Friday, December 31, 2010

A Final Quote for 2010

The pathos of death is this, that when the days of one's life are ended, those days that were so crowded with business and felt so heavy in their passing, what remains of one in memory should usually be so slight a thing. The phantom of an attitude, the echo of a certain mode of thought, a few pages of print, some invention, or some victory we gained in a brief critical hour, are all that can survive the best of us. It is as if the whole of a man's significance had now shrunk into... a mere musical note or phrase suggestive of his singularity.

-- William James, 1903
So it is cited for an epigraph to Bruce Kuklick's seminal work The Rise of American Philosophy: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1860 - 1930 (1977). But tracking down the original source for this blog posting, I found it slightly but significantly different. The phrase omitted by the ellipsis ("the phantom of an attitude, into") does not seem to materially change the thought -- presumably it was omitted simply because it was felt that the repetition of the phrase "the phantom of an attitude" was an aesthetic gaff. On the other hand that final period (after "singularity") which Kuklick puts in, James does not: and it seems to me that the full paragraph is actually far more upbeat than how Kuklick, somewhat misleadingly, quotes it. Here is the full paragraph from James -- which is the opening paragraph from his "Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord":
The pathos of death is this, that when the days of one's life are ended, those days that were so crowded with business and felt so heavy in their passing, what remains of one in memory should usually be so slight a thing. The phantom of an attitude, the echo of a certain mode of thought, a few pages of print, some invention, or some victory we gained in a brief critical hour, are all that can survive the best of us. It is as if the whole of a man's significance had now shrunk into the phantom of an attitude, into a mere musical note or phrase suggestive of his singularity — happy are those whose singularity gives a note so clear as to be victorious over the inevitable pity of such a diminution and abridgement.
As Kuklick elides it, the paragraph is wholly dark; but James (thinking, of course, of Emerson) adds a possibility of hope -- that one might possess a "singularity" which would enable one to "be victorious over the inevitable pity of such a diminution and abridgement." And James returns to this uplifting interpretation; he closes by recurring again to his opening metaphor:
I spoke of how shrunken the wraith, how thin the echo, of men is after they are departed? Emerson's wraith comes to me now as if it were but the very voice of this victorious argument. His words to this effect are certain to be quoted and extracted more and more as time goes on, and to take their place among the Scriptures of humanity. "'Gainst death and all oblivious enmity, shall you pace forth," beloved Master. As long as our English language lasts men's hearts will be cheered and their souls strengthened and liberated by the noble and musical pages with which you have enriched it.
Again, James's text seems to me quite different in spirit than that which one gleans from Kuklick's epigraphal quoting of him.

As a temperamentally pessimistic fellow, I must admit I prefer the Kuklick version to James's original. But I think it's a bit surprising that he would, without any acknowledgement of doing so, edit the paragraph in so substance-altering a fashion.

Happy new year to one and all.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Zeynep Tufekci on Wikileaks, the "Tax on DIssent" and the Internet as Privatized Public Space

Via the same Zunguzungu link roundup I got yesterday's quote from, here is Zeynep Tufekci on the lesson of L'affaire Wikileaks:
...the main lessons of the Wikileaks affair: the increasing control of (relatively) unaccountable corporations and states over the key components of the Internet, and their increased willingness to use this control in politicized ways to impose a "dissent tax" on content they find objectionable. Ability to disseminate one's ideas on the Internet is now a sine qua non of inclusion in the global public sphere. However, the Internet is not a true public sphere; it is a public sphere erected on private property, what I have dubbed a "quasi-public sphere," where the property owners can sideline and constrain dissent....

During these past weeks, rather than a nerd takeover, I saw the crumbling of the facade of a flat, equal, open Internet and the revelation of an Internet which has corporate power occupying its key crossroads, ever-so-sensitive to any whiff of displeasure by the state. I saw an Internet in danger of becoming merely an interactive version of the television in terms of effective freedom of speech. Remember, the Internet did not create freedom of speech; in theory, we always had freedom of speech--it's just that it often went along with the freedom to be ignored. People had no access to the infrastructure to be heard. Until the Internet, the right to be heard was in most cases reserved to the governments, deep pockets, and corporate media. Before the Internet, trees fell in lonely forests.

The Wikileaks furor shows us that these institutions of power are slowly and surely taking control of the key junctures of the Internet. As a mere "quasi-public sphere," the Internet is somewhat akin to shopping malls, which seem like public spaces but in which the rights of citizens are restricted, as they are in fact private. If you think the freedom of the Internet could never be taken back, I implore you to read the history of radio. Technologies that start out as peer-to-peer and citizen-driven can be and have been taken over by corporate and state power.
And then, via one of the links in the very excerpt reprinted above, here is Zeynep Tufekci with more about the internet as a public sphere on private property, and the limits that entails:
The answer cannot be: well, people who are unhappy shouldn’t use those services. Presence on the Internet is effectively a requirement for fully and effectively participating in the 21st century as a citizen, as a consumer, as an informed person and as a social being. Further, many such services are natural monopolies: Google, Ebay, Facebook, Amazon, all benefit greatly from network externalities which means that the more people on the service, the more useful it is for everyone. This makes it very hard for a market leader to be challenged. (Wikipedia is also such a natural monopoly but it is not corporate controlled).

Facebook or Google are optional in the sense that electricity, telephone, modern medicine are optional. Don’t like the medical establishment? Don’t use antibiotics! Don’t like how deregulated electricity markets are run? Well, don’t use electricity! Hey, solar panels are available. Telling people to opt-out of major streams of sociality, information and markets on the Internet makes almost as much sense. While I’ll readily concede the urgency of antibiotics differs from the urgency of social interaction, sociality is a fundamental part of being. It is not optional. It is not a coincidence that solitary confinement is the most severe legal punishment –short of the death penalty—that is legally imposed on people.

