Posted by Ed
Some links for you:
Posted by Ed
Here's something I did not know: Theo Epstein, the general manager of the Boston Red Sox, is the grandson of Philip G. Epstein and the great-nephew of Julius J. Epstein, two of the screenwriters of Casablanca. I find that oddly intriguing. (Here's an American Prospectarticle on the Epstein twins, written by Leslie Epstein--Theo's dad--and published while I worked at the magazine.)
It's almost become a cliche to ask how Red Sox fans will react to their new-found success, given that the franchise's identity has been based on a long history of futility. Leslie Epstein touched on this question in The New York Times yesterday:
"They're going to be heartbroken at not being heartbroken," said Mr. Epstein, a novelist who is chairman of the creative writing department at Boston University. "It's not just a joke. That's what's made us unique. We were the Boston Red Sox that never could win."
Mr. Epstein, who has lived for 26 years in the Red Sox Nation, pointed out that A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former baseball commissioner and avid Red Sox fan, once said that Fenway Park was the place to understand Calvinism in America, to learn that people sometimes fail and that failure can build character.
"There's a crack in Calvinism now," Mr. Epstein said. "Now, we're going to have to find something else. Maybe Bostonians will be secretly wishing for a Kerry loss so they can wail about that."
(If there are any Red Sox fans "secretly wishing for a Kerry loss," by the way, then they may be in luck: I have the sinking feeling that the Democrats just lost the election. Update: actually, I don't feel quite as bad about what this foretells about the election as I did when I first wrote this entry. After seeing one sensationalistic CNN story about how bin Laden mocked Bush and about how Kerry was now on the defensive, I got kind of depressed about the election. [And CNN is supposedly pro-Kerry!] Most of the news coverage I've seen since then has been far more mild, which makes me optimistic that the tape won't make much difference either way. Leaving partisan calculations aside, that's exactly the way things should be.)
Posted by Ed
I've had an extremely busy weekend (which involved seeing both my co-bloggers for the first time in quite a while), and it will be a few days before I'm back in the swing of writing substantive blog posts. For now, though, here are two articles on history from today's Boston Globe. In the first, from the ideas section, Matthew Price discusses a new book on plagiarism and historiography by Peter Charles Hoffer:
American history," [Hoffer] writes, "is two-faced" -- split between celebratory popularizers who often value rousing narrative over scholarly rigor and academic specialists whose jargon-riddled, often dour monographs ignore the ordinary reader. Meanwhile, Hoffer accuses the American Historical Association (AHA), where he has served as an adviser on plagiarism and a member of its professional standards division, of abdicating its responsibility to enforce basic scholarly principles in both realms.
Posted by Ed
You can also search for any given word or phrase. Entering the phrase "was not averse to… ", I came up with the following non-aversions: "…hard liquor" (James Hutton, the geologist); "…wealth and privilege" (Graham Greene); "…orating" (Sir Roy Harrod); " . . . manipulating the truth to suit his purposes" (Ailred of Rievaulx); "…war on principle" (Richard II); "…house building" (William Higgs, a building contractor - well, he wouldn't have been, would he?); and "…making critical comments on his parishioners when recording their burials" (The Rev. Francis Bunny).
One of the grander set-pieces here is the life of Harold Wilson by Roy Jenkins, which includes such gems as "the sweep of his mind was narrow and unadventurous"; "he loved talking about railway timetables", and (this is pure Jenkins) "just as Lytton Strachey wrote that there was a lobster salad side to Cardinal Wiseman, so there was a Walter Mitty side to Harold Wilson".
Posted by Ed
As I write this post, the Red Sox are leading the Yankees 9-3 in the top of the ninth inning in the deciding game of the American League championship. Given their long and storied history of losing, I wouldn't be surprised in the least if the Red Sox still find a way to blow the game, but their odds look pretty good. If I'm not mistaken, Houston will play St. Louis for the other spot in the World Series in a day or two.
