Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lachmann Research Fellowship at LSE

Came across this Research Fellowship at the LSE website - I'm posting it in case it's relevant to any readers who for one reason or another haven't come across it elsewhere:

Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

The Ludwig Lachmann Research Fellowship

Salary: £39,167 to £42,780 pa incl

This is a fixed term appointment for three years

Reference: 01/08/RES

Application deadline: 7 November 2008

The Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific is seeking to fill the Ludwig M Lachmann Research Fellowship, a research post in commemoration of the late Professor Lachmann.

The successful candidate will have a PhD and a record of excellence in research in economics and/or philosophy. Particular consideration will be given to candidates with a research interest in the philosophical aspects of economics or the Austrian School of Economics.

The Research Fellow will be expected to complete a piece of work forming the basis of a publication during his or her period of tenure.

Its is expected that the successful candidate will be appointed from September 2009 for a period of up to three years, though it is possible for the appointment to commence earlier in the year. The appointment may be made on a flexible working arrangement.

Informal enquiries can be addressed to Prof. Richard Bradley at r.bradley@lse.ac.uk.

To apply, please see the instructions of how to apply, notes for applicants, the job description, the person specification and the personal details form.

If you cannot download the pack, email HR.Recruit.Res@lse.ac.uk or call 020 7955 6183 quoting reference 01/08/RES.

Closing date for receipt of applications is 7 November 2008.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Caderno de Saramago

Mithridates has just sent me an e-mail. Saramago has a blog. (It's available in Spanish as well as Portuguese; hope that means most readers can read some.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008


David Crystal on trilingualism in children.

Three is an age where monolingual children first display serious 'normal non-fluency' (as the speech pathology world calls it). This is a phenomenon which sometimes causes parents anxiety, because with its pauses and repeated attempts at words it sounds like stammering, but in fact it's nothing like stammering at all. In particular, it lacks the tension one associates with that condition. What the child is doing is processing more complex language (notably, coordinate and subordinate clauses), and needing extra time to do it. So we hear such narratives as 'Daddy went in the garden and he - and he - and he - and he did kick the big ball'. There might be a dozen or more repetitions before the child sorts out what is needed to make a successful coordinate clause.

I've talked about all this before, in several clinical linguistic books and articles, but one thing I'd never thought of was the way normal non-fluency would be a sign of code-switching at this age. Mateo is at the stage now where he is realizing he speaks different languages. He has learnt the names 'English', 'Spanish', and 'Dutch', and is using them appropriately. Evidence? When watching Handy Manny on Play Disney - a repairman who switches between Spanish and English - Mateo shouts out 'Spanish' whenever he hears some Spanish words. And on the way back from the beach one day, as we passed a boy with a big bike, he looked at it, then at me, and said 'bicycle'. I didn't know he knew that word, so I must have appeared to be taken aback, because he then said - as if I hadn't understood - 'bicicleta' (the vocative 'prat' was in his intonation). He then added, for my benefit, 'Spanish'. 'I don't suppose you know it in Dutch as well?', I said, in a sceptical tone. He made a noise which sounded like a rude dismissal, so I queried it, and he said 'bike'. His mother told me later that he had probably said fiets, and that bike was common as a loan word in everyday Dutch. All this in a kid who's been on this earth for only just over a thousand days.

iterated polarisation games

[published this earlier, then wanted to think some more and put it in the drafts folder, got some e-mails from readers so I am posting again so people can comment if they want, though I should still probably think some more. Kevin Connolly, who sent in a wonderful Excel chart a few months ago, said he thought I was misrepresenting DFW: 'As I read it, the most important sentence in Wallace's speech is "The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day." I think he's asking for something more than 'keeping your head down' or swallowing the profoundly unjust and stupid system in which we live.' ]

The Guardian has published an abbreviated version of David Foster Wallace's speech at the graduation ceremony at Kenyon College.

Wallace seems to have had an abiding fear of solipsism all his life; fiction helps the skull-caged mind to believe in other selves. The speech, oddly enough, shows how easy it is to slip back into solipsism even one is trying to believe that other people and their concerns actually matter.

Wallace invites the audience to imagine a long hard day at work, at the end of which you're starving but there's no food at home so you have to go to the store and there are too many people and the lines are too long and then you drive home and there are too many people on the roads... but you can, he says, choose how you look at it:

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way?

