Gilette does sell shaving cream. They also sell deodorant and nose-hair trimmers and all manner of other grooming accoutrements. But more to the point, making money from shaving cream is a cross-subsidy. It's not a fundamentally different model from the razor and blades, just a weaker one, since presumably different lathers can be used with different blades.

No. The answer is that under the new model, and presumably at some point in my lifetime, when every durable surface is an information-aware screen, Gilette will give the razor and the blades and the shaving cream and deodorant all away for free. Instead, they will make their profit from the time you spend looking in the mirror. That is how the web works.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Omar Little, A Requiem

I don't know whether anyone looked at my earlier spoiler, but yes -- The Wire's Omar Little, one of the most fascinating characters in television of history, dies in Episode 8 of Season 5.

David Simon has said earlier that The Wire is modeled on Greek tragedy: "Fated and doomed protagonists are confronted by a system that is indifferent to their heroism, to their individuality, to their morality. But instead of Olympian gods, Capitalism is the ultimate god. Capitalism is Zeus."

If Capitalism is Zeus, then Omar was certainly Achilles -- the superhuman-but-mortal agent of revenge, weeping over his lover's broken body. And Achilles, however immortal he seems, is doomed.

That said, if No-Heart Anthony -- Omar's equally legendary older brother, who we hear about in Season 1 and first see in a brief prequel that aired online before season 5 -- were to escape from prison to either avenge his brother's death or take up his mantle in the final episode, I would have no problem with that. After all, Achilles may die, but Troy still will fall.

Why Don't We Just Add A Poll Tax?

Geraldine Ferraro gets silly in the New York Times:

In the Democratic primary in South Carolina, tens of thousands of Republicans and independents no doubt voted, many of them for Mr. Obama. The same rules prevail at the Iowa caucuses, in which Mr. Obama also triumphed.

He won his delegates fair and square, but those delegates represent the wishes not only of grassroots Democrats, but also Republicans and independents. If rank-and-file Democrats should decide who the party’s nominee is, each state should pass a rule allowing only people who have been registered in the Democratic Party for a given time — not nonmembers or day-of registrants — to vote for the party’s nominee.

The notion is that the superdelegates represent grassroots Democratic voters better than voters in a presidential primary -- where turnout often fails to crack 30 percent. This, despite the scandalous fact that each of these elected officials won in a general election in which both Republicans and independents were gratuitously allowed to participate, often after winning uncontested or even more sparsely attended primaries.

In fact, Ferraro is so concerned about these superdelegates winning their primaries that she worries about them being coerced to vote for Obama in order to stave off a primary challenge. Meanwhile, let's keep as many people who might not have their party bona fides together (especially the young people and nonvoters we keep talking about turning out in the general) from participating in the party. Now that's grass-roots democracy.

Ferraro also reminds us of her history in the long tradition of mediocre big-D Democratic politics. The superdelegate system was created after Ted Kennedy tried to introduce amendments to make the party platform more liberal after his unsuccessful primary challenge to Carter in 1980.

In 1984 I headed the party’s platform committee. We produced the longest platform in Democratic history, a document that stated the party’s principles in broad terms that neither the most liberal nor the most conservative elected officials would denounce. It generated no fights at the convention. It was a document that no one would walk away from. We lost in 1984, big time. But that loss had nothing to do with Democratic Party infighting.

Kudos to you, Ms. Ferraro. Democrats lost the Presidency again in '88, needed a third-party challenger to win in 1992 and 1996, quietly accepted a stolen election in 2000 and nominated another unobjectionable and unelectable candidate in 2004. Heaven forbid anyone see Democrats disagree with each other on TV. Let's just bleed for another quarter-century.

The Approved Platitudes

Andrew Sullivan's recent vacation introduced me to the fistful of smart conservative bloggers (e.g. Reihan Salam) who pitch-hit for him, along with some of the other bloggers they plugged. For example, here's Eunomia's Daniel Larison, talking about the election in "The Meme Lives On" :

Every mistake of analysis I have made over the past year has come from believing that policy mattered to voters and that the candidates with the policies most in line with their constituents’ priorities would prevail.  That was a pretty stupid assumption. Worse than a pundit’s fallacy, this is the error of the high-information voter, who thinks that because he wastes his time learning about the policy positions of two dozen politicians that everyone else is as, well, brain-damaged and conditioned as he is...

