Wednesday, April 30, 2008

So the Sibylline leaves were blown about

Sven Birkerts came to Columbia last Friday to discuss literary blogging with Jenny Davidson. The afternoon was billed as a debate: Is Literary Blogging the End of Literary Culture? I hope I don't kill the form--or the culture--with this long post. First I want to talk about eighteenth-century newspapers, which maybe only a few people care about, and then I want to talk about the greatest novel of the past ten years, Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, so you can skip down past the poetry about newspapers to read if you're bored. Maybe blog posts can be orderly and planned for discussing how ideas work together. Or maybe not: the best laid plans...

Paul Barndt wrote a nice piece about the event for the Bwog, and I was glad that Ed Champion transcribed some of Birkerts' remarks because I kept thinking, "Marshall McLuhan said some of these things in 1962, right? I like galaxies better than elegies." About halfway through the event, Birkerts mentioned that he had been reading Eric Alterman's "Out of Print" from the New Yorker on the train down from Boston, and I thought then, "is that why he's conflating the decline of print newspapers with a general decline in reading? Aren't we talking about different things?" (Yesterday afternoon, I skimmed through Birkerts' Gutenberg Elegies and realized that I couldn't have attributed Birkerts' tone only to Alterman. The Gutenberg Elegies is an extended set of essay meditations published in 1994, with a new introduction from 2006, on the same issues of literary gatekeepers, distributed authority, and associational logic tied to the hyperlink which he discussed at Friday's event. I get the feeling that for Birkerts these terms don't get complicated by new developments so much as they get exacerbated.)

But the newspaper/novel decline narrative is an interesting conflation to make, especially when you look back at the history of print in the eighteenth century, a connection Jenny Davidson mentioned during the talk as a possible corrective to these worries about technological proliferation. I have a dream seminar in mind about the uses and abuses of the decline narrative in the eighteenth-century; we'd start with Paradise Lost, go on to the Ancients-Moderns debate, and then look at the transformation of the pastoral genre. During Birkerts' talk, I kept thinking about two long poems by George Crabbe which were Gutenberg Elegies of their own: "The Library" and "The Newspaper." "The Library" is a paean to the transformative power of books--not romances, not collections of plays, not magazines, not systems, but strong books which have the power to arouse sympathy and order thoughts. Such a remedy is needed in an age of decline, when everything is tinted by the color of elegy,
When the sad soul, by care and grief oppress'd,
Looks round the world, but looks in vain for rest;
When every object that appears in view
Partakes her gloom and seems dejected too;

For Crabbe the library is the place to look not only for the cure for this grief and gloom, but it also stores the causes of it in the multitude of inferior productions. (I know this is way too much poetry to quote on a blog, but I find the bad rhymes in the couplets hypnotic, like they really do produce ordered thinking for me, even as I'm chuckling at Crabbe's gall at finding a rhyme for "duodecimos"... OK, that's giggly thinking, not ordered thinking.):
The noblest road to happiness below;
Or men and manners prompt the easy page
To mark the flying follies of the age:
Whatever good ye boast, that good impart;
Inform the head and rectify the heart.
Lo, all in silence, all in order stand,
And mighty folios first, a lordly band ;
Then quartos their well-order'd ranks maintain,
And light octavos fill a spacious plain:
See yonder, ranged in more frequented rows,
A humbler band of duodecimos;
While undistinguish'd trifles swell the scene,
The last new play and fritter'd magazine.
Thus 'tis in life, where first the proud, the great,
In leagued assembly keep their cumbrous state;
Heavy and huge, they fill the world with dread,
Are much admired, and are but little read:
The commons next, a middle rank, are found;
Professions fruitful pour their offspring round;
Reasoners and wits are next their place allowed,
And last, of vulgar tribes a countless crowd.

"The Newspaper" is the companion to "The Library," in that the form gets blamed for destroying orderly thought with its random articles, disposability of daily or weekly publication, partisanship, scandal-mongering, and ill-considered criticism and puffing. It is the second long poem on the Project Gutenberg page, so you have to scroll down to find it. But you can take a look at the argument and the opening stanzas "The Village" and you'll recognize the voice of the poet who revels in nostalgia for a "Golden Age" (his term). I see some of Birkerts' concerns about the labor of composing well wrought prose in Crabbe's critique, as well as his fears about proliferation of lesser productions:
We, who for longer fame with labour strive,
Are pain'd to keep our sickly works alive;
Studious we toil, with patient care refine,
Nor let our love protect one languid line.
Severe ourselves, at last our works appear,
When, ah! we find our readers more severe;
For, after all our care and pains, how few
Acquire applause, or keep it if they do!
Not so these sheets, ordain'd to happier fate,
Praised through their day, and but that day their date;
Their careless authors only strive to join
As many words as make an even line;
As many lines as fill a row complete;
As many rows as furnish up a sheet:
From side to side, with ready types they run,
The measure's ended, and the work is done;
Oh, born with ease, how envied and how blest!
Your fate to-day and your to-morrow's rest,

Crabbe asks, where is the place for readers to enjoy the labor of reading and studying books when there is all this paper and instant gratification floating about:
To you all readers turn, and they can look
Pleased on a paper, who abhor a book;
Those who ne'er deign'd their Bible to peruse,
Would think it hard to be denied their News;
Sinners and saints, the wisest with the weak,
Here mingle tastes, and one amusement seek;
This, like the public inn, provides a treat,
Where each promiscuous guest sits down to eat;
And such this mental food, as we may call
Something to all men, and to some men all.