This opens up an interesting possibility: if Houston and Boston both make the World Series, then this might well be the first year in which the two main contenders for president come from the home states of the top two teams in baseball. If so, then we could be in for a lot of really annoying news stories comparing the worlds of politics and sports... (For that matter, I'm already getting tired of all the Boston/Kerry comparisons here in the Boston press.) The political consequences of the World Series will probably be trivial whatever happens, but this could just make an annoying campaign season even more unbearable.
[More substantive posts to come, but it's going to be a busy week for me.]
Posted by Ed
Today's Boston Globe ideas section features a nifty little article on the last serious attempt to abolish the Electoral College. Back in 1969, the House of Representatives passed a Constitutional Amendment to abolish the college, but the amendment was killed by conservative Southerners in the Senate. I had no idea that electoral college reform had been considered so seriously that recently in our country's history.
According to the conventional wisdom, the Electoral College is here to stay, since small states will never give up the political clout they're given by the current system. (This year, South Dakota has one electoral vote for every 230,000 people, but each New York elector represents half a million people.) The Globe article, however, suggests that if the political circumstances were right, small states would support electoral reform: when the issue came before the upper house of Congress thirty years ago, for example, Senators from the 26 smallest states split evenly on whether to abolish the Electoral College.
On one level, the Globe is presumably right--should the stars align just right, even small states would be willing to abandon their parochial interests and support a more rational electoral system. I can't really imagine this happening any time in the near future, however. If the people of a small state supported the presidential candidate that won the popular vote and lost the electoral vote, then their representatives in Congress might support reform--but in these politically polarized times, can anyone imagine Republican senators from Wyoming and Montana endorsing a Democratic proposal for a popular vote? Even if this year's election resulted in the opposite of the 2000 vote--and Bush won the popular vote but lost the electoral college--I can't imagine a bipartisan coalition endorsing reform. That's a shame, since even the most compelling argument to keep the current system are extremely unconvincing.
Posted by Ed
Terry Jones, as most of my readers probably realize, is best known as a former member of Monty Python. But he also likes to think of himself as a (fairly) serious historian and has written a book called Who Murdered Chaucer? Today's Independent describes a recent presentation by Jones at a book festival:
The former Monty Python member is convinced that Chaucer was murdered by person or persons unknown, and set about persuading his audience with the most energetic performance of the week so far. It had pictures, it had detective work, it had silly voices and it had Jones leaping about the stage pretending to be a trampolining 14th-century violinist. If Jones had told us that Chaucer was a nun who had been spirited away by aliens, we would have been inclined to believe him.
"For years I've been harbouring these dark suppositions about Chaucer's demise," he confessed. "He just disappeared from the record in about 1400, which is odd because he wasn't a nobody. He was the clerk of the king's works, a friend of John of Gaunt and an inspector of drains and ditches." He was also supported by the "artsy fartsy" Richard II, who was allegedly done away with by Henry IV - an argument that formed the basis of Jones's presentation.
Which leads to an obvious question: does Jones know what he's talking about? A year ago, on my old blog, I quoted from a Times Literary Supplement article (no longer available online) which discusses Jones's Chaucer book. It sounds like a mixed bag:
Stylistically, Jones's enthusiasm can at times be less infectious than wearying. Exclamation marks cap too many sentences, and in the course of three pages, John Wyclif is called the "Demon Doctor of Divinity", "The Evil Rector of Lutterworth" and "the Dreadful Doctor". In places, Jones lapses into Pythonism: "One can almost hear Philippa Chaucer scolding her husband: 'You come back from work! You sit down in front of yet another book! Dumb as any stone! What do I get? Eh? Geoffrey! Are you listening?'". And does any reader really need to be informed that "leisure time" in medieval England "didn't mean surf-boarding and D-I-Y"?
