July 30, 2004

Barack Obama and Doodlegate

Posted by Ed

Heard enough about Barack Obama yet? So far, I think it's fair to say that the most negative thing I've read about Obama came at the end of this Atlantic Monthly profile by Ryan Lizza, who wondered if Obama's new-found attention was going to his head:

If there is a knock against Obama, it is that he is perhaps a little too enchanted with all the attention and acclaim. During the Democratic primary campaign he raised eyebrows by sweeping an opponent's wife into an embrace—a moment captured by a Chicago Tribune reporter. The opponent's staff was sufficiently piqued to complain. And I couldn't help noticing, when we sat down to talk in the dilapidated storefront that houses his Springfield campaign headquarters, that the blue-pen drawing he'd doodled on his newspaper during fundraising calls was a portrait of himself.

Nevertheless, as Lizza points out in a recent entry in The New Republic's convention blog, that wasn't the end of the story.

As he put it,

At the end of today's lunch, a group of reporters gathered around him to shake his hand goodbye. Seeing me, Obama borrowed a pen and started drawing two faces on his newspaper, explaining with a laugh what I had written. One face was a craggy profile that would never be mistaken for him. The other was a frontal view of a man with a narrow face and oversized ears. I instantly recognized it as the drawing on his office desk in Illinois that I had reported--and still insist!--is a self-portrait. "You see a picture of a guy with a long chin and big ears and automatically assume it's me?" he asked. All the reporters, including me, cracked up. No way, he maintained, that's not me. Doodle-gate was successfully defused.

The episode was just a small example of why Obama is obviously headed for big things. Nursing a grievance, however small, with a reporter, he made the point that he was a little irritated, while at the same time making a joke of his annoyance. But he did it without alienating one of his most important constituencies--the press.

His art lesson finished, Obama said his goodbyes and walked out of the room. A reporter turned to me and said, "That man is going to be president."

We can only hope! Amusingly enough, as Lizza points out, Teresa Heinz recently told reporters that Obama will become president--expressing more certainty about Obama's political prospects than about those of her own husband.

Posted by Ed at 01:16 PM | Comments (1)

July 29, 2004

Carmine De Sapio, R.I.P.

Posted by Ed

Today's New York Times features a nice reminder that the distant past sometimes isn't as distant as you'd think: Carmine De Sapio, the last boss of Tammany Hall, died this week at the age of 95. I expect to read about Tammany Hall in history textbooks, not in newspapers, and I wonder if this is the last time The New York Times will publish a news article on the city's fabled political machine.

The Times obituary is worth reading if you're interested in New York politics. My favorite part was this discussion of how De Sapio tried (and failed) to change Tammany Hall's reputation:

Mr. De Sapio sought to end Tammany's image of smoke-filled back rooms where major political decisions were made hidden from public view. (In fact, a chronic eye disease forced him to avoid tobacco smoke and made him so sensitive to light that he always wore dark glasses - which created the very gangsterlike stereotype he was trying to dispel.)

In another amusing passage, the article quotes former mayor Ed Koch's assessment of De Sapio: "He is a crook, but I like him." This emphasized, in my mind, just how much Tammany Hall is a thing of the past; after all, Koch himself strikes me as a figure from another era, and the article describes how he helped end De Sapio's career by twice defeating him for the leadership of the Greenwich Village party organization. History, it seems, has moved on.

Update: Harold Meyerson has written a short article on De Sapio's death for The American Prospect Online. The Telegraph's obituary is also quite good.

Posted by Ed at 04:10 PM | Comments (0)

July 28, 2004

Condoleezza Rice: Blindsided or Blind?

Posted by Ed

The latest Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features a lengthy profile of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. The article isn't the most smoothly written, but it's loaded with fun facts--Rice's mother taught baseball great Willie Mays in high school, for example, a fact that Rice used to her advantage in establishing a sense of rapport with George W. Bush. The magazine's editors sum up the article nicely in the following sentence: "Highly qualified but strangely inattentive, Condoleezza Rice has missed the signs of the Soviet collapse, the importance of terrorism before 9/11, and more."

The Bulletin's profile isn't a bad introduction to Rice's background and life story, but I was a little disappointed by it. First, I found some of the article's omissions a bit odd: the piece describes in some detail the background of Josef Korbel, Rice's college mentor, but never mentions that he was the father of Madeleine Albright. (This would have given the author a great opportunity to contrast the two women's foreign policies.) Second, and more importantly, I'd love to read a more nuanced discussion of Rice's academic work and its relationship to the policies she's helped to devise.

Rice's scholarship, I'd argue, is an important but under-examined part of her public persona: her supporters often point to her academic work as evidence that she's an unusually highly qualified government official, but I get the sense that Rice's reputation as a scholar is far higher in the media than it is in academia and I'd love to read a detailed analysis of her scholarship by someone who knows her work. The closest I've come to finding such an assessment was a review mentioned in this column, written by the U.S. historian James McPherson, that touches on Rice's use of the disparaging phrase "revisionist history":

The judgmental tone of Rice's derogatory reference to "revisionist historians" brings to mind a review of her book The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, 1948–1983, in the December 1985 issue of the American Historical Review (p. 1236) when she was an assistant professor at Stanford. The reviewer claimed that Rice "frequently does not sift facts from propaganda and valid information from disinformation or misinformation." In addition, according to the reviewer, she "passes judgments and expresses opinions without adequate knowledge of the facts" and her "writing abounds with meaningless phrases." I cannot testify for or against the accuracy and fairness of this review. But I am tempted to wonder, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, whether we are experiencing deja vu all over again.

I've hunted down the review McPherson mentions, which sounds quite reasonable to a non-specialist like me. (It makes one obvious mistake--referring to Rice as a man--but this seems like a trivial error, given her unusual name and her low profile at the time.) Like McPherson, I'm not knowledgeable enough about Czechoslovakian history or about Rice's book to vouch for the review's accuracy, but it rings true nonetheless. I've also heard criticism of her more recent book , a volume on German reunification she co-wrote with Philip Zelikow: I've been told that it over-emphasizes the U.S. role in German unification and is shallow in its use of German and Soviet sources. (To be fair, I've never read the book and I've also seen it described as the definitive work on the subject.)

Nevertheless, I don't think it would be easy to analyze the relationship between Rice's politics and her academic work, and I'm a little wary of claims that Rice "missed the signs of the Soviet collapse." The Bulletin article shows that Rice's analysis of the Soviet Union wasn't always the most far-sighted, but I would have liked a more nuanced discussion of how her views differed from those of other government officials and academics. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. wasn't inevitable in 1989, when Rice joined the National Security Council staff, and I'm always skeptical when academics are criticized for failing to predict its demise. (The few people who expected the U.S.S.R. to fall apart before Gorbachev's reforms were underway are often treated as prophets, but their analysis was more often based on wishful thinking than on nuanced policy analysis.) In particular, there's a real temptation to assume that people whose conclusions turned about to be wrong were incompetent or silly; in serious scholarship, however, the way someone thinks and works can sometimes be as important as his or her final conclusions. Moreover, as scholars like Fred Greenstein have shown, presidential decision-making is sometimes more complicated than it appeared at the time.

The review mentioned above suggests that Rice's first book was hurt by shallow thinking and a questionable methodology, though I have no idea whether it was representative of her work as a whole. The Bulletin article, moreover, suggests that even before 9/11, the Bush administration's foreign policy was a "policy of fixed ideas." It's tempting, then, to leap to the conclusion that bad scholars make bad policy-makers, but I'm not comfortable drawing such a conclusion without more evidence. (I'm not even sure it's fair or reasonable to consider academic work and policy work by the same standards, though perhaps that's a topic for another day; at the same time, I worry that analysts of Rice's scholarship will be too quick to find problems with it that seem reminiscent of her political failings.) Leaping from some suggestive data to a firm final conclusion, after all, is just the kind of criticism that's often made of people like Rice.

Posted by Ed at 03:30 PM | Comments (0)

The Weekly Standard on "The Anti-Obama"

Posted by Ed

Though I disagree with its politics, I've always kind of liked The Weekly Standard, a ten-year-old conservative political magazine edited by William Kristol. The Standard publishes its share of mediocre articles and silly political pieces, of course, but its commentary on certain issues has been really good; the magazine has printed cultural criticism that should appeal to readers of all political stripes, and has made a serious effort to formulate a new conservative vision of foreign policy and politics.

The Standard has impressed me less since the beginning of the Bush administration, however, and this week's issue includes a sloppy article that exemplifies its fallen standards. In an article called "The Anti-Obama," Matthew Continetti paints a sympathetic portrait of Justin Warfel, an aide to former GOP Senate candidate Jack Ryan. As The New Yorker recently noted, Warfel resigned from the Ryan campaign when he became the center of a local political controversy:

Another Ryan campaign worker started making news last week. Justin Warfel, a young man with a shaved head, suddenly attached himself to Obama, and, armed with a video camera and a tape recorder, began following him everywhere around Springfield. His mission, according to the Ryan campaign, was to “make sure Obama has a consistent message,” and a campaign spokesperson called it “standard practice in national politics.” Warfel’s methods, however, were unusually aggressive. He followed Obama’s every movement, even private conversations, holding his camera, according to the Associated Press, “less than two feet from Obama’s face, barking questions.” Tom Massey, who has been the pressroom manager in the Springfield statehouse for twenty-five years, said, “I’ve never seen anything like it before. This is a new low in Illinois politics.” The Republican leader of the state senate, Frank Watson, was also critical, telling the A.P., “I don’t care if you’re in public life or who you are, you deserve your space.”

To Continetti, however, Warfel was the victim of the liberal media. He was a perfectly innocent campaign worker, doing a job that every candidate considers necessary, until Obama took advantage of the press to portray himself as the victim of unscrupulous Republicans:

One day in May, Warfel walked down a hall in the state capitol towards the tall, thin Obama, who was speaking to a group of reporters, photographers, and television camera crews. "I heard my name coming out of his mouth," Warfel said. The cameras, the lights, and the press all shifted their attention from the candidate to Warfel. Suddenly "they were tracking me."

Warfel kept his camera running, taping the cameras taping him.

Obama had made the young man a campaign issue. It was a clever move. "It's taking politics to a whole other level," Obama told the Associated Press. "He stops short of the bathroom, but gets me right when I come back out." Articles in the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times soon followed. William Finnegan, writing in the New Yorker, called Warfel's methods "unusually aggressive." One journalist said Warfel was "bald"; another said he had "a shaved head." According to AP, Warfel "held the camera less than two feet from Obama's face, barking questions and interrupting Obama's conversations with reporters."

"Never happened," Warfel said. "That's the single most erroneous piece of reporting I've ever seen." He spoke on his cell phone. Dogs barked in the distance. "Obama wanted to be viewed as a victim of the Jack Ryan campaign. And he played it well. And the press played into his hands."

Continetti's article as a whole was bizarre and amusing. I loved the way he portrayed Warfel as an innocent naif who bravely kept going forward in the face of a nasty political trick. (See how he heroically kept running his camera and taping Obama, even as the Democrats got the press to tape him? That's grace under pressure!) Given that plenty of Republicans like to criticize liberals for playing a game of victimology, I was also amused to see a conservative magazine portraying a young political operative as a victim of savvy liberals. Couldn't Continetti have picked a more appealing target of the liberal media?

To be fair, it's possible that Continetti's main argument is correct. Maybe Warfel was telling the truth when he denied taping Obama's phone conversations with his wife, denied interrupting the candidate with hostile questions, or portrayed his tracking of the candidate as a run-of-the-mill political tactic. I can't say for sure, since I wasn't there.

The problem with Continetti's article is that he just assumes that Warfel was telling the truth, without (as far as I can tell) making any effort to corroborate what he said. There were plenty of people Continetti could have talked to, after all. Why not interview Frank Watson, the Republican floor leader in the Illinois Senate who took Obama's side in the controversy? Why not talk to Tom Massey, the pressroom manager at the Illinois statehouse? Why not look for tapes of the press events where Obama spoke, to see whether Warfel interrupted him? Common sense would tell you that if you're interviewing a man charged with sleazy political tactics, he'll try to deny or minimze the accusations against him. That's exactly what Warfel did.

Obama has been the subject of informative articles in both The New Yorker and The New Republic, but Continetti's piece seems like hackwork. You can even make a case that it hurts the Republican effort to defeat Obama: Warfel claimed that his main interest was in highlighting the divide between Obama's liberal politics and his moderate rhetoric, but the main consequence of his interview was to play up a minor campaign incident that helped the Obama campaign. Unless Republicans figure out a better way to oppose Obama, they're going to have to deal with him for a long time to come.

Posted by Ed at 12:45 PM | Comments (1)

July 26, 2004

Word Wars

Posted by Ed

This weekend, Susan and I went to see Word Wars, a documentary on the competitive Scrabble circuit that just opened here in Chicago. The movie focuses on four players who hoped to win the 2002 National Scrabble Championship; like such recent documentaries as Spellbound (the story of the 1999 National Spelling Bee) and Scrabylon (another Scrabble movie), it seeks both to introduce viewers to an unfamiliar subculture and to tell the story of how a small group of competitors sought to win a high-profile competition.