In these two poems, Crabbe blames newspapers for the decline of reading serious material. That the two would be conflated under a general elegiacal tone more than two hundred years later shows--what? The print newspaper business is in sharp decline for economic reasons that are difficult to address, but I'm really wary of connecting that problem with a general elegy for deep thinking or ordering thoughts on a printed page. Actually, I think it's really offensive to do that, and the economic issues would seem to fall by the wayside if you could make it into a decline of thinking problem.

Paul Collins and Leah Price have both responded to the NEA's annual report on reading decline narratives, and they both demonstrate the ways in which the decline narrative recurs by disguising itself as something that's diagnosing a particular moment (blogs, television, motor vehicles) but is really resurrecting an elegiacal tone which, as Crabbe put it, makes every object under study "seem dejected too."

My favorite passage of Crabbe's "The Newspaper" insists that newspapers provoke random thinking--associational thinking in Birkerts' terms--which don't approach truth or certainty. But what if this is the way print circulates in The Gutenberg Galaxy--the book, not just the idea itself, where McLuhan juxtaposes blocks of text from various disciplines just to see what happens when he makes mosaics of references:
So the Sibylline leaves were blown about,
Disjointed scraps of fate involved in doubt;
So idle dreams, the journals of the night,
Are right and wrong by turns, and mingle wrong with right.-

My point here: what if associational thinking isn't that bad? What if it's the way that lots of books--and not just blogs--are structured? McLuhan gets some amazing work out of that mosaic effect to create a field of media studies which takes up the associations which print makes possible.

You know who else works in that structure, too? Helen DeWitt. Talk about Sibylline leaves being blown about: there's DeWitt's main character in the novel, Sibylla, leaping up from her work transcribing esoteric journals onto a computer database to hunt down a reference in a book or explain a foreign phrase to her son Ludo. DeWitt quotes long passages from math and aerodynamics textbooks, film books about Akira Kurosawa, Icelandic sagas, and so on. The mosaic pattern looks less like ordered thinking than like a record of scattered thinking. Ludo wonders at one point if there's any other kind of reading and thinking after one has faced disappointment:
It wasn't all that easy to understand the book anyway, and with my father interrupting all the time it was practically impossible; what if he never stopped? What was it going to be like hearing it for 80 years? I thought of giving up and going home. Then I thought of Sibylla, jumping up and sitting down, jumping up to walk here and there, jumping up to read this book and that book a paragraph a sentence a word at a time.

At Friday's event, I asked Davidson and Birkerts if DeWitt's novel might provide an interesting lens onto the conversation about changes in meditating literatuer. I knew they both liked it quite a bit: I first read about The Last Samuari on Light Reading, and Birkerts' blurbs the back of the book, "[it] is very much the story of an education, an arduous discovery of self." DeWitt has a blog that's pretty cool, so she's perhaps an example of someone who's embraced multiple forms of writing technology. But The Last Samurai is itself a book about mediating forms of writing technology. The book was published in 2000, but I think it was written over a long span of time so there's little mention of late-twentieth century technological changes. Sibylla tries to make money by preserving old periodicals in a new digital format; in many ways, her project looks a lot like the Project Gutenberg texts I was using to retrieve and link to George Crabbe. (Indeed, the material may be just as esoteric.)

The missing link in Friday's conversation seemed to me to be about how cinema fits into our discussions of what technology has changed the ways we think about narrative, and I think DeWitt does something really amazing with that question. Whenever I'm enthusing about the book, I have to insist first that it's not related to the Tom Cruise movie and that Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai is the key to the book. If Sibylla can jump up from her work in the midst of transcribing sentences, she is reverential about watching the Kurosawa movie all the way through. At one point, she tells her son, "It is shocking to stop in the middle, she said, still at least Kurosawa will never know." So what's the difference between watching the movie all the way through and paging one's way through books, only to stop in mid-sentence to check a reference in another? I think DeWitt understands in a really beautiful way the multiple forms of making one's way through a text--that it's not all about ordering thoughts, but also about disordering them to show disconnections.

One of my favorite things about the book is DeWitt's thank-you to the designer who found a Greek character set for the book "at the postultimate minute." I can't even type out some of my favorite passages from the book because I don't know how to access the character sets for Icelandic, Japanese, and Greek. (Sometimes I try to imagine this project back to the eighteenth century, when colonialists from the East India Company made prototypes of Bengali type and Sanskrit type for use in the grammars of the languages. I like to think about how those new type forms changed consciousness among the English, but also how the authors maintained the same narratives of civilization happening in stages, where the move from print to oral was a major shift now being recorded in these half-understood grammars of proto-linguistics.)