Light-hearted, intelligent, panoramic and defiantly unbeholden to conventional interpretations, the new book is based on an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, though this time Jones has been aided by four scholars who "produced individual essays, which I then worked into a whole". There is a particularly interesting chapter on how the Ellesmere's illustrations were "censored" for political reasons. Although his claim that the figure of the Knight is based on the original Agnolo Gaddi–Juliano Arrighi memorial to Sir John Hawkwood (a portrayal later reproduced in the Duomo in Florence by Uccello) is not altogether convincing, Jones's dissection of the Monk and the Friar is more persuasive.
Update: The Telegraph published a review of Who Murdered Chaucer? last November. Its reviewer, a medieval lit specialist, writes that it's full of "valuable matierial and intriguing speculation," but calls several of its conclusions into question.
Posted by Ed
I'm feeling too sleepy to finish writing my review of I Heart Huckabees or my rant about historians who get overly speculative in their writing. Instead, here are some links:
Posted by Ed
Back in March, I wrote a blog entry discussing recent research on the number of descendants of Genghis Khan who still walk the earth today; the entry also touched on the question of just how far back we need to go in history to find the first common ancestor of everyone alive today.
At The Loom, Carl Zimmer has written two entries on the subject. (The first is the more detailed and interesting.) Here's an excerpt:
It turns out that those awkward cousins are what keeps our family tree--along with everyone else's--from exploding into exponential absurdity. Go back far enough, and all the branches on your family converge on common ancestors. Go back further, and all family trees meet. How far back you have to go is the subject of a report in today's issue of Nature. The researchers put together a statistical model of today's population and worked their way back. To give the model some historical realism, they didn't let their virtual people randomly join together to have kids. Instead, they included some geographical structure. People in Indonesia, for example, have historically had children with other Indonesians. But they've also had a small amount of interchange with people in other regions--even with people as far away as Madagascar, which some Indonesians colonized 1600 years ago. (Douglas Rohde, the lead author, has posted a draft manuscript of a longer paper on this work on his MIT web site.)
Once the model was ready, Rohde and his colleagues used it to go back in time, in order to find a common ancestor of all living humans. They estimate that that person lived just 2,300 years ago. Of course, this doesn't mean that this person gave rise to all humans single-handedly. All it means is that, by one route or another, all family trees lead back to him or her. Those trees may belong to Australian aborigines, Arctic Inuits, or the residents of Easter Island.
Go back 5,000 years (160 generations) and things even weirder. According to the model, 80% of all people alive at the time are ancestors of every living person.
One of these days I'll have the chance to read the Nature article or Rohde's longer draft manuscript. Until then, here's another short summary of the research from news@nature.
Posted by Ed
The Guardian has published a brief profile of Philip Pullman, the English author of a fantastic series of children's fantasy novels. It begins by referring to his new book, a retelling of the story of Aladdin; that book may or may not be worth checking out (I've had a mixed reaction to the few Pullman books I've read that weren't part of the His Dark Materials series), but the way I look at it, most any article drawing attention to Pullman is worth pointing out.
Posted by Ed
I don't have anything to say about the death of Jacques Derrida that hasn't already been said by someone who knows his work much better than I do. Until a few minutes ago, I therefore wasn't planning to write anything about him at all. But then I came across an anecdote in this BBC obituary that I just had to share:
He was so influential that last year a film was made about his life - a biographical documentary.
At one point, wandering through Derrida's library, one of the filmmakers asks him: "Have you read all the books in here?"
"No," he replies impishly, "only four of them. But I read those very, very carefully".
Scott McLemee has written a Derrida obituary for The Chronicle of Higher Education. (It actually deals with its subject's ideas, which is a rarity in an obituary these days!)
Posted by Ed
I haven't had much time to update during my visit to Chicago, but here are a few links:
Update: Richard Posner, it seems, has made his Sherlock Holmes article available online. It's a charming read, and you should check it out.
Posted by Ed
I'm leaving town for the weekend tomorrow, and I'm rushing to get as much done as I can before I go, but here's an interesting link: this article in the Columbia Journalism Review argues that "The boundaries between historians and journalists are crashing" and that "It’s getting harder and harder these days to tell the difference between books of history and books of journalism."