The candidates of bold ideas and major changes were, of course, the ones who were consistently marginalised and ridiculed as “kooks,” and in a narrow sense this label is correct in that you do have to be a bit eccentric to care deeply about foreign policy paradigms, much less monetary policy. The one candidate who routinely spoke about the declining value of the dollar, one of the more important questions of the moment, was Ron Paul. The best McCain has ever been able to do when confronted with a question about monetary policy is to recycle his lame joke about propping up Alan Greenspan’s corpse in a chair, and he stands a frighteningly good chance of becoming the next President. Paul’s rivals typically battled with each other over things that were relatively trivial by comparison–”sanctuary mansions” comes to mind–and they have been rewarded for their triviality. They are the serious ones, because while they may mouth platitudes, these are the approved platitudes. Paul’s candidacy was focused heavily on his dissenting policy views, and it was, whether or not you endorse his proposals, the most substantive campaign of them all.

This strikes me as both 1) true and 2) likely to make Angela happy, who recently and insightfully wrote this:
i am beginning to think ralph nader has an uncontrollable ego. and need for constant attention. and is jealous of what ron paul was able to do without a substantial personal fortune and rich pals backing him.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


● Kottke, "Liveblogging the Oscars":

10:00p: Just checked the movie times at the theater two blocks from my apartment. Juno at 10:50, There Will Be Blood at 10:20, Atonement at 10:30, and No Country for Old Men at 10:15 & 10:55. Michael Clayton is on Movies OnDemand for $4.99 at any time.

9:32p: Is this a good time to go to the movies? Lots of empty seats at There Will Be Blood maybe?

9:07p: My liveblogging outfit this evening: jeans by Banana Republic, long sleeve tshirt by American Apparel, socks by Wal-Mart, boxer shorts by Muji.

8:55p: What else is on right now: The Mummy on Encore, Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Fox Movie Channel, Miller's Crossing on Encore Action, The Departed on Cinemax, episode #8 of The Wire on HBO, the Masterpiece version of Pride and Prejudice on PBS, Bulls vs. Rockets on ESPN, Godfather II on AMC, and Born Into Brothels is just ending on IFC but Spanking the Monkey starts in 20 minutes.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Not So New But Noteworthy

I've had three tabs open all week, intending to blog about each of them. Now it's Saturday, so it's time for rapid-fire.

Charles McGrath, "Is PBS Still Necessary?":

Argument: PBS's ratings are declining, cable is ascendant, and the public network doesn't compete in prime-time.
My counter-argument: Not everyone has cable, jack, and lots of channels don't do so well in prime-time, especially arts, culture, and science channels on cable. We need PBS to have strong programming all day long, when networks take a bath and where it does pretty well.
Big idea: Public radio, both NPR and PRI, have been more innovative than PBS and have actually gained audience because of it. So PBS needs to try more innovation.

Scott Horton, "Jonah's Fascism": Everyone's taken a crack at Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, but few people are in the position to be as systematic as Scott Horton, aka the most culturally and historically informed political blogger on the web.

Mark Bernstein, "NeoVictorian Computing": Bernstein calls for a revival of "personal computing," taking the 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement as a model. Exposed joints, handicrafts, and an emphasis on objects and software designed to get things done. It's more a chain of insightful critiques than a full-fledged program, but as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about historical analogues to our digital moment, this is a very useful and potentially fruitful strand to follow.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A New GI Bill

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Princeton prof, blogger, and writer for Slate, at BigThink. Stick around to the end, when she promotes the notion of a new GI Bill for African-Americans (and, presumably other minorities), i.e., investments in education, housing, schools, and transportation to benefit the people largely cut out of the postwar middle-class boom because of race.

Smart stuff -- and a surprisingly persuasive frame for thinking about both the history of the civil rights movement and current political issues.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Problem of the Problem of Evil

Everyone seems to know the rules. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and both loving and good. Yet evil or suffering exists. This appears to be a contradiction. Goodness and suffering are compatible only when the power to combat suffering is lacking. And power and suffering suggest a God who either wishes us to suffer or somehow requires suffering for the fulfillment of a moral order that he himself created and is presumably at liberty to change. Free will is only an apparent solution to the problem, since only a subset of suffering can be attributed to human will, and begs both the question of God's ultimate responsibility for suffering (natural and manmade) and the question of whether free will is in itself a good, and if so, why.

The problem of evil cuts to the heart of any apologia for monotheism since it calls into question the existence of an organizing principle to the universe, the moral intentions and/or competence of the deity, and His fitness for worship.