I wish I could say that I was a big fan of Word Wars: the movie's subject matter is fascinating, and it's a nice companion to the 2001 Stefan Fatsis book Word Freak. At its best, Word Wars captures the thrill of high-level competition and the excitement of all sorts of high-stakes tournaments; moreover, the four players at the center of the story are all colorful, eccentric, and complicated people. Nevertheless, Word Wars was rarely more than a pleasant diversion. The movie's directors tried far too hard to be cute and clever, spent too much time emphasizing their characters' eccentricities, and ended up with a movie that was shallow and predictable as often as it was entertaining. The movie wasn't bad, but it could have been much better.

The makers of Word Wars set themselves an ambitious goal when they decided to produce a film about the Scrabble world, given that it had been documented so well by Fatsis's book. The biggest strength of Word Freak, I'd argue, is that it's complex and hard to categorize; it does a very good job of simultaneously telling three compelling stories. First, Fatsis's book is a fascinating look into the competitive Scrabble subculture, where eccentric and colorful personalities abound. Second, it's an intriguing portrait of the game of Scrabble itself; it tells the history of the game, its creator, and the many people who've become involved in it over the years, while giving us sidebars on the strategy and philosophy of the game. Third, and perhaps most notably, Word Freak captures the thrill of competition and conveys the competitors' drive to win.

What made Word Freak so compelling, I believe, was its author's background: Fatsis actually became a competitive Scrabble player himself, travelling to tournaments, memorizing lengthy word lists, and spending hours playing anagram games. His passion for the game and his participation in the Scrabble community make everything in the world of Scrabble seem very real--the competition seems thrilling (in a way that only an insider could convey) and the personalities involved seem extremely vivid. The story Fatsis tells, moreover, is complex and intriguing. Scrabble never comes across as an intellectual game--after all, why spend hours memorizing seven-letter words whose meaning you don't care about, just so you can spell them out with tiles in a Scrabble match? But the philosophy of the game, and the nature of wordplay, come across as topics worthy of intellectual discussion. Fatsis also shows us how an all-consuming love of the game can become detrimental to its players, even while he makes the game itself look extremely fun and appealing.

I had high hopes for Word Wars going in: the movie's closing credits acknowledge the producers' debt to Word Freak, and one of the directors (Eric Chaikin) is a competitive Scrabble player. Moreover, Chaikin and his co-director, Julian Petrillo, have focused their movie on four colorful players who are a lot of fun to watch. The first, Matt Graham, is a stand-up comedian who's always popping "smart drugs" and trying to play phony words; the second, Marlon Hill, a college drop-out from the mean streets of East Baltimore, loves to discuss his black nationalist politics and has a reputation as a trouble-maker; "G.I. Joel" Sherman, a former world champion, earned his nickname by complaining about his gastro-intestinal difficulties; Joe Edley, the defending national champion, ascribes his success to tai chi, meditation, and acupuncture. Chaikin and Petrillo did a good job picking players who could capture our interest and make the movie compelling.

The makers of Word Wars never seemed confident that their project would really interest their viewers, however: the movie tries to grab the audience's attention with flashy graphics, goofy shots of the competitors, and uninspired jokes. My heart fell near the start of the movie, when the narrator told us that the subject of the film wasn't "your grandmother's Scrabble game" and accompanied that line with an amateurish photo of a little old lady. (A handful of audience members laughed raucously at the image on the screen, which made it feel like the movie was aiming for the lowest common denominator.) I also got a little tired of seeing images of letters flash around , forming anagrams that were kind of amusing, but never terribly clever; this seemed like the sort of humor that would appeal most to viewers who aren't very good at forming anagrams themselves.

What's more, I'd argue that the movie's stylistic weaknesses reflected a shallow look at the world of Scrabble. Where Word Freak is a complicated book that touches on many different themes, Word Wars sometimes seems to have one overwhelming message: those crazy Scrabble players are really funny! For every scene that discussed the passion of the movie's four main characters, there was another scene that seemed designed to make them look silly. One scene shows Marlon smoking a joint and spouting off his theories about black power, his denunciation of the white-run political system interrupted only by his marijuana-induced giggles; several scenes show Joe Edley doing tai chi in a park, and each one seemed like it was playing for laughs. (The tai chi scenes were also a bit repetitive, as were the two scenes in which we see footage of Edley studying word lists while driving. The first driving scene was funny. The second was unnecessary and even a little cheap.) There's nothing wrong with showing these players' eccentric side, of course, but Word Wars seemed more concerned with parading their idiosyncracies than with explaining their love of the game. We get the sense that these players are passionate about Scrabble, and even obsessed by it, but we usually don't get to see why.

As a result, Word Wars has very little to say about the game of Scrabble itself. In the climactic scenes at the National Scrabble Championship, Chaikin and Petrillo show us lots of scenes of players facing each other down over a tile-covered board, and then tell us the score of each match--but they almost never show us what actually happened in any given game. It's a pleasant surprise, then, when Word Wars explains one of the moves in the championship game, showing us the tiles in one player's rack, listing several words he could have chosen, and then telling us the word he decided on.

A few more moments like this would have gone a long way. Similarly, I would have loved to hear more about the players' motivations and personal styles. In one scene, Marlon meets with an elementary school class to talk about Scrabble, and we see the word "logophile" written on the blackboard behind him. But Word Wars has very little to tell us about wordplay or the love of language. Joel Sherman explains that he loves playing Scrabble because it gives him the chance to beat better educated players--but we never, as far as I can remember, get to hear why he loves the game itself. I sometimes had the feeling that if you changed the subject of the movie to curling or mud-wrestling, keeping most of the rest of the movie the same, no one could tell the difference. I'm exaggerating, of course, but the movie's surface interest in Scrabble was rarely reflected in the substance of the film.

I don't want to suggest that Word Wars is a bad movie, mind you. If you've read Word Freak, then you'll probably enjoy seeing the characters Fatsis describes on the big screen. If you haven't read the book, but you have a couple hours and nothing better to do, you may well find the movie entertaining enough. (You can certainly do worse, after all.) Word Wars would probably even make a good TV special, though its more amateurish attempts at cuteness might still wear a little bit thin. In short, my main reaction to the movie wasn't disgust, but disappointment. The makers of Word Wars missed a great opportunity to produce a much better film.

Posted by Ed at 10:59 PM | Comments (0)

July 25, 2004

Isaiah Berlin: The Opera

Posted by Ed

First came Jerry Springer: The Opera. Now, as the Boston Globe ideas section reports, the Nine Circles Chamber Theater at Bard College is presenting an equally bizarre production: an opera, known as "Guest from the Future," that describes the famous 1945 meeting between the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the poet Anna Akhmatova. (According to the Globe, an early draft included a song on Berlin's essay "Two Concepts of Liberty.") What's next?

Posted by Ed at 10:13 PM | Comments (0)

July 23, 2004

A link: Hawking and Information Loss

Posted by Matt

Since the news media are making such a big deal out of Hawking's recent pronouncement that he's now convinced information is not lost in black holes, let me link to the blog entry I've liked most on the topic: this one by Jacques Distler. (In short, Hawking's calculation seems to be something that is well known in string theory, done in his own [somewhat eccentric, and controversial] framework.)

And now, expect me to not be heard from for ten days or so, unless I unexpectedly have Internet access in Colorado.

Posted by Matt at 02:23 PM | Comments (0)

July 22, 2004

The Dining Habits of Friar Tuck and Friends

Posted by Ed

Last week, when I was busy doing other things, The Guardian published a neat little article that's summed up nicely by its headline: "Bones reveal chubby monks aplenty." A three-year study of skeletal remains at three medieval London monasteries showed that Friar Tuck wasn't the only overweight monk in British history:

"The way to a man's heart is through his stomach and this seems specially to have been the case with monks," said Philippa Patrick, of the Institute of Archaeology, at University College, London. "They were taking in about 6,000 calories a day, and 4,500 even when they were fasting."

Arthritis in knees, hips and fingertips showed that the often under-employed monks were seriously obese.

Ms Patrick, whose findings were revealed to the International Medieval Congress, meeting in Leeds, said: "Their meals were full of saturated fats. They were five times more likely to suffer from obesity than their secular contemporaries, including wealthy merchants or courtiers."

The reckless scoffing was in clear breach of St Benedict's austere rules laid down probably in 530, which warned: "There must be no danger of overeating, so that no monk is overtaken by indigestion, for there is nothing so opposed to Christian life as overeating."

The article is a charming example of how social history and archaeology can go hand in hand, and it reminded me of my childhood desire to become an archaeologist. It's well worth a read!

Posted by Ed at 05:25 PM | Comments (0)

Harry Potter: Antiglobalist Crusader?

Posted by Susan

Recently, Ed posted a few times about the politics of Harry Potter and the debates in Le Monde on the subject. As he pointed out, Ilias Yocaris's article, which claims that Harry Potter is little more than a bunch of neoliberal stereotypes, has since been translated. However, I couldn't find any translations of -the response of philosophy professor Isabelle Smadja (author of Harry Potter and the Forces of Evil, a book about Harry's struggle against the forces of neo-Nazism), who seems to see Harry Potter as the first literary hero of the antiglobalization movement (house-elves figure heavily in this reading), so I translated it (warning: not very well) myself.

Who is Harry Potter, Really?

June 30, 2004

Can one find in the commercially successful Harry Potter series all of the ideas and ingredients necessary to create such a marketing phenomenon? And is the hype which follows the debut of each new volume or derived product consistent with the content of the books, which glorify capitalism and the unrestrained search for profit?

According to Ilias Yocaris (Le Monde, 4 June), the response is : yes, absolutely. Harry Potter is nothing less than a “summary of the educational and social goals of neoliberal capitalism”, where the young students of the “private school” of Hogwarts are “subjected to an incessant barrage of media hype”, and where the “rigidity and incompetence of civil servants” is contrasted with the creativity and audacity of entrepreneurs.

However, the adventures of Harry Potter begin with fierce criticism of the consumer society and the world of free enterprise. Vernon Dursley, owner of a drill factory, is a caricature of an obtuse businessman: servile, ready to make any concession to a future customer, he shows no pity to the weak, to whom he dedicates all the contempt that his money permits.

Dudley, his son, capricious and spoiled, is so little satisfied with the materialist world in which he lives that he becomes violent and snivels when he receives 36 gifts instead of 37. Has J. K. become so ensnared by the capitalist model which she aimed to denounce that she has become its apostle? It is quite unclear.
However, the contrast between civil servants, inept and rigid, and members of liberal professions, audacious and charming, doesn’t hold up under analysis: Like Cornelius Fudge, Albus Dumbledore pursued a career in public service; he was head of a justice tribunal, in which position he maintained close contact with many members of the ministry, and also with the numerous “Aurors”, military recruits of the state who distinguished themselves in battle against Voldemort. Likewise, the distinction between public and private is rather fuzzy; one can neither decide whether Hogwarts is a private school nor whether the ministry can intervene in the nomination of professors.

As undesirable as it is to read the novel as an allegory of the Second World War, this reading allows some distinctions to be made: the wizarding world is divided into resistants and collaborators. The character of Cornelius Fudge may be read as a broad interpretation of Petain, while the Order of the Phoenix, an illegal association founded to combat the “dictator” (Voldemort), refers quite explicitly to the Resistance during the Occupation and recruits its members both from the civil service and from the actors of public enterprise.

But Rowling, who has worked for Amnesty International, takes care to update this model by integrating into her books a novel element, one more characteristic of the worries of an antiglobalist conscience than a neoliberal one. Consequently, the moral preoccupations of her work focus not only on the battle against “the forces of evil”, but (increasingly throughout the series) maintain a concern for the “rejects of the magical world, humble and oppressed”, who are the “house-elves”. Since the day that she discovered these poor creatures, clad in rags, hard at work in the kitchen and the household without rest or pay, Hermione (who, according to Rowling, is a semi-autobiographical character) has not ceased to criticize the wizarding world’s indifference regarding the exploitation of these beings: she fights nearly obsessively for their liberation, running up against the general indifference of wizards, as well as the refusal of the house-elves themselves, who are proud of their enslavement.

The attitude of the house-elves, incomprehensible and unrealistic if they are viewed as colonial-style slaves, becomes more understandable if one were to place it in the context of the contemporary world economy: J. K. Rowling would then be making a personal, though quite relevant, commentary on globalization, where poor countries are so attracted to the system which exploits them that they cannot conceive of revolution.

However, the house-elves, the oppressed victims of capitalist society, take on a central role: in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dobby, the elf who is humiliated and exploited by the aristocratic Malfoys, is able to ruin the plans of his master, Lucius Malfoy, an ally of the conquered dictator Voldemort ; and, in the most recent book of the series, Kreacher, the elf of the Black family, scorned by his master Sirius Black, plays a key role in the trickery which brings about the death of Sirius, whom he hated. When Harry expresses indignation at Kreattur’s happiness at Sirius’s death, Dumbledore responds, “Indifference and negligence may do more harm than open hostility. We wizards have for too long mistreated those who are close to us, and now we are reaping what we have sown.”

Far from glorifying neoliberalism, the Harry Potter series may be read as a warning to prevent the danger we face because of our indifference in the face of the tragic living conditions of the poor of our planet.

