Monday, May 31, 2010


I had put three months into the catalog essay for the MoMA show, reading about her performances and about her life. I had spent some time in Yugoslavia the 1970s teaching philosophical seminars as a Fulbright professor at the Inter-University Center of Postgraduate Studies in Dubrovnik. It was around then that Marina was doing her first performances in Belgrade. I recalled that, years before she was born, I had, as a young soldier in Italy, sailed one dark night to the Dalmatian coast with some partisans I had fallen in with, to bring some of their wounded comrades back to Bari for treatment. One’s experience of art draws on one’s total experience in life.

A C Danto on Marina Abramovic, ht Jenny Davidson

Friday, May 28, 2010

Expressing the problem using a population distribution rather than a probability distribution has an additional advantage: it forces us to be explicit about the data-generating process.

Consider the disease-test example. The key assumption is that everybody (or, equivalently, a random sample of people) are tested. Or, to put it another way, we're assuming that the 10% base rate applies to the population of people who get tested. If, for example, you get tested only if you think it's likely you have the disease, then the above simplified model won't work.

This condition is a bit hidden in the probability model, but it jumps out (at least, to me) in the "population distribution" formulation. The key phrases above: "Of the 10 with the disease . . . Of the 90 without the disease . . . " We're explicitly assuming that all 100 people will get tested.

Andrew Gelman
on assumptions underlying calculations of conditional probability.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

if that isn't aura it'll have to do

Olav Velthuis’s Talking Prices, in contrast to the reductive analyses of Thompson and Galenson, is an extremely wide-ranging and subtle guide to the way in which value is formed in contemporary art. It is superb at teasing out the intricate social and spiritual exigencies of the art-world: as Velthuis puts it at the outset: "we need to go beyond conventional understandings of markets." He records dealers’ apparent lack of interest in prices, their emphasis on being perceived as "really pure," their hostility to the mercantile auction resale process and their (no less than the artists’) orientation to history. He considers the protestant taboos on ostentation, the rituals of market exchange and the inextricable entanglement of market and culture. He stresses the importance to a contemporary art-seller of a "mastery of critical discourse." He writes of the "consecration" of artworks by the establishment (surely a more fertile and precise epithet than "branding") and contrasts the "sacred" space of the gallery to the "profane space" of the back-room where deals are cut. And he comes to the conclusion, paradoxical but in my view correct, that the rituals of the market are not camouflage or a come-on, they are of the essence; and that prices themselves are "cultural entities," that is to say, they have what Velthuis terms "symbolic meanings."

What we have is "an economy of symbolic goods" (a phrase which Velthuis takes from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) in which it is not artists (or branding, or innovation) that determine prices, but rather prices that are a ranking device for artists. In passing, he makes the important comment that "buyers value artworks according to the "proximity" to their creator." In general, handmade works are more highly prized than mechanically produced multiples, for example.

Matthew Bown on Walking Man I &c

Glenda the Good v. Wicked Witch of the West

By some estimates, about 40 percent of the cases in the Central African court system are witchcraft prosecutions. (Drug offenses in the U.S., by contrast, account for just 12 percent of arrests.) In Mbaiki—where Pygmies, who are known for bewitching each other, make up about a tenth of the population—witchcraft prosecutions exceed 50 percent of the case load, meaning that most alleged criminals there are suspected of doing things that Westerners generally regard as impossible.
Graeme Wood on hexlaw

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


British high-end chocolate maker and retailer Hotel Chocolat, which currently operates over 40 stores in the UK, the Middle East and the US, wants to expand even further. But rather than turning to banks or big investors for money, they're inviting customer to buy bonds. Bonds that will pay chocolate returns.

Two values of Chocolate Bond will be issued: both with the return paid in monthly Tasting Boxes. Holders of a GBP 2,000 Chocolate Bond will receive six free tasting boxes a year worth GBP 107.70 per year, and those holding a GBP 4,000 bond will receive thirteen boxes, worth GBP 233.35 per year. Which comes down to a 5.38% return. After an initial term of three years, and on every anniversary thereafter, bond holders can redeem their bond for a full return of their investment. If they decide to continue to hold the bond, the monthly boxes will keep on coming.

HT Marginal Revolution, HT Eric John Barker, but not turtles all the way down, original story here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

At the beck and call of my consciousness are two or three little words: i vot ['and here'], uzhé ['already'], vdrug ['suddenly']; they rush around on the half-lit Sevastopol train from car to car, lingering on the buffer areas [platforms between cars?], where two thundering frying pans rush at each other and crawl apart.

Mandelstam's Egipetskaya marka at Languagehat

Sunday, May 23, 2010

‘Many, too many of us, children of the Jewish intelligentsia, are madly, shamefully in love with Russian culture,’ the Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky lamented in 1903. Paradoxically, their eager embrace of ‘the Pushkin faith’ (as Slezkine calls it) made Jewish intellectuals co-creators of the icons of cultural nationalism that emerged in most Central and East European states and would-be states at the turn of the century: it wasn’t a matter just of Pushkin in Russia but of Goethe and Schiller in Germany, Petöfi in Hungary, and Mickiewicz in Polish lands.
Sheila Fitzpatrick on The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine, LRB 17-03-05
It is not the actual emotion itself that is unsettling to Flaubert, but the temptation to be dragged down by it and the sickly need to exhibit it to others.
Marina van Zuylen, Monomania: The Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art, ht Jenny Davidson

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Their world was very firmly divided between Jews and goyim. If there was a plane crash and fifty people were killed, my Aunt Rose, the most conservative voice in my family, would scan the newspaper list of victims for Jewish names and exclaim: ‘What an unglick; six Jews died.’


why then did they let Yiddish, the beating heart of that culture, go? It is possible that the answer lies in the Holocaust. If the Germans and their friends had not so successfully exterminated the Yiddish-speaking populations of Eastern Europe, then those communities might have continued to be a vital cultural force to this day, producing exciting music, theatre, literature and art. This cultural dynamism, the argument would continue, might have drawn the American-born children and grandchildren of immigrants back into their orbit. The problem is that there has been no comparable drawing power among groups whose European populations were not sent to the gas chambers. That is, the descendents of Swedish, Italian, French, Russian, German, Greek, Polish, Korean, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, all present in huge numbers in the United States, also fairly quickly lost their languages. (The only great exceptions here are the immigrants from Latin America, who have tenaciously clung to Spanish, though at a high economic cost, and have succeeded in making it the country’s all but official second language.) There was, in other words, nothing particularly unique about the pattern of culture loss and assimilation in Eastern European Jewish families; the erosion of primordial loyalty in two to three generations has been more or less typical of most immigrant groups to the United States.


In assimilating to the culture of the New World, immigrants like my grandparents did not submit to the traditional rituals and stories of another, dominant group: no one made them set foot in a church, bow down to graven images, recite the mythic creation stories of alien peoples, erect a Christmas tree in their living room or eat tref. But the material world in which they participated was a national culture whose immense transforming power over their lives derived precisely from its refusal of the local and the particular. This refusal was, of course, hugely to the advantage of the new arrivals, because in effect it made everyone an immigrant


From the perspective of the United States, it sometimes seems as if life in the old country remained fixed in its customs, only coming to an end in the catastrophe of the Final Solution, but I know that this stillness, this existence somehow outside history, is an illusion. Yet I am confident that, whatever changes might have occurred in their lives in the 1920s and 1930s, one thing would not have happened: my grandparents would never have thought of themselves or their children as Lithuanians or Poles, in the way that they came to think of themselves and their children as Americans.