But the moment that I most wanted to bring up to Davidson and Birkerts was the part where Ludo visits his birth father and tries to make a connection through talking about his love for books. Ludo, flailing for some connection to his birth father, asks him if he ever buries books:
You could bury your books in a plastic bag a few metres down, one on each continent. Then if there was a cataclysm they'd be preserved for posterity. They cold dig them up again. he said he hadn't tried it. I said: What they should really do is bury a book in the foundation of each house. Sealed in plastic. It would help archaeologists in a millennium or so.

I'm less sure that Ludo is speaking in an elegiacal way here--what if he's trying to make associational thinking work for him as it's worked for his acquisition of so much knowledge in the past. And it doesn't really work in this scene, to heart-breaking effect. The act of reading isn't always one which makes connections between humans, it can also exacerbate distance. Birkerts seemed to be working this idea to great elegiacal effect in his book, as though this was the thing that books were supposed to do. Because they've done it for him. And they do it for me, too, and for other people who love to talk and write about books and other forms of writing. But what if writing technologies don't have purposes except for the ones that are cast on them in other forms of writing and critique, when the author's (or blogger's) tone makes "every object that appears in view" subject to another use or interpretation?

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Anonymous Anonymous on Wed Apr 30, 05:27:00 PM:
Having had Sven Birkerts as a professor in college, I feel that I should have something useful to mention. All that's coming to me, however, is that he is the only professor I had who flatly refused to use email. I actually thought email would have been a pretty convenient way to communicate know...writing...
Blogger Becca on Fri May 02, 08:09:00 AM:
Excellent post. I believe Tedra Osell has made the connection between 18th c. periodicals and blogging, but not sure where.
Blogger nbm on Sun May 04, 09:16:00 AM:
I must show that passage from "The Library" to my colleagues; perhaps they can use it to guide the next stacks shift they're planning. But ought not Crabbe's metaphor have noted that folios lie down -- well, they do in our library.

I think you're right to keep us focused on the recurrence of the "decline" narrative.
Blogger Ben on Wed Sep 17, 06:02:00 PM:
We got a bit of comment spam for this post:

"I’m not that much of a internet reader to be honest but your sites really
nice, keep it up! I'll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back later.
Many thanks [spam url followed]"

Pretty amazing to get spam for a post that's basically about 18th century forms of spam!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Everything that was good about your old Texas heritage

My parents' college band gets a mention in the oral history of Willie Nelson in the current issue of Texas Monthly. From the article:
Bill Bentley,57, played drums for Lea Ann and the Bizarros in 1972. He is now the publisher of the Sonic Boomers web site and lives in Los Angeles. We played a George McGovern for President benefit in the summer of '72 at Austin's Zilker Park. Willie came on in the late afternoon, and it was still really hot, and he had [bassist] Bee Spears and Paul English, and Mary Egan from Greezy Wheels on fiddle. It was real quiet and informal. There were probably four thousand people in the audience, most of them hippies, and most didn't know who he was. He had on a black cowboy hat, and he played his first song, and it was like, 'Whoa, who's that?' His charisma was so instantaneous. Those longhairs in the audience were just completely pulled in. My feeling on that day was, that's when he saw that hippies dug him. It was ground zero for redneck rock.

James BigBoy Medlin,63, organized the music for McGovern benefit. He is a screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles. Everybody in the crowd felt like Willie was looking them right in the eye. It was like everything that was good about your old Texas heritage was suddenly coming out from this one guy's mouth and guitar, and people were just blown away. At the end he says, 'All right, we've got to go to John T. Floore's place in Helotes, so anybody that wants to go, come on down and join us.' and I swear it seemed like half the crowd was leaving. Just this parade up there following Willie.

My dad remembers the event this way: "This was the benefit where Ted claims we lent a teen-aged Stevie Ray Vaughn an amplifier, and where Bellamy nearly hit Phil Ochs in the head with a frisbee while he was up performing (possibly apocryphal, I remember Phil Ochs playing, I remember the frisbee, but I only heard Bellamy threw it many years later)."

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Inns in 18th century America

In Reason, Kerry Howley talks about the American Hotel in the 18th century:

Consider the condition of the stranger in mid-18th-century America. “Public authority,” writes Sandoval-Strausz, “was deeply invested in policing people’s comings and goings.” Innkeepers were often required to notify officials when strangers rolled into town, and transients needed official permission to stay for any length of time. In 1765 Boston hired a municipal bouncer of sorts to hunt down unauthorized visitors and send them packing.

One measure of a society’s openness to newcomers is the quality of the space it creates for them. Public houses, the inns of the day, offered a rather tepid welcome. They offered an abundance of alcohol and few rooms; when they were crowded, wayfarers might find themselves sharing a bed with a drunken stranger. One traveling Englishman complained of being “sadly tormented with bugs” while in bed. Yet, standards being what they were, he deemed the place “a good inn.”