So, is Harry Potter the manual for the perfect capitalist? That remains to be proven.
par Isabelle Smadja

Posted by Susan at 03:00 PM | Comments (1)

The Occult Origins of Mary Poppins

Posted by Ed

I've probably given today's entry an overly dramatic title, but I was intrigued to read this Telegraph article about P.L. Travers, the Australian author best known for her series of Mary Poppins books. Poppins, the article argues, wasn't quite as saccharine and bland as the Disney movie would suggest, and Travers herself was stranger still:

A year after [Travers arrived from Australia], the Irish intellectual George William Russell (known as AE) accepted some of her verse for his weekly, The Irish Statesman. Then 57, AE liked to surround himself with attractive, aspiring women writers. A follower of Madam Blavastsky and the theosophists, he believed that he and Travers had met in a former life and that, with her wild frizz of hair, she was one of the fairies he regularly envisioned. Their friendship was lasting. He introduced her to the meaning of folklore, spirits and esoteric eastern religions, and to his neighbour in Merrion Square, WB Yeats. She swapped sonnets with Yeats and once sang him versions of his poems (which must have been curious, as both were reportedly tone-deaf).

It was AE who suggested that Travers write a tale using all her powers of fantasy, weaving into it stories of inanimate objects coming to life. Mary Poppins first appeared in a series of early stories written for children in 1926, though by the time the first book was published in 1934 Travers had begun to adopt a rather peculiar authorial pose, insisting that her famous nanny had arrived unbidden that very year. Just as the crucial ingredient in her stories was a clever blend of reality and fantasy, she set out to refashion herself. She had literary pretensions, but her difficulty was that she did not believe that "real'' writers wrote for children. So, although she was already obscured by her pseudonym, she decided to use only her initials, a protection against being labelled a silly woman writing unimportant stories. In addition, she always maintained that her books were not written with children in mind.

I found this article especially intriguing because I'm now reading a novel based, in part, on nineteenth-century theories about theosophy and fairies. It's one of Harold Bloom's favorite novels, and I'll probably write about it here once I'm done reading (if I'm not completely swamped by my library research here in Chicago, that is...)

Posted by Ed at 02:07 PM | Comments (1)

July 21, 2004

Silence is Golden

Posted by Ed

Earlier this week, Matt and one of our commenters discussed how Stanley Kubrick used classical music in his movies, and I was reminded of their exchange today when I came across a Granta article by Adam Mars-Jones that includes the following passage:

Spielberg took over from Stanley Kubrick a typically slow-brewing project, only partly prepared when he died—AI. If Kubrick had made it, the music score would certainly have been less saccharine. Kubrick enjoyed using pre-existing pieces of music (at least once cancelling a commissioned score during editing), and used them in longer extracts than has ever been the fashion. Whether it's Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in The Shining or Ligeti's Musica Ricercata in Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick used substantial stretches. It's as if he set himself the challenge of absorbing the energy of the music into his visuals without cheating by chopping it up.

During the editing of 2001, Kubrick received an advance pressing of a record by the Berlin Philharmonic from his friend Herbert von Karajan. It included music by both Johann ('Blue Danube') and Richard (Also Sprach Zarathustra) Strauss. He started playing it in the editing suite with no thought—to start with—of its bizarre appropriateness. If this story is true, then it seems that music was an area where the great control freak could allow himself to be seduced into spontaneity. After excluding chance so single-mindedly from his project Kubrick could let it back in at the last moment, and even enjoy playing with it.

2001 is remarkable for Kubrick's use of the present that Karajan sent. Johann Strauss's magnificently insipid waltz loses all its sentiment when it's made to accompany a sequence of docking with a space station. Richard Strauss's grand gestures seem quite modest, really, when configured as a fanfare to eternity. But the film is also remarkable for its fidelity to silence. For once in the movies, engines roaring in a vacuum make no sound. Infinity isn't given an echo just because we're more comfortable with that illusion. Music and silence, bland actors and overwhelming sets—everything contributes to Kubrick's vision of a cosmos full of grandeur and devoid of personality, full of emptiness and waiting.

A dozen years later, the advertising campaign for Alien warned that 'In space no one can hear you scream'. But every engine-note and explosion in the film was helpfully relayed to the audience's ears through a conducting medium that didn't exist.

What intrigued me most about the article wasn't its passage on Kubrick, however, but its more general argument:

When music is everywhere in a film, audiences feel less rather than more. A case in point would be a mildly successful, mildly fizzling blockbuster from 2000, The Perfect Storm (directed by Wolfgang 'Das Boot' Petersen), a story of fishermen's ordeals in extreme conditions at sea. It's sometimes hard to hear the roaring of the winds over the lachrymose raging of the orchestra. The composer is James Horner, whose most famous score was also for a marine disaster—but at least Titanic, in James Cameron's vision, was a romance (a romance with 1,503 real deaths used as the backdrop for a single fictional one, but a romance all the same). The Perfect Storm is based on a true story and aspires to tragedy, but Horner's score in its lushness and sweep is jarringly wrong. Petersen doesn't even have the excuse that the music is there to hide the weakness of the special effects—the special effects are the most impressive parts of the film. So why have music there at all? The presence of music on a soundtrack always tells us we're at a distance from the natural world (which is why music accompanying wildlife documentaries feels so tacky and suspect). Every dollar spent on the music neutralizes a thousand spent on the visual effects, the digitized mountains of water which would be awe-inspiring if they were only let alone.

The omnipresence of music in films is part of a general cultural pattern of obliterating silence, in lifts, airports, shopping centres, lobbies and restaurants.

Mars-Jones, I believe, is right--and I agree with him that one of Master and Commander's greatest strengths was the subtlety of its score. (I kept expecting the movie to devolve into a chase scene with dramatic music, but Peter Weir kept both the movie's action and its soundtrack much more restrained and refined.)

The omnipresence of music in the movies is also connected with another unfortunate trend, I'd argue: the low quality of contemporary movie dialogue.

I loved Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, for example, but I think it's a shame that the inspirational speeches that ended the series's first two installments were kind of dull in and of themselves, and depended on the movie's score for their emotional impact. The first such scene, in which we flash back to Gandalf's words in Moria, worked reasonably well for me, in part because the flashback was short and I'm a big Ian McKellen fan; the second speech, in which Sam reminds Frodo of the reason for their quest, struck me as trite and un-Tolkienish. The second scene felt a little manufactured, not least because it depended on the score rather than on the writing or the acting. (It would be nice if Jackson would find a new screenwriter for future projects--since writing was probably the biggest weakness in Lord of the Rings--but I think this is unlikely, since most of his movies were co-written by his wife.)

I'm not, of course, arguing that all movie music is bad. But plenty of mediocre directors depend on the score to set the mood and cue viewers in about how they should feel; they don't have much faith in their viewers, on the one hand, or in their writers and actors, on the other. One of the things that impressed me most about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was that its director, Michel Gondry, included several long conversations without musical accompaniment; The Triplets of Belleville, moreover, had a score that combined classical music, familiar pop music, and a catchy original song, but it also featured several lengthy scenes with no music at all. I wish that more movie directors had as much faith in their audiences!

Posted by Ed at 04:08 PM | Comments (0)

Brief note: Millennium Park, Books

Posted by Matt

I leave Chicago for the foreseeable future (modulo some half-planned visits) tomorrow, so I'm busy finishing work and rushing about town seeing things and people. After this I'll be in Rocky Mountain National Park for about a week, on a hiking trip with my parents. (And also hopefully plowing through a large pile of novels during the car rides and at night.) I might be without Internet access the whole time! It's a scary thought.

So, a few brief thoughts:

- The Millennium Park music shell (designed by Frank Gehry) isn't as bad as I had thought. My thought before going to a concert there was that it's ugly. After going to Sunday's concert: the metal cage-like structure over the field is a nicer way to have speakers everywhere than erecting large poles that block people's view. The stage itself looks good. It's elevated enough, and the wood paneling gives the stage a pleasant warm look. As for all the other steel around the stage, I still don't like it so much. For some reason I just feel like a music shell needs more symmetry. Maybe it's that it shouldn't distract from the concert. (For some reason I had a better reaction to the Experience Music Project than other Gehry buildings I've seen, most of which I don't like so much.)

- The Millennium Park reflective bean sculpture by Anish Kapoor is really awesome. The fountain with the videos of people is pretty cool, except that having them spit the water seems a bit weird.

- I got the Belle & Sebastian Books EP. The 6-minute version of "Your Cover's Blown" is really good. The shorter one is good too, but I don't care for it as much. It's a long song that changes styles and moods a few times. For Belle & Sebastian it's really different (Stuart Murdoch does funk!?), but I like it. "Wrapped Up in Books" was one of my favorite tracks on Dear Catastrophe Waitress originally, though others have grown on me more, but I still think it's very good. It has some characteristics of older B&S, but it's very upbeat. On the other hand, "Your Secrets" is pretty bland, at least on the first couple of listens. This one is a huge step up from the I'm a Cuckoo single, in my opinion.

Posted by Matt at 11:35 AM | Comments (1)

July 20, 2004

Bulwer-Lytton Results

Posted by Ed

Yesterday the English Department at San Jose State University announced the results of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a "whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels."

I've often claimed that I hope to win this competition before I die, but I don't think that's likely--partly because I'm too lazy to enter a submission and partly because the entries I find most amusing never win.

Update: I've had a little more time to look over the results, and I think I have a clearer idea of why I'm rarely as amused by the winning entry as the contest organizers were; many entries, I'd argue, fall short for two main reasons. First, too many entries are structurally similar. Why are there so many strained similes, silly metaphors, and complicated clauses? Don't sentences like this feel really repetitive? Second, most of these sentences just don't seem plausible to me. Many of these sentences seem so silly and convoluted that I can't imagine their authors actually going on to write a complete paragraph--much less a complete novel.

Here was one of my favorite entries, for example:

Keith's popularity as the first openly gay daredevil was rising quickly; in fact, it was said he ate danger for breakfast, followed by a light brunch of lemon scones, quiche, and the occasional Mimosa, and then he was back to eating danger.

This sentence has just enough wit that I can imagine someone writing it and thinking it's witty, but it's so stupid that I chuckled out loud when I read it. Compare that sentence with this one, the contest runner-up:

The notion that they would no longer be a couple dashed Helen's hopes and scrambled her thoughts not unlike the time her sleeve caught the edge of the open egg carton and the contents hit the floor like fragile things hitting cold tiles, more pitiable because they were the expensive organic brown eggs from free-range chickens, and one of them clearly had double yolks entwined in one sac just the way Helen and Richard used to be.

I just can't imagine someone writing this sentence and thinking it's good. (Yes, I know that there are plenty of bad wannabe writers out there; perhaps my attitude would be different, and I'd be more amused, if I'd had more contact with creative writing students.) I get tired of reading successful contest entries that rely on convoluted sentences and silly similes. I'd like to see a Bulwer-Lytton contest winner that's wittier, more concise, more plausible, and more original than most entries, but I don't think that outcome is terribly likely.

Posted by Ed at 11:57 AM | Comments (1)

July 19, 2004

Random Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

Here's an especially random selection of interesting links:

  • In The New York Times, Brent Staples discusses the latest chapter in the Essie Mae Washington-Williams saga: Strom Thurmond's illegitimate African-American daughter has applied to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
  • In The New Republic, Jonathan Chait has written a sobering (and mostly convincing) account of why the Bush administration is the most undemocratic in recent U.S. history.
  • Will we someday have a pharmacological remedy for infidelity? Walter Kirn asks this question in The New York Times Magazine.
  • Was Merlin really a sixth-century leader of the Picts? (Or, in other words, was King Arthur a little more accurate that you might think?) The Independent reviews a new book called Merlin: Shaman, Prophet, Magician.
  • The Guardian has published a charming obituary of the radical journalist Paul Foot. (via Crooked Timber)
  • The Telegraph, meanwhile, has published an obituary of the lexicographer Robert Burchfield (editor of the most recent edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage). (via the Blog of Death)
  • The Telegraph reviews a new book on the British victims of Stalin.
  • The New Yorker interviews the author of a recent article on "nerd camp."
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses the psychology of deja vu. (Registration may be required)
  • According to The Guardian, scholars have now learned the identity of Geoffrey Chaucer's careless scribe.

As always, I may add to this list later on.

Posted by Ed at 09:02 PM | Comments (1)

July 18, 2004

The Politics of Harry Potter Revisited

Posted by Ed

To those of you who were amused by my recent entry on the politics of Harry Potter: one of the articles I discussed has been translated into English and published on the New York Times op-ed page.

Update: On an unrelated Harry Potter note, Languagehat has linked to this neat little essay in which the man who wrote the ancient Greek translation of the first book describes how he did the job.

