Saturday, July 30, 2005

When a New Planet Swims Into His Ken

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken..."
-- Keats

Scientists (Mike Brown & colleagues at Caltech) have found a tenth planet! Bigger than Pluto!

How utterly cool is that!!

Detail seem sketchy so far. (This is apparently because the announcement was premature -- their hands were forced since someone had hacked their website and would, they feared, preempt the announcement.) They know that it's bigger than Pluto -- although they don't seem to know how much bigger. It's about three times as far out. They're describing it as a "typical member of the Kuiper belt" -- indeed, the New York Times rather grumpily suggests that the discovery of the new planet (so far simply called 2003UB313 while awaiting confirmation of its official, hopefully somewhat more euphonious, name) will simply hasten Pluto's demotion (which has been suggested in recent years). I hope not; I like Pluto as a planet, and the idea of their being a tenth planet is simply way cool.

(I found the NYT story is rather confusingly written, incidentally -- too tied up with other discoveries and not well done. (It's late at night; maybe by tomorrow they'll have cleaned it up.) Try the other links above, or here for another what-is-a-planet-anyway?-focused story.)

All I can say is that I sure hope that my favorite piece of public sculpture will be updated & expanded appropriately! (Actually, references to "nine planets" are all over the place -- I mentioned one just the other day, just for example. So a lot of things are going to need to be updated...)

The Question of Hu

I just read Jonathan Spence's historical narrative The Question of Hu. It's the story of a forty-year old Chinese man who is brought (at the last moment, and as a choice of desperation rather than a deliberate selection) by a Jesuit priest, Jean-François Foucquet, who had spent more than twenty years doing missionary work in China, along with him back to France to serve as his secretary and copyist. It didn't work out: Hu was, seemingly, mad -- and while precisely to what degree what seemed like madness was simply culture clash is one of the questions of the book, if the accounts are at all accurate (they mostly rest on Foucquet's testimony) he was certainly borderline. He was put in a madhouse for several years before eventually being freed and sent home.

Spence is a marvelous writer -- I read his Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci for a class six years ago and just loved it -- and The Question of Hu is a beautifully written book, as well as an extremely engaging narrative -- for me, at least, it grabbed me from the beginning and pulled me through it in the space of a few hours (it's a short book). But unlike The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, I felt upon finishing it that The Question of Hu was an unsatisfying narrative. Too many questions were left unanswered; I, for one, would have liked information -- or, failing that, speculation -- about them.

So I went on the web to see what other people said. Depressingly, googling "Question of Hu and Spence, or "Question of Hu and Review, brought up mostly sites trying to sell things -- copies of the book, understandably, but also a lot of sites that seemed to want to sell term papers. One feels fairly dishonest even having stumbled on such things; it's certainly depressing how readily available they seem to be. Darn it, I wanted to engage with other readers about a book I'd read and enjoyed, not cheat on my homework!

Ultimately I found two interesting reviews. One was an essay entitled "The Question of The Question of Hu," by Bruce Mazlish (full text available only on JSTOR, accessible through University libraries and the like but not for free to the public; but an abstract is here). Mazlish seemed to share my frustrations with the narrative more, saying that he is frustrated that Spence doesn't speculate more about what he thinks was really true about Hu (he reports that Spence said in a seminar that he felt it wasn't his place as a historian to do so, but I don't see what would have been the harm in (clearly labeled) speculation). Mazlish also said Spence should have done a bit more to enlighten the reader about Chinese cultural issues that might have been at work, and I'd have to agree. (I would also have liked to find out more about the eventual fate of Foucquet and his rather heretical ideas; but Spence sticks with Hu, pointing us in the direction of a biography of Foucquet if we want to know more.)

Mazlish ultimately argues that Spence's book isn't a work of history (or even a historical novel!), but something more like a (true-story) novel, since true history must be analytical. I don't think I agree -- I'd give the label 'history' to any thoroughly-sourced, accurate story -- but this seems mostly a semantic distinction, since clearly Spence hasn't written an analytical history, and if you want to limit history to that, then Mazlish's claim is pretty clearly right. -- Actually, though I suspect that it is a normative claim about what historians ought to be doing as well as a semantic claim, and there I think I disagree -- I think there's place in history for simply well-told, vivid stories that bring to life periods of the past. Certainly Spence lets us know a great deal about the texture of life in the 1720's across a wide range of space, which seems to me is not only knowledge but genuinely historical knowledge too.

