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Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Scandal of the Season

A friend called Sophie Gee's new novel, The Scandal of the Season, a "bodice-ripper." "Actually, it's a bodice-unlacer," I joked, as there's a funny seduction scene in the middle of the book. Maybe I didn't get that sexiness across in my introduction to the interview I did with Sophie Gee for the National Poetry Foundation website, which is now up online, because I was so focused on talking about mock-epics, but maybe that's also a way of saying that there's a lot going on in the book. It's a fun book, even if you aren't interested in eighteenth-century poetry.

I had such a great time talking with Sophie about her novel and about Alexander Pope. There's a funny part that I didn't get on the tape recorder about screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's apparent obsession with Alexander Pope--I've always wondered if there's any rhyme or reason as to why Pope's translation of Eloisa to Abelard shows up in multiple Kaufman scripts (the puppets in Being John Malkovich and the title of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the title of which is an excellent example of the genitive case that we discuss in the interview). There's no real answer to the question, but it's still interesting! I also had a nice time cutting the interview into something readable--though it's still quite long--it's funny to see what becomes important after multiple edits.

Also, I saw a musical theater production of The Rape of the Lock a couple of years ago--very Gilbert & Sullivan, in its own odd way.


Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Dec 02, 09:06:00 PM:
I really enjoyed reading this, Alice! I enjoyed finding out about Gee and the story behind her novel as much as I enjoyed finding the traces of your own interests in your questions and the passages you shared with us--great interview!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A large example is dangerous

I look forward to Edward Rothstein's Connections columns in the NY Times. Yesterday's column, about the recent revisions to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a typical Rothstein piece: first he summarizes the book he's reading, and then he riffs for a while on something fascinating. (I hurry to get to the latter parts of his columns--except for this weird one about absinthe, which is funny in its inversion of the formula.) The end of the column is a funny critique of how the OED editors chose illustrative quotations:
But the biggest difficulties are in the "historical principles," which seem to have become historical themselves — held over from the past, only to be jettisoned when inconvenient. This is clearest in the use of quotations. Of course the first O.E.D. was skewed in its choices, reflecting few writers of the 18th century, and offering a selection not fully representative of the language’s powers. But now the O.E.D. does not even pretend to offer “all the great English writers of all ages.”

Diversity becomes a greater priority. The Shorter dictionary has 1,300 new quotations from writers like Susan Faludi, Spike Lee, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Zadie Smith, and the editors emphasize their broad demographic intentions. This can be illuminating. I like, for example, the Shorter’s definition for “mook”* (“a stupid or incompetent person”) with an illustration from Mr. Lee, “Who are you gonna listen to, me or that mook?” But in that case, there is also too little information: Only cross-references lead the reader to guess that the word evolved out of a racial slur.

And while it may be fine, in the old O.E.D., to cite authors like Shakespeare or Tennyson by first initial and last name, once the floodgates are opened, undated identifications become bewildering.

A. Cohen, for example, turns out to be the writer Arthur Cohen. But in what way does his quotation, “He could make no promises,” illuminate the evolution of the language or masterly use of the word promise? Similarly, the word smile is illustrated by a quotation from The Japan Times: “A smile creases his ...face.” There is no distinction in these examples other than the lexicographers’ desire to certify their broad representation of sources. To what linguistic end?

Does it matter, for example, that the word entrust is entrusted with a quote from L. Bruce — “I was entrusted with the unromantic job of weeding” — even if the L. in question is Lenny? As for a more obscure word, like enubilate, it might have been made as clear as its meaning (“make clear”) by providing some appropriate examples. For that you must turn to the unabridged O.E.D., where a 1903 citation from The Saturday Review establishes an enchantingly ornate context: “Maeterlinck is gradually enubilating himself from those enchanting mists in which first he strayed.”

Rothstein spends some time with Samuel Johnson's sense of incompleteness when he produced the 1755 Dictionary: reading Johnson's illustrations can be fascinating, as Henry Hitchings has found out in Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary (here's a nice review of the book in the NYRB). But the weirder version of Rothstein's investigation occurs in Richard Holmes's Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage, an imaginative biography of Johnson's relationship with ne'er-do-well poet Richard Savage. Holmes begins the book with a note about Johnson's Dictionary:
He was working at great speed, and he chose his illustrations entirely at random. Most of them are from the great classics of English literature, such as Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Pope. But of the 116,000 quotations eventually included, he chose seven from the works of his strange friend Richard Savage. These quotations, and the seven words they illustrate, may have a curious significance. Since they were chosen rapidly and at random, from such a vast source, they could be thought to reveal unconscious links and symbolic meanings. If considered as a form of 'association-test,' these seven words must instinctively have brought Richard Savage to Johnson's mind. Thus, to an analyst they might suggest something about the nature of that most puzzling relationship. Here are the seven words, and their illustrations, in alphabetical order.

1. 'Elevate': to raise with great conceptions.
Savage: 'Now rising fortune elevates his mind, He shines unclouded, and adorns mankind.'

2. 'Expanse' a body widely extended without inequalities.
Savage: 'Bright as the Etherial, glows the green expanse.'

3. 'Fondly': with great or extreme tenderness.
Savage: 'To be fondly or serenely kind.'

4. 'Lone': solitary, unfrequented, having no company.
Savage: 'Here the lone hour a blank of life displays.'

5. 'Squander': to scatter lavishly, to spend profusely, to throw away in idle prodigality.
Savage: 'They often squandered, but they never gave.'

6. 'Sterilise': to make barren, to deprive of fecundity or the power of production.
Savage: 'Go! sterilize the fertile with thy rage.'

7. 'Suicide': self-murder, the horrid crime of destroying one's self.
Savage: 'Child of despair, and Suicide my name.'

Holmes's book is a moving "biography of a biography" about Johnson's relationship with Savage. The researcher in me is skeptical of the 'association-test' that he invokes at the beginning--it's hard for me to reconcile my commitment to miscellany with the bit about the unconscious. Nevertheless, I'm fascinated in it as a writing experiment related to the fictional obituary of Savage he writes at the beginning of the book in order to outline the rambler's life and the alternate-universe obituary Holmes imagines for a Samuel Johnson who never finished the Dictionary and met with only disappointments in his professional career. Here's how Holmes imagines part of Johnson's obituary of failure:
At the time of his Death, perhaps hastened by Poverty and Overwork, he was engaged in a delusory Scheme to compile by his singular efforts a General Dictionary of the English Language, an enterprise more rationally undertaken in France by a Committee of scholars labouring over many years. The tribulations and disappointments of his Life have been summarised in a recent poetical satire, 'The Vanity of Human Wishes,' which some may take as his own Elegy.

I was especially taken with the part of the book when Holmes is describing Savage's painstaking corrections to the proofs of his long poem The Wanderer. The quotation is from Johnson's Life of Savage (1744):
Johnson himself, early hardened to the vicissitudes of journalistic publication and creeping misprints, noted this Quixotic desire for perfect typesetting with shrewd amusement. To him it revealed an obsession wholly characteristic of Savage's lack of realism in daily affairs:

'A superstitious Regard to the Correction of his Sheets was one of Mr Savage's Peculiarities; he often altered, revised, recurred to his first Reading or Punctuation, and again adopted the Alteration; he was dubious and irresolute without End, as on a Question of the last Importance, and at last was seldom satisfied; the Intrusion or Omission of a Comma was sufficient to discompose him, and he would lament an Error of a single Letter as a heavy Calamity.'

Ah, but here's Johnson's poem (translated from Latin) about his own Quixotism and sense of failure at not perfecting the Dictionary.

* Note from Ben: Any mention of "mook" would be remiss were it to omit either Treach from Naughty By Nature's classic befuddling couplet, "I step troops and leave proof / My problem-solver's name is Mook" (from "Hip Hop Hooray") or (with the benefit of foresight 9 years into the future) Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign manager--and classmate of Alice's and mine--Robbie Mook. If only HER problem-solver's name had been Mook!

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Monday, November 26, 2007

Going to the mattresses

Ever since Deng Xiaoping allowed peasants to sell crops they grew above the public quota, it has been universally acknowledged that markets excel at producing efficiency and meeting commercial needs, at least in most cases. Which makes it all the more glaring when ostensibly open and fair markets fail.

The subprime mortgage debacle, in one recent example, is really several market failures in one: a failure of consumers to learn about the self-destructing contract terms they were signing up for; a failure of risk assessors to acknowledge the high correlation between loan defaults in California and loan defaults in Carolina; and a failure of shareholders to reward CEOs more highly for prudence than they do for daring.