My English professor, seeing the intensity of my engagement in the class, asked me if I would be interested in assisting him with a book he was completing. I accepted at once and made an appointment at the financial aids office, where these student positions were funded. I assumed that the appointment would be routine – a matter of filling out a form – but a minute into the conversation, just after I explained why I was there, the official, Mr Spaulding, looked up at me and said: ‘Greenblatt, that’s a Jewish name, isn’t it?’ Yes, I replied.

‘Frankly,’ he continued, ‘we’re sick and tired at the number of Jews who are coming into our office trying to wheedle money out of Yale University.’

[Never too clear on these things, but pretty sure I am pushing the boundaries and quoting TOO MUCH. This piece isn't behind a paywall, but it is the kind of piece that makes me subscribe to the LRB so I can login ad lib. Would I be happier traversing North America, persuading small town diners and coffee shops and what have you to stock the LRB, rather than fruitlessly shadowboxing the publishing biz? Probably.]

[Funnily. Until I met my ex, David, at Oxford, I didn't realise there were Jewish names. I just thought Cohen was a common name. Seriously.]

Stephen Greenblatt, LRB 21-09-00
The question then arises: what does consciousness add to what unconsciousness can achieve? To put it another way, what mental processes are there that can be performed only because the mind is conscious, and what does consciousness contribute to their performance? Nobody has an answer to this question for any mental process whatever. As far as anybody knows, anything that our conscious minds do they could do just as well if they weren’t conscious.
Jerry Fodor on Dan Lloyd's Radiant Cool, LRB 04-03-04
‘We all reach a time when the god Hercules leaves us.’

Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, reviewed by Frank Kermode, LRB 22-02-01

I don’t think that living through an artificial self, which is what had got me into such an awful mess, is all that uncommon. The condition is difficult to recognise because it is concealed from the world, and from the subject, with ruthless ingenuity. It does not feature in the standard catalogue of neurotic symptoms such as hysteria, obsession, phobia, depression or impotence; and it is not inconsistent with worldly success or the formation of deep and lasting friendships. The disjointed components of the artificial self are not individually artificial.Link

What is it like to live in a state of dissociation? In a real sense, the subject is never corporeally present at all but goes about the world in a waking dream.
Wynne Godley, LRB 22-02-01

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Serialism itself was, for me and for my generation, very helpful because it gave a very strict discipline; and then after that, one can go everywhere. I suppose that' s exactly like, in the classical language, writing very strict counterpoint. It offers very strict constraints; it forces you to find a solution where you think there is no solution. After you have done that, you have a flexibility and a richness of invention which you could not have learned anywhere else.

AC: Michel Foucault once attributed what he called his &quotfirst great cultural jolt" to French serialism, and especially to you and Barraqué. Did you and Foucault influence each other?

I met Foucault very early, as a matter of fact, in 1951; but for a while I did not see him, because I was out of France. And he was out of France, also. Then, when we met again, that was very late in life--I mean, not terribly late, but it was not until I came back to France, especially in 1976, that I saw him quite frequently. But I knew his books, certainly. I think we are of the same generation. Therefore the way of thinking was very close, even without speaking about it. This kind of proximity of thinking, of looking at things, does not necessarily imply that thinkers are speaking together every day. When you compare us... For instance, look at the trajectory of Webern and the trajectory of Mondrian: here are two people who never saw each other, who never spoke to each other, who were completely ignorant of the other' s work. But you can see a very, very strong parallelism between the two trajectories. And I think that with Foucault the case is similar. At a certain time we met, and then for a certain period we did not meet at all; we were informed about each other, but that was all. Afterwards, when real meetings took place much more often, there was finally the opportunity of talking to each other.

Boulez interviewed in 1993 by Andrew Carvin and Joshua Cody, Paris Transatlantic

[An aversion to wholesale theft prevents me from quoting Boulez on composition with computers, Boulez on film, Boulez on Ligeti, Boulez on opera, Boulez on postmodernism and more ]

[And, on the other side, there is an interview of Betsy Jolas, who comments:

No, I don't think there is much innovation going on there anymore. It seems that it has become bogged down with a very intricate bureaucracy. And it is just stuck. The idea was that the technology would serve as a seamless conduit for the composers to produce beautiful art, but it's not happening.

What I think is that the whole thing turned around the personality of Pierre Boulez. He's no longer the center of it, and the man who has taken that in charge is not a composer... What happened really, let us be very frank, is that IRCAM was built around his personality. It is very strange- well it is very clever to have done that. "Je tire mon chapeau" [Hats off] as they say, to his achievement: to be able to organize an institution to serve his own interests, and his own problems, too. This has nothing to do with my admiration for Pierre Boulez, whom I think is a great man, I really do. I just think he has problems, that's all. But he is a very important musician. I have to admire somebody who can raise (this is what my husband used to say) who can raise his problems to the height of an institution.

Well he did good stuff too, it worked well for France in that it also raised interest in contemporary music...

In a small fringe, and it put that fringe in the forefront, though it was very controlled. It's very strange; I have to admire him, because generations of composers flock around him - still, still. We flocked around him, and then comes another generation, and then another, and they're still doing it! As for me, I have a very strange and warm relationship with him when I can see him away from "la cour." [the court] I believe he's a great composer. At least he was. I don't really know if he still is. Sometimes I wonder if he is truly composing today. His talent, his genius, was so extraordinarily precocious.


It's a very strange thing, he's probably the musician who best understood Debussy; nobody has spoken about Debussy as well as he has. He was the first one to really understand Debussy, and nobody conducts Debussy the way he does. But I believe deeply inside, he thinks Debussy is no way to go. Whereas I think its a way to go that has not been explored. That's where we differ. Totally! I think this is where I want to go, and I think at this point that I can do it. We've talked about that. It's hard to talk to him, but we've talked about that. It's hard to find a time when he's not surrounded by people. We used to find those times easily, but now it's very difficult. Deep inside he still has this very incredible sensitivity, which I respect in him. He's a great musician and a great French musician. There are not really so many of those.

-- Also from 1993. If the Internet had been then what it is today, I would no doubt have read it at time of publication. Of all sad words of tongue or pen.]

Wednesday, May 19, 2010


The New Republic posts a CV from Adam Wheeler, who had bluffed his way into Harvard and now wanted an internship with TNR. TNR is scornful because Wheeler claims to speak French, Old English, Classical Armenian and Old Persian.

Er, the CV doesn't actually say this. What it says is:


French | Old English | Classical Armenian | Old Persian

I have no idea whether Wheeler actually had any kind of knowledge of the languages in question - he may have picked at least a couple where his knowledge was unlikely to be challenged by someone who actually did know them. To tell the truth, though, I frequently include Ancient Greek and Latin under languages on my CV; it has never occurred to me that this implied a claim to speak either.