The other review I found printed on dead trees, namely John Updike's review, included in his collection Odd Jobs. Updike seemed more willing than Mazlish to flatly call Hu mad (justifiably, as I said, assuming one credits Foucquet with basic accuracy, as Spence seems to) -- though Mazlish draws some nice (and apt) comparisons between certain of Hu's seeming insanities (e.g. preaching to a Parisian crowd in Chinese with no hope of being understood) and behaviors we accept from missionaries (who often do similar things). I suppose P. Z. Meyer would call them both mad; but here, I think, Foucault's claim (which Mazlish reiterates) about madness being a social judgment is precisely right. But madness is at times more than that: it is a disease of the brain, just as eczema is a disease of the skin, and there seems some evidence that Hu suffered from that. Updike is also more willing, ultimately, to accept the book simply as putting forward unanswered and probably unanswerable questions, writing:

What [Spence] has produced is, if not quite Dada history, history with postmodern texture, minimalist and enigmatic -- subtly fantastic history that in its very minutiae of research mocks our ability really to know another age or another person. We are disconcerted and charmed, rejoicing (not quite sanely) in the question of Hu as we rejoice in the face of all unanswerable but beautifully posed questions.

I don't think Updike's right about The Question of Hu being postmodernist in texture -- I think Updike means by this simply that it raises but does not answer questions, but I don't think that's sufficient for the label, which is not otherwise apt. But Updike is clearly right about the spirit in which Spence's book ought to be taken. And while I ended Spence's book with all the feeling of a cartoon character running off a cliff -- "Wait, is that it? What happened to Hu afterwards? What in the !@#$% world was going on with him anyway?" -- I think Updike has soothed me into accepting the tale simply as a mysterious story. And he is unquestionably right that whatever questions it poses are beautifully posed.

And I suspect that that is the judgment that Spence intends. One key thing in the book -- not mentioned by either Updike or Mazlish -- is the epigraph: "Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage." -- Joachim du Bellay. ("Happy he who, like Ulysses, has made a beautiful voyage.") Returning to the beginning of the book, wondering what on Earth Spence thought of Hu, we find the epigraph: Hu, like Ulysses, made a beautiful voyage. Like Ulysses, he was a captive for most of it (in his case in a mental institute, not in thrall to Calypso); but he came home alive, and even managed to finagle some money out of the Jesuits in Canton which he claimed Foucquet owed him (dubiously, from our viewpoint, although Mazlish suggests that what a contract meant to the Chinese in the early Eighteenth century might have supported him.) Hu, in the end, "... Et puis est retourné, plein d'usage et raison/ Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son âge!." So Spence has given us an answer after all! -- But to more than that. After all, it is not just Hu who made a beautiful voyage, but we the reader as well. It is a gripping tale, that takes us across the world, in thrall as we view strange places and meet strange men: for the majority of it we are its captive, as in its thrall as Ulysses was to Calypso. So Spence tells us, in the end, what he intended for us as well. And I think Updike is right: it is a voyage worth taking.

A good book, recommended, with the caveat that closure -- whether narrative or historical, analytical or biographical -- is not in the offing.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life

Over the past few years I've gotten back into comics graphic novels, and I've read fairly widely (I think) over a range of stuff -- mainstream, indie, in-between, old and new. It's been fun. (A story which I will tell in more detail another time, perhaps.)

But I haven't gotten into web comics -- with the single and important exception of those of Scott McCloud, who of course has been (eloquently and gracefully) telling us all that webcomics are The Future for some years now. But while I've followed some of his links before -- and certainly found some stuff that was beautifully drawn, and other stuff that seemed very well observed (in the social-observation, novelistic sense) -- I haven't been quite hooked on anything. Not sure why. Until recently, I might have even said that it was somehow the format, the McCloud-exception notwithstanding.

But the other day I found (via) the strip Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life -- and read the entire thing in two sittings. It's utterly charming in a lightly humorous, sweet, nihilistic sort of way, and I recommend it to one and all. (Though I will say that what hooked me was the second episode, so do read through the first two before deciding it's not to your taste. Oh, and definitely read them in order, starting with #1, not with the current episode which is at the top of the page.)

(Caveat Surftor: Nowhere Girl (linked to above) isn't showing up for me in Safari, but it appears fine in Firefox. And the Three Kingdoms Webcomic that the Sinosplice post linked to above recommends is down at the moment, alas.)

Update: The Three Kingdoms Webcomic is now back up. And now it has moved to a new link here: Three Kingdoms Webcomic.

Why Do They Hate Us?

No, my title is not a reference to the oft-asked question of why do "they" (various definitions) hate us (US); it's the question that the DLC might ask itself about -- what can I call them that will sound neutral? I'm not sure there's anything, and of course I am quite frankly not neutral, but let it be said that I mean this description in the most neutral way possible -- progressive democrats, in particular the progressive internet community (the netroots, as they are somewhat optimistically called). If the DLC really wants to mend fences and win elections, then they might ask themselves: why so much venom in our direction? Sure, we disagree -- but why not more civilly?