James Surowiecki explained the latter problem clearly in his New Yorker column:

Stanley O’Neal, who was recently forced to resign as the C.E.O. of Merrill Lynch, made eighty-four million dollars in 2005 and 2006, a figure based in part on the huge profits that Merrill booked as a result of its forays into the subprime market. Last week, thanks to those same forays, Merrill announced giant losses and writedowns that obliterated most of those profits. O’Neal, however, won’t be giving any money back.
But the subprime mistake isn't on my mind today. The market failure I'm concerned with is why mattress shopping is such a miserable and beleaguering activity.

I enter the Sleepy's mattress store at the corner of Flatbush and Fulton St. near downtown Brooklyn. I am reluctant to spend hundreds of dollars on a mattress only marginally better than the one I already own. I am apprehensive about navigating the many mattress options and making the right choice. And thirty minutes later I leave, even more uncertain.

In a perfect market, I would know the relative quality of increasingly expensive mattresses, and I'd know exactly what Sleepy's needs to make on each mattress to stay in business. Sleepy's would know exactly how much I can pay. Neither of us has this information, but we are not equally in the dark. Like a car dealership, Sleepy's knows that it knows much more than its customers about its products. And like a car dealership, Sleepy's has years of research and training on how to read a customer's ability to pay.

A writer with the memorable name Jon Mooallem wrote last week's Times Magazine cover story about the enormous commerce in sleep aids and specialty mattresses, including this anecdote from an industry convention in Las Vegas:

At a seminar on creating “SleepSperiences” at the retail level, the speaker kicked things off by asking the room full of mattress salespeople what they thought shoppers most often compare them to. Everyone groaned, “Used-car salesman” at once, except the woman seated in front of me. She said, “Like going to the dentist.”
The task before Sleepy's then is to exploit its favorable imbalance of information, but to appear not to. Hence the Sleepy's price guarantee (they'll beat any competitor's price by 20%, or the mattress is free--a laughable promise, considering that they collude with manufacturers so that the mattresses Sleepy's carries have slightly different product names that appear nowhere else). Hence the inflated sticker prices, ripe for dramatic discount. Hence the song and dance performed for me in my visit, entirely in monotone:
Salesman, to boss: I need you to okay something: I offered to double this customer's savings.

Boss: You doubled the savings without asking me!? Now you've done it! That mattress just can't be sold so low!

Salesman, to me: Sorry, I shouldn't have doubled the savings.

Boss: Wait, wait. You already promised him double the savings. I don't like it. In fact, I hate it. But if corporate can approve it downtown, we'll see what we can do.

[Dials number.] Hello, Roy? I have a salesman here, he doubled the savings--that's right, he took the single savings, which is already 10% off, and he doubled it, to a price you're never gonna see matched by anyone else.

I know. I know. Dammit Roy, I know. Step back from the ledge, Roy, it ain't worth it. We let this one get away, Roy, but we'll eat Ramen for a few years and we'll be back on our feet. Yes, I know your wife is having twins. Yeah, I have the same insurance. No, it's called seppuku in official Japanese. Harakiri is just a slang term, little known fact. Yes, I will deliver your death poem to headquarters. Etc.
Here's where I think Sleepy's miscalculates: I would be willing to pay more for a mattress if there were no negotiation possible than I am willing to pay after negotiating, because I can never be satisfied that I have gotten fair terms.

True, Sleepy's would surely make less money per mattress if they did away with sales negotiation, losing profits from richer customers (since they would be willing to pay more) and losing sales to poorer customers (since they wouldn't be willing to pay the higher average price). But a significant number of customers put off by the haggling wouldn't be lost, and might become repeat customers or word of mouth advertisers, important considering that a new mattress is likely to come up in conversation. The same goes for comparison shopping: when customers feel misled, even successful sales represent lost business because the customers don't recommend the store to others.

Surowiecki's essay concludes:
One lesson of the current market chaos, then, is that it’s hard to get incentives right. Investors, after all, want fund managers and corporate executives to take reasonable risks—that’s the only way to make money—and many of them do just that. But, in trying to reward reasonable risks, we’ve encouraged unreasonable ones as well. And when you make it rational for people to bet the house, you may end up without a roof over your head.
Let me use Surowiecki's language: Sleepy's commission and franchise structure create a perceived incentive to maximize the profit on sales that happen, at the less obvious cost of sales that don't happen because of the lack of information, the hard selling and the obfuscation. Companies like Sleepy's may be content with that balance, but I wonder if the incentives to salesman from commissions really offset the disincentives to customers by making the sales process fundamentally adversarial and dishonest.

The internet is the great answer in many cases like this: comparison shopping is easy online, and price discrimination and haggling are impossible. Even with the model names precluding real comparison, I longed to order a mattress from, even without lying down on the damned thing. But unlike other industries, mattress sellers don't need to learn much from the online competition. It'll be a long time before mattresses, wedding rings and jeans are bought online with the kind of volume they sell when people can touch them.

In the end, I stumbled my way into haggling mastery. After putting down a (supposedly) refundable $100 deposit and waiting a week, I stopped in to cancel and get the deposit back. Suddenly the mattress, already discounted 20%, dropped another 30%. I had had to cajole my way through corporate-scheduled resistance to get to that 20%; getting the extra 30% by haggling would have taken a good hour of talking Roy through bushido arcana.

Surely there's a better way.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Maps and legends

There was a nice overview of recent books on maps in Friday's NY Times. My friend Alicia also recommended Peter Turchi's Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer. This summer, I was fooling around in the Dewey Decimal section of Butler Library's tenth floor stacks--my favorite part of the library, in a way, because I always find something weird when I'm looking for an old copy of a novel or an old biography--and found W.P. James's The Lure of the Map (circa 1920). The book--since taken out of circulation because it was crumbling to pieces when I picked it up--is bright green with an eye-catching font on the spine. I can't find much more information about the author, but he's written this collection of essays about how maps structure consciousness and our relationship with landscape; the disappearance of the triple-decker novel; how authors imagine unknown lands. I love this passage from the title essay:
Ruskin, confessing what a vast amount of knowledge had been thrown into a narrow space by the charts of the world drawn up by modern science, regretted that they were not pictorial enough to enable the spectator to imagine the kind of contrast in physical character which exists between Northern and Southern countries. We know, he said, the differences in detail, but we want that broad glance and grasp which should enable us to feel them in their fullness. He imagined what it would be to fly with the swallow or the stork, to view the Mediterranean lying beneath like an irregular lake, with all its ancient promontories sleeping in the sun; to pass northwards from that great peacefulness of light, Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain, laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea blue, and to watch the orient colors change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green, where the pastures of Switzerland and poplar valleys of France and dark forest of the Danube and Carpathians stretch from the mouths of the Loire to those of the Volga, seen through clefts in grey swirls of rain-cloud. And so on farther north still, to see the earth heave into mighty masses of leaden rock and heathy moor, bordering with a broad waste of gloomy purple that belt of field and wood, and splintering into irregular and grisly islands amidst the Northern seas. And at last the wall of ice durable like iron, its white teeth set deathlike against us out of the polar twilight.

But what was it that made possible for Ruskin this flight in imagination over successive latitudes of the earth's surface? What but the map to which his tribute is inadequate? Without the map his bird flight and bird's-eye view would have been clean impossible. He had grown up, as we have all grown up, in a world of maps and of the geographical knowledge made visually intelligible by map. We are familiar with the contours of the countries of the world laid out upon the blue ocean on the terrestrial globe. Ruskin, with his experience of travel and his gift of observation, learnt to read in a fuller measure than most of us the full text of nature in the shorthand of the map, and transcribe it with all the splendour of his rhetoric. But without the map the vision would have been unimaginable.

And this is one of my favorite passages ever written about maps, from Michael Herr's Dispatches:
There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I'd lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn't real anymore. For one thing, it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Frenchman, since the map had been made in Paris. The paper had buckled in its frame after years in the wet Saigon heat, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicted. Vietnam was divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cohin China, and to the west past Laos and Cambodge sat Siam, a kingdom. That's old, I'd tell visitors, that's a really old map.

If dead ground could come back and haunt you the way dead people do, they'd have been able to mark my map CURRENT and burn the ones they'd been using since '64, but count on it, nothing like that was going to happen. It was late '67 now, even the most detailed maps didn't reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind. We knew that the uses of most information were flexible, different pieces of ground told different stories to different people. We also knew that for years now there had been no country here but the war.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sorry Hofstadter, they're just pretty pictures

Douglas Hofstadter's new book I Am a Strange Loop places him firmly in the Daniel Dennett camp of philosophers on the mystery of consciousness: the camp that believes that "consciousness is an illusion" is enough of an explanation to settle the matter.

I think this dodges the question. Of course consciousness is an illusion; but since we don't understand how that illusion itself is experienced, we're back at square one. Whether or not thinking is a variation on talking to ourselves (Dennett's theory) or the result of our ability to reference ourselves and our own thinking (Hofstadter's theory), the question of feeling remains. How do some chemical processes feel, while other chemical processes--which may, like ours, be incredibly complex and recursive--just happen?