In contrast to the humble taverns they replaced, early hotels were sweeping architectural statements.
The men who invested fortunes in these displays of hospitality were not just seeking to edify their fellow Americans. They were bringing symbolic heft to the political debate then raging between Hamiltonian Federalists, who favored commercial expansion, and Jeffersonian Republicans, who favored agricultural self-sufficiency. Hotel builders were almost uniformly Federalists. You could read the towering Exchange Coffee House as a structural middle finger gesturing in the direction of Thomas Jefferson.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Horace Greeley chimes in on Clinton vs. Obama

Historian David Kaiser this week compares Hillary Clinton to Richard Nixon, arguing that she is not the friend to her party that Nixon was to his. Kaiser also includes a fascinating quote by Horace Greeley (at right, in one of the two sculptures of him in New York City, this one at City Hall Park), writing about the Whig convention of 1840, where William Henry Harrison was chosen over the more partisan Henry Clay.

Kaiser means to imply that because Harrison's consensus nomination was wise, an Obama nomination would be wise too, but in my reading there are greater parallels if you consider Obama to be Clay and Clinton to be Harrison; Harrison won the big party stronghold states (today New York, California, Michigan, Massachusetts) and swing states (then and now Pennsylvania, Ohio). Clay's greater delegate support going into the nomination came largely from his victory in states usually carried by the other party in the general election (as Obama's delegate support does). And without backroom party negotiations that were never made transparent to the public, the establishment's mainstream candidate might have been bested by an outsider with more grassroots support. I think Kaiser, who supports Obama (as I do), is wrong to think this anecdote suggests the party should unite around him.

Here's Greeley:
The sittings of the Convention were protracted through three or four days during which several ballots for President were taken. There was a plurality though not a majority in favor of nominating Mr Clay but it was in good part composed of delegates from States which could not rationally be expected to vote for any Whig candidate On the other hand delegates from Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana said, "We can carry our States for General Harrison but not for Clay." New York and New Jersey cast their earlier for General Scott but stood ready to unite on General Harrison whenever it should be clear that he could be nominated and elected and they ultimately did so. The delegates from Maine and Massachusetts contributed powerfully to secure General Harrison's ultimate nomination. Each delegation cast its vote through a committee and the votes were added up by a general committee which reported no names and no figures but simply that no choice had been effected until at length the Scott votes were all cast for Harrison and his nomination thus effected when the result was proclaimed.

Governor Seward who was in Albany (there were no telegraphs in those days), and Mr Weed, who was present and very influential in producing the result, were strongly blamed by the ardent uncalculating supporters of Mr Clay as having cheated him out of the nomination. I could never see with what reason. They judged that he could not be chosen if nominated while another could be and acted accordingly. If politics do not meditate the achievement of beneficent ends through the choice and use of the safest and most effective means I wholly misapprehend them.
It's easy to compliment your own beneficent ends, safety and effectiveness when it's your guy on top.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

CSI as anthropology

In response to Mark's comment about how CSI: is different from Law & Order in its treatment of evidence, I have a big admission to make. I think CSI: is the great science fiction show of our time. The evidence for my case is as follows.

1. The show takes place in Las Vegas, but it's shot as though it's an alternative universe where everything is neon or otherwise spookily or sleazily lit in blues and harsh pinks, like a Joel Schumacher movie from the mid-1990s (Flatliners, I'm looking at you because you are my guilty pleasure; Batman & Robin has the same lighting design and it's embarrassing).

2. I'm going to get to the silliness of the evidence-processing techniques in a second, but first I want to point out that in this lurid alternative universe, computer screens also display the most user-friendly and cross-linked databases ever imagined.

3. Mark's point about television audiences extrapolating too much from CSI: to real courtrooms was explored by Jeffrey Toobin in this New Yorker article last year. Television viewers' (and potential jurors') misguided beliefs about evidence and scientific testing are frustrating, but I'm going to argue that CSI:'s mind-boggling leaps in hard science are done in the service of the show's real interest in anthropology and ethnography. The sureness with which they coordinate information from COTUS, DNA tests, fingerprint tests, and the DMV databases are laughable, but I think they're laughable in a sci-fi-space-show-loosely-interprets-issues-of-gravity-and-sound-traveling-in-space kind of way. The show's writers stabilize evidence collection and comparison so they can do some cool stuff with figuring out how the CSIs know what they know when they're investigating groups with their own weird sets of knowledge bases and conventions for behavior. The whiz-bang DNA testing is a sideshow--a pinning down of knowns--for them to investigate unknowns in the neon-lit realms of unknowable human behavior.