But the trouble isn't with the logic of the problem of evil, but its psychology. That suffering exists is undeniable -- the existence of pain may be the closest thing to a religious fact. But the other premises are rarely if ever denied. Why couldn't God be well-meaning but incompetent? Why couldn't God be all-powerful but not fully good? Neither of these seem to be live possibilities for us -- either God is possessed of all perfections, as St. Anselm thought, or God cannot exist. Yet the notion that our souls are at the mercy of a God who may neither be totally powerful nor totally beneficent is far from contradictory, and was a meaningful and live proposition for millennia. Just not for us moderns.

Those who follow the logic of the problem of evil reveal something about themselves in the course of their syllogism. Even those who disbelieve in the existence of God believe that were God to exist, He should be -- must be -- both totally powerful to eradicate suffering and totally willing to do so out of love for mankind and His lesser creations. In other words, there may not be a moral order to the universe, but the absence of one is keenly felt as a detriment, a betrayal to the sense of individual fate and cosmic destiny.

At its psychological root, the problem of evil poses a much more melancholic dilemma. Looking outward, we see a universe of suffering and ask why the universe is indifferent to it -- and in particular, we ask why the universe is indifferent to our suffering. And looking inwards, we find a person full of shallow and selfish and hostile intentions, and we ask -- why couldn't I have been made good?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Conservatives Just Aren't Into Academe"

From the Chronicle of Higher Ed: Two researchers (a husband and wife) have crunched data to explain academics are so liberal and why conservatives aren't interested in the academy. Turns out, it isn't political bias, class considerations, or the trauma of disagreement.

Instead the Woessners looked at differences in interests and personality. They found that in a variety of ways, conservative students were less interested than liberals in subject matter that often leads to doctoral degrees, and less interested in doing the kinds of things that professors spend their time doing.

For example, liberal students reported valuing intellectual freedom, creativity, and the chance to write original work and make a theoretical contribution to science. They outnumbered conservative students two to one in the humanities and social sciences — which are among the fields most likely to produce interest in doctoral study. Conservative students, however, put more value on personal achievement and orderliness, and on practical professions, like accounting and computer science, that could earn them lots of money.

The Woessners also found that conservative students put a higher priority than liberal ones on raising a family. That does not always fit well with a career in academe, where people often delay childbearing until after they earn tenure.

The research led the Woessners to conclude that if higher education wants to attract more conservatives to the professoriate, it should smooth the way financially, offering subsidized health insurance and housing for graduate students, and adopting family-friendly policies for professors.

Yes! Hear, hear! Let's raise salaries and graduate stipends, too! Anything, ANYTHING, to make the profession more appealing to conservatives. That is a sacrifice I am eminently willing to make.

All This Useless Knowledge

Via David Pogue: Obsolete Technical Skils. It's a wiki, so some of them are not technical, not obsolere, or not really skills. But the "U" section is terrific:

Using a Typewriter
Using a card catalog
Using a 16 mm film projector
Using a fountain pen
Using a slide rule
Using a beeper or pager
Using an abacus
Using carbon paper to make copies
Using correction fluid
Using a fax machine
Using a flash bulb
Using a flash cube
Using a Timing Light

Go, Man, Go!

Why I love Fry:

Monday, February 18, 2008

Fans of The Wire Only

This is The Wire that I fell in love with. - By Jeffrey Goldberg, David Plotz, and John Swansburg - Slate Magazine:

I suspect that Omar signed his own death warrant this week. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Omar has never killed for sport before, never murdered an innocent. Savino isn't a choirboy, but he never wronged Omar directly. By doing Savino, cold-blooded, on the street, Omar betrays his own code. He's no longer a sanguinary angel, just an outlaw gangster. He may still have his revenge on Marlo, but he may have lost his halo of protection.

I've seen a similar trope on other Wire blogs this week. But I think this notion loses sight of two things:

1) Omar has already said that he's going after all of Marlo's people, especially his muscle. Earlier in the same episode, we've seen him kill one of Marlo's guards just to flush the stash. At this point, it's not about who Omar kills; he's only leaving people alive to tell his story.

2) Savino, as Omar remembers, was muscle for Avon Barksdale. In the first season, Avon had Omar's boyfriend Brandon tortured and killed. Omar knows that Wee-Bay, Stinkum, and Bird were involved in Brandon's death; he's killed Stinkum, put Bird in prison, and killed Stringer Bell, while Wee-Bay and Avon are likewise in prison. Savino is the last person on the street who could have had anything to do with Brandon's death.

P.S.: Mouse over for a spoiler.

History, Long and Short

History is marvelous.