But at least Hofstadter is consistent: he thinks there is a continuum of complexity, from ants up to humans and beyond. From his recent Wired interview:
You have a great line: “I am a mirage that perceives itself.” If our fundamental sense of what is real — our own existence — is merely a self-reinforcing mirage, does that call into question the reality of the universe itself?

I don’t think so. Even though subatomic particles engage in a deeply recursive process called renormalization, they don’t contain a self-model, and everything I talk about in this book — consciousness — derives from a self-model.

Strange Loop describes the soul as a self-model that is very weak in insects and stronger in mammals. What happens when machines have very large souls?

It’s a continuum, and a strange loop can arise in any substrate.
This is the direction Hofstadter started out in with his classic stumper Godel, Escher, Bach, where he failed--though brilliantly--to demonstrate that these thinkers and artists hold the key to understanding consciousness and the soul.

His idea is that consciousness grows from being able to examine your own mental workings. This is a fun mental exercise, but it doesn't hold up. It relies on ex post facto reasoning: because minds are better and better equipped to do this as you move up the latter from amoebas to humans, this must be the engine that drives consciousness. But self-awareness is just a small element of awareness, and it doesn't seem to correlate highly in our varied mental states and between variously self-aware people. What of brain-damaged people whose understanding of their existence as a human being is fundamentally impaired? What of lower animals, which we imagine feel intense hunger, lust and pain without having a self-examining mind in any sense like ours?

Presumably, when a shark floods itself with hormones at the start of a feeding frenzy, or a mouse releases adrenaline on seeing a cat, it feels something like a rush we can feel. Do sharks and mice thus have a self-model in their brains? Must all such animals that feel fear and urges? Would a mouse that mutated so that its primative self-model was broken no longer have the spark of awareness? And if so, why couldn't that mouse evolve into a human that similarly functioned like we do, but without the spark of awareness? How could we tell the difference between us and him? Are we sure he's not us?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Armand Hammer

Weird coincidence: how many times can Armand Hammer show up in the New York Times in 48 hours? There he is in articles about two of my favorite--but unrelated--things (which have little to do with the man except for his money): eighteenth-century print culture and New Mexico. Ricky Jay's exhibition of eighteenth-century print ephemera will show for one day only (November 25) at the UCLA Armand Hammer art museum (here's a note on the oil tycoon's rules for the museum, which have been relaxed recently). I thought immediately of the Armand Hammer United World College of the American West in Las Vegas, New Mexico... which was one of the features in the Escapes section in today's paper!

Las Vegas, New Mexico is one of my favorite places: it's an old Victorian town in the north-central part of the state, and the buildings are absolutely beautiful. There are a couple of amazing New Mexican restaurants on the plaza--I can't remember the names, and the article doesn't mention any food in the area, just buildings.

It's too bad the story doesn't have any photos of the Montezuma Castle on the United World College campus. It's an amazing building with a weird history. Here's Wikipedia on the Castle:
The current castle is actually the third on the site, the first two (dating to 1881 and 1885) were the first buildings in New Mexico to have electric lighting, and they both burned down.

The castle was originally constructed by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad as a luxury hotel, capitalizing on the natural hot springs on the site. ... It operated as a hotel until 1903. It was then briefly owned by the YMCA, then operated as a Baptist college from 1922 until 1930. The Southern Baptist Church sold it to the Catholic Church in 1937, and it was operated as a seminary for Mexican Jesuits until 1972. The building then sat empty for a decade and was subject to significant vandalism and decay. The Jesuits made a little money renting the building out as the set for the low budget horror movie The Evil in 1978.

In 1981, the castle was purchased by industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer for use as a United World College. In 1997, it was placed on the list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, along with landmarks like Ellis Island. In 2000 and 2001, the school invested over $12 million restoring the building, and it has won awards as one of the great historical restorations in the United States. It is also the first historic property west of the Mississippi to be designated one of "America's Treasures" by the White House Millennium Council.

I really want to set a novel there around the time The Evil was being filmed there!

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Blogger Ben on Sat Nov 17, 12:15:00 PM:
You gotta love that Armand Hammer tried to buy the maker of Arm & Hammer baking soda just for kicks, and that following the Jewish tradition that 80 years is a full life, so at 80+13 years you deserve another bar mitzvah, he threw himself a lavish one for his 93rd birthday (but died the night before).

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Albuquerque Oulipo

In middle school, my friends and I used to play word games in the library after classes ended. We devised as many syllabic variations on spoonerisms as we could; we anagrammed like madwomen; we developed a weird letter-replacement game that now strikes me as something similar to the Oulipo plans for potential literature. This is as geeky as it gets, yet it filled me with pleasure as a thirteen-year-old:

My friend was fooling around with the find/replace option in a word-processing program and decided to substitute uncommon letters for common ones in a 'found text' (in this case, one of her English assignments). She then ran the spell-check on this now-garbled paragraph of entirely misspelled words and picked out new words from the spelling suggestion list. The result was a mess of spell-check-generated gibberish--but correctly spelled gibberish. When she rooted around, she found some funny word combinations that sounded poetic: "I pseudo-moo" was the one that stuck out. That phrase became the name of the game. (My friend later became a linguistics major.)

I was the second generation of this game. For some reason, I decided that my found texts would be only Steely Dan songs (I don't know why this is; it's probably a reaction to hearing Aja every single day of my early childhood. One of my dad's grad students humored me by reading them and remarking, "The best thing would be to put these back into the melodies of the songs."). I decided to modify the game by turning the mass of words into sentences; such an exercise required adding articles, occasionally shifting around words, and picking texts that didn't have many repeating words because it proved difficult to write very many sentences about, say, mooing or mimes. The memorable line that came out of this version was "Thor drugs you with soup." I made little zines of these exercises, but I don't know where they are now--probably that's for the best.

But I wanted to see if the constrained magic still worked, so I tried three substitutions using "Bad Sneakers" as a found text:

(In this substitution, a becomes ie, o becomes ele, t becomes m, and n becomes ck. There were several garbled words that got no hits on the spell-check, so I hit the space bar and made them into two or three non-words that were easier to replace. You'll see that mimes, ice, and eyelet become big preoccupations in these sentences. The thing I notice about including the pseudo-moo version is that nouns and especially adverbs are over-represented, but articles and prepositions are under-represented--probably because articles are shorter and usually contain the vowels and consonants that were substituted.)

Pseudo-moo version: Five chimes mime I check tiredly slicked melee heifer icy quick yells iced mocked iced elected melee chimp wheel silk’s here I check see men liveries mile kicks heel men mimes were gimmick hired iced mime fever slime excite viselike lack leek mages reel baleful envied iced I’m garlicky licks eke iced I’m lieu hack item men friezes relic iced I’m seal idle lackey helices wreck hay gazes cake sack me helmet bide screeners iced tea pickle collide my frock small epic leek men evacuee by revile camp wish tea brick similar iced tea lieges sum elf meekly melee speckled eyelet feline eyelet maverick up men scream eyelet weepier mime white mutedly heel eyelet gazes cake beige men helium delete eyelet meeker e falter tea feeble delete eyelet thick mime I defect’s see mime dims eel pick men vilely mime mere dirges jams fewer me.

Thor drugs you with soup version: Five mimes chime, so I check tiredly on the slicked melee of icy, quick heifers who yell.
I was iced, mocked, iced again, and then elected in a melee.
The chimp-wheel silk’s here. I check and see men in liveries for miles.
Mimes kick their heels, but the men were gimmicks, hired by iced mimes in a fevered slime.
He was excited by the mage’s viselike lack of leeks and reeled balefully.
I envied icy, garlicky licks eked out in lieu of the hack’s menu items.
Friezes, relics, seals-—I’m as idle as a lackey in these wrecked helices.
Hay, gazes, cake, a sack, my helmet, and me: I bide my time with the screeners’ iced tea and pickles.
My frock is a small epic of collided leeks and men evacuated by the reviled camp.
I wish for brick tea, which is similar to the iced tea made by my lieges, a sum of elves who speckled meekly in the melee.
“It’s feline eyelet,” a maverick man screams at the weepier mime, whose white face mutedly heeds the eyelet’s gazes.
As they gaze at the beige cake, the helium men delete eyelet meekly and falter from the feeble tea.
The eyelet is thick with deleted mimes and defects; I see mimes dimly among the eels.
Pick men vilely, or mime mere dirges and jams for feverish me.

(o becomes ai, e becomes ough, n becomes w, t becomes v. This is just the edited version of the sentences. I never want to use the word vouch again. Or yoyo. Or adverbs in general.)

