academia | advice | alcohol | American Indians | architecture | art | artificial intelligence | Barnard | best | biography | bitcoin | blogging | broken umbrellas | candide | censorship | children's books | Columbia | comics | consciousness | cooking | crime | criticism | dance | data analysis | design | dishonesty | economics | education | energy | epistemology | error correction | essays | family | fashion | finance | food | foreign policy | futurism | games | gender | Georgia | health | history | inspiration | intellectual property | Israel | journalism | Judaism | labor | language | law | leadership | letters | literature | management | marketing | memoir | movies | music | mystery | mythology | New Mexico | New York | parenting | philosophy | photography | podcast | poetry | politics | prediction | product | productivity | programming | psychology | public transportation | publishing | puzzles | race | reading | recommendation | religion | reputation | review | RSI | Russia | sci-fi | science | sex | short stories | social justice | social media | sports | startups | statistics | teaching | technology | Texas | theater | translation | travel | trivia | tv | typography | unreliable narrators | video | video games | violence | war | weather | wordplay | writing

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Obit for Robert Rosenthal, WWII pilot and Nuremberg lawyer

An NY Times obituary today for Robert Rosenthal, Air Force pilot and Nuremberg lawyer:

Robert Rosenthal was born in Brooklyn on June 11, 1917, and went to school in the borough’s Flatbush neighborhood. He was captain of the football and baseball teams at Brooklyn College, from which he graduated in 1938. He graduated summa cum laude from Brooklyn Law School. He had a job at a law firm in Manhattan when World War II started.

After his flight training, Mr. Rosenthal was assigned to the Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, later known as “The Bloody Hundredth.” He was stationed at a base in East Anglia in England.

[Journalist Donald L.] Miller wrote that Mr. Rosenthal never talked about his passion to risk everything to fight Nazis. A rumor arose that he had relatives in German concentration camps. When asked directly, he replied, “That was a lot of hooey.”

He said: “I have no personal reasons. Everything I’ve done or hope to do is because I hate persecution. A human being has to look out for other human beings or there’s no civilization.”

His third mission was to bomb Münster on Oct. 10, 1943. After the American support fighters reached their range and returned home, the 13 bombers in the group were attacked by some 200 German fighters. The skies were filled with flak and flames, creating “an aerial junkyard,” according to a gunner.

Mr. Rosenthal’s plane dropped its bombs, but had two engines out, a gaping hole in one wing and three injured gunners. He put the 30-ton bomber through a harrowing series of evasive maneuvers and somehow made it back to England. None of the other 12 planes did.

In September 1944, Mr. Rosenthal’s plane was hit by flak over France and he made a forced landing, dulling his consciousness as well as breaking his arm and nose. He did not remember how, but the French resistance got him back to England.

On a February 1945 mission to bomb Berlin, he was shot down and rescued by Russians on the outskirts of the city. He was sent back to England on a circuitous route that wound through Poland, Moscow, Kiev, Tehran, Cairo, Greece and Naples.

That's an incredible story, though I imagine a fuller description of his--and any WWII pilot's--bombing campaigns would be troubling.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Surprises of the Democratic debate

If we accept that presidential debate is a question of image and not of policy, then last week's Democratic primary debate in South Carolina had a big winner. And it's not Obama.

Go to part 1 of the debate. Listen to the opening statements about the war from Hillary Clinton (3:44), Joe Biden (5:10) and Barack Obama (6:18) and tell me if Obama doesn't come across the weakest of the three.

If Biden's campaign doesn't have legs, it's too bad; he's charismatic as hell. He had the big one-liner of the debate, at 5:47 of part 3. If you watch that, keep watching; former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska rails against the willingness of the other candidates to go to war, and he becomes unhinged in the process. If you watch nothing else from the debates, watch his opening salvo at 2:49 of part 2.

Obama didn't do poorly, but he never shone. Edwards was as bad on TV as he always is, blinking a lot, missing opportunities, and generally showing the same flimsiness that let Dick Cheney walk all over him in the VP debate in 2004.

The surprise was Hillary. She was on the whole time, in control and loving it. Listen to her defend herself against Republican critics (8:18 in part 3); she's confident, warm, a little funny, even a little exciting, and she's poised the whole time.

Obama discusses abortion at 0:26 in part 4. It's about the best response he has all night, but he's still pausing on every other word and tensing his eyebrows like he's passing a kidney stone. Then Hillary shows the right way to handle a debate question at 6:57, addressing the Virginia Tech shootings with a pitch-perfect answer that she has ready the instant the question is asked.

In part 5, Edwards, Obama, and Clinton all discuss their health care plans starting at 0:31. Hillary wins. Her answer shows a sophistication and ability to connect to voters that Edwards and Obama can't match. It's the kind of answer that takes the steam out of critics and wins over voters who thought they didn't like her. She's ready for the Republicans. And I'm starting to think she can kick their asses.

At 7:00, Obama awkwardly stumbles through confederate flag territory. At 8:38, you get another response from the top three, this time on the worst mistake they've made. Again Hillary makes them look like amateurs.

I just finished Dreams From My Father, which, though not a great book, does demonstrate that Obama is a thoughtful and observant man, as well as one sensitive to how much great policy the Democrats have jettisoned in an effort to remain popular. I would be happy to see him win. But this debate makes me think that Hillary is the stronger candidate and the more potentially popular president.

I'm going over to Tradesports now to put my money where my mouth is. I bet she wins the whole thing, and on top of that, I bet she's reelected with a solid margin.

Labels: ,

Blogger Unknown on Fri May 11, 04:56:00 PM:
Ben's eyes were not decieving him and I'd bet that his bet proves to be a winning one.