The next argument is: well, use an alternative service! That too is as valid as telling people to use a different cable company or an electric utility if they don’t like the current one. In most markets, there is only one or two such utilities, and for good reason. The investment in laying cables and connecting doors is large enough that most markets cannot support multiple, truly alternative services. Similarly, especially in the lives of young people, Facebook acts like a phone directory used to and opting out of Facebook during college would significantly constrain social options for many. Facebook has become de facto social commons, especially in college but now has spread to other cohorts. It takes effort to maintain a profile and people are unlikely to duplicate that effort in multiple services the same way multiple electric companies don’t put down parallel cables to each neighbor to compete with each other. Google is such an environment for searching and for many people who do not have an institutionally-supplied email account they can freely use for personal matters, Gmail makes a lot of sense.
Both articles flesh out the ideas these excerpts are from; click through if the quoted bits interest you.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Fabulous Paragraph from a Bruce Sterling Essay Mostly About Something Else Entirely

As a novelist, I never think of Monica Lewinsky, that once-everyday young woman, without a sense of dread at the freakish, occult fate that overtook her. Imagine what it must be like, to wake up being her, to face the inevitability of being That Woman. Monica, too, transgressed in apparent safety and then she had the utter foolishness to brag to a lethal enemy, a trusted confidante who ran a tape machine and who brought her a mediated circus of hells. The titillation of that massive, shattering scandal has faded now. But think of the quotidian daily horror of being Monica Lewinsky, and that should take a bite from the soul.

-- Bruce Sterling
...the rest of the essay is fascinating too, and filled with equally quotable bits; its about L'affaire Wikileaks. Check it out. (Via, who adds their own thoughts too, as well as other links.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On Grading: From Ursula K. LeGuin's Novel The Dispossesed

I read The Dispossessed in high school, and loved it, but I don't think I've read it since. (And that, by now, is a very very long time.) But Gerry Canavan reminded me of this moment of the novel, in which Shevek, (the protagonist, who is a physicist), who is from an Anarchist society, goes to a US-style university and encounters the grading system:
He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand. At first he refused to give any tests or grades, but this upset the University administrators so badly that, not wishing to be discourteous to his hosts, he gave in. He asked his students to write a paper on any problem in physics that interested them, and told them that he would give them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists. To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain. They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions; they did not want to think about questions, but to write down the answers they had learned. And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark. How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing.

Well, of course, Shevek said, troubled. If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it.

-- Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed
Michael Widner adds a few thoughts here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Joseph Saperstein Frug!

...but if you're reading this, stop: you're still too young to read the internet!!

(I don't care if Ima did say that 2 was old enough. But, by the by, I'm fairly sure she didn't.)

(Photo by John Henry Stassen)

(Disclaimer: the above photo is from Thanksgiving, back when he was still 1 and not all old and stuff as he now, at 2, clearly is...)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Quote of the Day

While we can continue to abhor the system of human bondage that flourished in the Old South, there is much we can learn from a more dispassionate examination of the arguments used to defend it. We have sought to distance the slaveholders and their creed, to define them as very unlike ourselves. Yet their processes of rationalization and self-justification were not so very different from our own, or from those of any civilization of human actors. The persistence of modern racism is but one forceful reminder of the ways that human beings always view the world in terms of inherited systems of belief and explanation that only partially reflect the reality they are meant to describe. By understanding how others have fashioned and maintained their systems of meaning, we shall be better equipped to evaluate, criticize and perhaps even change our own.

-- Drew Gilpin Faust
...from the amazing blog of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who continues to write what I think is some of the best popular history being written today in any medium.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Few Sentences On the Notion of Smaller Government

Progressives think government is too big and therefore want to reduce secrecy and prevent the president from imprisoning and assassinating American citizens without due process; Tea Partiers think government is too big and therefore want to prevent universal health care. Progressives think the national deficit and debt are out of control and therefore want to shrink the military; Tea Partiers think the national deficit and debt are out of control and therefore want to eliminate social security.

-- Barry Eisler
...which is why I don't take limited government rhetoric the least bit seriously: it's simply too empty a phrase, meaning too many different things to too many different people. Like the (probably even sillier) rhetoric of "states' rights", its value or lack thereof is entirely in the specific case, not in the abstract virtue. Better to simply talk about what you're talking about, and not prattle on about almost entirely empty forms.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Purple Cow and Its Parodies

Saying nursery rhymes to my son recently I happened to quote the famous poem by... well, I had to look up his name: it's Galett Burgess. And as is so common I omitted the first two lines of this six-line poem -- it's usually, but erroneously, treated as a four-line poem. Anyway, here it is, in its majestic entirety:
The Purple Cow

Reflections on a Mythic Beast,
Who's Quite Remarkable, at Least

I never Saw a Purple Cow;
I never Hope to See One;
But I can Tell you, Anyhow,
I'd rather See than Be One.

-- Gelett Burgess

And Wikipedia (bless it) has an image of its original appearance:

...which, you'll note, also leaves off the opening two lines (which definitely are in some versions, e.g. here); so I suppose there's a reason for the common, truncated form of the quotation.

But I've always liked even better the sequel that Burgess wrote -- twenty years after, if the title is to believed. Wikipedia claims that the sequel is "almost as well-known as the original"; in my experience that's not true, although I think it ought to be true: one of several motivations for this little post on the topic. Anyway, the sequel goes like this:
Cinq Ans Apres

(Confession: and a Portrait, Too,
Upon a Background that I Rue!

Ah, yes! I wrote the "Purple Cow"--
I'm Sorry, now, I Wrote it!
But I can Tell you, Anyhow,
I'll Kill you if you Quote it!

-- Gelett Burgess
It's a good thing I'll never meet the late Mr. Burgess, as he'd have killed me many dozens of times over.

Burgess's poem has inspired numerous parodies -- Wikipedia quotes several, although I'm certain there's more. (For none of the parodies do they quote opening lines to parallel the opening lines of "The Purple Cow"; whether this is an omission by the quoter or the author I don't know.) This is one of the most famous (and justly so), after Burgess's own sequel:
I've never seen a purple cow.
My eyes with tears are full.
I've never seen a purple cow,
And I'm a purple bull.

-- Anonymous
(If Martin Gardner couldn't find an author for that one, I suspect it can't be found.)