Posted by Ed at 10:10 PM | Comments (0)

Jerry Bruckheimer's King Arthur

Posted by Ed

There's nothing worse, I'm afraid, than a bad movie that isn't amusing when you watch it ironically. Earlier this week, Susan and I saw Jerry Bruckheimer's King Arthur; the movie unintentionally provided us with a few laughs, a couple scenes were almost okay, and the fight scenes were decent, but the movie overall didn't offer much that you couldn't get from the preview. Some thoughts:

  • If the whole academic thing doesn't work out, maybe I'll become a historical consultant to movies. I'll bet the consultant listed in the movie's credits was paid pretty well (at least by the standards of academic historians); given the movie's many inaccuracies, I can't imagine that he had much to do. Sounds like a dream job to me!
  • One of the silliest "historical" details in the movie was the film-makers' decision to make King Arthur a Pelagian. Anyone who knows about Pelagius will find this choice kind of odd. Anyone who doesn't will find it confusing and meaningless. So is it really going to make anyone happy?
  • I really pity whoever it was who decided that the Knights of the Round Table were really a band of Sarmatian warriors drafted into the Roman army. When the movie begins, the Romans claim a young Lancelot from his Sarmatian family; I wish they'd included a scene in which Sarmatian children mocked Lancelot for his girly, French-sounding name. That alone would have made the movie worth seeing!
  • A word of advice to people who make movies: if the character who speaks the opening narration dies during the movie, it doesn't make sense for him to read the closing narration as well. (Other people can debate the knotty philosophical question of whether it makes sense for the man who reads the opening narration to die during the movie...)
  • Is there any mythological basis in history for the belief (stated at the start of the movie) that horses are the reincarnation of dead heroes?
  • This movie had the disturbing tendency to make likeable actors extremely bland. For a while, I kind of liked Clive Owen (Arthur), but there was no range in his performance and it got kind of boring watching him; I've kind of liked Keira Knightley in other movies, but I've never been convinced that she could act. Here she seemed really unconvincing repeating lines like "They tortured me... with machines!", though I was amused to see her in blue Pictish paint.
  • Why did the evil Saxon bad guy (don't ask) have a Texas accent? Why did his son have an accent that sounded Russian by way of Denmark?

I still can't decide which movie was worse--King Arthur or Troy. At least Troy was more fun to write about...

Troy and King Arthur are very similar movies, I'd argue: each is an unsuccessful attempt to demythologize (and perhaps historicize) a series of events from legend. I never understood critics who claimed that Troy's producers showed their lack of seriousness when they decided to leave out the Olympian gods; as Mary Renault showed, it's possible to write intellectually sophisticated narratives that attempt to portray ancient legends in historically plausible terms. Similarly, I don't think that movie adaptations of famous legends and myths should necessarily be criticized for every departure from the original story, as long as they remain true to the spirit of their source.

Nevertheless, Troy and King Arthur are impossible to take seriously because they make two crucial mistakes: any attempt to historicize myths and legends has to be appealing on both a historical and a human level, but neither movie seems to realize this. First, neither film seems concerned with the world it's describing or interested in historical plausibility. The film-makers' decision to give the Knights of the Round Table a Sarmatian background seems completely random, for example--I suspect that Jerry Bruckheimer was just desperate to come up with a rationale for yet another Camelot movie. (Compare the world of King Arthur to the carefully realized world of Mary Renault's novels; any plausible attempt to reimagine an ancient level will be as concerned with the world it's describing as it is with the characters we already know.) Second, and just as importantly, both movies depend on viewers' knowledge of the source material: you have to take it on faith that Achilles and Arthur are great warriors before you see the movie, for instance. Ioan Gryffyd's Lancelot is likeable enough, but he's completely forgetable; without the backstory from Arthurian legend, he's just not interesting. To be successful, however, a demythologized adaptation of a legend has to be compelling in its own right. You have to believe that familiar legends could develop from the story as told by the movie--whose makers are cheating if they appeal to viewers' knowledge of myth and legend.

Posted by Ed at 03:04 PM | Comments (9)


Posted by Matt

I've seen a couple of good movies in the past couple of days: one not at all new, and the other recent but also not new.

The first was Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Many people have been telling me for years that it's a good film, and my high expectations were mostly met. I read Burgess's novel a few years ago in my core Humanities class at the U of C, and really enjoyed it. I wrote an essay arguing that the book was in sonata form, an idea that I'm not sure I take seriously, but it was a lot of fun to dissect the structure of the novel. I couldn't help but have some of this in mind while watching the film. The opening third, I think, suffered somewhat from the translation to film, because the full force of the violence from the novel was somewhat muted. For instance, the scene in which Alex rapes two young girls he meets in the music store is transformed into a sex romp with two consenting, if young, women. Still, the highly choreographed violence in the film's opening segments has a sort of hypnotic effect and does make the viewer rather uncomfortable, and Kubrick's choice of musical accompaniment enhances the effect. Visually the film is stunning, which helps us to get a better sense of Alex's aesthetic sensibility, in which ultraviolence is beautiful. The film is generally very faithful to the novel (more so than I had expected), but omits Burgess's last chapter. The merits of that chapter can be debated: Burgess wished his fiction to be didactic, with the effect that his ending can seem somewhat implausible and heavy-handed. Modulo this, Kubrick's version of the story is largely consistent with Burgess's. A lot of the structure in the novel (like the duality of Alex and the writer F. Alexander) is less apparent in the film. Still, the most important parts come through clearly, and Alex's identity as an aesthete is enhanced by the visuals and the score. (Wendy Carlos's Moog-synthesized version of the chorus from Beethoven's Ninth is not to be missed, by the way.)

The second was Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville, which Ed has written about here. One amusing thing about the film was pointed out in Sean Carroll's blog: the Einstein equations appear during the opening credits. A lot of the film's charm comes from quirky details of this sort, from the blimp flying a sign reading "In Vino Veritas" to the dead pig on a bicycle in a storefront window. The animation in this film is beautiful, and while it's apparent that computer animation was used extensively throughout, there is still something of the look of an old-fashioned animated cartoon. The exception is the scene involving sea travel; the waves here stand out as computer-generated in a way that doesn't mesh as well with the rest of the animation. Still, I wouldn't say that even this scene looks bad. The landscapes and townscapes of the film are very well-drawn. I've read several claims about which cities were combined to make Belleville, but the buildings shaped like wine bottles made me think of Chicago's Carbide and Carbon Building, patterned after a champagne bottle (or so the story goes).

Posted by Matt at 03:36 AM | Comments (4)

July 16, 2004

The Sport of Nerds Revisited

Posted by Ed

Blogging can at times lead to some real surprises. Several months ago, I threw together a quick little entry on whether chess and quizbowl were sports, mainly as an excuse to link to an interesting Louis Menand article; a surprisingly large number of people felt the urge to comment on what I'd written. I was reminded of my earlier entry yesterday, when Jordan Ellenberg published a Slate article on whether math competitions like the International Math Olympiad qualify as sports. You might find it interesting.

Posted by Ed at 01:13 PM | Comments (2)

July 15, 2004

The Unknown World of Edward Jones

Posted by Ed

"Who would have thought that what may be the best novel ever written about American slavery would be about slaveholders who were black?" Earlier this week, Common-Place published a review of The Known World, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edward Jones, and it began with that question. The review is a good introduction to the book for those who don't already know it, and it reminded me that I should finish reading the novel sometime.

Even so, I was more intrigued by this Guardian profile of Jones, who published his first novel at age 53 after working for 18 years as a proof-reader and columnist at a small tax magazine. After describing how the success of The Known World enabled him Jones to move out of his noisy apartment, the article writes:

Jones is still sleeping on the floor. Four months after moving in, his new apartment in north-west Washington DC remains bare except for the 100 cartons of unpacked books, the air mattress he cannot be bothered to inflate and the new laptop that is a recent and slightly grudging admission of his status as a full-time writer.

Yet for a man wedded to a minimalist lifestyle - unmarried with no children or pets, a self-described loner with a relatively compact group of friends - Jones has produced a book remarkably full of people and life.


The book is set in the entirely imaginary Manchester County, Virginia, whose existence is reinforced with references to 19th-century census reports, pamphlets and other archival material - also concocted by Jones. In The Known World, he describes the novel's characters and the power relations of slavery in the most minute detail - as intricate a creation as his external life is spare. When he leaves something out, he has a good reason. In this tale of the South, Jones never reveals what crop the slaves were growing in the fields; he was too afraid of getting it wrong.

Oddly enough, I feel a little misled to hear that Jones completely made up the census records he refers to in the novel, though I realize that my reaction is kind of irrational. (I assumed that the county was fictional and guessed that some of the books and pamphlets Jones describes were made up, after all, so I'm not sure why I was slightly bothered to hear that Jones's anecdotes about the census were fictional.) In any case, the whole profile is worth reading--even if I thought it was borderline-intrusive in some respects.

Posted by Ed at 01:32 PM | Comments (2)

July 14, 2004

Barack Obama, Convention Speaker

Posted by Ed

The Kerry campaign made a surprising announcement today: Barack Obama, the Democratic Senate nominee here in Illinois, will deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention later this month.

As regular readers of this blog may remember, I'm a big Obama fan. Right off, I can't remember the last time a political candidate rocketed to national attention at a political convention so quickly--the only other name that leaps to mind is Hubert Humphrey, whose 1948 Senate campaign got a big boost when he championed a strong civil rights plank in the Democratic platform. (Humphrey was just the mayor of Minneapolis at the time.) To be fair, Obama's high-profile role is probably a sign of the decreased importance of nominating conventions; it's easier to give such a prime role to a newcomer when the stakes are lower and the networks aren't paying much attention. Even so, this announcement is yet another sign that Obama is a man to watch in the years ahead.

(In mostly unrelated news, Mike Ditka is still considering a campaign against Obama for the Senate. At least the Republicans would have a candidate with name recognition...)

Posted by Ed at 12:44 PM | Comments (1)

The Arsenic Poisoning of King George

Posted by Ed

At heart, I think a lot of historians would like to see their research as detective work: there's a certain thrill to that sort of labor, after all, even if it doesn't really represent what historians do. I was reminded of this fact earlier today when I found a link, via the Little Professor, to this intriguing BBC story about Britain's King George III. A recently discovered royal hair sample was filled with arsenic, over 300 times the smallest toxic level, which led researchers to a surprising conclusion: the very treatments that were meant to stop the king's madness helped trigger his porphyria and bring about his attacks.

Posted by Ed at 09:58 AM | Comments (4)

July 13, 2004

Errol Morris's The Fog of War

Posted by Ed

Last winter, the documentary film-maker Errol Morris made a splash with his movie The Fog of War. That film presented viewers with 11 lessons on politics from the life of Robert McNamara, America's Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense; most of the movie is made up of footage from Morris's many interviews with McNamara. I missed the chance to see The Fog of War while it was still in theaters, but I bought it on DVD earlier this summer and finally had the chance to watch the film from start to finish last night. I'm still not sure exactly what I think.

My main concerns about The Fog of War have to do with an irony at the very center of the film. Morris tells us the story of a man who thought he could revolutionize the Pentagon by making it more rational, more efficient, and better-run; he believed that rationality would lead to straightforward solutions to the country's problems, but ended up embroiling the nation in the most complicated, divisive, and unsuccessful war in its history. That's a fascinating story, and it could have been told in many different ways. Morris, however, has chosen an unusual format for his movie: under his guidance, a man who learned that life wasn't as simple as he thought has presented viewers with a series of 11 simple lessons for the future.

At its best, The Fog of War offers its viewers a fascinating look into the mind of its subject--and provides us with intriguing details on McNamara's life and career. Before Morris's film came out, for example, I had no idea that McNamara had helped plan the firebombing of Tokyo when he worked for the air force under Curtis LeMay; McNamara admits to Morris that if Japan had won the war, he'd have been tried as a war criminal. Similarly, it was fascinating to hear about McNamara's career at the Ford Motor Company: McNamara explains how the company was transformed, after World War II, from a family business whose top executives were poorly educated and badly trained into one of America's premier corporations, and discusses the way the company added new safety features (like the seatbelt) under his leadership.

McNamara seems amazingly sharp for his age (85), and comes across as a charismatic, confident, and likeable figure. His grasp of detail is amazing: he remembers that tuition at Berkeley in the 1930s was $52 a year, that the delivery cost for his first child was $100, and that his annual salary at Harvard was $4000. At the same time, McNamara is extremely proud of his accomplishments, and is quick to point out that he was the "youngest assistant professor at Harvard" and the "first president of [Ford]... other than a member of the Ford family"; he even remembers that his first-grade teacher arranged her students' desks based on their performances on her tests--and almost always gave him the first seat. In other words, two of the most prominent characteristics of McNamara's personality--his charisma and his self-confidence --are on vivid display in The Fog of War.

The Fog of War, then, is fascinating as a character study, but there's something about the movie that seems a little too pat and simplistic. In nearly every major scene, Morris emphasizes the ways that McNamara sought to bring rationality and efficiency to the forefront, often through the use of statistics. McNamara recruited a group of the "best and the brightest" to his World War II air force department through the use of punch cards and computers, and then used statistics in a systematic analysis of U.S. bombing raids; he used similar techniques to recruit a talented leadership team at Ford and to add new safety features to Ford cars. Moreover, about twenty minutes into the movie, Morris shows a film clip from the Kennedy years, in which a reporter tells McNamara that he has a reputation for arrogance--for showing up on Capitol Hill, ignoring the experiences of the country's leaders, and offering them "simple little lessons." The reporter notes that one congressman calls him "Mr. 'I Have All the Answers' McNamara." McNamara didn't have all the answers, of course, and the unstated lesson of the movie is that his arrogance and belief in rationality helped lead to Vietnam. He offers the main lesson of the movie near The Fog of War's conclusion:

There's a wonderful phrase, the fog of war. What "the fog of war" means is that war is so complex, it's beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend all the variables. Our judgment, our understanding, are not adequate... It isn't that we're not rational. We are rational. But reason has limits.