Der Klempner

For a week or so there has been a blocked drain in the flat I'm subletting. Whenever I ran the washing machine water came up through the kitchen sink, which had to be bailed out to avoid overflow. This was stressful, because getting it fixed required either getting the landlord to take action or getting a plumber, either of which required getting a mobile phone. (The horror.) This, in turn, involved making a decision among one of the many seductive plans on offer, most of which require a 24-month commitment. I hate that kind of decision, so I kept putting it off.

Yesterday I went over to Saturn, a five-storey electronics store in Kurfurstendamm, to look at cellphones. (The horror.) I would wander among displays of cellphones, make a bolt for the street, force myself back into the store, leave, force myself back. (I really don't want a cellphone.) Finally I told myself: Look. Just GET a PHONE. So I bought a Samsung for €19.99 ohne Vertrag (w/o contract), bought a SIM card on prepaid plan at Edeka, got the thing going.

Wrote to the guy I'm subletting from, who is now in Istanbul and seemed unhappy with developments: said his landlord was largely unavailable except when he wanted to raise the rent. Looked around online for local plumbers (it was now well into evening), sent off an e-mail, woke up this morning, found a new message on the phone, tried to call back. The person at the other end kept saying: Hallo? Hallo? Hallo? Ich höre dich nicht. (I can't hear you. (As I say, I hate cellphones.)

Consulted the manual, which was unhelpful. Procrastinated. Forced myself, after an hour or two, to call again. The person at the other end was able to hear! We conversed. She agreed to send a plumber between 2 and 3. At 2pm I got a call from the plumber, who had been unable to find my name on the door. (Forgot to mention.) I let him in. And now--

Now the problem was in the hands of the kind of person who makes domestic problems in Germany an unexpected source of joy. Someone who was unbelievably good at his job. Der Klempner went into the kitchen, made sardonic comments at the expense of Ikea (the under-counter fridge was nearly impossible to extract, attempts to unplug were foiled by the position of the outlet behind the washing machine), manhandled the fridge into the room, made further sardonic comments on the coupling of sink pipe and main pipe, separated pipes, fed cable from rotorooter (generic term?) into a pipe, separated pipe at wall into bathroom, fed 10 metres of cable through the wall... Checked, with an attention to detail rare in my professional life, on drainage of sink with tap going; with full basin; when both kitchen and bathroom sink were full; when washing machine went through a cycle... Perfekt. Perfekt. Perfekt. Perfekt. And was funny and charming throughout.

All done in an hour and a half. All this for 80 euros. Nicht zu fassen.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

If you could create a punctuation mark, what would its function be and what would it look like?

That's from Hudson Collins, loyal MR reader. I've always liked the chess marks "!?" and "?!" and wondered why they weren't used in standard English. The former refers to a startling move which is uncertain in merit and the latter refers to a dubious move which creates difficult to handle complications.

Yes! Yes!

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution
Arte dello squallore, arte parassita, della mortificazione. Superficie della desolazione, superficie ottusa.
Un’arte repulsiva che non rappresenta niente. Arte repressa, come i paesi dove non c’è arte. Arte che toglie, arte che schiaccia, arte livida, arte squallida, uno squallore che è solo dell’arte. Squallore delle cose senz’arte, arte che asporta, arte che rende duro l’occhio e il pensiero.
Un’arte immobile, vischiosa, sfiancata.
Grigiume, nerume che va nel giallume.
Massa di idee tritate, di oggetti triturati, di significati maciullati, macerati, ammollati e compressi.
from Michelangelo Pistoletto's Poetica dura (drawn to my attention by Mithridates in an email)

damn lies and good graphs

maybe they're right that crappy chartjunk graphs are better than crappy non-chartjunk graphs. But I don't think it's appropriate to generalize to the claim that chartjunk graphs are better than good graphs.

Is chartjunk undeservedly maligned? Possibly, said a recent post on Infosthetics. Andrew Gelman offers the critique I wish I'd written (instead of, shame, shame, frivolously linking without comment). The rest here.
My next book, La Réticence (1991), was written entirely in response to Camera. Critics had talked a lot about how light and virtuoso Camera was; I wanted to move away from such virtuosity, I wanted to break it apart. La Réticence is a difficult, demanding, tough book, it’s harsh and sometimes unpolished. I wrote this book trying to keep in mind a secret guideline, a Beckettian one, the one that says: “badly seen, badly expressed,” and I tried to fail to see things and to fail to say them (and I succeeded in doing so, I must say, if the reaction of the media and readers is any indication).

Jean-Philippe Toussaint, interview, originally published in the 2nd edition of Caméra, Editions de Minuit, now translated at the Dalkey Archive (ht woods lot)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Think about it. One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks. It might be that a reporter, seeing every game that the team plays, could sense that difference over the course of the year if no records were kept, but I doubt it. Certainly the average fan, seeing perhaps a tenth of the team's games, could never gauge two performances that accurately -- in fact if you see both 15 games a year, there is a 40% chance that the .275 hitter will have more hits than the .300 hitter in the games that you see. The difference between a good hitter and an average hitter is simply not visible -- it is a matter of record.

But the hitter is the center of attention. We notice what he does, bend over the scorecard with his name in mind. If he hits a smash down the third base line and the third baseman makes a diving stop and throws the runner out, then we notice and applaud the third baseman. But until the smash is hit, who is watching the third baseman? If he anticipates, if he adjusts for the hitter and moves over just two steps, then the same smash is a routine backhand stop -- and nobody applauds.


So if we can't tell who the good fielders are accurately from the record books, and we can't tell accurately from watching, how can we tell?

Bill James, 1977 Baseball Abstract, quoted in Michael Lewis, Moneyball
Camus : il a souvent éprouvé une sorte de malaise, parfois de l'impatience, à se voir immobilisé par ses livres; non seulement à cause de l'éclat de leur succès, mais par le caractère d'achèvement qu'il travaillait à leur donner et contre lequel il se retournait, dès qu'au nom de cette perfection l'on prétendait le juger prématurément accompli. Puis, au jour de sa mort, la brusque, la décisive immobilité : elle a cessé alors de le menacer.

Maurice BLANCHOT, "Le détour vers la simplicité" (extrait), L'Amitié, Gallimard, 1971

Eric Hoppenot

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More than half a century after the Civil War, the most famous night club in New York was a mock plantation. The bandstand was done up as a white-columned mansion, the backdrop painted with cotton bushes and slave quarters. And the racial fantasy extended well beyond décor: whites who came to Harlem to be entertained were not to be discomfited by the presence of non-entertaining Negroes. All the performers were black—or, in the case of the chorus girls, café au lait—and all the patrons white, if not by force of law then by force of the thugs at the door. Ellington had to ask permission for friends to see his show.

Claudia Ruth Pierpoint on Duke Ellington, at the New Yorker


"Eigensinn is a word that doesn't translate very well into English," Enzensberger explains while finishing off a third cup of coffee in his flat overlooking Munich's English Gardens. "It's not selfishness. It's not obstinacy. It's not intransigence. You might say it's a sense of having your own value system. That's a quality that I find very interesting, because it's almost beyond a person's control.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger talks to Phillip Ottermann about Hammerstein, oder der Eigensinn (tr. as The Silences of Hammerstein)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Samurai update

As part of an extra-credit project, Ivan Jaffe has persuaded Potbelly Sandwiches, Chicago to put The Last Samurai on display. So thanks, Ivan, for being so enterprising, and thanks, Potbelly Sandwiches, for being so helpful.