Exhibit A: Olivia Judson, "A Tyrannical Romance":

I want to take a journey 68 million years back in time to see a Tyrannosaurus rex couple mating. What was it like? Did they trumpet and bellow and stamp their feet? Did they thrash their enormous tails? Did he bite her neck in rapture and exude a musky scent? Somehow, I imagine that when two T. rex got it on, the earth shook for miles around.

And if I could only take this journey, I could answer a question that sometimes bothers me. Did T. rex have a penis? Did he even, as lizards do, have two?

I ask the question not out of prurience, but because it’s a matter of scientific interest. There are a couple of reasons why. First, the penis is another important indicator of the mating system. In species where females usually mate with a single male during a breeding episode, penises tend to be small and uninteresting. In those where females mate with several males (whether by choice or by force), penises are typically larger, and come with fancy decorations such as grooves, nobbles, and spikes.

Exhibit B: Charles Dawson Shanly, "The Romance Of Hair," Atlantic Monthly (January 1867):
It appears from various records, that the present passion for the different shades of red hair—golden, auburn, and bronze-red—has raged very fiercely in different periods and from very early times. The great Italian painters, Titian, Paul Veronese, Giorgione, and others, had gold-red hair “on the brain.” Their beauties were nearly all crowned with a glory of the fascinating tint. In “beautiful Venice,” about the days of Titian, a glorious sight to see must have been the house-tops, from a bird’s-eye view, when the belles of noble rank sat out upon them, catching the golden flashes of the sun with their damp tresses. Vecelli states that they used to procure the desired tint by the following process. They would soak their hair thoroughly with a wash made up of black sulphur, alum, and honey. Then they would repair to the flat house-tops, and, hanging the wet masses of their hair over the wide brims of crownless straw hats, would sit there for hours, until even the darkest-eyed brunette of them all would have her raven tresses alchemized into burning gold. That must have been a wondrous and beautiful sight, out there on the flat roofs of Venice, the morning before some great Carnival ball. Will observers who dwell much in attics inform us whether our American belles recline out upon the housetops, and lay traps with their tresses to catch the audacious radiance of the sun? I look out from my window now, — a back window commanding an extensive view of house-tops, — fiat, some of them, and others of sufficiently gentle slope. I strain my eyes to behold some such beatific vision as might hive dazzled Titian when he emerged from the roof-scuttle of his house, and singled out for a Madonna some fair and fulvous one of the bleachers that were spreading their tresses on the leads below. But, alas! I see no such gorgeous sight. I see nothing more lovely, in fact, than tom-cats and chimney-pots, the sooty tops of the latter of which certainly do not absorb any glory from gilding rays of the warm October sun...

At various periods beards were regulated by law. In 1533, Francis I. issued an edict ordaining that Bohemians, Egyptians, and other persons of that sort should be arrested, shaved, and committed to the galleys. It is said that the Parliament of Toulouse forbade the wearing of beards, and that, when a certain gentleman, furnished with a very long one, brought some claims before that body, he was told that they could not be entertained until he had shaven his face clean. Indeed, so much controversy took place at this time regarding the beard, that the learned doctor Gentien Hervet wrote a discourse upon the subject, which was printed at Orleans in 1536. He divided his discourse into three sections. The first maintained that all men ought to allow their beards to grow; the second, that all men ought to shave their beards off; and the third, that every man should do just as he pleases about his beard. Twenty years later, beards were again much in vogue. They were worn in the swallow-tail cut now, and there were fan-tail beards to be seen also, as well as many other strange and grotesque devices in the arrangement of the facial hair. A great variety of unguents for the beard were also brought into use at this time, all of different colors and perfumes. The beard, at this period, was generally made up at night, and placed in a bag to prevent it from getting out of form. It became the proper thing now, in France, to carry a small brush for the purpose of arranging the mustache, an office which ladies would sometimes perform for their beaux, and great value was attached to a mustache that had been put in form for the wearer by some fair hand.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Parsimonious Explanation

Nicholas Carr, "HD DVD RIP":

You can get away with a three-letter initialism as a product name, but if you try to stretch it to five, you're sunk. HD DVD? It never really had a chance, particularly when it was up against a snappy futuristic-sounding name like Blu-Ray. If the Jetsons had decided to get a second dog to keep Astro company, they would have named it Blu-Ray.

Not A Bad Story

I hadn't heard this until Frank Rich told me:

In 1970, Linwood Holton, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction and a Richard Nixon supporter, responded to court-ordered busing by voluntarily placing his own children in largely black Richmond public schools. For this symbolic gesture, he was marginalized by his own party, which was hellbent on pursuing the emergent Strom Thurmond-patented Southern strategy of exploiting white racism for political gain. After Mr. Holton, Virginia restored to office the previous governor, Mills Godwin, a champion of the state’s ‘massive resistance’ to desegregation.