I'm not sure I completely buy the article's argument: there have always been plenty of journalists writing about history, and there always will be. (Perhaps the article would have been more historically informed if it had been written by a historian and not a journalist...) Moreover, as Arthur Schlesinger could tell you, plenty of historians in the past wrote about events before passions had cooled. But there are still some interesting issues here--both in the publishing field and in the writing of history. Maybe I'll write a longer reaction to this article when I've had the chance to give it more than a quick skim.
Update: And while I'm at it, here's another link: to a nice New Republic article by Jonathan Chait attacking the idea that John Kerry flip-flops more than other politicians do.
Posted by Ed
Slate has published an amusing article about how medieval-themed restaurants perpetuate myths about the food of the Middle Ages. It's worth a look.
Posted by Ed
The stupid headline of the day comes from yesterday's Guardian: "Troubled Germans turn to Lord of the Rings."
Stupid lead paragraph of the day: "An insight into the current German psyche has been revealed in the country's largest ever poll of favourite books. "
The poll, you see, ranked The Lord of the Rings as Germany's favorite book--one place above the Bible. Rather than come to the obvious conclusion (Germans like good stories), The Guardian decided to search for deep psychological reasons behind the poll result. One expert quoted by the article acribed the results of the poll to a "current air of pessimism" caused by "the deteriorating economic situation." (By this theory, the Germans are now obsessed with escapist fantasy.) Maybe that's true, but I suspect that Tolkien's books would be near the top of any German poll in any year, and the recent success of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies was presumably more influential than the current economic situation.
Another finding of the poll was more interesting:
The results of Das Grosse Lesen shed light on a country which preferred to embrace international publications.
"One of the problems with the Germans is that they are not proud of their traditions and culture. They reject their own writers and turn to international bestsellers which are promoted by the media," said Prof Lienert.
Posted by Ed
Those of you who've seen occasional references to "quizbowl" on this blog and wondered what that word meant might be interested in this Washington Post article on the game. (The three of us are all present or former members of the University of Chicago quizbowl team, and so we know the subject quite well.)
The article's generally pretty good. It has its share of oddities (I've never heard of a 100-question round, for instance), and it focuses far too much on former quizbowlers who've gone on game shows. (That's a good way to draw readers in, but it's really a peripheral side of the game.) Parts of the article, moreover, seem a bit bizarre:
"Certainly there is a segment of the community dismayed by game shows and the questions they ask and that Ken Jennings or Kevin Olmstead, whom they don't perceive as the best quiz bowlers or the most knowledgeable, are rewarded so much," Hentzel said. "It's like authors of serious fiction looking at J.K. Rowling and saying, this isn't fair, these aren't great books, yet she's richer than the Queen of England."
You have to be an active quizbowler to notice most of my criticisms, though--and, for the record, I speak as someone who's more-or-less quit writing for NAQT because of doubts about its philosophy and its commitment to question quality. You might want to check out this earlier New York Times article if you're interested in the subject: it has more glaring errors than the Post did, but was also more effective in giving readers a feel for what the game is like.
Posted by Matt
On Monday we had a physics colloquium by Daniel Kleppner of MIT, on the subject "Can A Boost-Phase Intercept System Assist Missile Defense?". He was summarizing the results of the American Physical Society's Study Group on Boost-Phase Intercept Systems for National Missile Defense. You can find their results here. Let me briefly summarize.
The main approach to missile defense has been to aim for the ICBM in the 20-minute phase where it is at cruising altitude. One of the major difficulties here is that, beyond the difficulty of hitting the missile in the first place, any number of fairly simple countermeasures could make the task far more difficult.