DFW thought this way of looking at was our default setting. He proposed an alternative:

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible -

Well, hm. Let's just remember that this speech was in part about the importance of being serious about other minds. So let's look at the situation the way another mind would look at it.

The first thing that leaps out is that everyone in a crowded store is inconvenienced by everyone else in the store; everyone in a traffic jam is inconvenienced by the traffic jam.

The second thing that leaps out at this naysayer is the unhelpfulness of the serenity prayer. (Lord, give me the patience to the bear the things I can't change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.) Most of the time, surely, we actually don't know what we can change till we try - it's not a question of wisdom but of, well, a combination of the willingness to have a bash and decent methodology. (Oh Lord, don't give me a Mercedes Benz, just tell me whether I should use a folded-t, or a half-cauchy, or a uniform over the traditional inverse gamma. Please? Pleeeeeeeez?*)

The point being. Look. If crowds and traffic jams are unavoidable, we are definitely best off learning to live with them. But let's just remember, dreaming up improbable scenarios about my fellow shoppers/drivers really only helps one person: me. OK, it may help other people if I would otherwise be swearing or shooting, or if my new -improved unfocused beaming smile makes people feel good; is that really the best I can do? What if there is a solution, something that would make lines in stores move faster, reduce crowds? If there is a solution, a really good solution, surely it will be a successful meme - it will spread through overcrowded grocery stores across the city! the state! the country! the world!

So maybe I have to be driven berserk, maybe I actually have to be a prima donna maddened to distraction by the horror of my local Kroger's or Giant, to be goaded into looking for solutions. Maybe being driven berserk, maybe thinking this is literally a fate worse than death, is a prerequisite for trying to do something.

Suppose I'm stuck shopping at the busiest possible time. It's too late to have laid in supplies at some earlier time. But it's not too late to lay in supplies now. Would it be a good idea to pass up the superficial attraction of the '10 Items or Less' checkout? Say I buy 20 jars of peanut butter, 10 boxes of Ritz crackers, 50 packs of spaghetti, and 50 jars of Barilla's Pesto al Genovese. The spaghetti alone eliminates 49 emergency trips to the store at peak times!

Well, do I actually have enough storage space? I mull this over, dodging the madding crowd, and I realise that bulk-buying will actually enable me to make better use of the couple of cupboards I have at my disposal. Normally, when my cupboards are not bare, there's a lot of unused space above the head height of the jars: I don't want to stack them on top of each other, because it's a hassle to get them out, and then I can't see what's behind the front row. But I can stack 20 jars of peanut butter front to back, from the bottom of the shelf to the top, and I really only need to see the front row/stack. Same with the pesto. Same with the spaghetti. Same with the crackers. Good news.

At this point I become aggrieved. If I subtract a minimum of 49 trips to the store - 49 peak-time trips - I am making the world a better place for my fellow shoppers, who will benefit from my absence from the store on at least 49 occasions. Why is the store encouraging short-term shopping with its '10 Items or Less' line? Why isn't it encouraging people like me? Why don't they have a line for people who are bulk-buying a small number of types of item? 20 jars of Skippy can be rung up in almost the same time as 1. If we were given a shorter queue for buying in quantities of 20 or more, hundreds of people would be slashing dozens of trips to the store off their year. Wouldn't it be to the advantage of the store if more people bought in bulk? Or are they relying on impulse buys? Is it just that they make so much more out of getting people into the store and getting things they didn't mean to buy that they don't want people to make fewer trips?

I don't actually know the answer to the last question. I can see that everyone can't afford to buy in quantity. But it seems to me that I definitely have the power to make my own life less stressful, by the simple expedient of buying 50 jars of my favourite pasta sauce and something simple to put it on. Plus pb & crackers. If everyone who could afford it made their life less stressful in this way, they'd be better off, wouldn't they? So maybe I'm being selfish keeping this 'Hint from Heloise' manqué locked up in my skull? (Should I start a web comic?) Also... if I am really saving myself a minimum of 49 stressful trips to the store, maybe I could dedicate one to making a trip for someone else, someone who doesn't have a car or can't get heavy groceries upstairs (I'm still 48 trips to the store ahead...)? Also...