That one I'd seen before -- in the Gardner collection, I think. This one, however, is new to me -- and, I think, almost as funny:
I never was a vitamin;
I never hope to be one;
but I can tell you anyhow;
I'd rather C than B1!

-- Tom Montgomery
And I also like:
I've never seen a purple cow.
I never hope to see one.
But from the milk we're getting now,
There certainly must be one!

-- Ye Old Prolific Author Anonymous

Oddly, I don't particularly care for the ones by famous writers that are quoted either by Wikipedia (Ogden Nash) nor by Gardner (O. Henry). Not as good as the unknowns and anonymouses, in this case.

And, of course, with all that Purple Cowy Goodness sloshing around in my brain, it was perhaps only a matter of time until I got into the game. So I herewith present a World! Exclusive! Premiere! of Yet Another Parody of "The Purple Cow", by yours truly:
The Purple Postmodernist

Reflections, in a meta way,
On how I'm saying what I now say.

I never pastiched "A Purple Cow",
I'd never hoped to do it;
But reading what I'm writing now
I'm very nearly through it.

-- Stephen Saperstein Frug
And I wish to note for the record that, even an hour before I wrote this, the claim in the antepenultimate line was perfectly true.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Searle on (Foucault on) Derrida

John Searle, in an interview with Reason Magazine*:
With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so," he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that's not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part." And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.

Foucault was often lumped with Derrida. That's very unfair to Foucault. He was a different caliber of thinker altogether.
I'm not entirely sure how reliable or accurate this is, but I thought it was interesting, and kinda funny.

For a direct attack by Searle on Derrida, see this review by Searle of Culler's On Deconstruction here. (That link goes to a reprint; the original publication is behind a paywall.) This is presumably the article mentioned in the above quote, since Searle does, in fact, quote Foucault on this point within it. Here's a bit of it that I found interesting (at least in part because it is consonant with other reactions to skepticism I've read and found interesting):
I believe that Derrida's work, at least those portions I have read, is not just a series of muddles and gimmicks. There is in fact a large issue being addressed and a large mistake being made. The philosophical tradition that goes from Descartes to Husserl, and indeed a large part of the philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato, involves a search for foundations: metaphysically certain foundations of knowledge, foundations of language and meaning, foundations of mathematics, foundations of morality, etc.... Now, in the twentieth century, mostly under the influence of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, we have come to believe that this general search for these sorts of foundations is misguided. There aren't in the way classical metaphysicians supposed any foundations for ethics or knowledge.... Derrida correctly sees that there aren't any such foundations, but he then makes the mistake that marks him as a classical metaphysician. The real mistake of the classical metaphysician was not the belief that there were metaphysical foundations, but rather the belief that somehow or other such foundations were necessary, the belief that unless there are foundations something is lost or threatened or undermined or put in question. It is this belief that Derrida shares with the tradition he seeks to deconstruct. Derrida sees that the Husserlian project of a transcendental grounding for science, language, and common sense is a failure. But what he fails to see is that this doesn't threaten science, language, or common sense in the least. As Wittgenstein says, it leaves everything exactly as it is.

All this via a fruitless search for an online copy of Searle's "Reply to Derrida: Reiterating the Differences". Say what you will about Derrida, I really wish that Searle had given him permission to reprint that piece in his book Limited, Inc.

Update: Thanks to commentator Francis Jervis for providing this link to an online copy of Searle's Reply to Derrida."

* Why Reason Magazine, you ask? I dunno. But later in the interview Searle does discuss an article he wrote claiming that Hayek's Road to Serfdom as one of "the book of the century".) He says of Hayek:
It would be interesting for somebody to analyze in a more scholarly vein to what extent he was right: that there wasn't any halfway point of democratic socialism, that it would naturally collapse into various forms of oppression, that however well-intentioned the setting up of the socialist bureaucracy was, it would be bound to have calamitous effects.
Possibly such a survey might start out by studying the various democratic socialist countries of Europe, which tend to be roughly as free, prosperous, stable and happy as the U.S. Which means, unless I'm missing something (and of course maybe I am) that the answer to "what extent he was right" was not at all. (On this point, see also this actual economist.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quotes About Harry Mathews's Cigarettes (1987)

Cigarettes.... [I]dentified by the author as his only "purely Oulipian novel." Its method of composition has not be revealed beyond a statement that it is based on a "permutation of situations".

-- Oulipo Compendium, ed. Harry Mathews & Alistair Brotchie, rev. ed., p. 126

During this time, I decided to write an Oulipian novel. And I created this abstract scheme of permutations of situations in which A meets B, B meets C, and so forth. There’s no point in looking for it now because no one will ever figure it out, including me....

-- Harry Mathews

MATHEWS: I’d never been able to write about the world I grew up in, but Cigarettes allowed me to do it, with Saratoga Springs standing in for the Hamptons.

INTERVIEWER: Could you have done it without the method?

MATHEWS: No, I don’t think so. That’s the way I tell the truth. Oddly, the one novel I wrote using an Oulipian structure is the most conventional.

-- Ibid.

In the Oulipo, there are two schools of thought. People like Calvino and Perec said that the author should acknowledge the methods he’s been using. And the other clan, which included Raymond Queneau and myself, thinks it’s much better not to let on, because this will keep the reader straining to find out.

-- Harry Mathews in Ibid.

NTERVIEWER: Cigarettes... Why that title?
MATHEWS: The question, “Why is the book called Cigarettes?” is a question that should be asked.

-- Harry Mathews Interviewed by Lynn Tillman

Update: And now a quote from Cigarettes about writing -- one that seems, on its face, as if it is also about the writing of Cigarettes itself (as well as its ostensible subject within the novel) -- therefore, a quote that also seems to me to fit appropriately under the title of this blogpost:
Morris was showing him what writing could do. He advanced the notion that creation begins by annihilating typical forms and procedures, especially the illusory "naturalness" of sequence and coherence. Morris did more than state this, he demonstrated it. He made of his essay a minefield that blew itself up as you crossed it. You found yourself again and again on ground not of your choosing, propelled from semantics into psychoanalysis into epistemology into politics. These displacement seemed, rather than willful, grounded in some hidden and persuasive law that had as its purpose to keep bringing the reader back fresh to the subject.