If I vouch the way of the moths I have cawed, I’d hardly have sawed in vain against the rougher wily pig.
Years add mewing weight to the aerogun chimp.
Through what sin’s hour can I caw my soul, though I vouch for the balking ladybugs?
Hail and vermouth are gouging roughly, vying hard for addition.
I have fought, assailed, and ought to have caved to the viewing magi, whose aid waylaid me.
Bouillon unheard, I’m gaining wise dough and I’m laughing.
The van vouched for frail rawness; I ought to add I’m said to be an alias.
Her hair wrought into a haughty whoosh, the Taiwan moth sought ham in a bad swoon.
The gory haiku about pitas, cicadas, and my furloughed scampi aided me in vouching my weight by radio.
The ivy, wavy in viral silver, aided a lark gouging sums of airy maids.
The yoyo wrought vainly sloughed off frugally.
Yoyos were in vogue among the hares, who shrugged as though they thought they were tougher.
Have thorough voodoo shady in the hail while I yoyo from Taiwan.
The sow coughed for days after the vermouth moth vouched.
Fair in a fatal day, the hawk yoyo-ed among the cows, sowing detached aqua in the village.
Have a haughty, rough digit jut from your fair mouth.

(a becomes u, n becomes rm, s becomes qu, t becomes g, o becomes ee. My imaginary rum collection gets more and more disgusting. Oh, and I've added two actual text messages I sent last night re: ANTM. See if you can find them.)

With five hogs in muumuus, I cured the hurdles augured by the hour.
Gee, it was louder on the rim that year: the rummy mermen were eerie and I was a mere chimp squirming on the wheel.
Here I cure the queen ladybug with this gull’s karma I heeded with a grimy urge to gag her.
The hurt-rum hogs formed four queues to excel as the uglier germs in the muggy melee.
Jay wants "desolation-fabulosity!" while standing next to a car on fire.
This beetle-curd rum I’m jeering as impure is the rum I’m laughing at as I rearm from my bug-rum freezer.
I’m queen among the aldermen, but my heresy whirs in their eardrums.
You’ve queered me, hemmed me, and murmured “gee!” as I’ve budded from a kernel of rum.
My prime celadon firearm makes the queen prim.
The germs are overdue in the rudder cage.
The wig you groom as unique is the rummy gear you lunge at as you quit.
Beef is merely supreme in my eyes.
Tyra can communicate with dragons.
The flu makes my eyes gaudier.
“Up?” he queried, eyeing the weird hog.
The Whig’s suede heels stretch from eye to eardrum.
The bugs and hogs deem my eyes gauche.
My fear is my fee.
Eels deem eyes harmful on hogs, but the deer’s queen ditches the rim elegy in the valley of hogs.
The dagger genre brings joy and fear to me.


Blogger Alexis on Wed Mar 12, 05:08:00 PM:
I was just telling my coworker about this game, and got the crazy idea that I should Google to see if that combination of words had any existence on the internet. Lo and behold, you've blogged about it. How wonderful!

Monday, November 12, 2007

A protester dead in Georgia?

There are unconfirmed reports that a Georgian man named Zurab Kilasonia has died from injuries inflicted by the police. (See background here and here.) The story seems to be disappearing, and may have been falsely reported.

Meanwhile, most Georgian opposition parties have come together to support a single candidate: Levan Gachechiladze, aka "Buckwheat" (Grechikha in Georgian). Levan is the brother of Giorgi Gachechiladze, aka "Utsnobi" ("the unknown", right), an eccentric musician and DJ who, like most of the opposition, opposed both Eduard Shevardnadze (Georgia's last president) and Mikheil Saakashvili (Georgia's current president). I don't know much about either Gachechiladze's politics, but I can promise you that you've never seen a music video quite like Utsnobi's "Zamtari Ertad" ("winter together"), in which a company of traditional ceremonial Georgian dancers conducts their stage pageantry in Georgian bathrooms and stairwells. (By straining the limits of my Georgian, I can tell you that "Patara gogo!" means "little girl!", and the repeated final refrain is from a nursery rhyme: "Achu! Achu! Achu, tsqeno! Saad unda gagacheno?", "Giddyup! Giddyup! Giddyup, horse! Where do you want to take me?" Also see his "Velodebis Mzes", which offers a great glimpse of Georgian city life and environs). I can also tell you that long ago I once sang a composition of my own, a satirical version of Utsnobi's song "Sikwaruli Daprinavs" ("Love Flies"), to one Mikheil Saakashvili in his office in the Ministry of Justice of Georgia.

Below, a man about to be beaten by a masked government supporter. Who these people are has not been made clear, but there is speculation that they are national youth group members who were brought in as extralegal enforcers. Perhaps police on their day jobs are harder to motivate; there are reports that at least one police group chose to stand down and not participate in the crowd dispersal.

(Someone said the man about to be struck is "Jorbenadze", perhaps meaning Avtandil Jorbenadze, a former minister under Eduard Shevardnadze.)

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

"...the government uses the methods of Ceausescu and as a result the end might be Romanian"

Here is a list of statements made on air on the Georgian television station "Imedi" that lead to its being shut down. (See my previous posts about the crisis in Georgia here and here.)

November 2

Imedi “Chronica” 09:00

Kakha Dzagania: “Nothing will stop this wave; it will be followed by victory”

Imedi “Chronica” 14:00

14:50 Levan Gachechiladze: “We will destroy the violence, we will destroy the prisons, and we will destroy scoundrels”

14:50 Shalva Natelashvili: “…in order to achieve it, the government must resign”

Imedi “Chronica” 15:00

15:02 Konstantine Gamsakhurdia: “…People are ready for action; the evil is strong because the good people are inactive, and so we must act!”

15:06 Zviad Dzidziguri: “…the funeral ceremony [of the government] started today, in front of the Parliament building, and will last only for few days… we all request Georgia without President. The verdict is already announced, we must send this Government to the political dustbin, as we did with many others before...”

Imedi “Chronica” 17:00

17:42 Irakli Tsereteli: “…Let’s siege the Parliament, let’s siege the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and if the Government will not talk with us, on your behalf the “national assembly” [opposition coalition] will declare Mikheil Saakashvili toppled..”

17:46 Gia Berdzenadze: “…annihilate these anti Russians!”

Imedi “Chronica” 18:00

18:11 Badri Patarkatsishvili: “… with the long planned methods, we will succeed to have the government that will be the people’s government”

18:31 Jondi Bagaturia: “…with this Government our country has no future and it must resign, at this stage, peacefully…”

Imedi “Reakcia” 23:00

00:53 Tina Khidasheli: “…then come there [in front of Parliament] tomorrow and let’s finish with Saakashvili”

November 3

Imedi “Chronica” 15:00

15:09 Levan Gachechiladze: “we will reveal our future plans of our decisive struggle to fight this dirty regime”

15:21 David Berdzenishvili: “don’t make a choice [appeals to the government] between the fates of Milosevic and Ceausescu”

15:47 Gubaz Sanikidze: “We should tell the Government what you [people] think… there is no way to cooperate with the Government, this is excluded”

15:49 Konstantine Gamsakhurdia: “we will say very soon that our patience is running out”

21:22 Bezhan Gunava: “this demonstration is the peaceful riot of Georgian people, when the government has no chance other then resignation”

4th of November

Imedi, “Kronika” 13:00

13:44 Koba Davitashvili: “the government uses the methods of Ceausescu and as a result the end might be Romanian”

17:30 Gia Tortladze: “I promise to all honest prisoners that they will be rescued after this government leaves”

18:16 Vladimir Zhirinovski: “I believe that Georgian people wishes democracy and they will achieve it; let everything be decided by parliaments; create parliamentary republics in Georgia and Ukraine, and we will try the same in Russia”

18:30 Paata Davitaya: “we have no way backward, our homeland and religion stand behind us; many law enforcement officers are mobilized here and I want to appeal to them that their duty is to serve people; therefore, I ask them to stand together with people and defend them, and do not fulfill [government’s] criminal orders”

Imedi, “Droeba” 21:00

21:09 Giorgi Targamadze: “if it was people’s will 4 years ago [talks about “Rose Revolution”], people’s will should govern 4 years after as well”

5th of November

Imedi, “Kronika” 09:00

15:12 Paata Davitaya: “I appeal to my friends in the Ministry of Internal Affairs and General Prosecutor’s Office to stand together with people and do not fulfill violent orders, today the frontline is here [in front of parliament]”

15:22 Zviad Dzidziguri: “Misha [appeals to President] you will soon be toppled down..... this will truly be in this way....our demonstrations will aggravate every day”

18:02 Kakha Shartava: “after we get rid of them [government] soon, you will see that we are better off.... what will be afterwards? this has long been thought, calculated, written and agreed...”