The latest Newsweek poll shows HRC leads Obama 51-39 and Edwards 57-38 in head-to-head matchups.

And in the general, she leads Giuliani by 3 and McCain by 6.
Blogger Brette on Fri May 11, 05:02:00 PM:
And by decieving I mean deceiving.
Blogger Ben on Fri May 11, 05:52:00 PM:
But remember that polls at this stage in the past have been bad predictors. Remember that Dean had twice Kerry's numbers in New Hampshire polls at one time, and that about 6 months before the presidential elections of 1980, 1988 and 1992, there were big leads by Carter, Dukakis and Bush, respectively. Obama and Edwards are essentially tied with Hillary, as I see it; especially with California voting early, any of the three could have the lead on Feb 5 2008.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich, 1927-2007

The NY Times has a report on his death.

From Times writer Serge Schemann's front-lines report on the fall of the Berlin Wall:

They seemed to be drawn by the sense that the object of so much drama, blood, rhetoric and politics, the barrier of concrete and steel that had figured so prominently in the history of this city and the world, might soon be relegated to history.

Some came with hammers and chisels, others with guitars, most with cameras. Mstislav Rostropovich, the great cellist who defected from the Soviet Union, came in a private jet with his cello to play Bach at the wall. "Voila, all I need is a chair," he said, settling down with his back to the wall.

"I watched these touching pictures on French television and I cried," he said, explaining why he came.

-NY Times, November 12, 1989

Labels: , ,

Blogger Katy on Fri Apr 27, 06:22:00 PM:
I'm so bummed about Rostropovich's death. I saw him conduct Shostakovich's 7th Symphony about five years ago in New York. He was clearly having a blast.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A vote guaranteed to elect a loser

Out of a field of dozens of candidates, French voters may have already eliminated the most popular, thanks to their clunky runoff system. The Herald Tribune wrote before the first round election:
The French know they do not have the luxury of voting their hearts the first time around. In the first-round ballot in April 2002, the protest vote went to Le Pen, and in a shock, he knocked out the Socialist candidate for second place in the first round and faced the incumbent Jacques Chirac in the runoff.
"I'd like to vote for Besancenot - a simple mailman who speaks to the little person - and there are a lot of people like me," said Azzedine Hamet, a 25-year-old unemployed metal worker, referring to Olivier Besancenot, the 32-year-old Trotskyite candidate. "But I feel the burden of 2002. To vote like that is to throw away your vote."

In a number of polls, [Francois] Bayrou has a better chance than Royal of defeating Sarkozy in the second round. That means some voters on the left who are determined to defeat Sarkozy are contemplating whether to sacrifice Royal and support Bayrou.

We all know that didn't happen. As a result, though French people in general might collectively be happiest with centrist Bayrou, they now are set to pick between socialist and conservative candidates.

This despite the fact that the day before the election, a poll by TNS-Sofres showed Bayrou beating both Sarkozy and Royal in head-to-head races, and in effect beating every single candidate running for president of France in a head to head race. This is the candidate who should be elected. This from an article that, like other misguided media coverage, starts "Nicolas Sarkozy continues to lead all presidential contenders in France..." The colossal lede that the most popular candidate is likely to lose is buried in the fourth paragraph, as usual.

Of course, the United States' system is even worse. John McCain was a more popular candidate than George Bush in 2000, but the primary system kept him from millions of swing voters who never had a chance to vote for him. (For the record, McCain is on the wrong side of nearly every important political issue and isn't the bipartisan savior we're looking for, but he sure is better than Bush.) The way Congressional seats are now allotted in the Republicans' favor, Democrats can--and have--get more votes for House and Senate candidates than the Republicans do, but win fewer of the seats. And the ills of our electoral college have been enumerated plenty.

It's crazy that in this age of self-satisfied democracies, citizens are content with electoral systems that don't choose the most popular candidates or parties. Voters in Kiribati and Sri Lanka rank candidates, and a form of instant runoff voting is used in each case; I like the Borda count method (with a set number of candidates to rank) and other Condorcet methods, which guarantee that if there is a candidate like Bayrou who would win head-to-head against any other candidate, he or she will be chosen.

Voters should be able to focus on who they want to elect, and free to ignore questions of voting strategy and other such machinations. No voter in a democracy should have to vote against their first choice for reasons of game theory.

Labels: ,

Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Apr 26, 12:39:00 AM:
Borda voting seems like a reasonable idea, until voters get strategic, at which point it falls apart.

As for Condorcet methods, they are all deeply flawed, because of certain problems inherent to ordinal voting methods, like not satisfying independence of irrelevant alternatives. Plus, the promise of Condorcet methods, which is to always elect a beats-all winner, when one exists, are flawed because

A) The DH3 pathology often prevents Condorcet winners from winning, and instead picks a very very BAD winner, in practice.

B) They are predicated on the idea that if a majority of voters prefers A to B, then A is a better candidate; but this is easily disproven by Condorcet cyclic ambiguities like this one

34% A > B > C
32% B > C > A
34% C > A > B

Which ever one of these candidates you decide is "best", you can remove on of the other two candidates, and suddenly that "best candidate" loses the majority vote.

The superior measure of a voting method is social utility efficiency - or, average voter satisfaction with the result. By that metric, Range Voting, where voters simply score the candidates and elect the one with the highest average, is hands down the best method.

The simplest form of Range Voting, called "Approval Voting", just uses a 0-1 "range". It's effectively identical to the way we vote now, except that you can vote for as many candidates as you want (or vote "against" them by not voting for them). This method is far superior to Borda and Condorcet, and much simpler.