Potbelly is at 1459 W. Taylor Street, a couple of blocks from the University of Chicago; Chicago readers who don't need the book but do need a sandwich could stop by.

HarperCollins has very kindly made special arrangements to facilitate orders from readers who would like to get the book stocked in non-bookselling outlets. Stanley Zigmont of Special Liaisons has agreed to take credit card orders; he can be reached at 1-800-233-4725 ext. 1433 or 1-570-941-1433 or at

(For those unfamiliar with the book: The Last Samurai has no connection with the homonymous film starring Tom Cruise. It is the story of a single mother who uses Kurosawa's Seven Samurai to provide male role models for her fatherless boy.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

fighting words

Yep, it has been scientifically proven: the accuracy of people in describing charts with 'chart junk' is no worse than for plain charts, and the recall after a 2-3 week gap was actually significantly better. In addition, people overwhelmingly preferred 'chart junk' diagrams for reading and remembering over plain charts. In all, the researchers conclude that if memorability is important, elaborate visual imagery has the potential to help fix a chart in a viewer's memory.


Update: On Statistical Modeling and Causal Inference, Andrew Gelman draws attention to a couple of serious flaws with the argument: the plain graphs compared to the chartjunk graphs just aren't very good; chartjunk severely limits the amount of information that can be included in a graph. The whole thing here.

fried ants revisited

Justin Fox sums up the overwhelming majority of economics papers in one sentence:

The basic form of an academic economics paper is a couple of comprehensible paragraphs at the beginning and a couple of comprehensible paragraphs at the end, with a bunch of really-hard-to-follow math or statistical analysis in the middle.

What he doesn’t (need to) mention is the way that journalists, myself included, read economics papers: we generally have no ability or inclination to try to understand the details of the formulae and regression analyses, so we confine ourselves to reading the stuff in English, and work on the general assumption that the mathematics is reasonably solid.


I worry about this. The blogosphere is full of interesting debates between people who understand and respond to what everybody else is saying. But the minute that economic papers get cited, the degree of understanding plunges, and most bloggers and journalists are cowed by all those equations into simply assuming that it all stands up somehow.

Felix Salmon, Economics without mathematics

Calling Torvill and Dean

Electronically Read Editions: The right to publish the text of published print editions of the Property via the Internet and in the form of CD-ROM, DVD, videocassette tape or similar electronically read devices individually purchased by the end-user. Such electronically read editions may not contain moving visual images (other than the text) or audio tracks of any kind.

Look at that last sentence. Here it’s clearly stated in the film contract that the ebook cannot have any animation or sound element.

Well, guess what publishers would like to have with an enhanced ebook? Yep. We’ve got a problem, Houston. If publishers dig in on this and this is the studio’s stance, well, granting a publisher a not-clearly-defined enhanced ebook right (which is multimedia) could derail a film deal.

Kristin Nelson talks about problems with enhanced e-books on Pubrants.

As a writer I think this is a bit much.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the vast majority of books don't get film deals; of the handful that do get optioned, most don't get made into films.

One of the great things about e-books is that there's the chance of offering something like a DVD: in addition to the published book, all sorts of ancillary material can be included. All authors could benefit from this. It's silly for all authors to be denied the chance to pursue this to respect the sensibilities of the movie industry.

People in the movie industry love to tie up every right known to man. Stuffed toy rights. Ice show rights. Theme restaurant rights. (Those of you familiar with The Last Samurai may not have spotted the potential in the book for an ice show; well, a visionary lawyer at William Morris saw further than you. The man stood his ground: under no circumstances could Helen DeWitt be deprived of this lucrative source of income.) Whether publishers should be granted enhanced e-book rights I don't know. But they should not be allowed to affect movie deals. If push comes to shove, I'd rather appease the movie people with the stuffed toy, ice show and theme restaurant rights.

A: 42

Some of us sat downstairs in Islington with Douglas Adams’s editor, the saintly and incomparable Sue Freestone, typing out chapter after chapter of Mostly Harmless and sending it upstairs via email to where Douglas sat. There would be a from his computer, followed by cries of rage and alarm and “But that’s not what bloody happens,” followed by furious adversarial typing until Douglas had dismantled and reassembled it into something he liked—or, to be accurate, hated marginally less—at which point a glum silence would fall until some of us started typing again at our end to get ready for the next and gorilla noises from upstairs.

What really perplexes some of us is that the only way Adams could be persuaded to write Mostly Harmless at all was if it could be guaranteed that he could never, ever be called upon to write another Hitchhiker book ever again, not ever. He had had enough. So some of us—let me be straight with you; what I actually mean is “I”—sat down and worked out a plot which ended in the destruction of not only this Earth but of all possible Earths, as well as all possible Zaphods, Ford Prefects, Trillians and anyone else whom Douglas hadn’t mopped up in his previous search-and-destroy forays into the Hitchhiker diegesis. It wasn’t a good plot. It was unnecessarily complicated. The dénouement rested on a bad pun. But the idea was to make any further sequel impossible. And then, just to make sure, Douglas died.

Michael Bywater (some time last year) on Hitchhiker's Guide V

Gordon Lish in the House of Bayes

Andrew Gelman gives a statistician's take on the Lish method:

In any case, in the grand tradition of reviewing the review, I have some thoughts inspired by DeWitt, who quotes from this interview:

LRS: I was studying writing at college and then this professor showed up, a disciple of Gordon Lish, and we operated according to the Lish method. You start reading your work and then as soon as you hit a false note she made you stop.

Lipsyte: Yeah, Lish would say, "That's bullshit!"

If they did this for statistics articles, I think they'd rarely get past the abstract, most of the time. The methods are so poorly motivated. You're doing a so-called "exact test" because . . . why? And that "uniformly most powerful test" is a good idea because . . . why again? Because "power" is good? And that "Bayes factor"? Etc.

The rest here.

oh to be in London


We’re very pleased to announce that the writer and activist Tariq Ali is coming to the saveMDXphil occupation this Saturday 15 May, 3:30pm, to speak on the struggle against neoliberalism in higher education. Tariq Ali is an editor of the New Left Review and was a leading light of the 1968 radical student movement.

Londoners: details here.

to the tune of My Country 'Tis of Thee...

‘We are all here for a citizenship ceremony this afternoon, is that correct?’ the council registrar asked. A general mutterLink of assent. ‘This is a formal occasion so no jeans, no trainers. If you need to go home and change, you can do that now.’ No one had mentioned a dress code. Naturalisation is an arduous process that requires masses of documentation, costs hundreds or even thousands of pounds in legal and Home Office fees, and typically takes years: it seemed a bit tough suddenly to throw up this last hurdle. Fortunately the only inappropriately dressed person was me.

Hugh Miles at the LRB blog.