-- Harry Mathews, Cigarettes, p, 135
(Derik Badman thought of applying this quote to Mathews own writing years before I did; but he gave only the first two sentences of the above, so I thought it was worth my quoting it at somewhat greater length.)

Update 2: And for completeness's sake, from Mathews's essay "Translation and the Oulipo", a comment reiterating the above in slightly different wording (via):
I had a similar experience with my novel Cigarettes. My "object of desire" was telling the story of a passionate friendship between two middle-aged women. That was all I knew. I had concocted an elaborate formal scheme in which abstract situations were permutated according to a set pattern. This outline suggested nothing in particular, and for a time it remained utterly empty and bewildering. It then began filling up with situations and characters that seem to come from nowhere; most of them belonged to the world I had grown up in. I had never been able to face writing about it before, even though I'd wanted to make it my subject from the moment I turned to fiction. It now reinvented itself in an unexpected and fitting guise that I could never have discovered otherwise.

For Perec and me, writing under constraint proved to be not a limitation but a liberation. Our unreasonable home grounds were what had at last enabled us to come home.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Poem of the Day: Warning to Children

Warning to Children

Children, if you dare to think
Of the greatness, rareness, muchness
Fewness of this precious only
Endless world in which you say
You live, you think of things like this:
Blocks of slate enclosing dappled
Red and green, enclosing tawny
Yellow nets, enclosing white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where a neat brown paper parcel
Tempts you to untie the string.
In the parcel a small island,
On the island a large tree,
On the tree a husky fruit.
Strip the husk and pare the rind off:
In the kernel you will see
Blocks of slate enclosed by dappled
Red and green, enclosed by tawny
Yellow nets, enclosed by white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where the same brown paper parcel -
Children, leave the string alone!
For who dares undo the parcel
Finds himself at once inside it,
On the island, in the fruit,
Blocks of slate about his head,
Finds himself enclosed by dappled
Green and red, enclosed by yellow
Tawny nets, enclosed by black
And white acres of dominoes,
With the same brown paper parcel
Still untied upon his knee.
And, if he then should dare to think
Of the fewness, muchness, rareness,
Greatness of this endless only
Precious world in which he says
he lives - he then unties the string.

-- Robert Graves

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we are saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

-- Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (h/t)

Alphabetical Africa Errata: an Updated List

My previous post on Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa contained an introduction to the book and its unique constraint, a few remarks on what I thought of it, a table of all the errata I'd either seen elsewhere or found myself, and a list of possible corrections for them.

Now Johnathan Arnold, in a comment on that post has vastly expanded the list to the point where I am putting it up here in a separate post.

A reminder of Alphabetical Africa's constraint: The first half of the book consists of 26 chapters, labeled A through Z. The first chapter contains only words beginning with A; the second contains words beginning with A and B; the third words beginning with A, B and C; and so on up until Z, in which any word may appear. The second half of the book, also 26 chapters long, reverses the process. The chapters are labeled Z through A; Z uses any words; Y uses any words save those beginning with Z; X uses any words save those beginning with Y or Z, and so on back through the final chapter, A, which again uses only words beginning with A. (Again, there's more, including a few example passages, in the earlier post.)

That's the idea, anyway. But it turns out there are at least 40 50 and counting (!) departures from that schema. Here is a complete list of all the ones I know of, from all the various sources I've seen:

A1, p. 2
premature I
Alex and Allen alone, arrive in Abidjan...
D1, p. 9
premature H
...because Chester cannot hear Dogon birds chirp:
D1, p. 9premature O
biu, biu, biu, or Dogon dogs bark:
D1, p. 9premature O
bow, bow, bow, or antelopes:
G1, p. 15premature IAre Germans convincing in Africa?
H1, p. 18premature O...a bridge or an airport...
H1, p. 18premature O...a book, or a husky German...
H1, p. 18premature O...doors. One hundred and fifty...
H1, p. 19premature L...he chatters a lot...
I1, p. 21premature UI used to draw Alva.
J1, p. 26premature long as he could.
K1, p. 27premature N...he could design a new colony...
L1, p. 30premature O...finds a lot of lakes...
L1, p. 31premature S...being a compulsive liar she lies about him
M1, p. 32premature THe appeared to have been a middle-aged man.
M1, p. 32
premature T
He had gone to a hotel.
N1, p. 34premature OI am afraid of loving her...
N1, p. 35premature S...everything, even all sounds, heavy, dark...
N1, p. 35premature OEach moment is a kind of impermanent...
N1, p. 35premature favorite map of another African country...
O1, p. 38premature P...I promise her.
P1, p. 39premature T [arguable]...part-time only...
P1, p. 40premature S"...not invented anything I've seen or done."
Q1, p. 42premature TI am convinced that people...
R1, p. 46premature T [arguable]After a bit of rough-and-tumble...
V1, p. 58premature W...from the eastern and western edges...
W1, p. 59premature Y...had we been here a hundred years ago...
V2, p. 87belated WThe children are at school when the mailman arrives...
V2, p. 88belated W...preferably at a time when her children...
U2, p. 91belated rapid sweep with a pen...
U2, p. 92belated W...laughing men with unpronounceable names...
T2, p. 93belated WWhen Boyd discovered this...
T2, p. 94belated W...they meet men who are transplanting Africa.
T2, p. 95belated W...have come to terms with African emotions.
T2, p. 97belated WHe walks as far as the gates of the consulate.
S2, p. 99belated T...Miti Safu Safu is a line of trees....
P2, p. 112belated Q"An hour later drums mysteriously become quiet..."
N2, p. 117
belated O...both ends of caravan...
K2, p. 123belated LLike everything else...
k2, p. 123belated conceals all hope for life by...
J2, p. 126belated I dig a large hole...
J2, p. 127belated LAlex and Allen left for Africa...
F2, p. 138belated I...boosted an innovative design...
E2, p. 140belated H...Alva, her deletions are...
E2, p. 140belated H...accepts her corrections.
E2, p. 140belated buyers for Emperor...
C2, p. 146belated IAfter considering all alternatives, I capture a couple crocodiles.
C2, p. 147belated IAfter I cross a...
C2, p. 147belated D...bag containing Alva's description.
B2, p. 148belated C...afraid ants can't be beaten.