Clay Shentrup
San Francisco, CA
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Apr 26, 01:20:00 AM:
Ankaŭ, se vi ŝatas krei lingvojn por neveraj landoj, ci povas komenci kun ĉi tiu.
Blogger Ben on Fri Apr 27, 06:47:00 PM:
I also like approval voting, and I appreciate its simplicity compared to range voting, which would take more explaining than Borda ranking.

But I think range voting, including approval voting, are almost as problematic when it comes to strategic voting as Borda is. All of these are better than one-single-vote, of course.

On the site you link to, Range voting's strategic voting problems are dismissed with:

"the mild-opinioned voters [whose voting backfires and leads to the election of a less-desired candidate] have little basis for complaining, since their preferences were only mild and since they voluntarily chose to express them".

But couldn't the same be said of strategic Borda voters, as are described in the DH3 case?

In all voting systems, there will be cases in which a voter might achieve a better result by voting dishonestly than honestly. The question is, how do we minimize such cases, while keeping the system simple to understand? I think Borda, on balance, fits these needs better than range or approval voting.

An added benefit of some of these alternatives is that they would make it harder to see clearly who is leading in polls, since the polls would be necessarily farther-removed from the actual ballott decisions facing voters. Borda, in particular, is simple to follow but complicated enough that strategic voting would be harder to think through than it would be with approval voting.

I do concede that the cloning problem is damning evidence against Borda. In this light, maybe approval is better overall.

At any rate, we can agree that Bayrou should have won, and that Borda, approval or range voting would probably have elected him (and that instant runoff would not).

By the way, I love the page on funny elections at .

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Cross swords with the Sox and Yankees

Though I'm still in the red overall, I have decided to pay the $250 and subscribe to the New York Times. I'll probably only glance at the headlines as I trip over the paper leaving home in the morning (this morning, the paper and the cloud of weed smoke from high schoolkids conspired with the Times to bring me down), but the prospect of coffee and crossword in the morning is too good to resist.

The blog world has a few die-hard crossword followers. "Diary of a Crossword Fiend" has the author's daily times for the Times, NY Sun, LA Times, and Christian Science Monitor puzzles and the weekly Onion puzzle. (But beware of spoilers in the discussion of each day's Times puzzle--and that goes for the end of this entry, too.) This comprehensiveness and continuity makes for insights about particular contributors and editors. Interestingly, the Fiend raves--to his or her surprise--about the Sun's puzzle, edited by Peter Gordon, a frequent contributor to various papers over the years under a pen name:
"Ogden Porter" (Peter Gordon) caters to the geography lover in me (have you got one of those? My inner child likes to hang out with the geography lover) with "Modernized Geography": Burma-Shave becomes MYANMAR-SHAVE, Bombay Sapphire is MUMBAI SAPPHIRE, Peking Express is BEIJING EXPRESS, and a Madras shirt is a CHENNAI SHIRT.
In fact, it seems that several prominent puzzle contributors use pen names, some of which are clever anagrams:
Natalia Shore/Mike Shenk ("Another Alias")
Judith Seretto/Mike Shenk ("Just the Editor")
Marie Kelly/Mike Shenk ("Really Mike")
Lila Cherry/Rich Norris ("Really Rich")
Gia Christian/Rich Norris ("Again It's Rich")
Charlie Riley/Rich Norris ("i.e. Really Rich"?)
Sally R. Stein/Stan Newman ("It's Really S.N.")
All of this crossword talk is just to set up my joy today in filling in one of the words in the Times puzzle. Last week, I went up to Columbia University to meet a priest and picked up the Columbia Daily Spectator, which carries the LA Times puzzle. One clue for a four-letter word read, "Dominican-American American League slugger, to fans", and I gleefully wrote in PAPI, the nickname of the Red Sox's living legend. (Well, the truncated nickname, but I pushed that out of my mind.) I began to cross PAPI with other words, and they didn't fit; and to my horror, it dawned on me that the correct answer was AROD, who of course is the Yankee (and actor in much Sox-Yankees drama) who's slugging over 1.000 right now.

A higher power (Will Shortz?) must have seen this and wouldn't let the injustice stand, because last weekend the Sox swept the Yankees at Fenway in dramatic fashion. Alice's and my pal Katy Aronoff was at the first game, in which the Sox came back in the eighth inning from a 6-2 deficit and our untried Japanese relief pitcher showed up Mariano Rivera and held our one-point edge for the win. Katy, I'm going to post your description of the energy at the game, because it's just too good not to:
Oh my God, the atmosphere at Fenway... I can't even describe. It was so loud, and we were on our feet for most of the last two innings. Then there was a massive, screaming group hug in the aisle as we were leaving. Best game ever at Fenway.
These poor Oakland fans behind us who were at Fenway for the first time were really bewildered. The atmosphere was like regular Fenway x10.
And to cap things off, today, exactly a week later, the Times puzzle has the clue: "Baseball's David, nicknamed 'Big Papi'". This along with JAZZY JEFF, OZZY OSBOURNE, and 1930s pitcher (and famous pinch base-runner who deliberately got nailed in the head to prevent a double play) DIZZY DEAN. I'm just waiting for a puzzle that runs the great Ortiz quote, when he forgot he was in range of the mics at the 2004 spring training: "Give me the sticky-icky-icky!"

Labels: ,

Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Apr 26, 10:42:00 AM:
Dude, I'm famous! In your blog!

Two other great tidbits about the game on Friday night:

1. There was an obnoxious Yankee fan a few rows in front of us who kept standing up and cheering whenever a Yankee got a hit or a strikeout or whatever. Once the Sox rally started, he began to hunch over in his seat to the point where it looked like he was about to curl into a ball and hide UNDER the seat. There's barely room for a backpack under those tiny seats at Fenway, let alone a Yankee fan.