A bit taken aback. I'm a naturalised British citizen. This did take a long time and a certain amount of interaction with British bureaucracy. But - hundreds or even thousands of pounds? Blimey. At some point it did involve turning up at Lunar House, Croydon at 5am or so to queue to get a ticket to present documentation to someone or other round about 9. Months then went by. At some point I got a letter approving my application, subject to pledge of allegiance in the presence of an appropriate person. If I remember correctly, I'd gone to Oxford to go through the Japanese in my book with a couple of experts, walked into a solicitor's office, got the solicitor to see me through the drill and certify, sent off the papers. I'm not saying it wasn't an ungodly hassle, but

Not to be unkind, I tend to look askance at the people who tell you they'll facilitate this kind of thing. There are plenty of immigration experts who claim to facilitate for a fee. They may do so. For all I know, if you hire the right people, you can skip the 5am queue at Croydon. In my experience, though, at least, it's pretty straighforward to see whether you have right of residence and have been resident for the relevant length of time, get the relevant forms and send them in. You do have to pay a fee. The solicitor also charged some sort of fee (under £50, as far as I can remember). It's really a lot easier than becoming a US citizen: this requires you to prepare for an exam, one most people born in the country couldn't pass to save their life.

[PS A commenter points out that rules have changed, it is now necessary to pass an exam and also to pay a fee of £735. So I'm obviously completely out of touch. ]

the trick of it

Suppose we have 100 mortgages that pay $1 or $0. The probability of default is 0.05. We pool the mortgages and then prioritize them into tranches such that tranche 1 pays out $1 if no mortgage defaults and $0 otherwise, tranche 2 pays out $1 if 1 or fewer mortgages defaults, $0 otherwise. Tranche 10 then pays out $1 if 9 or fewer mortgages default and $0 otherwise. Tranche 10 has a probability of defaulting of 2.82 percent. A fortiori tranches 11 and higher all have lower probabilities of defaulting. Thus, we have transformed 100 securities each with a default of 5% into 9 with probabilities of default greater than 5% and 91 with probabilities of default less than 5%.

Now let's try this trick again. Suppose we take 100 of these type-10 tranches and suppose we now pool and prioritize these into tranches creating 100 new securities. Now tranche 10 of what is in effect a CDO will have a probability of default of just 0.05 percent, i.e. p=.000543895 to be exact. We have now created some "super safe," securities which can be very profitable if there are a lot of investors demanding triple AAA.

Alex Tabarrok on MR reviews Robert Pozen's Too Big to Save?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

the ask

While in Boston I read Sam Lipsyte's new book, The Ask.

A witty paean to white-collar loserdom in the fund-raising racket, “The Ask” describes a crisis in the life of one Milo Burke, a deeply cynical academic development officer, earnest binger on doughnuts, avid consumer of Internet porn, and devoted father and husband. Detailing the meltdown of Milo’s career and marriage, “The Ask” takes place in an exhausted and passive institutional workplace — the kind of futile office space we know from such cinematic offerings as, well, “Office Space.” Milo’s job, raising money for a university he nicknames “Mediocre,” embodies the futility, waste and presenteeism of late capitalism’s corporate wasteland.

Lydia Millet, NY Times Book Review

Reviews have focused on the black comedy of the book (I pass over this, not because the book isn't funny, but because it seems unnecessary duplication of effort); somewhat oddly, no one has drawn attention to the profound irony of the work.

The humour of the book depends in part on the gap between the narrator's youthful pretensions to artistic ambition and subsequent career: he has been forced to a painful recognition of the inadequacy of the talent for which he once expected great things. He has now been put to the task of raising funds for the support of artists even less talented than his younger self. This is, in other words, not a particularly unbearable world: some talentless people get financial support, some less than spectacularly talented people struggle to get by. It's not a world where Vincents go missing for want of a Theo.

The narrator is, like Lipsyte, a member of Generation X, a slacker who stumbled into middle age. It seems he had a taste for the artist's lifestyle and mistook this for genius. Accounts of his artistic practice as a young man give no reason to think he was ever serious about the work. (Contrast, for example, Peter Carey's narrator in Theft.) Which is to say that the narrator is, in one absolutely crucial respect, nothing remotely like Sam Lipsyte.

The narrator was given to plastering random bits of stuff to a canvas and expecting the world to hail it as genius. We have no reason to think that if we had examples before our eyes we'd be much impressed. But, um, we do, of course, have examples of Lipsyte's work before our eyes, sentence after sentence after carefully crafted sentence. Far from being the complete tosser he has offered as a character for comic effect, Lipsyte has taken to heart the precept of Gordon Lish (with whom he once studied):


LRS: Were you a student of Gordon Lish?

Lipsyte: Yes, I studied with him. He published a couple of stories of mine in The Quarterly, after many rejections. They had that great form letter when they rejected you—it was about five hundred words long.

LRS: I was studying writing at college and then this professor showed up, a disciple of Gordon Lish, and we operated according to the Lish method. You start reading your work and then as soon as you hit a false note she made you stop.

Lipsyte: Yeah, Lish would say, "That's bullshit!"

LRS: That process completely derailed me. Took me years to recover my voice. But for you it actually seemed to have some kind of benefit.

Lipsyte: I think the process for me was to unlearn a lot of the sloppy habits I had. I learned a lot of new stuff from Lish. I struggled for a long time, but what you find out at the end is that there's no "method," it's just a way to get to your own thing.

in conversation with Gerald Howard (at the Daily Beast):

Eventually Sam had a couple of stories published in The Quarterly, and in 1995 he joined Lish’s famed pressure cooker writing class. It was a tough time for him financially and emotionally, as he had to nurse his dying mother, and the class became a transfiguring experience. “I had no real writer’s ego. It had been a long time since I’d shaken William Bennett’s enormous hand, and so I felt ready to, you know, just listen for a while. It was the most formative experience. The final lesson was that you’d have to go become the writer you’re going to become. If you get stuck following somebody else’s rules, you’re in trouble.”

I make the observation that Lish’s influence can been seen in Sam’s obvious concentration on the crafting of his sentences and his single-minded focus on style, a quality less prevalent in the work of younger American writers than it should be. (Savor the perfectly pitched ear required to turn a simple phrase like “a dumpling, some knurled pouch of gristle.”) Sam replies that “Gordon said many things that I will never forget, but the one thing that I always think about is that he said once, ‘There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part.’ And so I think that when people are writing their novels they are just thinking about the story, about what has to happen so their character can get to Cleveland. And they are just typing; they don’t care about the sentences. And what are we here for if not the sentences.”

Now, this is not quite the way I'd look at it. Suppose we take two chessplayers, A and B. A insists on a beautiful board, handsomely carved ivory chessmen. B uses plastic pieces. I would say this tells you nothing about which is the better player - and that the aesthetic qualities of board and pieces are irrelevant to everything that is actually interesting about chess. Suppose you see four people playing cards. Are they engaged in an activity of any interest? One thing you could do is get a closer look at the cards: are these handpainted masterpieces, a pack commissioned, say, by a Duke of Marlborough? Another thing you could do is find out what game they're playing. Are they playing Old Maid? Black Maria? Poker? Whist? Bridge? If poker, are they playing Draw? 7-card stud? Omaha? Texas Hold 'em? What are the stakes? How good are the players? If whist, are they playing a casual game or following the principle of scientific whist? If bridge, are these serious players? Which bidding system(s) do they use? Which conventions? No one who actually understands the intellectual interest of such games would care whether the game was played with a pack of cards from the drugstore. Kant is a great philosopher, but unlikely to score points on his prose style.