What if this were standard practice? What if we knew that most people kept supplies of some kind in bulk? We don't know what other people have, we just know that whatever they have, they have a lot of it. What if I knew that about other people in my building? What if I couldn't face a 35th last-minute meal of spaghetti with pesto al genovese, might I not feel more comfortable about knocking on somebody's door and asking if they'd swap anything, anything at all for s w/ p al g? And might I not feel pretty comfortable about occasionally having someone knock on my door and offering a swap? And might most of us feel somewhat comfortable even just asking or being asked for the makings of a simple meal (pasta with sauce or something) when the person asking had nothing to swap and maybe hadn't made it to the ATM? What if we knew most people had a stash of 10+ jars of peanut butter... Might a parent, caught short late at night, not feel more comfortable just knocking on a door and asking for a jar of peanut butter? Or if we live in a bad part of town, if we're nervous of strangers knocking at the door/knocking on strange doors, could we have a communal cupboard with a key to which we all contributed 1/50th of an occasional bulk buy? (This is a question that is likelier to present itself if one starts from the position of having 20 jars of peanut butter, 10 boxes of crackers, 50 packets of spaghetti and 50 jars of pesto al genovese in one's own personal kitchen.)

Well, I'm just going around and around in my head, but the point is, there are things I can do that will tell me more about the world than I already think I know. I can find something out by unilateral action; I can find out more by sharing ideas with my fellow man. And I can start with something that has an extremely high probability of being true: most people hate peak-time grocery shopping, most people hate traffic jams. To me that looks more attractive than making life bearable by inventing highly improbable backstories about the people I run up against in a crowd.

There are some problems that can't be fixed. If I get a million dollars today, I can't go back to the summer of 1996, when I was desperate for £1,000 to finish a book. I can't go back to the summer of 1979, when I was desperate for money to pay for Oxford. But there are problems that can be fixed. Young people who have just finished 4 years of college (US) or 3 years of university (Britain) may not be nicer than they were when they started, but they should be better informed, they should be smarter - they should see many more things that might be fixable than they did when they turned up on Day 1. So, well, hm, it's a bit demoralising that a speech cited for its inspirational qualities should be one that offers acquiescence as the first port of call (nothing to be done, might as well make the best of it).

A general comment. Americans live in a profoundly unjust and deeply stupid social system. Britons live in a profoundly unjust and deeply stupid social system that has the saving grace of a national health service. The French face institutionalised injustice and stupidity; so do the Germans; so do the Italians; we could go on, but let's not. And whenever injustice and stupidity are institutionalised, legitimised, there is enormous pressure on those caught up in the system to make it look good - and, of course, to avoid looking bad by failing to thrive. And humans are able to survive, at least, under astonishingly damaging circumstances.

What this means, unfortunately, is that the collective action of finding ways to survive, of making the system look bearable, makes the system weigh very heavily on those least able to bear it. I think that may mean that we shouldn't necessarily be looking for ways to get to the age of 30, or 50, without wanting to put a bullet through the head. Maybe it's a good thing to find circumstances absolutely unbearable; maybe we shouldn't look away. Maybe paying attention to what I myself find intolerable is a better guide to what is oppressive to others than, say, paying attention to what the system says are reasonable expectations for any individual.

We should note that David Foster Wallace, for all his public acclaim, was caught up in a machine that treats writers with contempt. In an interview with Dave Eggers he spoke once about the immense investment of time and energy involved in publishing a single book; he said this meant that he had to be very selective about the projects he was willing to see into print. So - if other writers had fought harder, if fewer writers had kept their heads down, if someone somewhere had insisted on submitting documents in LaTeX, for example, DFW might have published more books without feeling that his personal requirements were the mark of egocentrism. As might many other writers we haven't happened to hear of. It's hard to see how that wouldn't have been a very good thing.

*To the best of my knowledge, it's rare for this sort of question to be directed to God. Someone did recently fire it off to Andrew Gelman.

Friday, September 19, 2008

all change

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and Hank Paulson, the Goldman Sachs tycoon who became US Treasury secretary, have done more for socialism in the past seven days than anybody since Marx and Engels.

The Guardian's Larry Elliot on the world of that clinking clanking sound, the rest here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

fiddling while Rome...