2. The family with young kids sitting in front of us left in the 7th inning (pre-rally). They were replaced by a pair of grizzled 50-something women who I decided must have been from Revere (if you'd seen them, you would have come to the same conclusion). They were a little disappointed when Okajima came out in the 9th to close out the game. One of the women started yelling, "BRING IN THE KID! BRING IN THE KID!" I have to admit, we were all a little skeptical. I yelped, "But Papelbon threw 25 pitches last night in Toronto!" No one seemed to hear me, but once Okajima started to get outs, there was this moment where the crowd changed its mind en masse and decided to get behind him. The Revere women started an "OOOOH-KA-JI-MA!" chant, and everyone else joined in.
Blogger Rex Parker on Tue May 01, 04:13:00 PM:
Dear god, if you are crossword fans AND Sox fans (or even if you're Yankees fans, I guess) then why in hell aren't you reading My Crossword Blog? (he asked, petulantly). Let's see, this entry ends w/ Red Sox stuff and links to my favorite Red Sox blog as well. Oh my god, one of you is getting a Ph.D. in English from Columbia!? Small world - I went to grad school with someone on faculty in your dept.

Crossword Fiend, Schmossword Fiend! (kidding, she's a friend)

Blogger Orange on Tue May 01, 10:39:00 PM:
You know what? You can save big bucks and subscribe to the Times crosswords online for $39.95 a year—can solve online or print the puzzle out before your morning coffee (or even the night before). Plus, no print newspaper to recycle. (Sorry, can't help with the weed smoke issues.)


the aforementioned Fiend

(P.S. At my blog, CS = CrosSynergy syndicated crosswords, which appear in the Houston Chronicle and other papers.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Reason #138 why Gawker doesn't allow commenters to have 'snark' in their names

A great post from Gawker about curbing the use of the word 'snarky' in the NY Times. I'd love to see what else is in After Deadline.


Blogger Ben on Wed Apr 25, 10:01:00 PM:
The second comment on the page is priceless:

"I wish someone over there would say, 'Enough with the aging liberal douchedom.'"

Friday, April 13, 2007

Should we talk about the weather?

Slate has a slightly mocking piece about the awesome oddity that is Top 100 Weather Moments on the Weather Channel. Fine, fine, have Harry Connick, Jr. host the show. I would have been a better host, though. The other day I ran into someone who remarked on the April rain that was just this side of sleet: "I heard somewhere that April is the cruelest month!" I said I was from the desert, and even after several years in New York, I still get a certain delight out of gray days. Albuquerque once held the record for consecutive sunny days (I know this because my mom or step-dad clipped this weather fact out of the weather section one day and posted on the refrigerator, where it remained for years), and there are very few days as spectacularly gloomy as it was, say, yesterday in New York. "Then you're congenitally optimistic," the person said. That's one of the few times I'll ever be called optimistic. This Weather Channel show looks great! I'm very optimistic about it.

I have strong memories of a tornado watch in Austin when I was five or six years old. We had to sit in the closet in my bedroom for half an hour or so--the tornado never came--but the fear carried over to the next day, when the front that had caused the storm had become stationary over the area and there was torrential rain. I spent the day at daycare drawing macabre pictures of floods. For months afterwards, I'd get upset even upon seeing a puff of smoke from a bus.

My parents wisely realized that the way to handle the fear was to turn it into a curiosity: if I could master the information, I wouldn't be so scared of it. That trick had already worked for spiders: I have another vivid memory of finding a black widow and her egg sac in the garage at the same time that my kindergarten class was studying spiders. This memory has been distorted, surely, because I remember the spider being as large as a grape, and I don't think black widows are that big, but something in that moment of finding it, identifying it, and, um, being right about the identification completely transformed my fear of spiders into something more manageable. That something wasn't necessarily safer--I found the occasional black widow in the years to come, and I'd always trap them to wait to show them off--but it was better to be obsessively curious than scared. The same trick worked for earthquakes; many of my science reports in elementary school were about building my own crude seismograph, and my second favorite exhibit in the Albuquerque natural history museum was the seismic map of the current seismic activity all over the world.

My very favorite exhibit at the natural history museum was the mural of every cloud formation. The mural started on a cloudy storm and wrapped around three walls to show the cumulonimbus clouds drift into cumulus clouds, which became cirrus clouds, and so on.

But I had only this painting of extreme weather to whet my passion when I was growing up. Thunderstorms in New Mexico are beautiful in their own way: they build up spectacularly almost every afternoon during the summer "monsoon" season, but they often evaporate in the atmosphere, creating what are called virgas. It often rains while the sun is shining because the storms are isolated, and there are frequent double rainbows (I've seen only one rainbow in New York).

I got my wish for extreme weather the week or so after I moved to New York when there was a hurricane watch (Hurricane Floyd). The hurricane didn't make it here, of course, but I was very impressed by the tempestuous winds and rain and stayed outside for much of the storm. I called my dad, who also loves extreme weather, to tell him about it. "Open your window and hold the phone out the window so I can hear it!" he said.

Unsurprisingly, weather classification was a big eighteenth-century organization of knowledge project. Richard Hamblyn's The Invention of Clouds is a great account of Luke Howard's work to classify clouds into the names we give them today; it takes up some of the same information as Scott Huler's Defining the Wind, which I also liked a lot. One of my favorite things about Hamblyn's book is his inclusion of so many poems from the eighteenth century and the Romantic period about clouds and cloud classification. I get such a kick out of these kinds of poems. Here's James Thomson from The Seasons (1748):
Oft, as he travers'd the cerulean field,
And mark'd the Clouds that drove before the wind;
Ten thousand glorious systems he would build,
Ten thousand great ideas fill'd his mind;
But with the clouds they fled, and left no trace behind.