Y'see, there's an ongoing netwar between the DLC and progressive bloggers. And on the progressive side, there's been a lot of bile. So perhaps the DLC is asking where it's coming from.

As I said, there's a flamewar on, and I don't have the patience, frankly, to chart all of the ins and outs of it. But the DLC attacked progressive democrats, to which various big-name liberal bloggers have responded, such as Atrios, Billmon, Digby, David Sirota, and lots of others. Meanwhile, Ed Kilgore (the "Vice President for Policy" of the DLC according to his bio) had a post over in Josh Marshall's place, responding to the idea that the DLC was attacking Kos... without mentioning the afforelinked attack on progressives. This struck me as technically dishonest and deeply misleading in a way that one would expect from, say, a right-wing columnist (I was going to say "Bush administration official" but they just flat-out lie), but which one wouldn't want to hear from a supposedly progressive voice. Even if the new article wasn't the inspiration for the original anti-DLC post, surely it is a relevant issue that needs to be addressed?

But, but, but, one wants to be fair. And as powerful as I found the arguments of the many progressive bloggers on this point, I was curious about Kilgore's real response. I wanted to be fair, hear both sides. After all, on some level, I agree with those who want to make peace. So I kept going over to TPM Cafe, and seeing if he'd posted again... but Nada. So finally I went over to his personal blog,, to see if he addressed the issue there. And here's what he wrote:

As some of you may have heard, there's a big assault underway on the DLC in certain precincts of the blogosphere. And here's my response: Whatever, Nothingburger, De Nada, Yawn, Zen Zen, and above all, Who Cares?

... So I was wrong: the DLC isn't asking Why do they hate us? They just don't give a shit. And the people they don't give a shit about are people like Kos and Chris Bowers and Atrios and others who are working extremely hard to try and breathe some life into the dying jellyfish we call the opposition party in this country. People who, even if you disagree with them, have clearly earned the respect of an articulated disagreement. But Ed Kilgore doesn't care. Yawn. Zen zen.

David Sirota
's making more sense every day....

(On the main issue, others have covered this well I think, but to summarize (no links because I forget where precisely I've read this, but these ideas are floating around out there): the main progressive beefs with the DLC are 1) that they repeat Republican talking points, giving them bipartisan cover; 2) that their candidates vote for Republican bills, or watered-down versions thereof, thereby giving them partisan cover and -- far worse -- adding obscurity rather than clarity to the whole 'what-do-Democrats-stand-for' issue; 3) that (as an extension of point 2) they and their candidates try to compromise on issues the Republicans raise (e.g. social security) rather than simply doing what the right wing always does in these circumstances, namely oppose them flat-out; 4) that they promote compromise, and their candidates vote compromise, even when unnecessary for practical political purposes; and 5) that they do all this and still loose all the time, so we're not even getting any political bang for our compromise buck. Of course we disagree on lots of issues (Iraq) and strategies (centrism), but we could do this in a civil manner if they didn't consistently disagree with the left in such a way as to actively help the right. On this point, let me just say that my earlier post about Sincerity applies, it seems to me, largely to DLC-backed candidates, thinkers and strategies.

And if this is wrong, then, Ed Kilgore, please let me know why. But if you simply Yawn and say Who Cares, then I have to admit, that the arguments against you are looking quite sharp in their one-person show.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Plausible Deniability

Did I say I'd be back in mid-July? No, I said "'round bout the middle of July". Obviously July 20 qualifies. And, true, I'm not really back yet -- it'll be a few more days. But then again, I posted this, didn't I? Like Dear Leader, I am a man of my (technical) word...

Besides, it's not like much has happened right? Well, there was the horrific bombing in London. And lots of horrific bombings in Iraq. And in domestic politics, O'Connor faded to Rove, who trumped with Roberts. But, y'know, apart from all that...

Okay. Snark aside, I'd love to have my say on recent events, but the Time of Intense Busyness has yet to abate. So I will simply direct you elsewhere. Not having time to do a proper link-hunt, I'll just use this as an opportunity to point out that Billmon is the best political writer in the country today (not just blogger -- political writer). The only times during which he hasn't been my favorite bloggger are those occasions when he's taken a long vacation from blogging. When he's in his grove -- as he has been recently -- he's the best there is.

So I give you Billmon on the Supreme Court nomination: on the timing of Bush's announcement, on Roberts, and on the Liberal reaction to him.

There's also Billmon's obituary by quote of General Westmoreland, Billmon taking on the New York Times, Billmon in a humorous mood, and Billmon on patriotism (from July 4).

All this is apart from some of the best Rove/Plame coverage and analysis on the web. For that, just go to his main site and click down -- until the recent shift to Roberts, it's been quite steady. (From the MSM, the best commentary, unsurprisingly, has been from Krugman and Frank Rich.)

And I'll be back with more to say in a few days. Or a week at most. Honest.