Lately there has been talk of "boost-phase intercept," that is, hitting the ICBM in the phase where a booster rocket is accelerating it. The time scale for this acceleration is four minutes for liquid-fuel rockets and as short as two minutes for solid-fuel ones. This means that one must make a very quick decision after the missile launch to shoot it down. Then one must be able to hit it as it accelerates. The APS study found that this might be possible but will require a very large "kill vehicle," which then requires a very large rocket to launch and accelerate to the speeds that you need. The upshot of this is that it is not feasible to launch very many interceptors, and that one must be very close to the launch site of the ICBM you're targeting to hit it in time. For North Korea this would mean essentially placing the interceptor launch site in their waters; for Iran it would mean placing launch sites in places like Turkmenistan or Afghanistan where one wouldn't be able to rely on agreement from their government. There are numerous difficulties and the APS study determined that this type of missile defense is not feasible. Look over the report, it's interesting.
Another issue is that even if you hit the missile in its boost phase, this will probably not destroy it but simply cause it to fall short of its target. For an Iranian missile this could mean that it would land in western Europe. The chances of such a shot-down missile landing in an area nearly as populated as the one it was aimed for are slim, but this is still something to think about. Also, due to the quick decision required there's some chance you would choose to shoot down something like a satellite launch, which would make people very unhappy with you.
The reason this seems particularly worth pointing out is that, in the first Bush-Kerry debate (near the end), Kerry cited nuclear proliferation as the biggest threat to US national security, and Bush similarly cited "weapons of mass destruction." An excerpt:
Mr. Lehrer Just for this one-minute discussion here, is it - just for whatever seconds it takes: so it's correct to say that if somebody's listening to this, that both of you agree - if you're re-elected, Mr. President, and if you are elected, the single most serious threat you believe - both of you believe is nuclear proliferation.
Mr. Bush I do - in the hands of a terrorist enemy.
Mr. Kerry Weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation. But again, the test of the difference between us: the president's had four years to try to do something about it. And North Korea's got more weapons. Iran is moving toward weapons. And at his pace it'll take 13 years to secure those weapons in Russia.
First, note that Bush said he is mostly concerned about nuclear proliferation in the hands of a terrorist. The boost-phase missile defense system could only be effective, even in principle, against North Korea and Iran (and realistically, probably not against either). The earlier missile defense schemes just don't seem to work. Yet we are spending vast amounts of money on this, and even deploying (or beginning to) a system that just won't work.
On the other hand, as Kerry points out, efforts to control nuclear proliferation in general -- and in particular, securing material in Russia -- are very slow. Here's a link summarizing various proposals for securing nuclear material.
The bottom line is that the cost of the Bush administration's missile defense scheme will be around $1 trillion. On the other hand the current non-proliferation spending is on the order of $2 billion per year (read more here and here). In short, the current administration's plan calls for spending on the order of tens of billions over the next 10 years on controlling nuclear material -- the sort that could fall into the hands of the terrorists Bush sees as the biggest threat to the U.S. -- while spending on the order of 100 times as much (one trillion dollars) on a missile defense system that experts are convinced won't work, and a large part of which could only be effective against a threat from North Korea or Iran. Whether such threats are even realistic is another issue, but even assuming they were, this is nonsensical.
In light of Bush's statement in the debate this seems like a good thing to call him on, and I hope this comes up more in the future debates.
Posted by Ed
Here are some links that have caught my attention this week:
In America he was praised for his "fluent, graceful, prose style". In Britain, he was sometimes criticised for his use of self-consciously "hip" language, his penchant for imposing rigid patterns on intractable material and his often cavalier way with evidence.
His book about the Black Death, In the Wake of the Plague (2001), dismissed Chaucer as a "wise guy poet"; it described Henry Plantagenet was a "19-year-old stud" and Edward III's daughter, Princess Joan, as a "top-drawer white girl
Asked by a journalist from The Sunday Telegraph whether he was embittered, Cantor displayed even less liking for British journalists than for British academics. "I'm never going to be out of a job," he stormed. "I am one of the highest paid professors in America. Here's a scoop for you: I earn $101,000 a year. Print that in your Sunday Telegraph."