Phew! That's a lot. I must admit that somewhere between 20 and 40 errors my feelings about them slip from "everyone makes mistakes" to "that's sloppy work". Assuming that they're not deliberate (and I don't think they are, based on both internet rumor about Abish's reaction to one being pointed out, and my judgment of how they seem (although obviously I could be wrong about this)), then I have to say that this mars the book in a substantial way.

In the earlier post I came up with patches for the eighteen or so I'd seen then... but another 24 takes the wind out of my sails. If anyone has patches for these, feel free to leave 'em in comments. And please do leave any further errors you see -- I will add them to the above chart once I see them.

Update (07/10/2011): Three more added from comments. Update (02/07/2012): And five more, plus a correction. Thanks! Keep 'em coming, everyone!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Links of the Day

Charlie Stross: we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion! (via)

Paul Krugman: dude, that all happened, like, back in the 60's, man. Catch up.

(Note: these are not SF stories they're talking about. This is nonfiction about politics.)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Quote of the Day

Sir, this doctrine of a white man's Government is as atrocious as the infamous sentiment that damned the late Chief Justice [i.e Roger Taney] to everlasting fame; and, I fear, to everlasting fire.

-- Thaddeus Stevens, December 18, 1865 [via]

Saturday, December 04, 2010

What Krugman Said, Times Three

What Krugman said:
After the Democratic “shellacking” in the midterm elections, everyone wondered how President Obama would respond. Would he show what he was made of? Would he stand firm for the values he believes in, even in the face of political adversity?

On Monday, we got the answer: he announced a pay freeze for federal workers. This was an announcement that had it all. It was transparently cynical; it was trivial in scale, but misguided in direction; and by making the announcement, Mr. Obama effectively conceded the policy argument to the very people who are seeking — successfully, it seems — to destroy him.

So I guess we are, in fact, seeing what Mr. Obama is made of.

Mr. Obama, who has faced two years of complete scorched-earth opposition, declared that he had failed to reach out sufficiently to his implacable enemies. He did not, as far as anyone knows, wear a sign on his back saying “Kick me,” although he might as well have....

It’s hard to escape the impression that Republicans have taken Mr. Obama’s measure — that they’re calling his bluff in the belief that he can be counted on to fold. And it’s also hard to escape the impression that they’re right.

The real question is what Mr. Obama and his inner circle are thinking. Do they really believe, after all this time, that gestures of appeasement to the G.O.P. will elicit a good-faith response?

What’s even more puzzling is the apparent indifference of the Obama team to the effect of such gestures on their supporters. One would have expected a candidate who rode the enthusiasm of activists to an upset victory in the Democratic primary to realize that this enthusiasm was an important asset. Instead, however, Mr. Obama almost seems as if he’s trying, systematically, to disappoint his once-fervent supporters, to convince the people who put him where he is that they made an embarrassing mistake.

Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like moral collapse — a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction.
So say we all.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Quote of the Day

Obama has another two or three weeks to prove he's not an idiot.

-- Kevin Drum (via)
(The context, btw, is Obama's relentless willingness to negotiate with Lucy about whether she'll pull the football away the Republicans, despite the latter's blindingly obvious bad faith. (Remember, however: they think they're doing well.))

In general Drum's on a roll today. Even better than the above-linked post is this post about the hopelessness of our tottering empire (via):
The strongest country in the world — my country — is allowing its economy to decay before our collective eyes even though we know how to stop it. But we're not going to. We're just going to let it happen.... We need: a big stimulus now aimed at infrastructure development. A credible plan to close the long-term deficit that acknowledges the need for tax increases to be part of the solution. A serious and sustained effort at reining in healthcare costs and broadening access. A collective decision to cut out the culture war nonsense and figure out how to improve our educational system with no more than modest spending increases. Real financial reform, not the weak tea of Dodd-Frank. Less spending on empire building and much, much more spending on real sustainable energy development and engineering.

But we're not going to do this stuff. As near as I can tell, we're not even going to do one single thing on this list. We're not even going to try. In fact, they're all so far from being realistically achievable that it's sort of foolish to even waste breath writing about them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

2 Quotes and 2 Links on WIkileaks

I'm posting these without necessarily agreeing with anything: I just thought they were interesting. Consider it a wikileaks dump link-and-quote dump.

I have a hard time getting worked up about it- a government that views none of my personal correspondence as confidential really can’t bitch when this sort of thing happens.

- Juan Cole (via)

The latest WikiLeaks dump is to American foreign policy what the Starr Report was to presidential politics—fun, in a voyeuristic sort of way, revealing, but not about important things, and ultimately, more trouble than it is worth.

-- Peter Beinart (via)
The links:

There have been a bunch of bullet-point lists of the most interesting revelations in the latest Wikileask dump. As you'd expect, there's lots of overlap, but not total. I thought this was the most interesting one.

But the truth is that the most interesting thing I've read on the Wikileaks document dump, by an order of magnitude at least, is this analysis on what precisely Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is trying to accomplish, and his broader theories behind that (via). Whatever you think of Assange and his actions, it seems worthwhile to actually grapple with what he thinks he's trying to do. Much of the other analysis I've seen simply doesn't. (Thus, repeated claims by lots of people that this will drive a lot of diplomacy from written cables to purely spoken communication seems like it could be a step towards Assange's goal, if I'm reading that right.) Highly recommended.

Update: Ok, two more quotes:
Where it is doing the right thing, a great power should be robust against embarrassment.

-- Simon Jenkins (via)

In future the only secrets will be spoken ones. Whether that is a good thing should be a topic for public debate.

-- Ibid.
...and now my post title is untrue. Nuts .