7th of November

Imedi, “Kronika” 10:00

10:16 Gia Gachechiladze: “either you [government] or us! we will sacrifice ourselves for this cause. I ask everyone ... Vake, Vera [Tbilisi Districts] to come out and stand with us. Georgia’s destiny is decided here”

Imedi, “Kronika” 12:00

12:01 Koka Guntsadze: “we appeal to all Georgians to come here at 2 o’clock to finish with this government”

12:02 Jondi Baghaturia: “all Georgians should rise up and force the government to their knees”

14:05 Koba Davitashvili: “yet for several days people demand from us very radical measures; I will say openly, people ask us for the new revolution”

Imedi, “Kronika” 09:00

14:02 Levan Berdzenishvili: “we can be engaged in dialogue only on one issue: when and at what conditions president will resign, who has committed crime against humanity”

16:05 David Berdzenishvili: “we will arrest everyone who is related to break up of demonstration, illegal arrests.... we receive information that Nino Burdzhanadze wants to meet with us, we refuse....we refuse”

16:21 Gubaz Sanikidze: “the days of this government are counted... we should finish this government”

15:28 Goga khaindrava: “I promise to law enforcement officers: everyone who participated in break up of demonstration, used tear gas, or cudgels will seriously be punished and no masks will save them.... now I am heading to there.... now I am planning to put an end to this criminal regime leaded by terrorist Saakashvili”

15:33 Giga Lortkipanidze: “today is the end of this government; I can not doubt in this even for one minute”

15:41 Goga Khaindrava: “Let’s gather at Rike [place in Tbilisi] and pass sentence on these cannibals and terrorists”

Imedi, “Kronika” 18:25

18:35 Badri Patarkatsishvili: “nobody should doubt that my entire financial resources, up until one cent, will be used to liberate Georgia from this fascist regime”

A few of these do pass from statements of electoral intent to the realm of fomenting open rebellion, though none calls people to arms. That some of the more mild quotes are included makes me wonder if the government and ruling party is able to distinguish between political disagreement and traitorous rebellion. "Let everything be decided by parliaments"?

I am hearing that while few supporters of the government disagreed with moving police to break up the demonstrations, some have disagreed with the shutdown of Imedi. There is talk of Imedi being back on the air soon, and of government restitution for property damaged in the police raid, but that damage sounds extensive and some may be irreplaceable.

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Did I mention that I loathe Sasha Frere-Jones?
But after that Wilco (right) and Tweedy, presumably under the influence of other indie bands, drifted from accessible songs toward atomization and noise. On “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the lyrics are embarrassing poetry laid over plodding rhythms. (“Tall buildings shake, voices escape singing sad, sad songs, tuned to chords strung down your cheeks.”) The album features synthesizer squeaks and echoey feedback-, which fail to give shape to the formless music. A little more syncopation would have helped.
"Jesus etc." is one of my favorite indie rock songs. It's also an inexplicable example to choose--Frere-Jones is arguing that indie rock suffers from choosing jerkiness and sappy ambient noise over rhythm, but "Jesus etc." is a totally catchy, syncopated pop song. He decries Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's departure from Wilco's alt-country roots, but the song he cites is the album's most alt-country cut. I just don't get it. How do you be such a complete and total penis?

And I'm not the only one with Frere-Jones as my Javert:


-The Ghost of Goddamn Lester Goddamn Bangs
-People That Have Actually Purchased Arcade Fire Records and Were Not Immediately Reminded of Echo and the Goddamned Bunnymen or (Sigh) U2, For God’s Sake
-And Parts of Great Britain, but Not Manchester, They Liked the Ridiculous Echo and the Bunnymen Reference, For God’s Sake
-People That Can Think of Another Musical Reference for the Adjectives “Triumphal” or “Majestic” Than U2
Seriously, there's people whom you disagree with in print, but whom you'd find some common ground with if you, you know, wound up at the same dinner party or something. Hell, I had breakfast with David Horowitz once and found it palatable. But Sasha isn't one of those people. If we were at the same dinner, I'd have to start some sh*t, by which I mean I'd make awkward and obnoxious comments until everyone begged me/us to leave.

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Blogger Jeff'y on Tue Nov 13, 01:10:00 AM:
You totally trashed his hard drive, right?

The biggest thing Frere-Jones has going for him is that his name isn't David Denby.
Blogger Ben on Thu Nov 15, 10:03:00 AM:
JPos has lifted the veil -- SFJ == David Denby! The truth is out at last. It's a conspiracy of transcendent mediocrity.

I fess up to sabotaging his LaCie. I was jealous of his Lil' Wayne and Decembrists bootlegs.
Blogger gorjus on Tue Nov 27, 05:42:00 PM:

Okay, seriously: "Jesus, Etc." is a great song. I'm a bigger fan of earlier Wilco, but that record is so strong--and I agree, what an odd choice to use Wilco as a band who has abandoned "roots." Seroiusly, he just doesn't get it.

More on women and math: strong evidence for nurture, not nature

Stuart Taylor Jr. wrote an article in the National Journal in 2005 defending Larry Summers's suggestion that innate gender differences in math ability and interest are part of the reason there are so few tenured female professors in science departments at top schools. (It's behind a pay wall; try Google's cached version.)

He includes this in his evidence:
A 1983 study of 40,000 young adolescents by psychologist Camillia Persson Benbow and three colleagues showed "an exponential intensification" of the male-female ratio in the higher ranges of SAT math scores, with 13 times as many boys as girls in the highest range. (That was the 700-to-800 range, on tests normally taken by much older students.) Other studies show boys consistently winning a very disproportionate share of the very highest SAT math scores, and sex differences in mathematical precocity before kindergarten.
Jean Taylor, former president of Women in Mathematics, has a PowerPoint presentation refuting many of the arguments of Stuart Taylor and co. (Google's HTML translation is here.) Among her more eye-catching points is this (my emphasis):
Benbow and Stanley (1980, 1983) (Johns Hopkins) ... male:female ratio among 13-year-olds scoring over 700 on math SAT was 13:1. Huge publicity!

Subsequent Johns Hopkins data, Duke data have showed decreasing ratios; by late 1990’s, down to under 3:1 (2.8:1) (I don’t know of any more recent data). No sign that not still falling.
The story (as always) might be more complicated than that, but at least at first blush, that's a convincing rebuttal. Also, Jean Taylor points out that since the 1940s, the difference between the number of women and men who major in math in college has been shrinking, and that now the numbers are equal. That's strong evidence against innate differences in interest and ability (which I argued in favor of here and here), and strong evidence for the importance of bias and the career effects of pregnancy and child raising.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Daria Vaisman on Georgia's crisis

On Slate, my friend Daria Vaisman has an excellent analysis of the current situation in Georgia.
But even those of us who understand that change comes slowly, that poverty is hard to cure, that inflation is often inevitable, and that sometimes you just might need to crack a few eggs (though not heads) were shocked by the heavy-handed response to Wednesday's protests. I was at the demonstration at Mtkvari when a friend called to warn me that hundreds of special forces were coming my way. People panicked and began to run. Special forces came from both bridges that flanked the area, leaving protestors with no way out. People were hit with tear gas and rubber bullets, and some of us ran for shelter on a small cafe boat moored along the river. An older man who worked there tried to calm people down. "Don't worry," he said, "I used to be a policeman. Nothing will happen to you." Two men tried to get the engine going. "We'll sail away if we have to," the former policeman said. But where to?

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Friday, November 09, 2007

Brokenhearted over Georgia

In former-Soviet Georgia, where I once worked for current president Mikheil Saakashvili, emergency rule has been declared following violent clashes between Police and protesters on Wednesday. (See NY Times coverage by the excellent C. J. Chivers here and here.)

First of all, watch this clip on YouTube of the opposition TV station "Imedi" being shut down. It's harrowing.

I've been struggling to sort out what I feel about these events. If I feel disappointed with the Georgian government, and I write about that here, do I damage my professional relationships? If I do not write about this now, then what, when?

First, let me do my best to see things from the government's point of view. What happened in Georgia isn't very different from what's happened in the United States and Europe plenty of times in the last ten years. I've had friends hit by police randomly, deliberately struck by police horses, tackled and handcuffed at no provocation, tear-gassed and arrested arbitrarily, all in the US (mostly in New York); excessive force by the police is not the sole province of anyone, unfortunately, and if authorities here can't--or won't--keep police crowd control methods civil, it's unfair to expect authorities in Georgia to do so.

Protests in the US, moreover, haven't been a serious threat to this country's stability for decades (since either the 1960s, the 1910s, or the 1860s, depending on your politics). But Georgia faces a serious external threat in a constant state of low-intensity war: Russia has thousands of soldiers, either officially or by proxy, occupying what the United Nations recognizes as Georgian territory. The Georgian government claims that the recent protests were a Russian-organized provocation, and there's some truth to that; at least one opposition party is blatantly funded and controlled by Moscow, and you're kidding yourself if you think the NKVD (successor to the KGB) didn't have paid provacateurs in the crowd on Wednesday. Demonstrators calling for the overthrow of the government were blocking the capital's main street and beginning to set up a "tent city" as a semi-permanent protest outside of the Parliament building; some of them were working for an essentially hostile foreign power. You don't need to be a law-and-order conservative to agree that the state has a legitimate responsibility to stop that from happening.