It feels peculiar posting anything at all, why bother to link when everyone can go straight to the sources themselves, why bother to say anything when better-informed people have so much to say, but how strange not to say anything when this may actually be the worst crash since 1929. Lehman Brothers down the tubes, Merrill swallowed up the same day, AIG rescued by the Fed, HBOS needs a takeover, now Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are in the line of fire... Deborah Hargreaves of the Guardian says

The central banks have pumped in billions of dollars worth of money today, over $210 billion worth of money has gone into the financial system and yet no one wants to lend at all


Why we should all be taught bartending, lockpicking and bicycle maintenance at school.

that is not what I meant, at all

came across some videos of Douglas Adams on YouTube, including one in which Stephen Fry talks about his Wodehousian humour, then reads out this as an example:

The same sun later broke in through the upper windows of a house in North London, struck the peacefuly sleeping figure of a man.
The room in which he slept was large and bedraggled and did not much benefit from the sudden intrusion of light.
The sun crept slowly across the bedclothes as if nervous of what it might find amongst them, slunk down the side of the bed, moved in a rather startled way across some objects it encountered on the floor, toyed nervously with a couple of motes of dust, lit briefly on a stuffed fruitbat hanging in a corner, and fled.

which to this reader had more of a Prufrockian turn...

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell sleep

(very funny videos, as you might expect; you can see Douglas Adams with Richard Dawkins here)

Monday, September 15, 2008


DFW lies in the arms of sleep's cousin. I think suddenly of the work of David Lewis on modal realism. My friend Peter King summarises:

When I profess realism about possible worlds, I mean to be taken literally. Possible worlds are what they are, and not some other thing. If asked what sort of thing they are, I cannot give the kind of reply my questioner probably expects: that is, a proposal to reduce possible worlds to something else.
I can only ask him to admit that he knows what sort of thing our actual world is, and then explain that possible worlds are more things of that sort, differing not in kind but only in what goes on at them.
(Lewis [1973], p.85)

This passage contains, or implies, the heart of David Lewis's modal realism. It explicitly states three of his six central doctrines about possible worlds, and implies at least one of the remaining three. The three doctrines explicitly formulated are:

  • 1. Possible worlds exist -- they are just as real as our world;
  • 2. Possible worlds are the same sort of things as our world -- they differ in content, not in kind;
  • 3. Possible worlds cannot be reduced to something more basic -- they are irreducible entities in their own right.
From these three claims (and from the second in particular) we can see that, when we talk of our own world as being the only actual world, we cannot be asserting that our world has a special property not found in (or instantiated by) any other world - the property of actuality - but that we must be using the term `actual' much as we use the term `here' or `now' -- to indicate our position. This gives us Lewis's fourth doctrine:
  • 4. `Actual' is indexical. When we distinguish our world from others by claiming that it alone is actual, we mean only that it is ours -- we live here.
(more here)

Here, where we live, DFW wrote unselfconsciously about the elitism of professional tennis, the sport he knew best. Writing about Michael Joyce, then #64 in the world, at the Canadian Open, he said that he realised that he did not even play the same game as J; that he did not mention that he had played tennis, that Joyce, being a nice guy, would probably have been happy to hit a few balls back and forth, but to do so, to go on the same court with him, would have been obscene. (Here's DFW on Roger Federer as Religious Experience; an assessment of DFW as sportswriter can be found here.)

Here, where we live, DFW did not bring the same standards to writing. He disliked texts that show contempt for the reader, whether by being unabashedly avant-garde or unabashedly commercial. He wanted to write texts that would challenge readers but be enjoyable enough to encourage them to take up the challenge - no easy proposition.

I contemplate this; I then contemplate, with some bafflement, critical response to DFW's collection of stories, Oblivion, generally perceived as difficult. Wyatt Mason, in the LRB, described them as "uncompromisingly difficult", went on to gesture at the immense effort required of the reader to puzzle out what was going on:

Imagine a reader being schooled by Wallace. See the reader sit there, Oblivion in hand, already crafting an official complaint in his head, unconvinced before an apparently pompous narrator. Let’s acknowledge and appreciate this reader’s inability to see such a narrator otherwise. For why should the reader be swayed? Why should he grant Wallace any of his demands for surfeit goodwill, when the reader feels, not unreasonably, that Wallace is making unreasonable demands?

and concluded:

Wallace has the right to write a great book that no one can read except people like him. I flatter myself to think that I am one of them, but I haven’t any idea how to convince you that you should be, too; nor, clearly, does Wallace. And it might not be the worst thing in the world, next time out, when big novel number three thumps into the world, were he to dig deeper, search longer, and find a more generous way to make his feelings known.