An Onion Headline Begging To Be Written

French President Sarkozy Outraged At Being Called "Thin-Skinned" in Wikileaks Cables.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Writings of an Oulipian Critic

[Updated with new links, November, 2011]

In the course of my recent investigation of Walter Abish's novel Alphabetical Africa, I came across a review of the book by Louis Bury which was done in the constraint used by the novel itself (or, more precisely, half of it: Bury's review was in 26 paragraphs, corresponding to the first 26 chapters of Abish's 52-chapter novel). It was quite well-done, a clever conceit -- and one of the few interesting things I found written on Abish's work.

Investigating, I found that Bury -- who is teaching literature at NYU while finishing up his Ph.D. in English at CUNY -- is working on a fabulous-sounding dissertation, titled Exercises in Criticism: The Theory and Practice of Literary Constraint. When completed, it will consist of 99 short chapters -- each itself written under a constraint, often (always? I'm not sure) the constraint of the work which the chapter itself discusses.

It's a fabulous idea: the only parallels I'm aware of are Ian Monk's univocal defense of three of Georges Perec's linguistic experiments (including his two univocalisms), "Perec's Letterless Texts" (scroll down), and a number of lipogrammatic reviews of Georges Perec's lipogrammatic novel La disparition (including, most notably, Ian Monk's lipogrammatic review of a lipogrammatic translation of it (scroll further down)). But of course Bury is attempting this on a grand scale.

It might objected, with some truth, that this is a bit of an obvious move -- to write about a constrained text using the constraint in the critical discussion. In reply to this objection, I would concede the point, but nevertheless defend it on two (related) bases:

First, while it is obvious, I think it is a powerfully and effectively obvious move rather than a dully obvious one. One major (and I think underappreciated) artistic effect is the retrospectively obvious move which rings with all the power of the beautifully inevitable: think of the rhyming word which you see coming, but which nevertheless hits home when it comes, or the beautifully inevitable ending of much classic tragedy. Obviousness is not always a negative criticism in an artistic context.*

Second, while doing it once (as more than one reviewer did in reviewing Perec's lipogram lipogrammatically) is a cute trick, doing a whole book of them rises to another level: a genuinely interesting Oulipian work.

Like some -- but not all -- Oulipian works, this one feels to me as one that ought to be done once: multiple versions would degrade rather than enhance the idea. But once can have all the power of the beautifully inevitable.

-- If, of course, it's done well. About which only time and the finished work will tell. But so far the evidence is that Bury is himself an effective Oulipian critic.

One thing to note is that the work as a whole is an Oulipian pastiche: the 99 clearly marks Bury's Exercises in Criticism as a pastiche of Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, a revising of that work of fiction into the medium of criticism (just as Matt Madden reworked it in his own brilliant revision into the medium of comics). So Bury's work itself serves as a translation of, or comment upon, Queneau's.

And the actual chapters, at least those published so far, seem to me to be well done also.

I did not see a single place in which the links to those pieces which were already published were gathered; so I asked (by email) Bury himself, who kindly supplied a series of links to those already-published pieces as well as his permission to gather them here.

So, the thus-far published pieces of Louis Bury's Exercises in Criticism:
Those seem to be all that he's published so far. Bury tells me that more excerpts will be published next year; if I see them (or if he tells me about them) I'll add them to this list. (Update: the last six items on the list are new as of November, 2011; thanks to Bury for emailing to tell me about them! I've taken the liberty of quoting his description of the first three of them from his email to me.)

Personally, I can't wait to read the entire book. It sounds like an Oulipian classic in the making. I suspect that those of my Noble Readers who are fans of constrained literature will agree. If you're in that category, check out Bury's work for an appetite-whetting preview.

* Similarly, what is obvious is not necessarily all that easy to see. If I may be so pretentious as to quote myself: a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote an undergraudate thesis (on J. L. Austin's essay "Pretending") which, done in a rush, had its problems; but it contained the following footnote which I still think, years later, makes a good point -- perhaps an obvious point, but not one I've ever seen made elsewhere -- albeit perhaps not quite as clearly as I would have liked it to:
It may be wondered that someone needs to show us what is obvious. This sense of oddity is caused, I think, by not thinking hard enough about how the word "obvious" is used. If asked to say what obvious means, we would probably say something like, "what is obvious is seen at a glance". If we look at how we use it, however, we often say something is obvious when we could not see it ourselves ("How could I have not have seen it? It's so obvious"). A good example of an Austinian situation, that we do sometimes do not know exactly what our words mean, how we can mistake them for something less subtle (for "obviously" obviously has something to do with being able to see at a glance--often we do see, and we think we should see, what is obvious at a glance) than they in fact are.

** Although these links are in some irritating embedded format that only worked for me in Safari, not Firefox.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Same Thanksgiving Post I Have Put Up Every Year Since 1621

Serve the LORD with gladness: come before his presence with singing.... Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

-- Psalm 100:2, 4

ANYA: I love a ritual sacrifice.
BUFFY: It's not really a one of those.
ANYA: To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice. With pie.

-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Pangs" by Jane Espenson
Thanksgiving is a holiday, and holidays are rituals. And one of my holiday rituals is to give thanks to you, Noble Reader, for reading. Not all sentences said ritualistically are heartfelt -- it goes with the territory -- but this one always is.* I am thankful that you have dropped by; I hope you will come back again.

I wish everyone a joyful Thanksgiving, however (and whether) you celebrate it, and to whomever (and however) you give thanks.

But I must admit to you all that the title of this post is a lie. The first Thanksgiving feast was in 1621; so obviously I did not put up my first blog post commemorating the event until the following year, 1622. My apologies for the inaccuracy.

* Yes, that sentence noting that the ritualistic sentence is said not just ritualistically but sincerely is now, itself, a part of my Thanksgiving ritual. I will note that it, too, is said sincerely and not just realistically, and shudder at the inevitable extrapolation of this trend.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Boycott the New Buffy Movie!

So it looks like they're really making a new Buffy movie... without Joss Whedon's input. (via Gerry.)

Didn't we all learn from the TV show that when things return from the dead they're soulless impostors of what they were before, and the best thing to do is simply to shove something through their heart and turn them to dust?

Joss Wedon is utterly full of humor and class about the situation. (Again via.) Among many other things, he says that "I can't wish people who are passionate about my little myth ill."