(I still remember Anna's vocal dislike of The Seasons from a class we took together in college, but something about the poem cracks me up every time I read it--possibly for the same reason that Anna was so exasperated by it. I do love the anecdote from Henry Hitchings' Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary about Johnson's assessment of The Seasons, which, as I'm typing it out now, turns out to be even more germane to the post than I thought it would be. As Boswell tells it (and Hitchings retells it), Johnson discussed The Seasons with one of his Dictionary assistants, Robert Shiels, who was an admirer of Thomson: "'His fault, is such a cloud of words sometimes, that the sense can hardly peep through. ... Shiels ... was one day sitting with me. I took down Thomson, and read aloud a large portion...and then asked, --Is not this fine? Shiels having expressed the highest admiration. Well, Sir, (said I) I have omitted every other line.'")

The best chapter of Hamblyn's book is about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poetic interpretation of Howard's classification system. Goethe was so excited by Howard's work that he dedicated a poem to him and rendered the descriptions into verse (1817). (The Nimbus fragment is my favorite, but its effect is heightened when you read a sequence of them). These are from Hamblyn's book:

When o'er the silent bosom of the sea
The cold mist hangs like a stretch'd canopy;
And the moon; mingling there her shadowy beams,
A spirit fashioning other spirits seems;
We feel, in moments pure and bright as this,
The joy of innocence, the thrill of bliss.
Then towering up in the darkening mountain's side,
And spreading as it rolls its curtains wide,
It mantles round the mid-way height, and there
It sinks in water-drops, or soars in air.


Still soaring, as if some celestial call
Impell'd it to yon heaven's sublimest hall;
High as the clouds, in pomp and power arrayed,
Enshrined in strength, in majesty displayed;
All the soul's secret thoughts it seems to move,
Beneath it trembles, while it frowns above.


And higher, higher yet the vapors roll:
Triumph is the noblest impulse of the soul!
Then like a lamb whose silvery robes are shed,
The fleecy piles dissolved in dew drops spread;
Or gently waft to the realms of rest,
Find a sweet welcome in the Father's breast.


Now downwards by the world's attraction driven,
That tends to earth, which had upris'n to heaven;
Threatening in the mad thunder-cloud, as when
Fierce legions clash, and vanish from the plain;
Sad destiny of the troubled world! but see,
The mist is now dispersing gloriously:
And language fails us in its vain endeavour--
The spirit mounts above, and lives forever.

Later, Goethe also wrote introductory stanzas to the versified classification:
But Howard gives us with his clearer mind
The gain of lessons new to all mankind;
That which no hand can reach, no hand can clasp,
He first has gain'd, first held with mental grasp.
Defin'd the doubtful, fix'd its limit-line,
And named it fitly. --Be the honour thine!
As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,
Let the world think of thee who taught it all.

Finally, there's an obvious title pattern re: classificatory systems in the eighteenth century to the books cited in this post ;the fourth title to continue the pattern is Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything, which I've written about previously.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Looking back on rape at Duke and Columbia

The fact that the Duke lacrosse rape case was dismissed doesn't tell us what happened, of course, but at least it's clear that there is reasonable doubt. Meanwhile, Duke already suspended the players. Did Duke make the wrong decision, given what was known at the time? I think so.

In 2000, there was a controversy around Columbia University's sexual misconduct policy. Columbia, like just about all schools, organizations and corporations, has its own set of procedures for handling discipline internally, even if the alleged wrongdoing is being handled (or is better handled) by the courts. I wrote at the time that conservative-leaning civil libertarians, particularly Nat Hentoff and Alan Kors, founder of FIRE, were concerned with the case more to score points in the culture war against the left than out of concern for fairness. I concluded:
"The first student who insists on clearing his name," Hentoff declares, "will surely have a battery of civil liberties lawyers eager to do battle against Columbia." In assuming that the students before this one merely would have not insisted on clearing their names (instead of possibly being guilty of sexual assault), Hentoff acts as if campus rape does not really exist. There is a lesson here: controversies are seldom about their supposed issues, however important those issues may actually be. They are instead about settling old scores; in this case, stereotyping activists as zealots. However Hentoff and others might misconstrue things, there will be some woman here one day--because rape does happen--who will have a new chance at a humane resolution to sexual violence, thanks to the work of our student body and our senate. And for that, we can take the heat.
I feel the same today. I knew of a female student who was raped by a male student, tried in vain to get the Columbia administration to take action, and was forced to see her attacker regularly around campus. But it's a hard tradeoff; a policy that allows students to be suspended or expelled on a believable charge of rape runs the risk of unjustly punishing and stigmatizing innocent students.

One solution is defer to the courts when serious crimes are involved, and follow their lead. But what about cases dismissed on technicalities, or marginalized by an indifferent and unjust legal system? It would be cowardly to follow suit in such cases.

Here's a tougher question: returning to the Duke case, what if the prosecutorial misconduct hadn't been outed, and the accused players had gone to jail after a seeming fair trial, but truly are innocent? What should Duke have done in such a situation? It would seem ludicrous not to suspend the players--and yet it would have been wrong. I can't work this one out: if I were an administrator, I would consciously do the wrong thing and suspend the players. And I'd know it was wrong.