So it's not that I wholeheartedly agree with the position of Lish and Lipsyte - but a man who holds this position and so takes infinite pains over his sentences, as Lipsyte does, can hardly be written off, like Lipsyte's narrator, as a disappointed poseur.

This is not, of course, to say that the narrator doesn't work as a character; his self-deceptions are crucial to the humour of the book. It's to say that book's quality places Lipsyte's own struggles to make a living in quite a different light from those of the luckless narrator.

Lipsyte teaches in the MFA programme at Columbia. He frequently comments in interviews that he had not realised as an undergraduate, but later came to accept, that a writer cannot expect to make a living from writing. His experience certainly bears this out. Lipsyte's second book, Homecoming, was initially unable to find a publisher - despite the fact that Howard badly wanted to publish it. Howard (for readers who don't keep track of these things) is an editor of exceptional distinction: a passionate admirer of Pynchon, a visionary editor who published David Foster Wallace's first novel and book of stories, DeLillo's Libra. It is, needless to say, pretty amazing if a young writer manages to win his respect. But Howard was unable to get the book approved by sales and marketing (sales of Lipsyte's first book had been disappointing), and so it went the rounds, and was ultimately, after looooooooong delays, published by Lorin Stein of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Meanwhile Lipsyte, as I say, was teaching.

What this means, of course, is that we have no way of knowing what Lipsyte is capable of achieving. David Foster Wallace took three years to write Infinite Jest; an advance bought him the time, that is it bought the time of a single man with no dependents. Lipsyte writes solidly for three months a year. The Ask shows what he can do within these constraints. It's an artifact, in other words, in a blacker world than the one it portrays.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Andrew Gelman on religious affiliation of Supreme Court justices. With graphs.

Monday, May 10, 2010

books overfurnish a room

New Yorkers.

Jenny Davidson is trying to get rid of books. Would happily give them to anyone willing to pick up (she's up by Columbia). If you're interested, get in touch.

books overfurnish a room

New Yorkers.

Jenny Davidson is trying to get rid of books. Would happily give them to anyone willing to pick up (she's up by Columbia). If you're interested, get in touch.

strawberries & pims

When I was at Oxford, a very long time ago, I took out a life membership to the Oxford Union for something like £70. This would have worked out as a terrific bargain by now if I spent more time in Oxford - once you take your degree(s) you're no longer entitled to go back to your old college(s) and hang out in the Common Room(s) to which you once belonged, and the Union is centrally located. As it happens, I normally go back only to see Best Dentist in the World. As an undergraduate and graduate student I had very little interest in the Union and its doings; many prime ministers got started on their careers as Union hacks, but this did not hold much appeal.

Toward the end of one Hilary Term, though, I went to a debate. This was a debate, I think, to determine who should be president of the Union the following term - at any rate, this is the subject the speakers addressed. There was one I don't remember. Then another speaker whose first name, I think, was Andrew.

Andrew, if it was Andrew, had been Treasurer, and he had tackled the ugly problem of the Union's finances. The Union was in a 19th-century building with serious structural problems; it looked like a down-at-heels gentlemen's club ca. 1898, and so had trouble attracting new members (apart from the handful who knew they wanted to be hacks); it had many, many other problems which the keen Treasurer explained at some length but which I no longer remember. He had addressed these problems by undertaking a massive fundraising campaign, writing to former members, appealing for major donations, raising something in the order of a million pounds or so, putting the Union on a solid financial foundation. He was extremely proud of this and had a great deal to say about it.

In setting this out, however, he committed an unforgivable sin: he spoke from notes. Or rather, it seemed, at times, he simply read out what he had to say. Rather than standing up and giving a speech (the sort of thing David Cameron does so well). He was heckled by the crowd; people shouted 'Speech! Speech!' and 'Notes! Notes!' and at one point someone stood up and addressed the Chair, registering a formal objection to the fact that the speaker was reading from notes. He was earnest, hardworking, the sort of person who made Evelyn Waugh think the country was going to the dogs. He made a bad impression.

At this point the third candidate came up to speak. Nick Prettejohn. Tall, slim, boyish, charming. He said apologetically something like Gosh. He said he was rather taken aback by all this serious talk about the Union's Mission, its Tradition, all this talk about Moving Forward, all this talk about money, hundreds of pounds raised for this, hundreds of pounds raised for that. He said: Aren't we all taking ourselves too seriously? We're undergraduates. I just thought: It's summer, let's have fun.

He got a standing ovation.

Won by a landslide.

(The speech, I should say, was infinitely more graceful and charming than I have managed to remember after all these years. It's really for this, I think, that an antisocial workaholic needs to join the Oxford Union in the first place.)

I am contemplating, of course, the case of Gordon Brown.

Michael White offers an overview of Brown's career.

Nick Prettejohn went on to become Chief Executive of Prudential UK.

electoral reform

Paddy Allen explains AV.


WA: Well, you know, you want some kind of relief from the agony and terror of human existence. Human existence is a brutal experience to me…it’s a brutal, meaningless experience—an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases. Overall, it is a brutal, brutal, terrible experience, and so it’s what can you do to alleviate the agony of the human condition, the human predicament? That is what interests me the most. I continue to make the films because the problem obsesses me all the time and it’s consistently on my mind and I’m consistently trying to alleviate the problem, and I think by making films as frequently as I do I get a chance to vent the problems. There is some relief. I have said this before in a facetious way, but it is not so facetious: I am a whiner. I do get a certain amount of solace from whining.

Robert E. Lauder interviews Woody Allen


more subtly invidious is the simple fact that people are so unused to seeing women appointed to the court that it's somehow a scandal to see two of them named in a row. Two women and we're talking about systematic discrimination. And that reaction means that even though the coin says there's an even chance that Obama's next pick will be a woman also, there's probably not an even chance of it, as he'll have to prove that he's not favoring women. After all, it's one thing to appoint 101 men in a row. But three women? Why, that'd be un-American!

Ezra Klein on the odds of getting FF by simple coin toss. (Roughly.)

the house style

Mark Liberman finds a site,, that lets you search 43 stylebooks at once:

Surveying this explicit variety of sources may help to avoid an otherwise-natural confusion. These stylebooks are not about the nature of (the formal written variety of) the English language: each of them documents (aspects of) one organization's policy about how to represent this language in writing, typically covering a limited set of cases that are both reasonably common and somewhat variable in general practice.

Some people are tempted to treat policies of this kind by analogy to the theological differences among religious sects. Believers are convinced that one set of policies is (or should be) God's Truth, with the others to be consumed in the fires of hell, while skeptics think that they're all just different forms of nonsense.