Not being as classy (or funny) as Mr. Whedon, however, not to mention not having a career in the industry that the perpetrators of this horror do (as he does), I can wish them ill, and do. I hope the !@#$$%% thing never gets made.

So I am encouraging everyone to boycott the new Buffy movie. Not to protest anything, mind: but simply because it can't possibly be anything but a stain on the reputation of one of the best TV shows ever made. Don't boycott in order to achieve some end: just don't go see it, because it'll be bad. If we're lucky, they'll drop the idea, and there won't be a stain on the good name of a great show. If not... at least people will be saved from seeing the damn thing.

I mean, seriously. We already have one Buffy movie to tell people to avoid while steering them towards the TV show. Do we really need another?

So boycott it. Really. Maybe if enough people sign on, they'll drop the idea and go put out a film that has even a hope of being worth seeing. Or at least one that won't defame a great work of art.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Alphabetical Africa Errata -- With Possible Patches

Update: Read this post for an introduction to the book, and a few patches to some of the errors; but a more complete table of all known errors in Alphabetical Africa has now been posted here.

For the "constrained literature" discussion group I've been hosting, I've just read Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa. (I began it once before, but this was my first full trip through it.)

It's a strange book, written under a tight (and, so far as I know, a unique) Oulipian constraint. The first half of the book consists of 26 chapters, labeled A through Z. The first chapter contains only words beginning with A; the second contains words beginning with A and B; the third words beginning with A, B and C; and so on up until Z, in which any word may appear. The second half of the book, also 26 chapters long, reverses the process. The chapters are labeled Z through A; Z uses any words; Y uses any words save those beginning with Z; X uses any words save those beginning with Y or Z, and so on back through the final chapter, A, which again uses only words beginning with A.

To give you a sense of how this works in practice, here's the first paragraph of the first chapter A:
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex's admonition, against Allen's angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa's antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Ants are Ameisen?
Here's the opening of the first chapter I:
I haven't been here before. I had hoped I could hire a car, but I can't drive. I have been awfully busy finishing a book about Alva. First I contemplated doing a book about another character, and another country. Bit by bit I have assembled Africa. Although I hate hot climates I chose Africa. Desire is always alive in hot climates I have been informed. I brought a gun along, and a calendar. It is August here. Bright beautiful August. I used to draw Alva. Her face, her hands, her breasts. But I am an amateur artist. I didn't bring any drawings along. I am alone.
And here's the opening of the first chapter S:
Summarizing Africa: I can speak more freely. I find fewer and fewer impediments. Soon I'll reach my destination. Soon I'll also complete my documentation and my book. Daily Africa is shrinking from extreme heat and fatigue, as rebels in bush battle African armies led by foreigners. Orders are passed in fifteen magnificent click languages. It is no surprise really if most soldiers are missing.
You get the idea. At times particularly in the early chapters, it reads somewhat more like poetry than like fiction. If you want to sample some more, here's the book in Google Books. And here is a fabulous review of the novel in twenty-six paragraphs using (the first half of) Abish's constraint in its writing.

If this sounds utterly silly and pointless to you, then you almost certainly won't like the actual book. It's a novel that requires the experimental-literature equivalent of a healthy willing suspension of disbelief: you need to go with the flow. If, on the other hand, it sounds cool, then you probably will like it, because it's good at what it is. While I personally found the first couple of chapters tough to get through, it picks up around chapter I, and becomes a very funny, engaging book (with arguably problematic politics). It's not the Great American Novel or anything, but it's probably the Great Alphabetical African Novel,* and that, while admittedly somewhat more limited, is still a lot of fun.

And it's a wild constraint after all. Imagine writing entire chapters with so limited a vocabulary! And yet somehow Abish manages to do it.

Except for the goofs.

Ah, yes: the famous errors of Abish's Alphabetical Africa. The Complete Review, which does its usual good job on Abish's book, found four errors. Reading through it, I found no less than twelve more -- and another two items that are arguably errors. Here's a complete list, combining all of them. (Update: This is now obsolete. An integrated, updated list can be found here.)

G1, p. 15premature IAre Germans convincing in Africa?
K1, p. 27premature N...he could design a new colony...
N1, p. 35premature S...everything, even all sounds, heavy, dark...
O1, p. 38premature P...I promise her.
P1, p. 39premature T [arguable]...part-time only...
R1, p. 46premature T [arguable]After a bit of rough-and-tumble...
V1, p. 58premature W...from the eastern and western edges...
W1, p. 59premature Y...had we been here a hundred years ago...
V2, p. 87belated WThe children are at school when the mailman arrives...
T2, p. 93belated WWhen Boyd discovered this...
T2, p. 94belated W...they meet men who are transplanting Africa.
T2, p. 95belated W...have come to terms with African emotions.
T2, p. 97belated WHe walks as far as the gates of the consulate.
K2, p. 123belated LLike everything else...
k2, p. 123belated conceals all hope for life by...
F2, p. 138belated I...boosted an innovative design...
C2, p. 146belated IAfter considering all alternatives, I capture a couple crocodiles.
C2, p. 147belated IAfter I cross a...

(The ones from the Complete Review are the premature P on p. 38, and the final three listed. The arguable ones are the ones that are part of compound phrases: "Part-Time" in the first P chapter, and (even less convincing) "rough-and-tumble" in the first R chapter.)

(Update: Commentator Jonathan Arnold found an additional twenty-five (!!) errors which he kindly posted in the comments below. I will integrate them into this post when I have the time; in the meantime, definitely look in the comments to see a whole lot more. Update 2: The updated, integrated list of all known errata in Alphabetical Africa has now been posted here.)

There has been speculation that the known errors are deliberate, a breaking of the artistic constraint for aesthetic reasons. The Oulipo, the literary group most closely associated with constrained literature (although Abish himself has no connection to the group I'm aware of), has developed the notion of a "clinamen" (based on a term from Lucretius) for the notion of a deliberate violation of an artistic constraint for greater artistic purposes.