Today Anne Holton, the young daughter sent by her father to a black school in Richmond, is the first lady of Virginia, the wife of the Democratic governor, Tim Kaine. Mr. Kaine’s early endorsement of Mr. Obama was a potent factor in his remarkable 28-point landslide on Tuesday.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

That Feature Is A Bug

Rex at Fimoculous interviews Adrian Holovaty of EveryBlock. I was especially taken with this answer Adrian gave to Rex's question about adding user-generated content or social networking to his fine, fine maps + news site:

If we'd launched with awesome reader-contributed content features, that's all that people would be talking about. 'EveryBlock: a user-generated news site!' People are very quick to make judgments about a Web site, pigeonholing it into some generic 'user-generated' or 'Web 2.0' bucket. I wanted to send the message that our focus is on providing a newspaper for your block. The tone was set. Any subsequent features that we add -- whether they involve local voices or not -- are in support of that core goal.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Vive Lincoln!

Monday, February 11, 2008

In Anticipation of 21st-Century History

When the definitive cultural history of the 21st century is written, I believe there will be a chapter devoted to this:

BERLIN -- The Italian actress and model Isabella Rossellini, who has been starring in big-screen movies for 20 years, is making her directorial debut with a series of short films designed for cellphones and computers. Rossellini's one-minute shorts are dramatic reenactments of insects copulating called Green Porno, a name designed to draw search engine traffic.

In all seriousness, what's most remarkable about this is how carefully all of the filmmakers' choices consider the technology being used. The title/theme is designed to draw search traffic, and to be quirky and "a little provocative, but accessible," as Rosselini says. The screens are small and not necessarily hi-res, so the actions and colors are large and cartoonish, which looks the best in that environment. And attention is limited, so the time in which a story can be told is compressed. Plus, there's the seriality of the whole thing -- eight short films, rather than a single work.

I think that in the near future you will see more people trying to cook up a similar formula, struggling with these limitations, and trying to rethink older conventions and ideas as the media, tech, and social conventions of entertainment continue to change.

How Not To Promote Books

HarperCollins Will Post Free Books on the Web - New York Times:

Starting Monday, readers who log on to will be able to see the entire contents of ‘The Witch of Portobello’ by Mr. [Paulo] Coelho; ‘Mission: Cook! My Life, My Recipes and Making the Impossible Easy’ by Mr. [Robert] Irvine; ‘I Dream in Blue: Life, Death and the New York Giants’ by Roger Director; ‘The Undecided Voter’s Guide to the Next President: Who the Candidates Are, Where They Come from and How You Can Choose’ by Mark Halperin; and ‘Warriors: Into the Wild’ the first volume in a children’s series by Erin Hunter."

Sweet Jesus! Not to prejudge too much, and I'm sure each of these titles will sell well, but on their faces, I don't want to read any of these. Not even for a goof.

Using free e-books to promote traditional books? Great idea. But -- why not post samples from something that either 1) many, many people might be interested to read or whole books that 2) webby, e-book people might be particularly interested in reading.

It seems to me that if you approach digital downloads as a promotional strategy but think that it's basically interchangeable with traditional promos like an author reading or a big cardboard display, you're a long way from figuring this out. It's all so cautious, so tame. While whoever gets there first and makes a big splash could positively catch fire.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Nice Mix of Cultural References

Dan Schnur at the New York Times Blog, on why McCain needs Mike Huckabee to stay in the race:

More than 60 percent of the voters on Feb. 5 registered their support for someone other than Senator McCain. In order to consolidate those conservative Republicans behind him, Senator McCain will need to continue to shore up his ‘foot soldier in the Reagan revolution’ message. But he also needs a platform from which to deliver that message and a foil against whom he can frame it. Mr. Huckabee provides him with both...

Even better for Senator McCain than an opponent is a conservative opponent. Even better than that is a socially conservative candidate who’s not as conservative as Senator McCain on economic or national security issues. And even better than that is a social conservative who likes and admires Senator McCain enough to rarely say a discouraging word about him. Enter Mike Huckabee, straight from central casting. To this point in the campaign, Mr. Huckabee has been Paulie Walnuts to Senator McCain’s Tony Soprano. Moving forward, he takes on the role of the Washington Generals preparing to play Senator McCain’s Globetrotters in a weekly barnstorming tour through the rest of the primary schedule.