Both of these attitudes seem to me to misread the situation. Once you decide, for whatever reason, that representational consistency is a Good Thing, then you need to deal with the Long Tail of Linguistic Complexity. It's tempting to think that there are a few basic axioms from which the Right Answer could always be logically derived for any question of linguistic analysis — and perhaps some day a future linguistic Peano will give them to us. But as things stand, questions of linguistic representation are more like common law than like set theory. The only known way to achieve reasonably consistent results is to reason from a very long list of precedents, which is always in the process of gradual development, with occasional major revisions. This rational catalogue of worked examples is meant to be consistent with a hierarchy of more general principles, but it's not reducible to them.

The whole thing here. (HT John McIntyre's You Don't Say)


Ilya Somin of the Volokh Conspiracy on Elena Kagan's qualification to be Supreme Court justice:

The real flaw in Campos’ and Mirengoff’s argument is the implicit assumption that being an outstanding dean requires you to be an outstanding scholar. It doesn’t.

The job of dean is primarily managerial and political. The dean has to manage the faculty and staff, maintain good relations with the university, and raise money. He or she must be a good judge of others’ scholarship, since she plays a key role in faculty appointments. But she doesn’t have to be an outstanding scholar herself. As Campos concedes, most deans don’t do much in the way of scholarship anyway, perhaps because they rarely have the time.

... The skills of a good administrator are very different from those of a good scholar. A reclusive, difficult to get along with person, can be an outstanding scholar but would be a disaster as an administrator. Contrariwise, a skilled manager and politician who is not an original thinker would make a poor scholar. But so long as he values and recognizes original thought in others, he could be an excellent dean.

To return to the case of Kagan, there is little doubt that she was an excellent dean. She successfully hired numerous top scholars in many subfields, and from across the political spectrum. Under her tenure, Harvard arguably managed to surpass Yale and Chicago as the law school with the most productive faculty (I say this despite the fact that I’m a Yale Law grad, and a longtime admirer of Chicago). At the very least, she did a great deal to regain the ground that Harvard lost to its rivals in the 1980s and 90s.

She did this in part by pushing for the hiring of top conservative scholars like Jack Goldsmith and John Manning. In a hiring market characterized by a degree of hostility to non-leftwingers, productive right of center scholars were an undervalued asset similar to the undervalued high-OPS hitters that Beane relied on in his early years with the A’s. More generally, Kagan fostered by word and deed an atmosphere of openness and ideological tolerance at a a school that previously wasn’t exactly well known for either. She deserves special credit for achieving all this at an institution with a famously difficult to manage faculty and at a time of harsh ideological conflict in society as a whole.

The rest here. (HT Ezra Klein)

(All of this is, needless to say, horribly relevant to Ed Esche, Dean of Middlesex University, who was instrumental in the decision to close its distinguished philosophy department. ('But so long as he values and recognizes original thought in others, he could be an excellent dean.') For those who have not been following the story, the Guardian reports on the international response here. The petition to save the department now has over 13,000 signatures; you can add yours here.)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Another, fairly astonishing Postconstructivist scheme is the Svirstroy Housing Complex, finished as late as 1938, in bare concrete and red render, with a notably un-Stalinist simplicity, but with lots of highly un-Constructivist fluting. Here though, symmetry has prevailed, affected only slightly by the glass infilling of balconies indulged in by several residents - something done, I'm told, in order to create a free second refrigerator.

Owen Hatherley on the architecture of St Petersburg.

one's own Brain

When, in the 1760s, the Earl of Hardwicke attempted to commission Gainsborough to paint a view for him, the artist replied:

Mr Gainsborough presents his Humble respects to Lord Hardwicke; and shall always think it an honor to be employ’d in any thing for his Lordship; but with regard to real Views from Nature in this Country, he has never seen any Place that affords a Subject equal to the poorest imitations of Gaspar or Claude. Paul Sanby is the only Man of Genius, he believes, who has employ’d his Pencil that Way – Mr G hopes Lord Hardwicke will not mistake his meaning, but if his Lordship wishes to have any thing tolerable of the name of G. the Subject altogether as well as the figures &c must be of his own Brain.

In this intriguing response, Gainsborough, who was still far from establishing himself among the elite painters of late 18th-century Britain, nevertheless makes it clear to Lord Hardwicke that he wishes to be regarded as a candidate for promotion to the premier league. He is not a servant painter; he has no eagerness to cater to the mistaken taste of a patron whatever the title he bears or the price he offers. He demands respect for the quality of his imagination, of his invention, and wishes to be compared with the great names of Italian landscape art, an ambition that would be compromised if he were to agree to paint views of real places in a country where the landscape is so obviously second-rate. Gainsborough of course loved the English countryside, as a place to walk in, to sketch in, perhaps to retire to – but not as a subject for painting. Individually, the hills, the trees, the roads, the ponds of England might be perfectly paintable, but only when reorganised into structures imagined by the artist’s ‘own Brain’. The name for an artist who would agree to paint the real places, however tame or scruffy, that Hardwicke’s ignorance might lead him to admire, was ‘Mr Sanby’. Sandby, Gainsborough concedes, is nevertheless a man of genius, but he seems to be pretending to believe that only in order to claim the same status for himself: among us men of genius, he implies, only Sandby is sufficiently obedient or mercenary to do what no man of genius should ever do.

John Barrell on Paul Sandby at the Royal Academy, LRB (mainly behind paywall -- it's at times like this that a gift subscription for one's mother really pays off)

ppv v fp

When asked about the accuracy of a mammogram, doctors cite the "false positive rate". Ignore the false positive rate, what patients really need to know is the "positive predictive value" (PPV), that is, the chance of having breast cancer given that one has a positive mammogram.

The PPV for mammography is 9 percent. Nine percent! You heard right. For every 100 patients who test positive, only 9 have breast cancer, the other 91 do not. This may sound like a travesty but it's easily explained: breast cancer is a rare disease, afflicting only 0.8% of women so almost all women who take mammograms do not have cancer, and even a highly accurate test when applied to large numbers of cancer-free women will generate a lot of false alarms.

Junk Charts on Steven Strogatz's piece for the NYT on Bayesian reasoning

no taxation w/o representation

Unbelievably depressed by UK election results. I really thought the Liberal Democrats could pull it off this time - get a number of seats that was something like representative of their percentage of the vote. Instead it's the same old same old: Tories 306 (36%), Labour 258 (29%), Lib Dems 57 (23%(!)). John Lanchester pointed out that the Tories, on 36.2 % of the vote, get only about 308 seats, minority of 34*, while Labour got 35.2% of the vote in 2005, 355 seats and a majority of 66. But frankly I have to wonder how many people who voted Labour last time genuinely wanted to vote Tory this time, rather than just voting Tory to get Labour out - that is, thought a Lib Dem vote was a wasted vote. And how many voted Labour, not because they actually wanted more of the same, but because they couldn't bring themselves to vote Tory and thought a Lib Dem vote was a wasted vote.

* Latest results show 306, 258, 57, Other 28.

Rafael Behr
has a different take on this: he thinks it was the Lib Dem stance on immigration that did them in. Could be.

Meanwhile, Lanchester summarises the views of Vernon Bogdanor (or possibly some other constitutional expert), to the effect that the election result is not viable. (Bogdanor, if it was Bogdanor, is an argumentative Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford, and therefore someone I actually know; if all constitutional experts are like him it must have been a cutthroat debate.)