It's fascinating, in other words, to see that one of McNamara's 11 lessons is that "Rationality will not save us"--a conclusion that McNamara himself might have found shocking four decades ago. I'm a little uneasy with this lesson, however. The problem with McNamara wasn't that he believed in rationality: it was that he thought that a rational approach to problems would lead to simple, straightforward, and obvious answers. It's true that rationality couldn't save us in the Cuban Missile Crisis--as McNamara points out, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and their advisers were all rational men, and the world was still nearly destroyed--but I think a better lesson from Vietnam would be that "the world is sometimes far more complicated than we realize."

In one sense, I'd even argue that the makers of The Fog of War should have paid more attention to this revised lesson; there are times when the movie's view of causality seems a little too simple and straightforward. Another of the movie's implicit arguments is that if John F. Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, America would never have been embroiled in Vietnam, for example. The film never says this outright (though I believe that McNamara has made this argument before), but its logic implicitly makes that very point. JFK's assassination appears dramatically at the movie's midpoint; Lyndon Johnson appears as one of the movie's chief villains; McNamara portrays himself as consistently skeptical about America's chances for success in Indochina.

I'm afraid that I don't know a lot about the history of America's involvement in Vietnam, so readers should take my analysis here with a grain of salt. My sense, though, is that McNamara was a little less skeptical of the war than the movie suggests. The Fog of War plays clips from audio tapes in which McNamara expresses doubts about the war (and in which LBJ says that the administration can't discuss withdrawal publicly because it would send the wrong signal to the world); my memory is that a representative sample of McNamara recordings would include clips in which McNamara is skeptical and clips in which he's gung-ho about the conflict. (I also wonder a little about McNamara's recollections of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which didn't sound quite right to me.) We don't really get a clear sense of how the escalation happened or why, and we're left with a strong sense that Johnson was responsible for the war and that Kennedy (and McNamara) would have done things differently.

Is this a fair assessment? Most of the proponents of this view, I think, suffer from an overly romanticized vision of the Kennedy administration, but it's possible to make a convincing case that things would have gone differently if Kennedy hadn't been shot. My own view is that Vietnam would have been a foreign policy mess whoever had been president, and that there were important institutional forces encouraging the U.S. to become more involved; even so, the Vietnam War wasn't destined to become the national disaster we remember so vividly today. My problem with The Fog of War isn't that it suggests that Lyndon Johnson was primarily responsible for the war, however. (McNamara admits to sharing responsibility for the war on camera.) My problem is that it addresses these questions in an extremely un-analytical way.

That, in a nutshell, is my problem with the movie. The Fog of War is fascinating when it provides us with nice historical factoids about McNamara's career. It's extremely powerful when McNamara discusses what he did wrong with his career; McNamara verges on tears when he discusses his role in the firebombing of Tokyo and his responsibility for the Vietnam War, a sight that was moving to see. You can even argue that McNamara's historically arguable portrayal of his own role is historically important: it's a compelling picture of how historical figures confront the consequences of their actions. (I just wish we'd been given more background about how much of what McNamara said was true...)

Unfortunately, however, Morris acts as if he's offering us profound insights into how history is made--even while the movie itself discourages us from thinking about what's happening. The movie's score, by Philip Glass, is evocative and almost mesmerizing, but it's used in an odd and indiscriminate way: Glass always emphasizes the same themes and moods, whether Morris is showing us ominous footage of Cold War soldiers or amusing clips from 1950s Ford advertisements. Moreover, the movie's visuals look neat but seem heavy-handed. One scene shows a series of dominoes falling across a map, while McNamara discusses Vietnam and Glass's score plays ominously in the background; another scene flashes statistics on the Japanese war dead in front of us, telling us what percentage of the residents of different cities were killed in American air raids. If anything, I'd argue that these images encourage us to sit back and soak in what McNamara has to say, not to confront, analyze, or think about the significance of his message. Then again, the message of the movie--expressed in McNamara's 11 lessons--often seems a little trite. We're told that "proportionality should be a guideline in war," but wouldn't the McNamara of 1965 have felt that he was adhering to this principle?

I'd definitely recommend The Fog of War, and I think that it's a very powerful film, but my feelings about it are mixed. Its central message seems rather trite and its view of history seems a bit too pat and simplistic; we aren't really left with a clear idea of how America went wrong in Vietnam. Unfortunately, however, I'm not sure what I would have done differently. Morris could have turned his film into a biting satire, in which a confused old man believes, for the last time in his life, that he's come up the answers to life's problems. Such an approach would be a bit cruel to McNamara, however, and I'm not sure it would have been appropriate. The Fog of War is extremely powerful when it shows us McNamara's tearful efforts to confront his legacy. It's fascinating when it offers us little-known facts about his career. I can't help but think that the movie's underlying argument and message are a bit of a mess, but as messes go, The Fog of War is definitely worth watching.

Posted by Ed at 04:14 PM | Comments (4)

Tuesday Link Laziness

Posted by Ed

In case you're in desperate need of reading material, here are some links I'd recommend:

  • In The Boston Review, Rick Perlstein discusses how the Democrats can win the congressional elections of 2018. Robert Reich, Ruy Teixera, Elaine Kamarck, and other prominent Democrats discuss Perlstein's argument in a New Democracy forum. (In an unrelated Boston Review article, James Hynes looks at the works of Pat Barker.)
  • The religion scholar Karen Armstrong looks at the history of marriage in The Guardian.
  • National Review interviews David Hackett Fischer, the Brandeis historian who's written about Paul Revere's ride and George Washington crossing the Delaware.
  • Marc Cooper interviews Chalmers Johnson in LA Weekly (via Cliopatria).
  • In The Telegraph, Niall Ferguson reviews Timothy Garton Ash. Ash, meanwhile, has written a Guardian essay on a supposedly oxymoronic term: "British intellectual."
  • In Common-Place, a Harvard grad student discusses his research on suicide, and the historian who worked with Colonial House describes his experiences with the show.
  • The Independent profiles the writer Mark Haddon, whose latest children's book is giving J.K. Rowling a run for her money.
  • National Journal asks what we can expect from an Edwards vice presidency, while The Washington Post discusses Ted Kennedy's role in the 2004 election.
  • The Mises Review assesses the work of Gertrude Himmelfarb (via AL Daily).
  • Ron Chernow discusses the anniversary of the Hamilton-Burr duel; descendants of the two combatants re-enact the events of July 11, 1804; Antonio Burr discusses both the re-enactment and his ancestor's life.
  • The New York Times looks at the successful Jeopardy run of a (very) casual acquaintance of mine, Ken Jennings. (The article is a little too quick to make two conclusions I'd dispute--that Jennings is annoying and that Jeopardy is a smart show--but it's better than I expected.)
  • Alex Ross discusses the authenticity of Shostakovich's Testimony at his blog, The Rest is Silence.
  • Terry Teachout explains why he's often uncomfortable when strangers ask him what he's reading. (It's a nice blog entry; I know I've had similar feelings, also dating back to junior high or so.)

A couple of these articles say some kind of silly things, but they're all worth a look, I think.

Posted by Ed at 10:40 AM | Comments (0)

July 12, 2004

The Politics of Harry Potter

Posted by Ed

If you've ever suspected that French intellectuals don't have enough to do with their time, but you desperately needed a final piece of evidence, then you should check out this article from The Independent:

In the très sérieux columns of Le Monde, a debate is raging, which slices to the heart of the political and philosophical concerns of the early 21st century. Is Harry Potter a capitalist neo-liberal? Or is he an anti-globalist lefty, concerned by the fate of the humble and the oppressed?

The opinion pages of the centre-left French daily - more often occupied with human cloning or Third World debt - have, over the past three weeks, been examining, in high Marxist-structuralist manner, the political subtext of the works of J K Rowling.

The Great Debate was launched on 4 June by Ilias Yocaris, maître de conférences of French literature at the Institut Universitaire de Formation de Maîtres in Nice.

M. Yocaris, among those responsible for training the next generation of French teachers, complained in Le Monde that the "fantasy universe of Harry Potter is ... a capitalist universe". The five Harry Potter books - enormously successful in French translation - are stuffed with "neo-liberal stereotypes" which caricature approvingly the "excesses of the Anglo-Saxon social model", M. Yocaris said.

Thus all representatives of the state (the Ministry of Magic) are lampooned as ridiculous, or incompetent or sinister. Harry goes to a "private" school, whose "micro-society" is a "pitiless jungle" which glorifies "individualism, excessive competition and a cult of violence."

I wonder how many people actually find this kind of stuff compelling...

Debates like this have been going on for years: back in 2000, I can remember reading a conservative screed about how Percy Weasley's plan to standardize cauldron sizes across Europe was a sign of Rowling's anti-EU views. Reading this article (and several others on the same subject), I wish that I could read French, since the whole debate sounds really amusing. (In a rejoinder to Yocaris, for example, Isabelle Smadja has argued that Rowling's books are a "ferocious critique of consumer society and the world of free enterprise"; she apparently likens Hermione's campaign for the rights of house elves with the worldwide anti-globalization movement.)

If you're genuinely curious about J.K. Rowling's politics, then here's a fact that might intrigue you: Rowling named her daughter after Jessica Mitford. (Then again, even the most confirmed leftist could accidentally write a neo-liberal children's book...) I don't really think it's worth spending much time, energy, or thought debating the politics of the Potter universe, however.

After all, there are plenty of more interesting Potter-related subjects to discuss. Michael Berube, for instance, has likened the campaign to fire Remus Lupin to an anti-gay crusade; his argument is more subtle than it sounds, though it was still rather tongue-in-cheek. (A.O. Scott made a similar but more sophisticated point in Slate several years ago.) There are times when Rowling's book seems like a denunciation of the old British right, which was made up of now-forgotten people who thought Hitler was on the right track, which I find oddly intriguing as a history grad student. Rowling's world-view can sometimes be a little simplistic, however, especially when she blurs the line between juvenile brattiness and grown-up malevolence. (Draco Malfoy gets away with making morally inexcusable comments in the presence of Hogwarts instructors; no one--as far as we know--cares when Severus Snape requires his students to look up ways to kill one of his fellow teachers; Lucius Malfoy is an evil man who sometimes sounds too much like a petulant middle-schooler.) One of these days, I might just have to write a blog entry on the moral universe of Harry Potter, but for now you'll just have to wait.

Posted by Ed at 01:52 PM | Comments (1)

July 11, 2004

The Joys of the Index

Posted by Ed

Last week, The Independent published a delightful Philip Hensher article on the joys of looking at the indexes of books. Here's a brief sample:

Indexing has its abuses, as well as its uses. Ostensibly something provided to help readers make sense of a long narrative, to reduce a story to its bare essentials in a neutral, analytical way, in reality many indexes have an element of heckling, of bizarre and tendentious judgement, of presenting a book's narrative in unforgiving summary. The book itself may make efforts to be balanced and generous; when it comes to the index, everything is clear.

A fine example came last year with Ruth Dudley Edwards's book about Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King. The author had a very difficult time with King's appalling widow, Dame Ruth Railton, a woman for whom very few people ever had a good word. The book itself was a model of restraint when dealing with her excesses, but when it came to the index, the gloves came off, in part running: "marriage; psychic powers believed in by King; disliked by his friends; King wants as musical director of ATV; encourages his megalomania; increasing possessiveness... moves to Ireland with King; denounces Cudlipp; hatred of Ireland; gets rid of family correspondence; cocoons King from children and grandchildren; and King's death; disposes of his money; treatment of his family; traumatises Secker and Warburg."

A fair summary, but devastating in its final judgement. Such miniature narratives have a bizarre charm, occasionally threatening to make reading the book itself unnecessary. The Yale editions of James Boswell's journals are so fully indexed they provide a breathlessly exciting story on their own: "adventure with a monstrous big whore; Lady Northumberland sends polite letter showing she does not mean to do anything; JB makes jaunt to Oxford, is very unhappy; low-spirited; visits Newgate; sees an execution, terribly shocked, dares not sleep by himself; wretched; locked out of his lodging; meets S[amuel] J[ohnson]; alarmed by fear of another infection; solaces his existence with two girls..."

You should read the whole article, which I found via Early Modern Notes. I'd love to give a fun index to the book I'll someday write based on my dissertation, but I have the feeling that other academics would frown upon that...

Update: I knew I could remember reading something fun about indexes over the last year, so I browsed through my old blog and found a link to this entertaining Henry Farrell post from Crooked Timber. The book he describes--Hazel K. Bell's Indexes and Indexers in Fact and Fiction--sounds like a great read.