Friday, February 08, 2008

It's A Little Known Fact

Stereogum notes "Ten Years Of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea":

Neutral Milk Hotel's opus turns ten this Sunday. Feel old? If you love it, it's one of those albums that imprints itself on your psyche. One of us remembers exactly where he was when he brought it home from the record store the week it came out, sat down and listened to it next to a piano in a girlfriend's father's house ... and those first rushed, hushed lines of 'King Of Carrot Flowers Part 1' were enough to choke a person up, even when they barely knew what was going on, hadn't gotten the Anne Frank thematics. Right then, it was just this quick, gorgeous snapshot of innocence lost in a surrealist, sad atmosphere: 'And your mom would stick a fork right into daddy's shoulder / And your dad would throw the garbage all across the floor / As we would lay and learn what each other's bodies were for...' And it went from there.

Also learned from this post: NMH frontman Jeff Mangum's wife is Astra Taylor, who directed Žižek!, surely the most entertaining film about literary theory ever made. Why not read one, watch the other, and feel warm and brainy and a little strange and inhuman all over?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Electronic Juvenilia

It looks great in full screen. Don't forget to download the pdf!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Picking A Fight

My favorite New York Times columnist is Paul Krugman. My favorite presidential candidate is Barack Obama. Krugman doesn't like Obama much, mostly because of the lack of mandates in Obama's health care proposals. The politician Obama thinks (mostly intuitively) that it's wrong to penalize people who can't afford health care or to coerce them into buying it. The economist Krugman thinks that universal health care can't work without mandates, since people will fail to sign up and in the event of a catastrophe, will still wind up free-riding on the system. In other words, a reasoning of means versus a reasoning of ends.

Normally, this would be the sort of fun, shop-talky policy debate you and your liberal friends would get into, and you'd hash everything out and call each other a few names but have a drink afterwards and agree that the real thing to do is to try to get health care done. But in this case, it's nearly the only major policy difference between Obama and Clinton, so it's something that is being fought over like crazy, especially since Obama sent out a controversial mailer attacking Hillary on the issue.

Here's Krugman:

I believe that universal health care has to be THE central item in a progressive agenda--not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because of its political economy implications. As I explain in Conscience of a Liberal, Republicans went all-out in 1993 to block health reform because they feared that success would reinvigorate the progressive agenda. And they were right...

Obama’s plan fell short — but I was initially willing to cut him slack, figuring that it could be improved. But then he began making the weakness of his plan a selling point, and attacking his rivals for getting it right. And in the process he has systematically trashed the prospects for actually achieving universal coverage.

Here's David Brooks:
[Jim] Cooper is one of the most thoughtful, cordial and well-prepared members of the House. In 1992, he came up with a health care reform plan that would go on to attract wide, bipartisan support. A later version had 58 co-sponsors in the House — 26 Republicans and 32 Democrats. It was sponsored in the Senate by Democrat John Breaux and embraced by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, among others.

But unlike the plan Hillary Clinton came up with then, the Cooper plan did not include employer mandates to force universal coverage.

On June 15, 1993, Cooper met with Clinton to discuss their differences. Clinton was “ice cold” at the meeting, Cooper recalls. “It was the coldest reception of my life. I was excoriated.”

Cooper told her that she was getting pulled too far to the left. He warned that her plan would never get through Congress. Clinton’s response, Cooper now says, was: “We’ll crush you. You’ll wish you never mentioned this to me.”

And via Andrew Sullivan, here's Josh Patashnik at TNR:
Imagine you're a Senate Republican. You think the health-care system is getting a bit out of control, and you find it unacceptable that 45 million Americans lack health insurance. So you're thinking about signing on to Ron Wyden's universal-coverage bill, as five of your GOP colleagues have already done. Then, along comes Krugman to tell you, oh, by the way, Kristol was right in 1993--if we get our foot in the door by passing health care, you can count on a broader Kucinichization of America. What are you gonna do? Chances are, you'll be a lot less likely to support the bill.  Krugman continually insists Republicans will fight universal coverage tooth and nail at every turn, and then frames the issue in such a way as to ensure that they will...

It always surprised me that Karl Rove would constantly brag about how privatizing Social Security was the first step toward a piece-by-piece demolition of the social safety net--and then he proclaimed himself shocked, shocked when Democrats showed no interest in helping Bush partially privatize Social Security. It would be a bitter irony if universal health care were to elude our grasp again because liberals made the same mistake.

Krugman's identification of Obama's plan with the antiprogressive agenda feels shaky to me, because when conservatives attack mandates, they do it in order to scuttle health care reform. In part, it seems that Obama wants to take that objection off the table, to give the bill a better chance of passing. I don't think he's "systematically trashed" universal health care -- one flier does not make a trashing.