Of course, the Saakashvili government came to power through just that sort of persistent, unrelenting protest. But there's a difference. This government has made unfair and arbitrary decisions several times regarding parliamentary elections, but the bottom line is that the last elections were universally hailed as free and fair, and the next ones were coming up soon. The opposition is desperate not so much because it's being shut out of the process, as that it has repeatedly failed to win over voters and is at wit's end to gain some power and oversight.

All of that does, I know, have the ring of apparatchik-speak. At the same time, the simplest explanation is usually the true one, and the truth is that police abuse, like military abuse (Abu Ghraib etc.) is the result of the cascading of many people's minor heartlessness, not the calculated cravenness of those at the top. A strong organizational culture of professionalism, restraint, responsibility and decency can so much to prevent these abuses, but in the civilization we humans have built, such a culture is missing in most governments, in most militaries, in most businesses, in most families. When you send in the police to break up a protest, people get frightened and hurt. Much of the time, making a protest end peacefully isn't a option.

And finally, if abuses do happen, you should apologize; Saakashvili has called for snap elections, basically a referendum on his mandate. There is humility in that move, which would be an appropriate response from someone who feels they made a mistake on Wednesday.

Whew. [Exhale.] That's the best I can do at making a horrible thing understandable, but it doesn't quite work. There really is a difference between rounding up a couple rock-throwers and chasing and beating people of all ages so that they fear for their lives. Police who have been given reasonable orders do not chase fleeing protesters to distant areas and beat them en masse. It only takes a small sense of but-for-the-grace-of-God-there-go-I from leaders. New York's mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg largely fail us this way; they have simply never imagined themselves on the little guy's side of a truncheon, cell bars, or a ticket for sitting on their own stoop.

There is also a difference between imposing a curfew and imposing a news blackout, and a further difference from forcibly shutting down an opposition TV station, harassing the staff and destroying its equipment. Those are just the sorts of things Saakashvili decried when he was in the opposition. A much more mild raid in 2001 on another (then-opposition) TV station, Rustavi-2, led Eduard Shevardnadze to sack his entire cabinet, and vow publicly that "There is no threat to freedom of speech in Georgia." Saakashvili and other opposition figures then mocked this statement and called the sacking not enough. What now?

When I was consulting with the Saakashvili administration, I made a point to approach protesters and hear what they had to say (a gesture entirely salutary rather than helpful, given my poor Georgian and their usually poor English). From everything that I read and hear, I can only imagine that if I had still been working that job, I too would likely have been chased, shot with rubber bullets and beaten; Georgian government officials (including the Ombudsman) were not immune, and neither were foreigners. I have taken many pictures at protests, including some at protests in Georgia in 2001; would I have had police snatch my camera, smash it and smack me, as happened to a good friend of mine, one of the sweetest souls I've ever known?

Last, I have heard President Saakashvili speak passionately about the social bonds that helped the Rose Revolution succeed. When protesters including Saakashvili stormed Parliament in November 2004, guards, miraculously, decided not to open fire; some have ascribed this to the fact that Tbilisi is a small city in a small country: everyone knows everyone, or is a distant cousin, and you don't fire on a crowd if your friends and family are among them. That explanation has always struck me as fitting Georgia, a culture where enemies are always a toast away from becoming friends, and new acquaintances are only minutes away from being brothers and sisters.

What has happened to that social cohesion?


Below are a few excerpts of first-hand accounts of Wednesday's clashes. One is from a friend. These were not intended for publication, so I'm trying to keep them short and leave out identifying details.

...when i arrived police were standing behind metal barricades keeping the road open, there was no violence and the protestors more or less filled the pavement... at about 1 the number of protestors had grown large enough to make any attempt at keeping open the road futile, and the police marched off... i though at that point that everything would be fine, just more of the same we had seen since friday. the crowd were still peaceful i must stress.

a few minutes later, we heard a stomping sound and turned to see an approaching phalanx of riot police marching in step and beating their shields. the protestors rushed to push the metal barricades in front. the riot police, water cannon and noise weapons (i don't what else to call them, but they are horrible). without saying anything like 'disperse or we move in', they begn firing volley after volley of tear gas into the crowd, turned on the water cannons and the noise and started beating people. the protesters were scattered fairly soon, but moved round to the opera, where the riot police used exactly the same tactics, this time using so much tear gas that it totally filled the street--no wonder over 500 people are in the hospital.

as for what happened on the riqe [plaza on the other side of the river where protesters regrouped in the late afternoon], the crowd was totally peaceful and the road was open!! there was no talk of returning to parliament... the only thing [opposition leaders] said was 'civil disobedience', 'we are the georgian ghandis'. the riot police then gathered on baratashvili bridge... as the water cannon, rubber bullets and gas began at baratashvili (again without the slightest provocation), the crowd surged to metekhi only to find that cut off by riot police too, so they were effectively trapped. [my friend] was shot in the head with a rubber bullet and my colleague in the leg, they hid in a cellar. [we] were inches from getting beaten, they were chasing us... we fled through the tunnel after a really generous soul piled us into his car...

also, many of the people on the riqe were ordinary tbilisi citizens who had no part in the protests, they were there because they were rightly outraged by what happened.
Another account:

I was personally shot with rubber bullets in the face... Soon the side street battles began away from the media. At one point a lost wave of soldiers was chasing people down a hill on one of the side streets. However, the crowd stopped and decided to hold its ground. Large numbers of reinforcements from Rustavili Avenue came in to back them up. I found myself in a separate crowd of protesters behind the initial wave, only to be surrounded by the incoming units. Spetnetz and irregulars, who were carrying sticks and other construction materials from the unfinished beautification projects, started beating people who were trapped in the middle. I directed people through a small alley towards that back of a theater after seeing a young woman get shot in the face at point blank, for trying to hide from the onslaught. Also trying to escape from the madness, I ended up with a group of people hiding in the basement of this theater, who were all scared out of their minds. Now I have this image in my head of this little girl who's face was just blank with fear, and it just won't go away.

Later in the evening I found an old man who's head was streaming with blood... This was when the protesters began running at the police in their reaction to their use of force. They were later chased up a hill to a church, which was 'watered cannoned', and others were chased further up to Avlabari metro area. However, there was a delay the pursuit as police and other units regrouped. Bottled water was distributed from the back of a truck and a fire engine was filling up the water cannon. The police in marched up the hill from two sides and continued in hot pursuit of the protesters as they fled behind the metro station.

The police were dragging people out of shops, who appeared to not be involved at all. One man was dragged out from a pharmacy and was beaten by four policemen, and they only stopped when a foreign journalist started shouting in English and pulled out his identification, and even he was threatened to be beaten.

While running across the street to where I say more of the same- others chased down and mercilessly attacked I was grabbed and after trying to pull away, I was quickly taken down - I was surrounded and clubbed and kicked repeatedly in the head, back, and neck, which now is unbelievably stiff. I felt the zip-tie around my wrist but, thank god, medical crew suddenly pulled me away from the crowd of hooded of police and threw me into a wagon.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Bobby Knight, bibliophile

I spent most of last week exchanging giggly e-mails with my friends about the Red Sox winning the World Series. We cut and pasted paragraphs from articles and forwarded them to one another giddily: look, the heroic captain Tek gave out candy on Halloween! MVP Mike Lowell makes lavender (or pearly gray) work! Weak-armed traitor Johnny Damon's wife refused to wear a scarf made by Curt Schilling's wife during the 2004 celebration and they nearly came to blows about it (really?!). It's one of the few--OK, several--times a year when I'm seduced by sports section features. I've also been known to get teary during March Madness, when my heart automatically warms to any story about a coach's halftime speech to his Cinderella team. At times like these, I luxuriate in anticipating narrative arcs. It's like a Law & Order marathon on the baseball diamond.