Posted by Ed at 03:04 PM | Comments (1)

James Hynes and the Academic Novel

Posted by Ed

One of the most grievous failings of my education and my upbringing was that I never really learned to love reading literature or fiction: when I'm in need of a good book, it never occurs to me to go looking for a novel. (I find history books much more fun, after all!) As a result, I'm always pleasantly surprised when I happen upon a novel I enjoy--especially when I enjoy it so much that I feel the need to rush out and buy more of the author's books.

This week I discovered the works of the novelist James Hynes, whose books combine the subject matter of a David Lodge-style academic satire with the conventions of gothic horror stories. The first Hynes book I read, Publish and Perish, is a collection of three amusing novellas. In the first, "Queen of the Jungle," an untenured professor's career is destroyed by his malevolent (and supernatural?) cat; in the second, "99," an American cultural anthropologist on an ill-fated country jaunt learns about the occult practices of present-day England; the third, a recasting of an M.R. James story called "Casting the Runes," features a cranky old professor whose plagiarism is achieved through the black arts. All of these stories were witty and amusing, with lots of academic in-jokes, clever jabs at post-modern theorists, and creepy gothic touches. In fact, I was so amused byPublish and Perish that I rushed out to buy Hynes's second academic satire, The Lecturer's Tale. That novel's title character loses his finger in a freak accident on the very day he's fired as a visiting adjunct lecturer; when his finger is surgically reattached, he finds that it has given him the power to force people to do his bidding with the slightest touch of his hand. The Lecturer's Tale, in other words, can be described as "Lucky Jim meets the Invisible Adjunct," with a healthy mix of Poe thrown in for good measure.

I really enjoyed both books, though I think I preferred Publish and Perish: Hynes is more adept at crafting amusing situations than he is at developing his characters' personalities, and The Lecturer's Tale's greater length added very little to the story. (Most Hynes characters, like most figures in academic satires, aren't real people--they're representatives of basic personality types, like the crazy lesbian theorist, the crotchety defender of the canon, and the unhappy and untenured white male. The chapters of The Lecturer's Tale that explained the background of these characters never seemed especially amusing or interesting to me.) The novel also would have benefited from just a touch more subtlety: Hynes often gives his characters overly cute names (consider the post-colonial theorist Lester Antilles or the French critic Lorraine Alsace), and the book's conclusion was a little over-the-top for my tastes.

Don't get me wrong--the flaws I've just mentioned were minor blemishes on a pair of really entertaining books. The problem with writing this review, however, is that it's hard to give you a sense of how much fun the books are without spoiling the joke: suffice it to say that if you think these books sound amusing, you'll probably like them, and that the only thing stopping me from rushing out to buy Hynes's two other books is my meager grad student income.

I'm afraid I have two more caveats to make, however--comments that probably say more about the academic novel in general (or about me) than they do about the books James Hynes has written:

  • As much as I enjoy Hynes's work, there were times when I found it a little unnerving--and not because I was bothered by the thought of creepy occult rituals, ghostly cats, magic-wielding plagiarists, and mysterious white-clad figures dancing ominously in library towers. Sometimes Hynes's in-jokes and references to current academic debates seemed a little too self-congratulatory for my tastes--and, worse still, they forced me to ask how I, as a reader, was different from some of the less-appealing characters who populate Hynes's world. Are Hynes's books anything but an opportunity for annoying academics to read about their fictional counterparts?

    The second novella in Publish and Perish, for example, centers on Gregory Eyck, a cultural anthropologist from the prestigious University of the Midwest who finds himself investigating barrows in the English town of Sillsbury. Gregory is a master of academic jargon who effortlessly tosses around the names of leading theorists and can conjure up impressive-sounding new theories at will; nevertheless, we never get the sense that he has anything intelligent to say, and his pompous-sounding new theories always seem rather shallow.

    On one level, of course, Hynes's portrait of Gregory is a nice piece of satire: Hynes is skewering a type of academic that is surely familiar to many of the book's readers. At the same time, Eyck's behavior can sometimes seem eerily similar to my own experience of reading Hynes. To name one example, when Eyck enters a pub in Sillsbury and orders a ploughman's lunch ("the English meal that had been made up out of whole cloth by an advertising man on behalf of the British tourist board"), he concludes to himself, "Talk about your invented tradition!" He seems very proud of himself for his knowledge of the basic argument of a well-known history book, but it's not at all clear that he knows anything about history.

    Meanwhile, one of the small pleasures of reading Hynes arises when he slips in references to figures, debates, and arguments from academia. Anthony Pescecane, the English department chair at Midwestern, seems a lot like Stanley Fish (notice the etymology of his surname); his colleague Marko Kraljevic is reminiscent of Slavoj Zizek. Even Eyck's anthropological work on the voyages of Captain Cook seems kind of familiar: readers may be reminded of the debate between between Marshall Sahlins and Ganneth Obeyesekere. Real-life academics are sometimes referred to in the book, and Hynes takes it for granted that his readers know who they are. Sometimes Hynes's references to academic figures can be simultaneously subtle and over-the-top: when two characters get into a fight in the library, one of them fends off his opponent with a work of literary criticism, forcing his foe to utter the words "You de Man!" Is this a reference to everyone's favorite Nazi-tainted literary theorist? Still another Hynes character names her cats after the Bronte sisters.

    Which leads me to the following question: how is Gregory's comment ("Talk about your invented tradition!") different from some of my own reactions to the book? ("This Marko Kraljevic sounds a lot like Slavoj Zizek!") How am I different from some of the less pleasant Hynes protagonists? The answer, I think, is that I'm not just reading the book for its semi-veiled references to academic figures and debates; Hynes's books are well-crafted stories that derive their humor from a lot of different sources, and not just from references to well-known professors and books. (I loved reading about how one character's sleep deprivation led him to produce an outline of the magnum opus My (M)other the Car: Difference and Memory in the Matriarchal Narrative.) Moreover, I like to think that my own academic interests are more significant than those of many Hynes characters...

  • I'm not as well-read in contemporary academic satires as I'd like, but I get the sense that academic novels can be a little limited in their subject matter: they often center around a clueless and marginal male protagonist, whose struggles for tenure and advancement are hilariously thwarted or miraculously achieved. There are plenty of other topics for an academic novel, however, since the quest for tenure isn't the only pressing story on university campuses today.

    So far, I think that Hynes's interest in the gothic has kept his work from becoming too trite or derivative, but if he continues writing academic novels, I hope he'll expand his focus a little. There are lots of good topics for gothic academic novels, after all--from student psych experiments gone horribly awry to the occult practices of unruly sororities. Nearly every college I'm familiar with requires it students to pass a swimming test--often, rumor says, because the son of a wealthy alumnus had tragically died of drowning. Why not center an academic satire around the ghost of the drowned student? I don't expect academic novels to be realistic--a realistic academic novel would involve too much committee work, after all--but it would be nice to see more academic novels on diverse themes.

    Why have academic novels developed this way? Part of the answer, I suspect, has to do with their history: ever since Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, lots of academic satires have centered on pathetic and marginalized white men. At the same time, another part of the answer has to do with what's happened outside the novel: the plight of adjunct lecturers has become far more difficult in recent years--see the now-defunct blog The Invisible Adjunct for evidence--and gender issues have taken on increased prominence in academia. (Just look at the work being done in the English departments in all of Hynes's books!) Add in Hynes's decidedly non-PC perspective, and the resulting books seem almost inevitable.

    At the same time, the basic plot conceit of most academic novels fits in with one of their most obvious characteristics: their cynicism about academia. Has any character in an academic novel actually written a book that's worth reading? Not that I know of... On one level, of course, I can't help but agree with this view of the world: there are times when I wonder how many dissertations in my own field offer anything of significance to non-specialists, or when I find myself seeking out interesting details in a dissertation but ignoring its central argument. Someday, however, I'd like to read an academic novel by someone with a higher opinion of academics. Someday, it would be wonderful to read an academic novel that actually takes ideas seriously. Such a novel could still be rather cynical, which is probably necessary for a satire--maybe the protagonist is a brilliant scholar, but the people around him are fools--but it would still be a delightful change of pace.

James Hynes isn't a great novelist--his books will never rock the world's literary circles, and he's most effective as a humorist and story-teller. But if you're a boring academic in need of a good read, then I'd strongly recommend his work.

Tangential Update: Writing this entry (and, in particular, its penultimate paragraph) has reminded me of one of my favorite passages from an academic satire. In Changing Places, David Lodge provides us with the following descriptions of the work of Morris Zapp:

Some years ago he had embarked with great enthusiasm on an ambitious critical project: a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them. The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle, historical, biographical, rhetorical, mythical, Freudian, Jungian, existentialist, Marxist, structuralist, Christian-allegorical, ethical, exponential, linguistic, phenomenological, archetypal, you name it; so that when each commentary was written there would be simply nothing more to say about the novel in question. The object of the exercise, as he often had to explain with as much patience as he could muster, was not to enhance others' enjoyment and understanding of Jane Austen, still less to honor the novelist herself, but to put a definitive stop to the production of any further garbage on the subject.

If I recall correctly (it's been several years since I read the novel), my view of the world is very different from Morris Zapp's. There are still times when I wish that academics would just quit writing so many bad books, however!

Update #2: Looking back at what I've written, I wonder if I generalized a little too much about academic satires (given that there are lots well-known academic novels that I've never read.) Rejoinders from my readers are welcome: I'd be especially interested in hearing about academic satires that aren't completely negative about academics.

Posted by Ed at 11:40 AM | Comments (3)

July 09, 2004

Amusing Links of the Day

Posted by Ed

Some more links to amuse you:

  • How do you fight crime and convince unruly urban residents to behave? According to The New York Times, a former Bogota mayor found the perfect solution: Bring in the mimes!
  • Who should take Jack Ryan's place as the Republican Senate candidate here in Illinois? According to Gapers Block (found via Susan), some people think they've found the perfect candidate: Mike Ditka! (Update: according to K.C. Johnson at Cliopatria), Ditka's wife doesn't want him to run: "If he decides to do it, I'd divorce him.")
  • The 2004 election campaign is proving to be historic: never before have journalists paid more attention to a candidate's hair than to his wife. (Meanwhile, Slate explains how you, too, can have teeth as nice as John Kerry's.)

I'll post more on Sunday, I think.

Posted by Ed at 01:52 PM | Comments (3)

Gordon Brown, Superstar

Posted by Ed

Like most American liberals, I've always liked Tony Blair. I'm not sure I'd like him as much if I were actually British, of course--it's sometimes hard to be really enthusiastic about the guy--but I think America needs a strong liberal spokesman for the war on terror and I don't know if John Kerry's up to the job. Recent revelations about Blair's treatment of the Iraq situation have dimmed my enthusiasm for him, however, and I've recently felt the need to find another British leader to admire from afar.

Now I've found a new left-of-center British politician to pull on my heartstrings (or, well, something like that): Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer (and heir apparent to Number 10 Downing Street.) British newspapers have been commenting on this erudite Brown speech to the British Council, while this Guardian article describes Brown's bookishness:

Brown evidently reads every commentator - ancient (Henry Grattan, Edmund Burke, Matthew Arnold) and modern (David Goodhart, Herman Ouseley, Neil Ascherson, Tom Nairn, David Cannadine, Simon Heffer, Ferdinand Mount, Melanie Phillips, Jonathan Sacks). He even quotes Montesquieu - and you have to do more than read Prospect for that. There should surely be an award for moulding the views of this unlikely collection (Tom, meet Melanie ...) into a coherent argument, even if the nub of it does appear to be that Britain's past is glorious and its future (under Labour) will be even more glorious.

So how does he do it? This is a man with a newish wife, a small child, a passion for football and a feud to conduct, not to mention the world's fourth largest economy to run. He even writes books - a biography of radical Labour MP James Maxton and a series of essays on his other heroes, due to be published next year. Blair's dodgy guitar-playing just can't compete.


"Gordon's a voracious reader," says one journalist who knows him well. "I haven't been in his bedroom, but I know someone who has and there are large piles of books on his and Sarah's bedside tables. It's not all heavy stuff either: he really does read big books like Norman Davies's The Isles and Philip Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles, but he loves Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus books too." "When he goes on holiday, he always takes suitcases full of books," says another associate. "Then he buys a whole load more when he's away. He speed-reads them."

Brown adores bookshops. In 1997, a fly-on-the-wall documentary showed him vacuuming the shelves of an airport bookshop (who is checking the Treasury bills?), and when in Washington he spends a good deal of time at the Georgetown branch of Barnes & Noble. At one IMF meeting, he slipped out to spend an hour at the store and became immersed in a book tracing the links between the Bundesbank and the Nazis in the 1930s. Looking up, he was surprised to find the current head of the Bundesbank peering querulously over his shoulder.

Michael White, the Guardian's political editor, recalls a discussion he had with Brown a few years ago during which Linda Colley's book cropped up. White said he had never read it. Brown said he had two copies and would send him one. White assumed that was the last he would hear of it, but a few days later the book arrived with a Treasury compliments slip tucked inside. "Brown reads proper books," says White. "He is a man of parts and was intellectually precocious - he went to university at 17 and was a national figure in Scotland by the age of 19. He is also a shy and private man, in many ways more at ease with books than with people."