But it's bizarre that this policy disagreement has created a much broader frame of Obama as "attacking Clinton/Edwards from the right." Differences on immigration, on international politics, or on taxes (hey, just what are these candidates' tax proposals?) haven't done that. Only the health care debate has. Like Krugman, I think health care is crucial. But like Patashnik and others, I'm worried that the assumption that this is the only health care proposal that can possibly work (or even become a stepping stone to single-payer insurance) is likely to lead to another quixotic, distorted showdown on this issue. And it's too important for that.

It's A Matter of Taste

Brandon at Black Tee Shirt on Barack Obama:

The color of the tee shirt doesn't matter. Nor does the sex of the tee shirt. But would you choose to wear only two tee shirts (read: Bush and Clinton), alternating one and then the other, for over twenty years without once stopping to get a whiff of how funky you smell and how tacky you look? It's Super Tuesday and it's time to buy a new tee shirt (read: Obama, American Apparel). Stop wearing the same shitty clothes, America.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

French Readers, US Economy

The English-Language Le Monde Diplomatique sometimes disappoints, since it rarely covers French news. But reading it is always useful when you're interested in how the French media thinks about the rest of the world -- especially Asia, the rest of Europe, and of course the U.S.

Two articles hitting the web today do this particularly well, both on the current fiscal crisis in the U.S. (or rather, the fiscal crisis that is striking the U.S. first, sending other economies reeling in its wake). The first gives a matter-of-fact account of the origins of the crisis in the artificially-induced housing bubble, but adds a note of Spenglerian alarm by tracing the flow in the global currency and commodity markets:

All the ingredients for a crisis that will last for some time, the greatest crisis since the structure of the world economy has been based on globalisation.

The outcome depends on whether the Asian economies can take over from the US as the driving force. Another sign, perhaps, that the West is in decline and that the centre of the world economy is about to shift from the US to China. The crisis may mark the end of an era.

The second, penned by American Blowback author Chalmers Johnson, paints the American economy as an almost perfect political/monetary disaster. He even includes a phrase I hadn't heard before, "military Keynesianism": "the determination to maintain a permanent war economy and to treat military output as an ordinary economic product, even though it makes no contribution to either production or consumption."

Believe In Giants

McSweeney's/Shane Ryan gives us "FAMOUS AUTHORS PREDICT THE WINNER OF SUPER BOWL XLII." Others are more pitch-perfect in their pastiche, but none made me laugh like this entry.

Raymond Carver

I really admire what the Giants have done this season. It isn't often you see a team struggle early, eke out a series of road wins, and still manage to peak at the perfect moment. It's a rare occurrence, I'll say that much.

On the other side, you've got football's version of Goliath. Experts tell me the Patriots are the strongest team in NFL history. From the moment they beat the Colts, they've been earmarked as Super Bowl Champions. It's tough to pick against an undefeated record.

All that being said, I've been so impressed with Eli Manning's development these last four weeks that I'm willing to take the underdog. What can I say? I believe in the New York Giants.

Prediction: Giants 31, Patriots 28

Raymond Carver, edited by Gordon Lish

It isn't a thing you see often, I'll say that much.

They tell me this is Goliath.

I believe in Giants.

Prediction: G.

Full Stop

The Liquidity of Infinite Copies

Talk about good blogread. Starting from the premises that the internet itself functions by the iterated copying of data, and that the conditions of technology have advanced to reduce the price of copying to zero, Kevin Kelly has generated a kind of manifesto on emerging value structures in a world of costless copies -- not just of digital media in the traditional sense, but of things as wide ranging as media-attendant social forms to DNA.

The key, Kelly says is to look at "generative" values -- values that, again, may be attendant to a digital copy but cannot itself be copied, but by adding value to the consumer can be willingly bought. These generatives, Kelly thinks, can be broken down into eight virtues -- immediacy, personalization, interpretation, authenticity, accessibility, embodiment, patronage, and (the exceedingly awkward noun) "findability."

What's striking to me is that these virtues might be contradictory, and how that may not be a problem. Consider accessibility:

Ownership often sucks. You have to keep your things tidy, up-to-date, and in the case of digital material, backed up. And in this mobile world, you have to carry it along with you. Many people, me included, will be happy to have others tend our 'possessions' by subscribing to them. We'll pay Acme Digital Warehouse to serve us any musical tune in the world, when and where we want it, as well as any movie, photo (ours or other photographers). Ditto for books and blogs.  Acme backs everything up, pays the creators, and delivers us our desires. We can sip it from our phones, PDAs, laptops, big screens from where-ever. The fact that most of this material will be available free, if we want to tend it, back it up, keep adding to it, and organize it, will be less and less appealing as time goes on.