In a sense, there are right-wing news events and left-wing news events; idealogues need not be bothered by either, but thinking people should be changed by events that don't square with their assumptions. There are plenty of left-wing news events, such as the success of charter schools where teachers are paid more and treated like professionals, relapses by supposedly-recovered-gay christians, and the entire Iraq war. And there are right-wing events, like studies that show schools don't improve noticeably if they are just given more money, research that suggests minimum wage increases increase poverty, and rape cases where accusers turn out to be liars. I assumed the lacrosse players were most likely guilty; I was wrong, and I'm a little changed.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Stradivarius incognito: a passover story

The Washington Post Magazine has a wonderful article about a stunt they arranged where violin virtuoso Joshua Bell played, like a normal street performer, in a Washington DC subway station. Would people notice that something extraordinary is happening right under their noses?
A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.
In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.
Mark Leithauser has held in his hands more great works of art than any king or pope or Medici ever did. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"

My rabbi has a passover sermon about Moses and the burning bush: when you consider it, a bush on fire in the desert is nothing special, and it would take extended attention--peculiar attention--to notice that the flames aren't consuming it.

I choose to believe that New York has more Moses than Washington. Let Bell play Union Square -- I'd bet he'd get ten times the crowd.


Anonymous Anonymous on Tue Apr 10, 10:11:00 AM:
There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog:
She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters... I thought you might find it interesting.
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Apr 13, 10:26:00 AM:
My viola teacher used to live in the same building as Mischa Amory, a well-known violist. She could hear him practicing through the duct system in the building, so sometimes she'd stand next to the duct and eavesdrop. We'd all get guilt trip-inducing reports at our lessons:

"Mischa Amory always checks against open strings!"

"Mischa Amory plays lots of scales!"

"Mischa Amory uses the metronome!"

Maybe someone should send a pack of viola teachers to go heckle people in the subway.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The celluloid spyglass

I'm finishing Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (which starts with The Golden Compass), and loving it. It's clever and graceful and full of neat ideas, and the emotional drama is better handled for my taste than in other fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings and the Narnia books.

In the back of my mind, though, I can never be immersed fully in its drama because it is so clear that whether or not a character dies rests on her utility to the author. There are sudden deaths and reversals, and some of these are shocking, but when a central character goes away from the narrator in the middle of a brutal fight, I can trust that he won't be dead when we next see him. The eye of the narrator, rather than being unnoticed or, in the reverse, played creatively, instead hobbles the story and takes the sting out of bullets.

Of course this problem is not so bad as it is in the dissapointing Lord of the Rings movies. A reader of the books hears horrible tales of cruelty by Sauron, the orcs, and the ringwraiths. In the films, the rape of the shire is skipped entirely and the ringwraiths are innefectual bumblers who can only grab helplessly at Liv Tyler as she goes through the motions of fleeing them. Sauron's eye is creepy, but never seems to do any harm. The only moment of real fear comes when Gandalf is pulled down by the Balrog.

These errors will soon be able to be made again. A film of The Golden Compass is in the works, with, presumably, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass to follow. The Times has a piece by Pullman reflecting on the process, which reveals him to be as thoughtful a writer on writing as he is a plotter of fantasy:
...when I heard that the script was to be written by Tom Stoppard, I was interested to see how he’d go about it... While he was writing it, he asked me many questions about various aspects of the story, questions to which often the only true answer would have been “I don’t know — I just made it up,” or “It felt right,” or “I just thought it needed X at that point.”

It felt as if I were being viva’d for a pass degree by a genial but profoundly clever don who knew my subject better than I ever would. So I stumbled around offering what I thought were intelligent answers, but that were almost certainly not. Actually, I doubt whether authors ever know what their own novels mean. If they do, they’ve probably written them to make them attractive to university teachers of modern literature, or so they could sound interesting when discussing them on Newsnight Review. I don’t think I conveyed a lot to Stoppard, but perhaps he didn’t need my answers so much as he needed to articulate the questions; and the result of it all was a very Stoppardian script that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. However, it wasn’t what the studio wanted, so the process began again. [emph added]
By the way, Nicole Kidman is to play the beautiful and deeply evil Mrs. Coulter (ahem), a part that may as well have been written for her.

Here's an excerpt--I'll explain little of the context so as not to spoil anything--of the thoughts of one protagonists, who has just confronted Mrs. Coulter and believes her to be his greatest enemy:
... why did he hesitate?

Balthamos knew. In his own angel shape, shimmering like a heat haze in the sunlight, he said, "You were foolish to go to her. All you want to do now is see the woman again."
And Will scowled, but it was true. He had been captivated by Mrs. Coulter. All his thoughts referred to her: when he thought of Lyra, it was to wonder how like her mother she'd be when she grew up; if he thought of the Church, it was to wonder how many of the priests and cardinals were under her spell; if he thought of his own dead father, it was to wonder whether he would have detested her or admired her; and if he thought of his own mother...
Let me be the first to say Kidman is not up to the role. Mrs. Coulter is nearly insane, and can deeply cover her cruelty with radiant warmth to a level that requires a level of separation of intention and expression straight out of the DSM-IV's section on psychosis. Kidman is known as being capable of radiance, but the weakest part of her acting in To Die For was that she never stopped vamping and winking, even as her character was playing the seductress. The power of the Mrs. Coulter character is that she is not having fun when she turns her charm on and off at will, pouring it on with all her heart when she needs to manipulate others. At these times, she is fully immersed in her lie. Nothing is held back. To play her right, an actress (and director) need to trust the audience to remember the complexities of the character without needing the Anthony Hopkins-John Malkovitch tropes of tics and crazy-talk that reassure the audience that the character is mad. The problem is that this subconcious communication to the audience is there on screen for the other characters to see; they too should pick up on it, though in Hollywood they seldom do.


Blogger Jeff'y on Mon Apr 09, 09:26:00 AM:
I really enjoyed His Dark Materials up until book three (The Amber Spyglass). I thought that Pullman did an admirable job of balancing his "message" with traditional fantasy elements throughout the first two, but too much of Spyglass was spent on digressions from the main story line with rather forced imagery and questionable character motivations. I can definitely believe the quotes from Pullman about making things up for the sake of advancing his plot.