Bookishness isn't synonymous with poltical leadership, of course, and Brown's shynesss could be a liability in a prime minister. But it's nice to see a politician who reads history for fun, and it's delightful to learn about a politician better known for his bookishness than for his glibness.

Semi-related Update: A new study shows that literary reading by Americans is declining dramatically. (Not that I can talk, mind you!) I wouldn't be at all surprised if something similar is happening in Britain, which would make Brown's reading habits more impressive still.

More Closely Related Update: Political Theory Daily Review has linked to this Scotsman profile of Gordon Brown.

Posted by Ed at 12:39 PM | Comments (0)

Thinking About Physics (Part 2)

Posted by Matt

This time I'll address the other topic in physics I've been thinking about lately, brought up in the comments of this post by Sean Carroll. The issue is "wave-function collapse." This is another case where I think that R. Newton in his book Thinking About Physics is mostly right, so if my account is insufficient, take a look there.

The question at hand is whether there exists a nonunitary "wave-function collapse" in quantum mechanics. As Aaron Bergman points out in the comments over at Preposterous Universe, this is an experimental question. That's an important point, and it's worth noting (as he does) that Penrose has interesting ideas relating wave-function collapse to quantum gravity. The details are a bit fuzzy for me as I've only heard about this idea once, in Penrose's colloquium at Chicago three and a half years ago, back when my knowledge of quantum theory was limited and wave-function collapse seemed orthodox and reasonable to me.

Since then, my thoughts on the matter have changed. Quantum mechanics -- and quantum field theory, its special relativistic extension -- seem to be complete theories, describing our world within the accuracy of any experiment we can do. The simplest reasonable way to interpret this is that we live in a quantum world. Any experiment we do, any object we perceive, no matter how classical it seems to our senses (which, after all, evolved to deal with a world of low energies and macroscopic objects, a world in which classical physics is good enough), is fundamentally quantum in nature.

I think that the difficulties arising in "interpreting" quantum mechanics, and in trying to understand "the measurement problem," largely arise from trying to couple a classical perspective with quantum reality. The idea of wave-function collapse is that, when a measurement is performed, a quantum state that is in a superposition of various eigenstates will be projected onto one eigenstate, chosen according to a probability given by this state's overlap with the original state. This "wave-function collapse" is nondeterministic and corresponds to nonunitary evolution. This perspective fits with the idea of being able to do a classical measurement and extract a single number from a state.

In reality, all states are quantum, and any measurement we can do is inherently quantum. For instance, consider an overly simplistic setup, but one that hopefully will illustrate the issues involved. Electrons have a spin; its z-component has two eigenstates, +1/2 and -1/2 (call them "up" and "down"). If we have a beam of electrons, we can do a Stern-Gerlach type experiment in which an inhomogeneous magnetic field splits them into two beams, one spin up and one spin down. We can then observe these beams.

What's happening here, from my point of view, is entirely described by QED. The inhomogeneous magnetic field is given by some configuration of the quantum electromagnetic field; the electron beam is interacting with (virtual) photons according to the rules of QED. Naively supposing we simply "see" the two beams that result, what we see are photons scattered off the beams. Again, this is electrons interacting with photons, according to QED. I see no reason to suppose anything nonunitary happens here. Instead we just have various quantum fields, interacting according to well-defined rules. Measurements are, in some sense, just scattering processes. Everything is unitary. I don't deny that, at the end, electrons will appear to have collapsed to eigenstates. But I see no reason to suppose that this happens with spooky physics going beyond ordinary quantum theory.

I think this is just a straightforward application of Ockham's razor; there's no need to assume that wave-functions collapse unless that gives us extra explanatory power. In Penrose's framework, it might, so it's worth pursuing this as an experimental question. But without further evidence, why not just assume quantum mechanics is completely unitary?

It's worth noting that, in this case, quantum mechanics is also deterministic. (As Newton emphasizes in his book.) Probabilities only arise in trying to understand complicated quantum states in terms of individual classical numbers of the sort we understand. Newton further argues that a lot of what people see as weirdness in quantum mechanics arises from thinking in terms of particles rather than quantum fields, an idea that I had been mulling over for a while, but that he probably argues more clearly than I could.

Posted by Matt at 12:56 AM | Comments (1)

July 08, 2004

Random Thoughts on the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index

Posted by Ed

Like many bloggers, I've been oddly intrigued by the Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index, which appeared over the weekend on Terry Teachout's blog, About Last Night. (Teachout, for those of you who don't know, is a consistently interesting critic with an entertaining blog. Click here for his explanation of the quiz.) The index is a list of questions, presenting readers with a choice between two different options. (Cats or dogs? Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin? Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy?) For each question, Teachout selected the first of the two choices, so the reader's score is the percentage of the time that he agreed with Teachout's preference.

I've been hesitant about discussing the TCCI, for a couple of reasons. First, I have a general dislike for weblog memes. (My eyes start to roll as soon as I see someone posting the latest silly meme or quiz result on their site; similarly, I lose a lot of respect for anyone who uses the terms "blogosphere" or "blogroll" in a non-ironic manner.) Second, even though I tend to think of myself as a well-read and reasonably cultured person, I had to pass on exactly half of Teachout's questions, since I'm generally ignorant of some of the spheres of culture that play a prominent role in the quiz (like musicals, dance, pop music, visual art, and old movies).

Having said that, however, I do have some random thoughts to offer:

  • For reasons that should be obvious from the paragraph above, the questions posed by Teachout reminded me of "Humiliations," a parlor game that appears in the David Lodge novel Changing Places. In that game, players confess the titles of books they've never read, receiving one point for every player who has read the book in question; hence, the winner is the competitor who has never read the books that are most familiar to his opponents.

    There's a certain odd thrill to announcing that I've never read anything by Thomas Mann, that I've never read either Huck Finn or Moby-Dick, and that I've never been to (or read) an Edward Albee play. (As the professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe might say, "What do they teach them in the schools these days?!") I'd imagine that the thrill I've just described is similar to the feeling one experiences after winning a round of Humiliations!

  • I can't help but wonder: am I really that much more ignorant than other takers of the quiz, or am I just less willing to make a snap judgment based on my vague impressions? (If someone held a gun to my head, I'd pick Diana Krall over Norah Jones, for example, even though my knowledge of each woman's music is rather scant; I suspect that my snap judgments coincide with Teachout's judgments roughly as often as my more considered judgments do.) In fact, I suspect that this quiz plays to one of the less attractive characteristics of a lot of bloggers: their tendency to make sweeping judgments on questions they know nothing about. (I can think of a couple bloggers who've used the quiz as a way to make themselves sound far more cultured than they really are...)

  • I still find the quiz oddly intriguing (a lighthearted exercise that touches on more serious issues), in part because of my long-standing interest in the question of binary personality types. Back when I was in high school, I can remember being intrigued by the idea that if you took a limited (but large) number of binary questions, presented them to lots of people, and compiled the results, you'd end up with some interesting patterns. (I was a weird kid!) That is, if you start by dividing the world into cat and dog people, Coke and Pepsi drinkers, and Democrats and Republicans (to name three unsophisticated categories that aren't really binary), and then proceed to other binary questions, you'd eventually start to come up with some fun patterns.

    Then, early in my senior year of high school, I was amused to see that Cullen Murphy (who has since become one of my favorite writers) had written a column on this very theme for The Atlantic Monthly. That column, called "The Power of Two," is no longer available online, but Murphy took the basic idea I'd toyed with and wrote an entertaining article about it. To begin with, the article gave a more interesting spin to some of the binary distinctions I'd thought of:

    ...the classification of people as either dogs or cats in terms of character is one of the most basic divisions there is. Everyone would agree, I think, that T.S. Eliot, Nancy Reagan, Garrick Utley, and Diana Rigg are cats. Walter Matthau, Ted Williams, and Julia Child are dogs. George F. Will is a cat pretending to be a dog. (Like many intellectuals cats, Will furthers this subterfuge by maintaining a very public canine interest in baseball.) In contrast, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is a dog pretending to be a cat.

    Not surprisingly, the article also came up with a much more amusing and sophisticated list of dichotomies, borrowing several of them from literature. Ogden Nash once divided the world into "gossipers" and "gossipees"; Archilochus (via Isaiah Berlin) split people into foxes (who know many little things) and hedgehogs (who know one big thing). Murphy borrowed both of these binaries for his article (introducing me to the concept of hedgehogs and foxes in the process.)

    Murphy concluded that these "dyads" might, by one view, be "the building blocks of personality"--we could learn a lot about a person's character by finding out whether he could be categorized as a cat or a dog person or by finding out if he "never tired of" or "was nauseated by" Pachelbel's Canon. As he concluded,

    The practical applications of a system like this are not hard to imagine. Western society has for decades been looking for something to supplant the failed god of psychoanalysis; surely the dyad project could assume at least part of this role. Also, consider how personal advertisements could be revolutionized. The standard but not all that revealing SWMs and DJFs and BGMs could now be complemented by a whole palette of accessory qualities.

    Murphy's article is an amusing and light-hearted piece, but I think it touches on some interesting questions--and has interesting implications for the TCCI. Does the index have predictive power? (That is, given that my literary tastes are fairly similar to Teachout's, would my tastes in dance be similar if I felt like broadening my horizons?) Will the personal ads in The New York Review soon sport such sentences as "53% on the TCCI, 75% on TCCI music"? Even now, ten years after Murphy published his article, I still find the question of binary personality types really intriguing--assuming, that is, that you don't take it too seriously. (I firmly believe that people can be divided into frustrated copy editors and people bored by copy-editing, and that this division says a lot about personality, for example. But I think that quizzes like Teachout's are more fun as a starting point for the discussion of artistic taste than they are as a supposedly firm predictor of a person's preferences.) Teachout's quiz, I'd argue, is an entertaining variation on the same theme.

I don't, I'm afraid, have a grand conclusion to this post--as I noted above, this entry is just a compilation of some "random thoughts" inspired by Teachout's blog. If you're dying to know my answers to the quiz, then go to the extended version of this entry.

By my count, I have a TCCI of 36%. Given that I passed on half the questions, however, I actually agreed with Teachout's preference 72% of the time that I expressed an opinion.

1. Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly? [Pass: I don't know much about either man]
2. The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises? [Great Gatsby: I've never liked Hemingway]
3. Count Basie or Duke Ellington? [Pass: I don't have a clear sense of either man's music]
4. Cats or dogs? [Cats, definitely]
5. Matisse or Picasso? [Pass]
6. Yeats or Eliot? [Yeats]
7. Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin? [Pass: never seen Keaton]
8. Flannery O’Connor or John Updike? [O'Connor]
9. To Have and Have Not or Casablanca? [Pass: I haven't yet watched my DVD of To Have and Have Not]
10. Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning? [Pass: all I know about Pollock is that he liked flags]
11. The Who or the Stones? [Pass: generally ignorant of popular music]
12. Philip Larkin or Sylvia Plath? [Larkin]
13. Trollope or Dickens? [Trollope]
14. Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald? [Pass: generally ignorant of jazz]
15. Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy? [Dostoyevsky]
16. The Moviegoer or The End of the Affair? [Pass: never read either]
17. George Balanchine or Martha Graham? [Pass: no clear sense of either]
18. Hot dogs or hamburgers? [Hamburgers]
19. Letterman or Leno? [Pass, though I'd lean toward Letterman]
20. Wilco or Cat Power? [Pass: never heard of Cat Power]
21. Verdi or Wagner? [Verdi]
22. Grace Kelly or Marilyn Monroe? [Pass]
23. Bill Monroe or Johnny Cash? [Pass: never heard of Bill Monroe]
24. Kingsley or Martin Amis? [Kingsley]
25. Robert Mitchum or Marlon Brando? [Pass: unfamiliar with Mitchum, don't know much about Brando beyond the really obvious]
26. Mark Morris or Twyla Tharp? [Pass]
27. Vermeer or Rembrandt? [Pass]
28. Tchaikovsky or Chopin? [Tchaikovsky]
29. Red wine or white? [Red]
30. Noël Coward or Oscar Wilde? [Pass: unfamiliar with Coward, though I've liked the very little I've read]
31. Grosse Pointe Blank or High Fidelity? [Pass: never seen either]
32. Shostakovich or Prokofiev? [Prokofiev]
33. Mikhail Baryshnikov or Rudolf Nureyev? [Pass]
34. Constable or Turner? [Pass]
35. The Searchers or Rio Bravo? [Pass: never seen Rio Bravo, can't remember the Searchers]
36. Comedy or tragedy? [Tragedy, maybe]
37. Fall or spring? [Fall]
38. Manet or Monet? [Pass]
39. The Sopranos or The Simpsons? [Simpsons, though I don't know the Sopranos well]
40. Rodgers and Hart or Gershwin and Gershwin? [Pass]
41. Joseph Conrad or Henry James? [Conrad]
42. Sunset or sunrise? [Uh... Sunrise, I guess]
43. Johnny Mercer or Cole Porter? [Pass]
44. Mac or PC? [Mac]
45. New York or Los Angeles? [New York]
46. Partisan Review or Horizon? [Pass: unfamiliar with Horizon]
47. Stax or Motown? [Pass]
48. Van Gogh or Gauguin? [Van Gogh]
49. Steely Dan or Elvis Costello? [Pass]
50. Reading a blog or reading a magazine? [Magazine: I prefer a good magazine to a good blog, but read more bad blogs than bad magazines ]
51. John Gielgud or Laurence Olivier? [Pass: never seen Gielgud]
52. Only the Lonely or Songs for Swingin’ Lovers? [Pass: ???]
53. Chinatown or Bonnie and Clyde? [Pass: never seen either]
54. Ghost World or Election? [Election]
55. Minimalism or conceptual art? [Pass]
56. Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny? [Daffy]
57. Modernism or postmodernism? [Modernism]
58. Batman or Spider-Man? [Uh... Spider-Man]
59. Emmylou Harris or Lucinda Williams? [Pass: ignorant of both]
60. Johnson or Boswell? [Johnson]
61. Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf? [Austen, though I've read very little Woolf]
62. The Honeymooners or The Dick Van Dyke Show? [Pass: not sure I've seen either]
63. An Eames chair or a Noguchi table? [Pass]
64. Out of the Past or Double Indemnity? [Pass: never seen either]
65. The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni? [Figaro, I think]
66. Blue or green? [Uh... Blue]
67. A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It? [Midsummer Night's Dream]
68. Ballet or opera? [Opera]
69. Film or live theater? [Film]
70. Acoustic or electric? [Pass]
71. North by Northwest or Vertigo? [North by Northwest]
72. Sargent or Whistler? [Sargent]
73. V.S. Naipaul or Milan Kundera? [Naipaul]
74. The Music Man or Oklahoma? [Pass]
75. Sushi, yes or no? [Yes]
76. The New Yorker under Ross or Shawn? [Ross]
77. Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee? [Pass]
78. The Portrait of a Lady or The Wings of the Dove? [Pass]
79. Paul Taylor or Merce Cunningham? [Pass]
80. Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe? [Wright]
81. Diana Krall or Norah Jones? [Pass]
82. Watercolor or pastel? [Pass]
83. Bus or subway? [Subway]
84. Stravinsky or Schoenberg? [Stravinsky]
85. Crunchy or smooth peanut butter? [Smooth]
86. Willa Cather or Theodore Dreiser? [Cather, though I've read very little Dreiser]
87. Schubert or Mozart? [Mozart]
88. The Fifties or the Twenties? [Fifties]
89. Huckleberry Finn or Moby-Dick? [Pass]
90. Thomas Mann or James Joyce? [Pass: never read anything by Mann]
91. Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins? [Pass: not completely sure I've heard of either, actually]
92. Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman? [Dickinson]
93. Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill? [Lincoln]
94. Liz Phair or Aimee Mann? [Pass]
95. Italian or French cooking? [Italian]
96. Bach on piano or harpsichord? [Pass]
97. Anchovies, yes or no? [No]
98. Short novels or long ones? [Long]
99. Swing or bebop? [Pass]
100. "The Last Judgment" or "The Last Supper"? [Pass]