Looking on the bright side, Brighton has elected Britain's first Green MP.

Over on Language Log, Geoff Pullum points out that the meaning of PR in Britain has changed overnight.

Friday, May 7, 2010

There are revealingly few references to Baudelaire in the Journal, the most telling of which seems at first sight prosaic, indeed calm:

M. Baudelaire came in as I was starting to work anew on a little figure of a woman in Oriental costume lying on a sofa, undertaken for Thomas of the rue du Bac. He told me of the difficulties that Daumier experiences in finishing. He ran on to Proudhon, whom he admires and whom he calls the idol of the people. His views seem to be of the most modern, and altogether in the line of progress. Continued with the little figure after his departure, and then went back to the Femmes d’Alger.

Julian Barnes in the TLS on the Journals of Delacroix

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Imagine a school with three teachers. But this isn't a public school. It's a private school testing out an innovative new funding system: The kids write the tests, fill them out and then pay the teachers to grade them. If they don't like the grade they get, they don't have to go back to that teacher.

Sound good?

That's not how we run schools, of course. But it is how we run Wall Street. The three major ratings agencies -- Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch -- are paid by banks to grade (or "rate") their products.

Ezra Klein on the ratings agencies

in remembrance of crayolas past

Results of xkcd colour survey are out

By a strange coincidence, the same night I first made the color survey public, the webcomic Doghouse Diaries put up this comic (which I altered slightly to fit in this blog, click for original):

It was funny, but I realized I could test whether it was accurate (as far as chromosomal sex goes, anyway, which we asked about because it’s tied to colorblindness). After the survey closed, I generated a version of the Doghouse Diaries comic with actual data, using the most frequent color name for the handful of colors in the survey closest to the ones in the comic:

Basically, women were slightly more liberal with the modifiers, but otherwise they generally agreed (and some of the differences may be sampling noise). The results were similar across the survey—men and women tended on average to call colors the same names.

So I was feeling pretty good about equality. Then I decided to calculate the ‘most masculine’ and ‘most feminine’ colors. I was looking for the color names most disproportionately popular among each group; that is, the names that the most women came up with compared to the fewest men (or vice versa).

The whole post on xkcd blog

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Britain deserves the best

Esche stated the case clearly it in an earlier meeting: ‘Reputation has no financial value in this university.’ That isn’t necessarily true even on its own terms: who is to say how the long-term credibility of Middlesex will be affected by the abolition of its most prestigious department? But as a statement of the short-termism encouraged by New Labour’s reorganisation of higher education funding, it makes perfect sense.

More on the threatened closure of the Philosophy Department at Middlesex, Peter Myerscough on the LRB Blog

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

and they all go marching...

Every summer, I get calls from people who are puzzled to find a heap of dead Argentine ants in their freezer. The ants are attracted to something, presumably an odor, in the rubber lining of freezer doors. No ant finds the freezer and goes back to recruit the others; once an ant goes in the freezer, it is doomed. But since the ants lay trail wherever they go, the ants that are attracted to the freezer all lay a trail on their way to it, and this is reinforced by more curious but equally doomed ants. Since Argentine ants are enormously abundant in many parts of the world, this procedure must lead to food more often than to the untimely death of many ants.

Deborah Gordon, Ant Encounters: Interaction Networks and Colony Behavior
The real explosion in customized derivatives came in the aughts, and in particular, after 2005. Why after 2005? There are a couple of theories, but the most convincing is that the bankruptcy reform bill gave derivatives favorable treatment during bankruptcy proceedings. That made them a better investment than other types of financial products, and so demand exploded.

Ezra Klein on derivatives & health of economy

Monday, May 3, 2010

i am not a number

Bruce Falconer on a German torture colony in Chile, ht MR.

get thee behind me tolkien

Magical thinking isn’t fantasy in the literary sense. It is a fantasy, in the psychoanalytic sense: a dream of a world where actions don’t have consequences, where loss is an impossibility, where wishing makes it so, where one doesn’t have to make choices, because all possible good things arrive at once, unbidden, with none of those nasty trade-offs that are so characteristic of real life. There is no either/or in a fantasy, it’s all both/and.

Lev Grossman on Leonard Woolf & B J Dutton, The Believer

At the Casual Optimist, Q&A with Ferrán Lopez, book designer for Random House Mondadori

100 best Arabic books

Courtesy Marginal Revolution, a link to M. Lynx Qualey's blog Arabic Literature in English, which has posted an annotated translation of a list of the 100 Best Arabic Books. (Annotation: whether an English translation is available, some additional information.) Original list (from the Arab Writers' Union) on Arabic Wikipedia, here.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

continent cut off

Mark Liberman discusses 'beg the question' on Language Log. A commenter chips in.

As to whether 'begs the question' is an archaic term for all but a few specialists, I didn't grow up surrounded by formal logicians or professional philosophers but I've used it unselfconsciously since my childhood (OK, we're a pretty argumentative family…).

[(myl) As someone who uses the this phrase in its medieval-logic version without being a philosopher or an intellectual historian, you fall into the category that I described as "the few pedants". The "few" part of this description is not open to question, I think — the phrase is fairly common in the mass media, and roughly 99% of its uses are the kind that make you "seethe in silence", with most of the rest being meta-discussions in writings about usage. And "pedant" seems to me like a plausible description for people who maintain an irrational residue of high culture that almost no one else knows about. If it makes you feel any better, I'm obviously a member of the same category.]

This is a bit unnerving - I had no idea 'beg the question' was commonly used to mean 'raise the question', and can't remember ever having heard it used that way. (I did, admittedly, study philosophy, so what I now find to be the minority usage seems natural.) ML, anyway, offers an excellent discussion of the history of the phrase.

[Er. I see Languagehat thinks the commenter is cut off from reality and we should dispense with this silly phrase. A slight problem is that I frequently find myself in arguments with people who assume the conclusion. I naturally want to point out that the argument is flawed, but the use of formal, academic language is often perceived as cold, aggressive, hostile; an 'ordinary language' phrase always seemed ideal for the situation. The point being, all this time I was under the happy illusion that ordinary language actually provided a phrase that was fit for purpose. The thing that's revealing about the discussion is not that the phrase is more esoteric than I had realised, but that the concept turns out, as far as I can see, to have no place in the culture at large.]

My first encounter with Beckett was when I was studying in Minnesota and I acted in a student production of Krapp's Last Tape.


Since then I must have read Waiting for Godot – of course – a hundred times. Every time I go back to Beckett he seems more subversive, not less; his works make me feel more uncomfortable than they did before. The unsettling idea, most explicit in Godot, that life is habit – that it is all just a series of motions devoid of meaning – never gets any easier.

Nick Clegg in today's Guardian

This would be unremarkable in a French politician; I can't remember the last time a British or American politician chose a literary favourite that didn't look calculated to reassure, one way or another.


Goldman’s controversial “ABACUS 2007-AC1″ synthetic CDO turns out to be a very complicated deal. This is not your grandfather’s vanilla mezzanine RMBS synthetic CDO. It is, in some sense, a supersynthetic CDO.

Steve Randy Waldman has a couple of detailed posts on Goldman's ABACUS:

Deconstructing ABACUS

A knife fight is not a mediation