The New York Times published its quarterly Play magazine on the same weekend as the World Series. I liked a lot of the stories, but I was struck by a trend in self-conscious sportswriter narration that ran through several of the stories. It's the old "what makes ATHLETE believe in his abilities when the rest of us--you, the reader, me, the sportswriter--are full of anxiety?" line. Richard Ford wrote the playbook on this line in his 1995 novel, The Sportswriter. The narrator, a sportswriter named Frank Bascombe, describes his job this way:
Athletes, by and large, are people who are happy to let their actions speak for them, happy to be what they do. As a result, when you talk to an athlete, as I do all the time in locker rooms, in hotel coffee shops and hallways, standing beside expensive automobiles--even if he's paying no attention to you at all, which is very often the case, he's never likely to feel the least bit divided, or alienated, or one ounce of existential dread. He may be thinking about a case of beer, or a barbecue, or some man-made lake in Oklahoma he wishes he was water-skiing on, or some girl, or a new Chevy shortbed, or a discotheque he owns as a tax shelter, or simply himself. But you can bet he isn't worried one bit about you and what you're thinking. His is a rare selfishness that means he isn't looking around the sides of his emotions to wonder about alternatives for what he's saying or thinking about. In fact, athletes at the height of their powers make literalness into a mystery all its own simply by becoming absorbed in what they're doing. Years of athletic training teach this; the necessity of relinquishing doubt and ambiguity and self-inquiry in favor of a pleasant, self-championing one-dimensionality which has instant rewards in sports. You can even ruin everything with athletes simply by speaking to them in your own everyday voice, a voice full of contingency and speculation.

I think it's important to note that this isn't a just a description of what Ford's narrator does as his job: that "voice full of contingency and speculation" is the voice of the whole book as he tries to muddle through midlife. I found the novel a hard slog the first time I read it; I remember giving it away to someone and joking, "I just don't care about men's feelings. Not this much." But the scene where Bascombe goes to interview the retired football player stuck with me, and I tried reading it again. I realized that the reason I was so put off by the narrator wasn't his anxiety or self-doubt, it was that Ford was working a difficult angle of writing about a failed writer. Bascombe was a novelist but then stopped when he figured his work wasn't going to improve: "My characters generally embodied the attitude that life is always going to be a damn nasty and probably baffling business, but somebody has to go on slogging through it. This, of course, can eventually lead to terrible cynicism, since I knew life wasn't like that at all--but was a lot more interesting--only I couldn't write about it that way."

Frank Bascombe spends a lot of the novel trying to figure out how to express himself in some other way, and he takes solace in sportswriting because it selects the narratives for him: "What could be better, I thought, and still think? How more eaisly assuage the lifelong ache to anticipate than to write sports--an ache only Zen masters and coma victims can live happily without." So I think it's important to remember that Bascombe's assessment of the "self-championing one-dimensionality" is his own wishful thinking, a reflection of his own doubtful state of mind in the book.

But it's become the go-to assessment in many stories about any athlete's mystery of literalness. Here's selections from a few of the good articles from Play:

From the article about Steve Nash, "Not to Get Too Mystical About It":
What can you say without playing yourself false, or leaving your body completely, when zoo officials who have paid you the compliment of naming a 12-pound female Bengal tiger cub in your honor put the razor-clawed kitty-cat in your arms and stick a microphone in your face? (Shrewdly, Nash channeled Tiger Woods: “It’s pretty special.”) Or for that matter, what about the play-killing questions routinely lobbed by sportswriters after the game?

“It’s always the same three questions,” Nash said. “ ‘What do you think about the game tonight?’ ‘How do you feel about the game tomorrow night?’ ‘What do you think you’ll have to do differently next time?’ I started off trying to answer honestly, and then I tried being ironic, but that didn’t really work either. . . . ”

And then later in the article, Chip Brown talks about how difficult it is to get Nash to explain himself:
As Nash began to fidget on the bench — maybe his back was tightening up, or he was thinking about Lola’s supper, or he was just tired of answering questions and the full-court press of chores entailed in being “Steve Nash” — I remembered something his agent, Bill Duffy, had told me: “With Steve it’s all about the flow.” Flow, of course, being shorthand for that state of mind that artists and athletes strive to enter into, and which in full flood entails an ecstatic expansion of consciousness that releases them from confines of the self and produces crowning moments of creation and performance — not to get too mystical about it. Maybe the truest picture of Nash depended on seeing him in motion, in the flow; whether he was threading a half-court bounce pass or exploiting his small window of fame to get potable water to third world villages or practicing surreptitious acts of generosity, like slipping spending money to the coaches to give to his less wealthy basketball teammates at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Enacting himself, as it were, as opposed to talking about himself.

Then here's Michael Lewis's article about Adam Vinateri, where Lewis talks about Vinateri's ability to separate himself from his skill:
Theoretically, Vinatieri hits every kick exactly the same way. An extra point in a preseason game is to be treated no differently from a 45-yard field goal to win the Super Bowl. He didn't put it quite this way to me — he wouldn't like the way it sounds, I suspect — but everything he does is designed to eliminate himself from the kick. He controls his body out of a suspicion that he cannot control his mind. In his approach to his job, he is not merely making it as unlikely as possible that he will choke, but also as unlikely as possible that he will be forced to view himself as having choked. (How can you choke when you never change what you do?) The end result is a near-perfect self-certainty, which in turn reassures himself, his fans, his teammates and his coaches — to a greater degree than that of any field-goal kicker in National Football League history.

Lewis comapres him to Mike Vanderjagt, who played for the Indianapolis Colts and still holds the NFL record for accuracy in kicking field goals but who also missed a crucial kick in a 2006 playoff game. When Lewis asks Vinateri what would happen if he made a Vanderjagt mistake, Vinateri answers, "That's a hard thing to think about." The gambit of asking an athlete a question full of doubt in order to expose how he thinks differently is the point of the whole article. One of Lewis's key transitions is, "Still, I confess my doubts to him."

To complete this circle of referentiality, there's there's a column by Richard Ford, sounding a little like Frank Bascombe, in Play about the incessant need for color commentators and sports columnists to manufacture storylines and chatter:
I usually don’t think sports is an apt metaphor for anything very interesting, and it’s certainly not a good metaphor for anything as swarming, irreducible and important as complex life itself. It’s not as if the behavior of rich celebrity-athletes comments provocatively on what’s going on in our communities at large. But sports, at least as we get it piped into our homes now, sports as the entertainment industry, sports as maundering gossip, sports as smirking, factless triviality for the bored, may in fact be a symptom of something grave — about us, the sporting consumers. And that something is a national malaise, a Nancy Grace-style questing for something realer than real — and far realer than the game could ever offer — an indiscriminate hunger that blindly permits a “product” that’s made-up, garish, tawdry and finally untrue and virtueless, and yet is loud and merely immediate, to be a sullying reality-substitute for those of us just sitting out here with our right to know exposed. Substituting something that’s trivial-but-noisily-immediate for something that’s virtuous — even smally virtuous, like a game we play or ponder — breeds an ugly cynicism about virtue itself.

Do you think there's a difference in narrative voice between 1995 Frank Bascombe and 2007 Richard Ford? Ford's concern isn't a unique one--see Josh Levin's Slate piece on the dullness that is Sports Illustrated and Le Anne Schreiber's ombuds column about the cycles of opinion on It's not a facetious question, because I think it is important to remember that Bascombe is a character whose opinions on literature probably aren't the same as Ford's. As a failed novelist, he's anxious about reading: "Literature's consolations are always temporary, while life is quick to begin again." That's a line that would seem to come only from someone who wanted consolation--and not any of a hundred other things--from reading literature. Is that a fair assessment of the character?

I note that because there's another piece about reading sports books in Play that encapsulates this sportswriters-search-for-doubt gambit: Bryan Curtis's look at sports autobiographies that transcend the genre. Curtis starts with a note about the conventions of the genre:
Most sports memoirs adhere to a rigid formula. The athlete begins by devoting several pages to his most memorable play: a great catch, a walk-off home run. This is a defensive strategy, in case we should forget why we’re reading about him. There are the compulsory chapters of childhood woe, a dim flicker of hope kept alive through sports. Athletes often write like sportswriters (Tiki Barber: “Your head is tilted back, and your vision is fixed on that damned prolate spheroid tumbling lazily through the air”). In most cases, this is because their books are ghostwritten by sportswriters. This separation between athlete and text has introduced a postmodern problem. Shortly after the memoirs of Charles Barkley and David Wells were published, both men claimed to have been misquoted.

But he goes on to praise a few outliers. His interest in Jose Canseco's Juiced is telling:
One of the interesting things revealed by the athlete memoir is that pro athletes have brutally repetitious, uninteresting lives, where even a “restless, questing mind,” which Tiki Barber claims to own, has few outlets other than a PlayStation. Sports memoirs may be intended as post-retirement victory laps, but many of them read like a cry for help.

Curtis, too, wants to find those moments when the thing that makes these athletes so strange, so alien (in a way) fails. With these autobiographies, he gets further than Brown does with Nash or Lewis does with Vinateri, but they're all focused on the same thing. The articles are good ones, but I wonder why this trope keeps coming back.