4. The Vegas locale gives them leeway to do a lot of ethnographic observation on how subcultures establish alternative codes of behavior, interaction, and rituals--which often end in death. Because it's Vegas, there are always conventions for these subcultures: for little people, word game enthusiasts, gamblers who rely on probabilistic thinking which may seem alien to non-gamblers, and so on. The show often structures its stories on getting inside the ways of knowing that different subcultures generate--whether they're visiting Vegas or have taken advantage of the sprawl and fast growth of the city to create enclaves. There have been interesting episodes about magicians, vampire wannabes, Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts, horror-porn movie-makers, Cirque du Soleil performers, adventure sports practioners, narcocorridos fans, swingers, and lusty developers. In each of these episodes, the CSIs had to figure out how to interpret the artifacts of the procedures these subcultures perform in their rituals: secret trap doors in the magic chambers, evidence of frequent blood tests for the vampirists, genre conventions of horror-porn films, doctored maps for extreme hikers, connections between real-life events and song lyrics in narcocorridos, codes of conduct for swingers' parties, and falsified site maps that developers try to pass off as real.

The show has a fixation on strippers and fetishists. The fetishists, oddly enough, are often the limit case for the CSIs to investigate how they know what they know about bodies. I'm thinking of the episode when they find a murdered dominatrix and at first think she's been routinely tortured; they later realize that the scars from whip lashings are, well, artifacts of one subculture's codes of practice.

5. The investigators have their own methods of evidence retrieval and analysis to match up with the subcultures under study, so the shows are often about competing forms of procedure. These procedures are fetishized on the show as zoom-ins on fingerprint powder brushes, blood-spatters, and recreations of crime scenes. The artifacts of these investigative procedures have to their own aura of sureness because they are what's measuring the other artifacts. The genres of science fiction and crime procedural match up well for this reason.

Furthermore, as Ben has pointed out in this post about Doris Lessing and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ethnography and science fiction match up well, too, as we see in Gulliver's Travels. My stepfather, a huge fan of the science fiction author Jack Vance, has always insisted that Vance's short story "The Moon-Moth" should be assigned in anthropology classes. The story is about a bureaucrat on another planet who's sent to foreign city to observe and enforce some order; he wants to mimic the other culture's social practices so he can fit in, but he comes to realize that decoding behavior is more difficult than he thinks. Early in the story, the protagonist, Thissell, reads from the Journal of Universal Anthropology to understand the Sirenese cultural practice for wearing masks. The Journal entry reads:
Masks are worn at all times, in accordance with the philosophy that a man should not be compelled to use a similitude foisted upon him by factors beyond his control; that he should be at liberty to choose that semblance most consonant with his strakh. In the civilized areas of Sirene--which is to say the Titanic littoral--a man literally never shows his face; it is his basic secret.

Vance must be making a joke here in that title of "universal anthropology," for compare it to a few paragraphs on the problems of universalizing comparisons in Franz Boas's Methods of Cultural Anthropology:
The use of masks is found among a great number of peoples. The origin of the custom of wearing masks is by no means clear in all cases, but a few typical forms of their use may easily be distinguished. They are used for deceiving spirits as to the identity of the wearer. The spirit of a disease who intends to attack the person does not recognize him when he wears a mask, and the mask serves in this manner as a protection. In other cases the mask represents a spirit which is personified by the wearer, who in this shape frightens away other hostile spirits. Still other masks are commemorative. The wearer personifies a deceased person whose memory is to be recalled. Masks are also used in theatrical performances illustrating mythological incidents.

These few data suffice to show that the same ethnical phenomenon may develop from different sources. The simpler the observed fact, the more likely it is that it may have developed from one source here, from another there.

Thus we recognize that the fundamental assumption which is so often made by modern anthropologists cannot be accepted as true in all cases. We cannot say that he occurrence of the same phenomenon is always due to the same causes, and that thus it is proved that the human mind obeys the same laws everywhere. We must demand that he causes from which it developed be investigated and that comparisons be restricted to those phenomena which have been proved to be effects of the same causes. We must insist that this investigation be made a preliminary to all extended comparative studies. In researches on tribal societies those which have developed by association must be treated separately from those that have developed through disintegration. Geometrical designs which have arisen from conventionalized representations of natural objects must be treated separately from those that have arisen from technical motives. In short, before extend comparisons are made, the comparability of the material must be proved.