So, full rejection of the flawed materiality of things, embrace of life in the cloud, right? But consider embodiment:
At its core the digital copy is without a body. You can take a free copy of a work and throw it on a screen. But perhaps you'd like to see it in hi-res on a huge screen? Maybe in 3D? PDFs are fine, but sometimes it is delicious to have the same words printed on bright white cottony paper, bound in leather. Feels so good. What about dwelling in your favorite (free) game with 35 others in the same room? There is no end to greater embodiment. Sure, the hi-res of today -- which may draw ticket holders to a big theater -- may migrate to your home theater tomorrow, but there will always be new insanely great display technology that consumers won't have. Laser projection, holographic display, the holodeck itself! And nothing gets embodied as much as music in a live performance, with real bodies. The music is free; the bodily performance expensive. This formula is quickly becoming a common one for not only musicians, but even authors. The book is free; the bodily talk is expensive.

Clearly, there's no one way to add value, which makes these emerging values confusing for developers -- do customers want a richer, larger, more embodied experience (let's call this the Apple approach, shiny object + rich clients) or is accessibility/weightlessness the order of the day (in which case Google is the company most in tune with the zeitgeist)? Can you pursue both strategies at once, like the future Frankenstein monster that is Microahoo? Or do these particular value chains have their own logics?

Kelly seems less sure about the last claim. In particular, he's skeptical about the notion that advertising, which has emerged as the key revenue stream for digital objects (especially those given as "free") is necessarily the best or only answer. Other approaches are underway (e.g. Red Hat/Apache, which gives away its software free but charges for support) and more need to be tried. I'm not sure whether Kelly's got it all down, but he's definitely off to a good start, and it's nice to have a few more ideas both made more explicit and taken in slightly unexpected directions.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Boiling It Down

Like all of the NYT columnists, Gail Collins has been uneven, but I think she's been a good addition. Check out this bloggy point-blank shot to the voters' heads. :

I am an independent and looking for a president with integrity. Should I vote for John McCain or Barack Obama?

Didn’t we all swear to stop picking the candidate who would be most fun to go on a picnic with? You’re torn between the guy who’s been against the war from the beginning and the guy who’s willing to stay in Iraq for 100 years? Between the guy who wants to pay for a $50 billion-a-year health care program by eliminating tax cuts for the wealthy, and the guy who wants to keep the tax cuts and pay for them by cutting the budget? Get a grip.

Run With That Metaphor

Daniel Gross in Slate:

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, I realized I hadn't seen so much silver hair since the 5 p.m. early-bird special dinner at Le Rivage in Boca Raton, Fla. The presence of all these wizened professionals should have instilled a good deal of confidence. When you're trying to bring a massive tanker to port in stormy seas, the last thing you want to see is a 12-year-old steering the tugboat.

Yet in these turbulent times, Wall Street traders are behaving like toddlers. They're staging public tantrums, screaming and yelling and writhing on the floor until they get what they want. Since the markets began to buckle last summer, what traders want is interest-rate cuts and other government measures to bail out banks from reckless lending and disastrous investment decisions. In response, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has done what any exhausted parent does when a child screams for three hours straight: He gave in. In the past two weeks, the Fed cut interest rates sharply twice, taking the Federal Funds rate down from 4.25 percent to 3 percent.

Not bad, right? But Gross takes it to its logical conclusion, committing all the way. First, he interviews child psychologists on why giving in to toddlers is a bad idea. Then, he extends it. "Investment bankers—and the CEOs they report to—are the tweens of the system, plagued by attention-deficit disorder. As we speak, your typical Wall Street managing director is glancing at CNBC in his office, intermittently checking six computer screens, thumbing out e-mails on his BlackBerry, barking out orders to a personal assistant, all the while furiously working out on the elliptical machine." Davos, with its mix of economist brains, CEO jocks, and celebrity stars, is high school. And the U.S. Government? "[R]ather than force consumers, borrowers, and bankers to face the consequences of their own actions, Washington is functioning as a helicopter parent."

It takes wit to hit on a metaphor that's striking, knowledge to realize on one that's descriptive, wisdom to shape one that's prescriptive. But to run with it as far as you can go, without losing any of the virtues above, takes art and gusto. Well done, Mr. Gross. If you were in my freshman writing seminar, you'd get the gold star today.