It reminds me that I have a complicated relationship with Texas Tech men's basketball coach Bobby Knight. I should despise him, right? For treating people badly, for physically threatening others, for acting entitled to bad behavior. But it seems like every time I'm about to finally give up on him, I read a story about... how Bobby Knight loves reading. He has donated many, many books to the university libraries where he's coached. He is a Civil War history buff. He helped his old mentor's family publish the final book in a popular children's sports series:
The [Chip Hilton] books, published from 1948-66, were popular but had much competition from other series of the era, such as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. [Clair] Bee's books, however, had powerful messages for the future athletes, coaches, businessmen and even journalists on integrity and sportsmanship, teamwork and leadership, loyalty and responsibility.

Bee even wove in plots about racism and respect for other cultures.

"He was ahead of his time" in writing about those subjects, says Knight, the Texas Tech basketball coach who used to plunk down his $1.25 for the books growing up in Orrville, Ohio. "They were like an essay on life for kids."

Especially for athletes, Knight points out: "There was always something that had to do with sportsmanship and fair play. Second, the coach was very demanding and expected the kids to work hard."

I remember tearing up at that story when I read it in a 2002 issue of USA Today--that's how sensitive I am to Bobby the bibliophile. While I was searching for it on ProQuest, I found Michael Ledeen's 2004 article from the American Enterprise (the magazine of the American Enterprise Institute) about Knight's wide-ranging mind:
I first met Knight at an academic conference on 'Culture and the Cold War' in Bloomington a couple of years ago. The keynote speaker was David Halberstam, a friend of Knight's who had sought a tutorial on the subtleties of basketball when he wrote a biography of Michael Jordan. Knight presented Halberstam to the conference, speaking off-the-cuff, and dazzled the audience with his understanding of Halberstam's work. He spoke in complete paragraphs, ably summarized Halberstam's contributions to American historical scholarship, and congratulated the organizers for their appreciation of Halberstam's wisdom.

I'm more skeptical about other parts of this article, which makes the claim that Knight's form of aggressive masculinity is intolerable in our contemporary PC society. ("I just don't care about men's feelings. Not this much.") It's funny to look at Knight and Frank Bascombe together--the former doesn't suffer under the same self-doubt as the fictional character, but he's certainly a complex, thoughtful person. So how do you capture Bobby Knight in a story that doesn't fall on these narrative gambits?

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Nov 07, 02:01:00 PM:
Awesome, Alice.

Two things: DFW's "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart" is worth a read on this subject because, well, it's DFW.

And second: If Jacoby had one the MVP (which, though Lowell was a fine choice, wasn't implausible), he would have been the only player to do so before his rookie season.

Neat, huh?
Blogger Brette on Wed Nov 14, 06:49:00 PM:
Three things from me:
First, CC Cy Young?

Second, what was up with the "Take an NFL Player to School" Day in today's Times? Are we all supposed to forget that Strahan not only has bad BO but also is bad at math (judging by the ruinous pre-nup he prepared and which obligated him to give his ex-wife 50% of his net worth plus 20% of his yearly income for each year of their marriage) and has questionable moral character.

Third, am I the only one who thinks that Natalie Portman in "Mr. Magorium's Look's Really Borium" bears more than a striking resemblance to a young Andrew McCarthy?
Blogger Ben on Thu Nov 15, 09:57:00 AM:
CC's Cy is all about innings. 241 fucking innings! That's a lot of innings to pitch 3.21 ball. You gotta figure that in the regular season, he was more valuable to Chief Wahoo than Beckett was to the Sox. 241 innings!

The Strahan article was silly, but I couldn't resist it. Strahan hitting on the boy's crush for him (he must have been DEVASTATED when he read the article and knew he would be a laughingstock at school), the mom worrying about the quality of her breakfast, the fact that the family is really Dolphins fans, Strahan telling students to "step away from the TV"... it was full of wacky shit.
Blogger Unknown on Tue Nov 20, 03:12:00 AM:
Thanks for the review of these pieces Alice! I knew from your post on ESPN/stats obsession that you were interested in analysis of sports, but I didn't know you were a fan of sports profiles.
I would be interested in hearing your views on Chuck Klosterman's gimmicky style (he has a piece on Steve Nash that would be interesting to compare with Chip Brown's).
When I was in Spain some people asked me why Americans were so obsessed with stats, pointing out that soccer is practically devoid of stats when compared to baseball, basketball, and football. As someone obsessed with these stats I was very interested in this issue. This one guy said he thought it was because we didn't have a substantial enough historical identity and are therefore trying to fill an identity void with stats.
-Alex W.
Blogger Alice on Tue Nov 20, 04:01:00 PM:
In his essays about sports, Klosterman somehow manages to introduce one more level of self-consciousness to the sportswriter's gimmick. He knows you know that the doubt/confidence divide between authors and athletes is a weird, provocative one... throw Bill Simmons into the mix and you get a crazy amount of male anxiety about confidence about one's abilities as a witty writer.

It reminds me of seeing DFW speak a few years ago and someone asked an oblique question about self-consciousness in his work, and DFW replied, "That question is shrouded in so many levels of irony I can't figure out what you're asking."

Klosterman would have loved that moment, I think, unless some sort of vortex of self-consciousness and irony opened up at that very spot at that very moment and he self-destructed (totally possible). And then it would have been a vortex of self-consciousness, irony, and awesomeness.

Actually, I don't mind his essays on sports as much as I do his music journalism. Here's his article on Bode Miller and confidence, which plays up the self-consciousness by using the second person (a classic Klosterman move).

In the Super Bowl XL blog, he cites DFW's Tracy Austin essay, mentioned above:

"In 1994, David Foster Wallace wrote an amusing essay about how reading Tracy Austin's co-written autobiography deeply disappointed him, partially because Austin was prone to expressing sentiments such as, 'I had just won the U.S Open. It felt great.' Obviously, we don't really need to read books to learn such things. But there continues to be this unkillable belief that the role of sports journalism is to help us understand how it feels to live an extraordinary athletic life, since that kind of life is beyond the average human's physical (or mental) comprehension. The problem, of course, is that this is an impossible quest, and not just because it's difficult to quantify any visceral experience; it's impossible because everyone perceives their own experiences as normative. For Jerome Bettis, winning a Super Bowl would probably feel less alien than having to operate a forklift for eight hours, which is probably why this was his response to the reporter's question: 'Mission accomplished.'"

which then leads to this observation two days later:

"If you hope to separate yourself from all the other super-fast manimals within the NFL's hyper-violent bone yard, you need to be more sensitive than Chris Carrabba. You need to be emotively devastated by any sentiment that involves you or anyone you've ever met -- even if the sentiment in question seems borderline affable.

"I realized this when I heard why Steelers linebacker Joey Porter is upset with Seattle tight end Jerramy Stevens. Porter is angry because Stevens made this statement about Detroit native Jerome Bettis: 'It's a heartwarming story and all that, but it will be a sad day when he leaves [Michigan] without the trophy.' In response, Porter has essentially declared a jihad against Stevens (while simultaneously pretending not to know whom the man is or what he does for a living).

"Now, I realize Stevens was being a tad snarky, and I realize Porter was simply being Porter -- but isn't this a curious assertion to take offense with? It sounds like Stevens basically said, 'Jerome Bettis is a nice guy, but his potential niceness will not impact our ability to win this game.' In a sense, Stevens gave Bettis an unnecessary compliment -- he could have just as easily said, 'I don't give a damn about any of their guys. I'm confident we're going to win.' At his core, I'm sure Stevens probably feels that way; I'm sure every player on both rosters assumes he is going to be a Super Bowl winner by Monday morning. Confidence is a normal (and necessary) component to winning anything.

"But confidence is not enough.

"At the highest levels of sport, art and business, confidence merely makes you normal."

That Jerramy Stevens line is a gem!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Doubt and falsification

This story from The New York Times Magazine would make an incredibly sad novel:
To believe that Flew has been exploited is not to conclude that his exploiters acted with malice. If Flew in his dotage was a bit gullible, Varghese had a gullibility of his own. An autodidact with no academic credentials, Varghese was clearly thrilled to be taken seriously by an Oxford-trained philosopher; it may never have occurred to him that so educated a mind could be in decline. Habermas, too, speaks of Flew with a genuine reverence and seems proud of the friendship.

Intellectuals, even more than the rest of us, like to believe that they reach conclusions solely through study and reflection. But like the rest of us, they sometimes choose their opinions to suit their friends rather than the other way around. Which means that Flew is likely to remain a theist, for just as the Christians drew him close, the atheists gave him up for lost. “He once was a great philosopher,” Richard Dawkins, the Oxford biologist and author of “The God Delusion,” told a Virginia audience last year. “It’s very sad.” Paul Kurtz of Prometheus Books says he thinks Flew is being exploited. “They’re misusing him,” Kurtz says, referring to the Christians. “They’re worried about atheists, and they’re trying to find an atheist to be on their side.”

It's a sad, complicated story, but I think Oppenheimer gets the tone right and is fair to those involved.

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