In much the same way that Ursula LeGuin's work is informed by her reading of anthropology--her father was Alfred Kroeber--Vance's story seems to be in direct conversation with Boas. Indeed, he learns his lesson about the problems of comparing his own ideas about masks-as-markers with the Sirenese manipulations of that cultural practice later in the story. Even at the beginning of the story, the comparison problem is foreshadowed to be a problem for him:
Rolver threw up his hands, stepped back. "Your mask," he cried huskily. "Where is your mask?"
Thissell held it up rather self-consciously. "I wasn't sure--"
"Put it on," said Rolver, turning away. He himself wore a fabrication of dull green scales, blue-lacquered wood. Black quills protruded at the cheeks, and under his chin hung a black-and-white-checked pompom, the total effect creating a sense of sardonic supple personality.
Thissell adjusted the mask to his face, undecided whether to make a joke about the situation or to maintain a reserve suitable to the dignity of his post.
"Are you masked?" Rolver inquired over his shoulder.
Thissell replied in the affirmative and Rolver turned. The mask hid the expression of his face, but his hand unconsciously flicked a set of keys strapped to his thigh. The instrument sounded a trill of shock and polite consternation. "You can't wear that mask!" sang Rolver. "In fact--how, where, did you get it?"
"It's copied from a mask owned by the Polypolis museum," Thissell declared stiffly. "I'm sure it's authentic."
Rolver nodded, his own mask seeming more sardonic than ever. "It's authentic enough. It's a variant of the type known as the Sea Dragon Conqueror, and is won on ceremonial occasion by persons of enormous prestige: princes, heroes, master craftsmen, great musicians."
"I wasn't aware--"
Rolver made a gesture of languid understanding. "It's something you'll learn in due course. Notice my mask. Today I'm wearing a Tarn Bird. Persons of minimal prestige--such as you and I, any other out-worlder--wear this sort of thing."
"Odd," said Thissell, as they started across the field toward a low concrete blockhouse. "I assumed that a person wore whatever he liked."
"Certainly," said Rolver. "Wear any mask you like--if you can make it stick. This Tarn Bird, for instance. I wear it to indicate that I presume nothing. I make no claims to wisdom, ferocity, versatility, musicianship, truculence, or any of a dozen other Sirenese virtues."

Presuming nothing is the problem on which the story turns.

So here's to you, CSI:, for somehow managing to not only call into question how your investigators know what they know, but also to convince juries that one shouldn't call into question those same procedures in real life.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Making monkeys out of experimental psychologists, plus a maddening Monty Hall paradox

Experimental psychologists are forever jumping to conclusions from experimental results whose implications they haven't thought through. John Tierney in the NY Times last week reported on a particularly satisfying smack-down:
For half a century, experimenters have been using what’s called the free-choice paradigm to test our tendency to rationalize decisions. This tendency has been reported hundreds of times and detected even in animals.
The Yale psychologists first measured monkeys’ preferences by observing how quickly each monkey sought out different colors of M&Ms. After identifying three colors preferred about equally by a monkey — say, red, blue and green — the researchers gave the monkey a choice between two of them.

If the monkey chose, say, red over blue, it was next given a choice between blue and green. Nearly two-thirds of the time it rejected blue in favor of green, which seemed to jibe with the theory of choice rationalization: Once we reject something, we tell ourselves we never liked it anyway (and thereby spare ourselves the painfully dissonant thought that we made the wrong choice).

But Dr. Chen says that the monkey’s distaste for blue can be completely explained with statistics alone. He says the psychologists wrongly assumed that the monkey began by valuing all three colors equally.
Like Monty Hall’s choice of which door to open to reveal a goat, the monkey’s choice of red over blue discloses information that changes the odds. If you work out the permutations, you find that when a monkey favors red over blue, there’s a two-thirds chance that it also started off with a preference for green over blue — which would explain why the monkeys chose green two-thirds of the time in the Yale experiment, Dr. Chen says.

While we're at it, here's a particularly confounding version of the Monty Hall problem (which Anna Mirer wrote about in a comment here a while ago), in my rephrasing:

I offer you two closed boxes, promising you that in one of them I have placed some amount of money, and in the other I have placed twice that much; let's call these values X and 2X.

You must choose one, and you do; you open it, and it contains some amount of money inside -- let's say $100. Now I offer you one last choice: you can keep that money, or take the other box and keep whatever is inside it instead. Which choice should you make: the current box, or the other box?

Keep in mind that the other box could contain half the amount you see now, or twice the amount: $50 or $200. Average these two equal possibilities together, and you get an "expected value" (probability of each outcome times the payoff if that outcome happens) of ($200 + $50) / 2 = $125, which is more than the $100 you could have now. Isn't it clear that you should switch?

But if you think you could switch, what would have happened if you'd picked the other box first? You'd have the same arguments, and you would have seen the logic of switching to the other box.

It's a paradox!

If you want to think about it further, suppose instead of X and 2X, the boxes contained X and 100X, or even X and 1,000,000,000X. Now what should you do if you see a certain amount of money in the first box?

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OpenID medryn on Wed May 07, 12:58:00 PM:
Any time you speak of assigning a random value to a box, you have to explicitly state the distribution from which the random value is drawn.

In your statement of the problem, you are implicitly suggesting that the value is a random integer chosen uniformly between 1 and infinity. Unfortunately, this distribution does not exist. Uniform distributions require a finite interval.

So this isn't really a paradox at all. If you select the box values from a valid distribution, then a rational player can determine whether it is better to switch or to stay.
Blogger Ben on Thu May 08, 06:54:00 PM:
Precisely, thought the implicit suggestion is really 0 and infinity, not 1 and infinity.

Another way to look at the answer is to suppose that X could only be $100, $200, $400, or $800. If the first box you look at is any of the first three, you should switch -- though the advantage in switching is slight. If you find $800, though, you should definitely, definitely not switch; the disadvantage of switching away from the $800 there ($400 worse than how you'd do if you kept it) exactly offsets the sum of all the advantages you get in switching in the other five situations: when you find $100 ($100 more), $200 (either $200 more or $100 less), or $400 (either $400 more or $200 less).