Still, it's a fun trilogy and I'm looking forward to the movie. I'll speak up in minor defense of Kidman in To Die For: from what I remember, the over-the-top elements of her performance were keeping with the overall tone of the movie. I think she can handle Mrs. Coulter, who comes out of book three as being an overall muddled character. There's some leeway in how she can be played throughout the series.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Silent Bob strikes out

My brother Alex pointed me to some Kevin Smith and Tim Burton trivia on Wikipedia.

In the Beetlejuice article:
The studio disliked the title "Beetlejuice" and wanted to call the film "House Ghosts." As a joke, Tim Burton suggested the name "Scared Sheetless" and was horrified when the studio actually considered using it.
In the Planet of the Apes article:
In Kevin Smith's Q&A DVD An Evening with Kevin Smith recalls, along with his connection to Burton on a failed Superman project, an odd coincidence about this film. Smith explained that, while talking to reporter friend Lou Louserman about Planet of the Apes, he saw that the film's twist ending, which depicted an ape head in place of Lincoln's at the Lincoln Memorial, was similar to a panel from Smith's comic book mini-series Chasing Dogma, in which apes take off Lincoln's head off the monument and replace it with the ape head.

Smith and Louserman joked about releasing a tongue-in-cheek article about Smith contemplating legal action against 20th Century Fox. However, when the article was actually printed, it did not come off as a tongue in cheek remark. In the article, Burton stated that "Anyone who knows me knows that I would never read a comic book and I would especially never read anything written by Kevin Smith". Smith jokingly remarked that Burton's statement "explains Batman".
There's also the tale of Smith's doomed Superman Lives script, in the weird article about various canceled Superman films:
Director and comic book enthusiast Kevin Smith was preparing for the release of his film Chasing Amy when he was brought into the offices of Warner Bros. to give input on several projects "up for grabs." Declining other films offered to him, he indicated interest in Superman Reborn. He... later said, "...the thing that bothered me about Greg Poirier’s draft: they were trying to give Superman angst. They had Clark Kent going to a psychiatrist at one point. Superman’s angst is not that he doesn’t want to be Superman. If he has any (angst), it’s that he can’t do it all; he can’t do enough and save everyone." "Batman is about angst; Superman is about hope."
Eventually, Lorenzo di Bonaventura decided to offer Smith the job, pending approval of producer Jon Peters. Smith personally presented his 80-page film treatment to the eccentric producer at the latter's home. Peters was intrigued, but he insisted that if Smith was to take the job, he would have to tightly follow parameters that he himself set: Superman could not be seen flying, Superman must have a 'modern' costume, and the third act was to have a fight involving a giant spider. Peters also wanted Sean Penn to play the lead role. Among Peters' notes to the writer were: ...Brainiac should have a furry dog of some sort, "like Chewie"... Brainiac's sidekick, L-Ron, must be a "gay Artoo type"... Superman's suit must be something he can piece together, a la Batman;

In spite of the "restrictions" placed on him by Peters, Smith completed a script with which he was satisfied in 1997, titled Superman Lives.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Joseph Stiglitz on IP and world trade

Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia economics professor and former chief economist for the World Bank, spoke to a theater full of Columbia University alumni on Saturday, March 31st, during the school's annual craven appeal for cash from alumni Dean's day. I attended the lecture, and my notes are below. Stiglitz said the themes here are expanded in detail in his recent books Globalization and Its Discontents and Making Globalization Work.

Note that the talk was not on the record and that the below is my interpretation of Stiglitz's talk from my brief notes. These are not direct quotes, and even the gist might be more me than him. My comments are in parenthesis. -Ben Wheeler

Stiglitz: One problem you're seeing with globalization is that few countries in the world are wholly accepting the US model, and few buy completely the story that the US is successful because it followed the model it's prescribing through the WTO, IMF and World Bank. There are significant moments in history where the US violated these principles, sometimes for the good of the economy in the long term.

The example of Scandinavia is often held up as an alternative to the US. There are huge social protections, a high tax rate, and the measures of social well being are higher than the US. And in France, you see people protesting as they did last year, demanding that a better way be found for integrating into the global economy that doesn't mean eroding worker protections.

(Note: I wonder -- isn't there horrible indebtedness in Scandinavia, worse than US? Also, I wonder at the long-term viability of the model, given what seems anecdotally to be the disincentives to innovation there; friends from Finland and Sweden tell me that few young people have motivation to become entrepreneurs or invest in their professional value, since they can live so comfortably with low-wage jobs. There's something repulsive to me about that, which I suppose is just a cultural difference. As for France, it seems like the tradeoff involved in making it hard to fire people is a bad one; you get some job security, but you've got to lose some hiring in the first place from companies worried about not being able to fire if they need to downsize.)

Stiglitz: One area where we're in trouble is intellectual property (IP). There's a growing awareness in the business and academic communities in this country that our approach to intellectual property isn't working, and it's getting worse, with copyright extensions and patents being applied to new areas where the patent office isn't competent to figure out what should and shouldn't be patentable. You see this awareness most in the software industry, where even giant patent holders like IBM are realizing that they can do better using their organizational competence and doing a better job than the next company, than they can just be seizing whatever IP they can and exploiting it.

The term of IP has been being extended too, which just goes against the principles that IP was founded on in this country. Thomas Jefferson famously used the analogy of a candle: if you light my candle, it doesn't diminish the flame in yours; thus ideas should be held to a looser standard of property control than physical objects and land. And you see that in Africa: there are millions of people who can never pay the $10,000 per year for a typical regime of AIDS drugs, whether this is paid by the government or by individuals. A generic version might be $150 per year, but that is generally illegal under these countries' trade agreements with the US unless the companies specifically make a deal and allow it, And yet what's lost if the pharmaceudicals allow the generic to be produced in the third world? Only a tiny part of their market. Granting an outright monopoly on an idea, even a brilliant innovation, is absurd.