[I've added a little commentary]

Posted by Ed at 04:52 PM | Comments (4)

The One Article Everyone Should Read This Week

Posted by Ed

This week's New Republic features an important article that deserves far more attention than it's gotten: according to John Judis, Spencer Ackerman, and Massoud Ansari, the Bush administration has been pressuring the Pakistani government to capture Osama bin Laden and other prominent al Qaeda leaders before the November election--and, ideally, during the Democratic convention later this month:

This spring, the administration significantly increased its pressure on Pakistan to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri, or the Taliban's Mullah Mohammed Omar, all of whom are believed to be hiding in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. A succession of high-level American officials--from outgoing CIA Director George Tenet to Secretary of State Colin Powell to Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca to State Department counterterrorism chief Cofer Black to a top CIA South Asia official--have visited Pakistan in recent months to urge General Pervez Musharraf's government to do more in the war on terrorism. In April, Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, publicly chided the Pakistanis for providing a "sanctuary" for Al Qaeda and Taliban forces crossing the Afghan border. "The problem has not been solved and needs to be solved, the sooner the better," he said.

This public pressure would be appropriate, even laudable, had it not been accompanied by an unseemly private insistence that the Pakistanis deliver these high-value targets (HVTs) before Americans go to the polls in November. The Bush administration denies it has geared the war on terrorism to the electoral calendar. "Our attitude and actions have been the same since September 11 in terms of getting high-value targets off the street, and that doesn't change because of an election," says National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack. But The New Republic has learned that Pakistani security officials have been told they must produce HVTs by the election. According to one source in Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), "The Pakistani government is really desperate and wants to flush out bin Laden and his associates after the latest pressures from the U.S. administration to deliver before the [upcoming] U.S. elections." Introducing target dates for Al Qaeda captures is a new twist in U.S.-Pakistani counterterrorism relations--according to a recently departed intelligence official, "no timetable[s]" were discussed in 2002 or 2003--but the November election is apparently bringing a new deadline pressure to the hunt. Another official, this one from the Pakistani Interior Ministry, which is responsible for internal security, explains, "The Musharraf government has a history of rescuing the Bush administration. They now want Musharraf to bail them out when they are facing hard times in the coming elections." (These sources insisted on remaining anonymous. Under Pakistan's Official Secrets Act, an official leaking information to the press can be imprisoned for up to ten years.)


Pushing Musharraf to go after Al Qaeda in the tribal areas may be a good idea despite the risks. But, if that is the case, it was a good idea in 2002 and 2003. Why the switch now? Top Pakistanis think they know: This year, the president's reelection is at stake.

The article speaks for itself, and everyone should read it. I'm slightly wary of the precision of some of the article's quotations (if the administration really thought it could coordinate the capture of top al Qaeda leaders to the day, then it's even more delusional than it appears), but the basic point is highly plausible to me.

Posted by Ed at 01:44 PM | Comments (0)

July 07, 2004

Thinking About Physics (Part 1)

Posted by Matt

Ed's recent link to this Slate article about Brian Greene, together with this post by Sean Carroll (and particularly the accompanying comments) have finally given me sufficient motivation to write down (at least in preliminary form) some things I've been wanting to say about physics for some time now.

The resident head of the dorm I lived in during the past two years was a philosophy graduate student with an interest in philosophy of science, and we have had several interesting discussions about the philosophy of physics. As a graduation gift he gave me a copy of Roger G. Newton's Thinking About Physics, a book by a mathematical physicist addressing certain issues in the philosophy of physics. I mention it here because Newton explains some things with more clarity and depth than I could hope to in a blog entry. I don't entirely agree with him on everything, but mostly I think his ideas are very reasonable.

Without getting ourselves into metaphysics, I think that (almost by definition) a scientist must believe certain things about the world. Namely, an external, real world exists, and it is possible to learn about it through our senses. Based on the sense-data we collect, we attempt to understand how the world works. From here, I think it's unreasonable to assume that it is possible to obtain definite information about the world in itself. We can formulate theories about the world, and test them, but in any case we only know that a theory is valid in those regimes of energy, distance, or other settings in which we have tested it. With this is in mind, it's impressive that we have a theory -- the Standard Model -- that, to the limit of our ability to test it, appears to describe all phenomena below a certain (large) energy scale. We also have a theory -- general relativity -- that, to the limit of our ability to test it, describes the way that gravity works.

From here we hope to form a coherent theory, including as limits the very well-tested theories that we already have, but also describing a wider range of phenomena. This is the goal of string theory, and it is a goal to which I have no objection. On the other hand, the Slate article presents Greene's view as teleological: that is, we are moving toward an ultimate theory of the universe. I find this viewpoint hard to accept. There is, of course, the simple objection that even if we find "the fundamental theory" (whatever that might mean), moving from that to an understanding of chemistry or biology or human behavior is nontrivial (or even impossible). But even beyond this, I find it questionable that a "fundamental theory" even exists. The universe certainly exhibits regularities that we can elucidate and try to understand, but I am skeptical of any claim that at its core the universe is mathematics. I find it much more likely that mathematics is entirely a human construction that happens to be very good at describing the world around us. Our mathematical theories give us increasingly powerful ways of understanding the world, covering an increasingly wide range of phenomena, but to expect that one day a single mathematical theory will encompass all of reality seems to me terribly arrogant.

None of this, I should add, addresses the issue the Slate article set out to answer, namely, where does Brian Greene stand as a physicist? As I am not a string theorist, and my knowledge of algebraic geometry is still too weak to understand many of Greene's papers, I'm not so well-equipped to answer that question. My impression is that Greene is a good physicist, who made important contributions to understanding topology change in string theory. Perhaps more importantly from the standpoint of the article, his recent work has been focused on string cosmology. While still a long shot, there is some hope that understanding the implications of string theory for inflation will give testable predictions for experiments in the next decade or two. Sheldon Glashow might scoff, but I think it's unwise to discount this possibility at this point.

So, I suppose the upshot of this is that one can do good physics even while having the (to my mind) unsupportable opinion that one is approaching a "final" theory. This post has grown long enough, but I would also like to say some things about the issue of "wave function collapse" in quantum mechanics, which came up in Sean Carroll's comments. This I will do in another entry soon.

Posted by Matt at 11:08 AM | Comments (7)

July 06, 2004

Tuesday Link Laziness

Posted by Ed

I'm gearing up to start writing more on this blog (really!), but for now, here are some more links:

  • What does the SAT really measure? The Boston Globe ideas section discusses some new research on the question...
  • How good a physicist is Brian Greene? Slate reports... (Other people, including one of my co-bloggers here, know infinitely more about physics than I do, but I enjoy reading about how various random academics have sought to bring their work to the broader public...)
  • LA Weekly discusses the "schizophrenic dance" of art and mathematics.
  • Are Russian movies on the rise? The Telegraph thinks so...
  • What role has George W. Bush's family played in his career? David Greenberg looks at this question in a New Yorker review...
  • What do you get when you take the chivalry, legend, and soap out of Camelot? Charles McGrath looks at Jerry Bruckheimer's new take on King Arthur in The New York Times...
  • What do foreign textbooks tell us about American history? The New York Times reviews a new book on this subject.
  • Why is the Department of Justice still searching the country for aging ex-Nazis? Legal Affairs reports.
  • Did the dubbing of movies in Italy take off under Fascism? Is Iraq still threatened by Iran? The Walrus reports.
  • The London Review of Books reviews a new volume on Siberia.
  • Was the Amber Room, an imperial treasure lost in World War II, destroyed by the Nazis--or by the Soviets themselves? The Moscow Times reports.

As always, I may or may not expand this list later. You'll just have to wait and see...

Posted by Ed at 02:38 PM | Comments (1)

July 03, 2004

Holiday Weekend Links

Posted by Ed

One of these days, after I'm back from the holiday weekend, I'll write begin posting here more regularly. (Reviews of the new Shrek and Spider-Man movies are on their way, along with some posts on history and politics.) Until then, though, here are some links:

  • Coming someday to a theater near you: lots of movies about Boadicea, the Iceni leader Hollywood hopes will turn out to be like "Braveheart with a bra."
  • In The Washington Post, a Clinton biographer describes the experience of reading Clinton's autobiography, and Jamin Raskin reviews Cass Sunstein's new book on FDR"s "Second Bill of Rights."
  • Cass Sunstein reviews James Surowiecki's new book on "the wisdom of crowds" for The New Republic.
  • The New York Review of Books looks at Roy Strong's new book on feasting, while Bookforum features a Sarah Kerr review of Craig Seligman's new book on Sontag and Kael.
  • The Washington Times describes an 1879 visit to Ireland by Ulysses Grant.
  • Simon Sebag Montefiore compares Stalin and Saddam Hussein in this New York Times op-ed piece (with some nice anecdotes, but nothing very deep or significant content-wise.)
  • The Times Literary Supplement describes the dangers of "geeks bearing scripts" in this brief article on the movie Troy.
  • The Guardian discusses Louis Menand's criticism of Lynne Truss.

More later?

Posted by Ed at 03:53 PM | Comments (0)

Harry Potter and the Unfortunate New Title

Posted by Ed

Last week, when I was busy doing other things, J.K. Rowling announced the title of her next book: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I'm not sure I like the title, but I'm intrigued by the question of who the book's second title character might be: Rowling has written that this mysterious prince is neither Harry nor Voldemort. What intrigues me most, however, was this paragraph from the official Rowling site:

I was delighted to see that a hard core of super-bright fans knew that the real title was once, in the long distant past, a possibility for 'Chamber of Secrets', and from that deduced that it was genuine. Certain crucial pieces of information in book six were originally planned for 'Chamber of Secrets', but very early on (first draft of Chamber) I realised that this information's proper home was book six. I have said before now that 'Chamber' holds some very important clues to the ultimate end of the series. Not as many as six, obviously, but there is a link.

That paragraph intrigues me (and worries me) for a number of reasons--not least of which is the fact that I've always found the second installment in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the weakest of Rowling's books. (I hope that the announcement of the title is a sign that the book will be published before too long...) Perhaps it's time for me to reread Chamber of Secrets... And perhaps it's time for me to write the review of the Harry Potter series that I've been promising for nearly a year.

Posted by Ed at 02:09 PM | Comments (0)