Of course, you don't know the limits of the range I am picking X from, but you can use what you know about me to judge when a value is probably near the top of my range (say, if you saw a few hundred bucks in the first box, in which case you should keep it) or somewhere in the middle or low end ($10, say, in which case you should switch). If you don't even know the currency's exchange rate, though, the strategies of always switching envelopes or always keeping the first one have the same expected value.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Papelbon: light of my life, fire of my loins

My wife noticed this in Nabokov's Pale Fire, canto 1:
I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,
A poet and a painter with a taste
For realistic objects interlaced
With grotesque growths and images of doom.
She lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room
We've kept intact. Its trivia create
A still life in her style: the paperweight
Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,
The verse book open at the Index (Moon,
Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Gulliver park in Valencia, Spain

In Valencia, Spain, one of my favorite places in the world, the Turia River that runs through the city was rerouted in the 1950s to prevent flooding, leaving a dry riverbed with beautiful bridges built over it. The city decided to turn the riverbed into a series of parks, called the "Turia gardens", "Turia parks" or (if you're the tourism bureau) the "River of culture". You can see the river parks clearly in Google Maps's aerial views of downtown Valencia:

Here is a closer look at one part of the river, Santiago Calatrava's "City of Arts and Sciences", or, in the Valenciano (don't call it Catalan!), "Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciències":

Notice that in the upper left of the picture above, there is a white circle, and you can just make out what looks like the shape of a giant man lying down. Here's a closer look:

I came across this while walking along the riverbed, and couldn't believe it was real: a playground with a giant jungle gym in the shape of Gulliver! With kids climbing all over it as if they were Lilliputians!

See the Google Maps aerial view -- it's fun to zoom in and out.

I'll never understand why Valencia isn't visited more by travelers. It's the birthplace of paella (Valencianos are known to cook it in pans so big they require special outdoor gas ranges), it's got a party city reputation in Spain second only to Mallorca (where Ibiza is), it's got beaches that are great in the summer, it has a wonderful old city center, and it has a miles-long riverbed park running through the center of the city, with the world's most iconic museum of science. Nearby Barcelona has... shopping. How does Barcelona get all the buzz?

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Blogger Ben on Sun Apr 13, 11:53:00 PM:
One more note -- confusingly, Valencianos do pronounce Gulliver's name neither like "Goo-yee-vehr", nor like "Guh-lih-vuhr", but like "Goo-lih-vehr". No one knew what I was talking about when I mentioned "par-kay Goo-yee-vehr".
Blogger Alice on Mon Apr 14, 01:15:00 PM:
One of my (less tall) 18c. friends called me a Brobdingnagian at a party once, and the book has been difficult to read since then. That last part isn't really true--though Swift jokes form a large part of how we insult one another. There's a wonderful annotated and illustrated edition of Gulliver's Travels edited by Isaac Asimov, in much the same style as Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice and Annotated Wizard of Oz.
Blogger Ben on Wed Apr 16, 08:47:00 PM:
Also, an important thing about Parque Gulliver is that its location helps it avoid the problem of kids not getting a sense of what the structure looks like from above, thanks to the nearby bridges. You can't see how high up they are in the Google Maps aerial view, but they give you a view much like the bottommost picture.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Traffic jams explained in 60 seconds

Japanese researchers came up with an ingenious method for demonstrating what causes traffic jams, when the density of cars is low enough that a jam can be avoided:

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has body count

Speaking of baseball facts (see Alice's post on SABR-porn), The Q&A column FYI, which appears in the Times's Sunday City section, mentions a surprising bit of Red Sox-Yankees history:
...a stampede in the Yankee Stadium bleachers on May 19, 1929, when a sudden rainstorm during a Red Sox game caused the crowd to mob the nearest exit. Two people were killed — a 17-year-old Hunter college student and a 60-year-old teamster — and more than 60 were injured in the panic.

Many of the injured were young boys who habitually clustered in a section of right field known as Ruthville, where Babe Ruth’s home runs were likeliest to land.

The section was filled that day, and the sudden storm led to a crush at the bottom of the nearest bleacher exit. As people fell, many of them young boys, the pressure of the crowd pushed others on top of them. The next day, the district attorney absolved the Yankees’ management of negligence.

On May 21, the Babe visited Ruthville’s injured boys in Lincoln Hospital, shaking hands, handing out autographed balls, and promising to try to hit home runs for them.

So the Red Sox, in the era of the great selloff of the Bambino and many other players to the Yankees, presided over perhaps the darkest day in the history of baseball, where fans of the player the Sox dealt were killed by the very fact that he was so popular and they were so legion.

As for those sabermetrics faces in the Times last week, I've never understood that approach to representing statistics. Edward Tufte champions it in his wonderful Visual Display of Quantitative Information series, but it seems to me it's only good for one thing -- seeing similarity between sets of statistics, as where Alice noticed Joe Torre and Willie Randolph's similarities. But it inevitably buries some; you may notice that big eyes go with big noses, but will you notice that eyes positioned high in the face tend to go with nose narrowness? I say, better to choose images that more closely represent what they measure, and split the stats up into several groups of related numbers.