Twenty years ago, I was approached by a Chinese publisher, with a request for me to write a forward to their pirated edition of my book. To tell the truth, I was excited at the idea. From my perspective, 1.4 billion people was a big market for my ideas, but when I asked my publisher what he thought, he didn't share my enthusiasm! But if we can't get a cheap, mass-market version of the book out and into stores there, and someone else can, it's not so bad that they do.

Question from audience: should borders be opened more to flows of labor?

Stiglitz: In Mexico and Central and South America, the fence we're building across the US-Mexico border is seen as very offensive. I helped draft and push NAFTA, which on the whole was a good idea at the time, but the effect has been very disappointing. It wasn't free trade that it created, but managed trade; if it was free trade, the document would have been hundreds of pages shorter! No, it managed trade, including protecting imbalances like US agricultural subsidies. It's been said that US corn farmers don't farm corn -- they farm Washington.

Question from the audience: but isn't there justification in granting a temporary monopoly a crucial incentive to promote development of ideas and innovations?

Stiglitz: Yes and no. I certainly think that some scaled back form of our current patent system is necessary, and that the incentives are real. Something needs to pay for development. But when you look at the details of how it works now, it's not so dire as the big companies claim. Pharmaceudicals spend more on advertising than on research, so they're clearly happy to capitalize on the IP they get.

(I wonder -- could you argue that the advertising-research imbalance supports the notion that companies don't have enough of an incentive to innovate? If we took away all IP, they'd spend everything on advertising, and if we made IP eternal and ironclad, they'd spend more on research, surely.)

You had the example of the Blackberry company recently, Research In Motion, which had to pay a $600 million fee--a ransom, really--just to stay in production. What happened was a group of lawyers bought up a patent for an obvious technology, which was bound to be invalidated eventually--it's been invalidated in two countries already, but not the US--and used that to get money from a legitimate business that was increasing worker productivity. In Europe, you always get a chance to challenge a patent before it is granted, but not in the US; and once it's granted, and with the right legalese it's easy to get very broad patents even if you never produce a thing, you can bring somebody to court and get a court order that they shut down operations on the grounds of trespassing--that they are tresspassing on your intellectual property, your patent. RIM tried to say, we'll pay you, but if the patent is eventually ruled invalid, we get our money back. But the patent holders said no, pay us now or shut down, period, no strings attached. And thanks to our backwards IP system, it worked, and they had to pay.

All this relates to the declining role of the US as an innovator and creator of new technologies and businesses. Right now one of our biggest exports is treasury bills, which China and Japan and others buy billions of each year; so we're exporting T-bills, but not automobiles, as someone put it. We're not creating new jobs.

On Keynes: Keynes argued that UK growth slowed because of reliance on sterling as a foreign reserve currency that other countries were buying as a safe place for their money. The ability to sell sterling let the UK be lazy about innovation and long-term growth. Same is happening with US now -- we're replacing valuable economic power with hot air every year.

(I'm wondering at this moment -- couldn't what Stiglitz is saying be applied to liberal programs like welfare? Isn't it more important for companies to be able to make business decisions unencumbered by complicated red tape than, for example, having restrictive laws that hinder firing workers?)

As for alternatives to our IP regime, I want to be clear that the current elements must be part of the IP portfolio of policies, but they should be reduced in scope and made more fair. There should be a much bigger role of prizes. For examples in history, look at the Edinburgh, Scotland city government, which saw that boys working as chimney sweeps were, well, not tremendously healthy. The government offered a prize for anyone who could invent a mechanical sweeping tool or machine. They got tons of submissions, found a successful design, paid the prize, and released the design to the public domain, and everyone was better off and able to continue to innovate and compete for efficient production and servicing. Our government should identify prize-worthy goals, such as environmental ones.

Question from audience: China is a huge source of IP piracy, but the US played a similar role in the 19th and early 20th century with European art and books, which is why writers like Arthur Conan Doyle went on big tours of the US -- it was their only way to make money in our big market, which was saturated by pirated versions of their work that our government wouldn't go after. So my question is, when are you going on a tour of China? [laughter]

Stiglitz: Remember that US does plenty of piracy; just look at music downloading, and increasing film downloading.

Too effective an IP regime would impede China and India's growth. Now that they have passed some laws to respect US and European IP, we'll see what happens. One example is that in China, the government distributes seeds, and they also provide a guarantee of seed output -- that if you plant, and there's drought or another problem that means you don't get the average output, the government will pay you for the difference. In India, they had this, but they've cut it back to come in like with international trade policy demands. At the same time in the countryside in India, there is a plague of suicides of farmers who are so deep in debt that they are spiraling out of control. Thousands have killed themselves, it's eroding social cohesion disastrously.

(I wonder about this -- could the market provide insurance for this kind of thing, perhaps more efficiently than the government? Or would the ability to push desperate farmers towards exploitative patterns of debt be irresistible to the private sector, so this can only be trusted to government?)

More examples of misguided IP: in US, patents have been granted for basmati rice, and for chemicals in turmeric, whose healing properties have been known in India for thousands of years. But they never documented this knowledge, and so it's being claimed by sophisticated lawyers in the West. Ironically, that turmeric patent was Indian scientists who came to the US. Think about what this means: if an Indian company distributes turmeric extract, they could be forced to pay a bunch of US lawyers, who are often the only people at companies that exist only to make money from patents, or they would have to cease and desist.

Labels: , , , ,