This (just to be clear) was a sympathetic review defending DFW from misunderstanding and hostility from James Wood.

Well, this is the world we live in, brothers and sisters. It's a rum old place. Oblivion doesn't strike me as a difficult, never mind uncompromisingly difficult, book. Plato can be difficult; the speeches in Thucydides drive strong men to drink; Kant is difficult, Wittgenstein is difficult, David Lewis is not for the faint of heart. But Oblivion? DFW had a ravishingly lovely gift for voice; he took the sort of pleasure in variety that we see in (say) Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy's Preludes. Why would a reader labour grumpily through the stories in search of hidden meanings? Let alone blame the profligate author for lack of generosity? I've no idea, but one thing is certain: in this world, here, now, there is no place for a Roger Federer among writers.

If David Lewis was right, there are an infinite number of possible worlds as real as this one; there are an infinite number of possible worlds with a person genetically identical to DFW. If you believe in modal realism, suicide in the particular world you happen to inhabit probably doesn't look like that big a deal: in this particular world, through circumstances beyond my control, I find myself cabined, cribbed, confined, but an infinite number of alter egos have different histories. If there is any set of circumstances at all in which a person genetically identical to me can be a great writer, that person actually exists in at least one other possible world. Perhaps there is no set of circumstances in which this person, here, now, can match that alter ego or even come close. But if those infinite others all exist, perhaps it doesn't matter if one dies here, now. (I'm not convinced that this is rational - it's a bit like saying that I don't mind dying as long as my twin has a wonderful life on Mars - why exactly does bringing my twin into the picture make a difference? Rational or not, the thought that this particular botched self might not be all that there is is strangely comforting. [I am not, of course, referring at this point to DFW.])

To the best of my knowledge, David Lewis was unique in being a true believer in modal realism. Most people who work in this field use possible worlds as some kind of figure of speech; they don't think they're as real as Canada or Mars. So there's no reason whatever to think that DFW was a modal realist. On the contrary, he probably thought that this world, here, now, was all there is. This world, here, now, was self-evidently not good for him; there were things he needed that it didn't give him. But he seems to have thought that in this world, here, now, many people had been cheated by the educational system into thinking they didn't like literature; that many people could be brought to surpass what they thought they could do, if someone was willing to take the trouble. We were lucky to have had him.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Over on Political Arithmetik, a post from August on age and voter turn-out.

In 2004 those 18-29 were 21.8% of the population, while those 58-69 were just 13.2%. Add in the 11.5% 70 and up, and you get just 24.7% of "geezers" over 58 vs. 21.8% of "kids". But the sly old geezers know a thing or two about voting. Shift from share of the population to share of the electorate and the advantage shifts to the old: 18-29 year olds were just 16% of the electorate in 2004, while those 58-69 were an almost equal 15.9%. Add in the 70+ group at 13.4% and the geezers win hands down: 29.3% of voters vs 16% for the young. That difference is the power of high turnout. It goes a long way to explaining why Social Security is the third rail of American politics.

Friday, September 5, 2008

against mimesis

All the reviews I’ve seen have mentioned Pierce Brosnan’s terrible singing, but I haven’t seen much criticism of Meryl Streep’s performance, which is much worse, and also does more to explain what’s wrong with the film.The problem with her acting in the film is precisely that it is acting, or rather Acting with a capital A, an emoting that suggests that the only way of conveying emotion is through mimesis.

Watching Mamma Mia made me think about what it is I like about Abba. Two common responses to the band are the deflationary one, to say they are “just a great pop group” (or a guilty pleasure); and the inverse, to reject the idea that Abba were a superficial pop group and emphasize the emotional depth of their songs. Neither of these responses is quite right, because it’s the pop elements, the glossy artifice of production, that give Abba their emotional charge. So much of the emotion resides in the carefully constructed production, while the voice, far from expressing emotion, is strangely blank; the effect is to produce an externalization of emotion, a sense that the music carries the emotion for the singer, perhaps because these emotions are so powerful that the only way to deal with them is to, as Jay-Z puts it, make the song cry.

from Voyou Désoeuvré


Jenny Turner has written a review of Your Name Here for the LRB, here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

chartjunk of the day

Andrew Gelman comments on a flagrant example of chartjunk over on The Monkey Cage.