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Blogger Ben on Thu May 08, 06:57:00 PM:
The recent story of a Yankees fan deliberately hitting and killing a Sox fan with her car is a sad addendum to this story. And let's not forget the poor student shot and killed by "nonlethal" rubber bullets while celebrating the Sox's 2004 championship, a victory that was surely more raucous because of how we got past the Yankees to get there.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


I was delighted by this study of the baseball manager statistics rendered as faces in yesterday's Science Times. It's a demented project:
While reams of categorical data can be imposing and hard to parse, translating the differences among them into facial characteristics can communicate distinctions with striking clarity. By turning rates of bunting, stealing and pinch-hitting into hair sizes, nose shapes and smile widths, Dr. Wang used a kind of statistical Mr. Potato Head to portray the spectrum of managerial characteristics in a way that intrigued even the skippers themselves.

The picture of Tony La Russa is particularly striking. Terry Francona looks very much like the league average. The article notes that you can see resemblances between managers and their proteges; hence Willie Randolph resembles Joe Torre to some extent. What I want to see is a comparison of how those faces change from season to season: Willie Randolph's wide smile was certainly a function of Jose Reyes' stolen base attempts last year (and thus it appears frozen in time even after the September collapse). How much do these habits being measured change over time given who's playing and who's having a good year? In that way, some of the resemblances between proteges might not be as striking in some years. Anyway, it's a charming project.

I also had a good time reading the alternative history of baseball article from Sunday's paper in which two statisticians modeled 10,000 ways that the seasons could have turned out differently to see where Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak fit in:
In a fit of scientific skepticism, we decided to calculate how unlikely Joltin’ Joe’s achievement really was. Using a comprehensive collection of baseball statistics from 1871 to 2005, we simulated the entire history of baseball 10,000 times in a computer. In essence, we programmed the computer to construct an enormous set of parallel baseball universes, all with the same players but subject to the vagaries of chance in each one.

Here’s how it works. Think of baseball players’ performances at bat as being like coin tosses. Hitting streaks are like runs of many heads in a row. Suppose a hypothetical player named Joe Coin had a 50-50 chance of getting at least one hit per game, and suppose that he played 154 games during the 1941 season. We could learn something about Coin’s chances of having a 56-game hitting streak in 1941 by flipping a real coin 154 times, recording the series of heads and tails, and observing what his longest streak of heads happened to be.

Our simulations did something very much like this, except instead of a coin, we used random numbers generated by a computer. Also, instead of assuming that a player has a 50 percent chance of hitting successfully in each game, we used baseball statistics to calculate each player’s odds, as determined by his actual batting performance in a given year.

Arbesman and Strogatz determined that there were all sorts of streaks possible in these alternative histories. It's an utterly charming article, and I was struck by the two letters which were published about the study: which both insisted on shrinking the scale of analysis down to the single season or the individual (and actually the first letter writer asks if zooming in to the level of DNA would be more or less appropriate).

Such objections aren't new or surprising, but it highlighted for me the ways in which people may have a hard time comparing the scales of research analysis when they're responding to weird projects like this one. These letter writers are advocating units of analysis (the individual, the single season, the day of the streak, the weather or park conditions on that day) which the statisticians performing this project have zoomed out from because they want to work on a larger scale, which allows them to make different types of speculations than those who are interested in those smaller scales are able to do. If one considers the claims made in biographies of baseball players which may make claims about individual psychology or a personal superstition, these claims are just as untestable (or unbelievable), but most people are more used to conceptualizing the human scale rather than the scale in which there are 10,000 alternative scenarios. I feel like imaginative work on this latter scale is more accessible to chess or poker players, who are more used to conceiving of larger sets of alternative choices or outcomes. How does fantasy baseball allow people to move among these different levels (assessing player productivity over several seasons, comparison to other players, picking single team members, etc.)?

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Blogger Michael Mirer on Wed Apr 09, 03:43:00 PM:
Gould's piece suggests that for a streak like DiMaggio's to ever be statistically likely again MLB would have to have multiple career .400 and .350 hitters. So this finding seems way different. We're outside of my expertise here, but I have a hard time believing that all the parallel baseball universes would have been that much different from the actual baseball universe.
Blogger Ben on Wed Apr 09, 09:56:00 PM:
The piece is a classic example of a headline directing the interpretation of a story. What's remarkable about the streak is not that it happened ever, but that it happened so late, at a time when baseball was so competitive that one player couldn't be so much better than everyone else. It looks like it's overwhelmingly, hugely unlikely that it should happen post-Ruth -- from their charts, something like 95% unlikely. In other words, after another 50 or 60 years of baseball, there's only a likelihood in the ballpark of 5% -- higher than people normally assume, but still pretty small -- that anyone will beat DiMaggio's record.