But I must admit I'm doubtful. Not just because I recall seeing an anecdote on the web where someone who met Abish asked him about the errors and got astonishment and a description of how hard he and his editor worked to prevent them (although I do). But because the errors don't feel like clinamen. They're too many; they're too random and uninteresting. They simply feel like... errors.

(The one way in which some (although not all) feel like clinamen is that there are obvious solutions. One of the criteria for an Oulipian clinamen is that there must be a way to "solve" the issue that does not involve breaking the constraint -- so that one is clearly doing it for reasons of aesthetic choice and not inability to find one's way out of the self-constructed maze. But this isn't true of all of them, at least for me (see below.))

So no: I think they're errors. And there are quite a lot -- in addition to the Complete Review's four, I found a dozen or more (depending on the arguable cases) in a single reading. And I wasn't really trying that hard -- I was just reading the book for the most part. So if there are 16 to 18... I bet there are more, too, that I didn't find.

Ah well. Even Abish nods. It's pretty close, right?

...Except, it seems to me, that most of these are quite readily fixable.

So in the spirit of the Age of Wiki, I offer freely, to one and all (particularly to Abish, in the unlikely event he should stumble upon this post), the following patches (to use the programming term) for Abish's novel:

Ch.ErrorPossible Fix
G1Are Germans convincing in Africa?Are Germans convincing around Africa?
K1...he could design a new colony... ...he could design a cutting-edge colony...
( ...he could design an advanced colony...)
N1...everything, even all sounds, heavy, dark.....everything, even all noises, heavy, dark...
O1...I promise her....I assure her.
(...I guarantee her.)
P1...part-time only......half-day only...
(...casual labor...)
R1After a bit of rough-and-tumble...After a bit of a fracas...
V1...from the eastern and western edges......from the eastern and opposite edges
(...from the eastern and far edges)
(...from the near and far edges...)
(...from the longitudinal edges...)
W1...had we been here a hundred years ago......had we been here a century ago...
V2The children are at school when the mailman arrives...The children are at school as the mailman arrives...
T2When Boyd discovered this...After Boyd discovered this...
T2...they meet men who are transplanting Africa....they meet men engaged in transplanting Africa.
T2...have come to terms with African emotions....have come to accept African emotions.
(...have faced up to African emotions.)
(...have reconciled themselves to African emotions,)
[Here the fix has to be more specific as to meaning than the error-laden phrase.]
T2He walks as far as the gates of the consulate.He goes as far as the gates of the consulate.
(He strolls as far as the gates of the consulate.)
K2Like everything else...As in everything else... conceals all hope for life conceals all hope for continued existence by...
F2...boosted an innovative design......boosted a creative design...
(... boosted an advanced design...)
(...boosted an experimental design...)
C2After considering all alternatives, I capture a couple crocodiles.After considering all alternatives, capture a couple crocodiles.
(Capture a couple crocodiles after considering all alternatives.)
C2After I cross a...After crossing a...

Not all of those are of the same quality of course. Some I think are obviously right; some I'm not very happy with, although I can't come up with anything better.

Having offered these, I have several queries for my Noble Readers.

First, if you've read Alphabetical Africa and know of any errors that aren't on this list... please leave them in comments, and I'll add them to this table!

Second, can you think of a better patch for any of the errors that I've already found? Again, please leave suggestions in comments.

And finally: does anyone know Walter Abish, or know anyone who knows Walter Abish, or even know anyone who knows anyone at New Directions (his publisher)? It'd be great to see Alphabetical Africa 1.2 published, with all known errors removed & fixed. (Or, if these are indeed deliberate, to get confirmation of this fact.)

In the meantime, I offer them to any and all readers of Alphabetical Africa as an unauthorized erratum sheet. Feel free to mentally substitute (or even physically write in, if you buy it rather than get it from the library) these corrections for a smoother, error-free Alphabetical Africa experience.

* This gets at a separate issue, which I don't have time to go into -- a subfield in the study of literary (and more broadly artistic) constraint that I'd like to see someone delve into: there seems to me a distinction between constraints that one can imagine becoming a form, that is, a generalized practice (however obscure and marginal) with multiple works to its credit, and those that seem inexorably one-time works, constraints that are hard to imagine re-using without the results being hopelessly derivative (and which therefore will be used only in works that are formally and openly derivative, i.e. the aforementioned review of Abish's book written under (half) its constraints). The distinction would be, therefore, between (on the one hand) lipograms, which have a long (if not all that proud) history which predated Perec's novel (and which have also had an ongoing life beyond it, including multiple variations on the theme), and (on the other hand) something like Abish's constraint, which it seems to me hard to imagine replicating, not because of the technical challenge, but simply because of the overwhelming feeling that it's been done. (Where this border lies is, obviously, a point subject to dispute.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Miserably Sexist Comics Panel of the Day

From Fantastic Four #12 (March, 1963), by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (scanned from The Essential Fantastic Four, Volume 1 (2001)):

...I was going to comment, but I trust I don't really need to spell this one out, do I?

Bérubé on the Recent Precipitous Decline in the Study of the Humanities

Using some of that fancy science, engineering and trade-school stuff that is all anyone actually really needs (or wants!) to study these days, Michael Bérubé* has studied the recent decline in students studying the humanities and discovered that... wait for it... it doesn't exist:
" 2007, just 8 percent of bachelors degrees were given to disciplines in the humanities.” So things are getting worse? Really? No, not really... Compared to 17.4 percent in 1967, yow! We are totally in trouble! … except that the decline was entirely a phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s, when the percentage dropped to about 7 percent. And it’s been 8-9 percent for the past 20 years now....

The real story should be this: amazingly, remarkably, counterintuitively and bizarrely, humanities majors in the United States, as a percentage of all bachelor’s degrees, have held steady since about 1990—since the onset of the culture wars, in fact. Despite all the attacks on our Piss Christ this and our queerying that and our deconstructing the Other; despite all the parents and friends and journalists and random passersby telling students they’ll be consigned to a life of selling apples and flipping burgers if they major in English; despite the skyrocketing of tuition and the rise of the predatory private-student-loan industry; despite all this, humanities enrollments have been at or about the 8 percent mark for about twenty years. However, because we continually tell ourselves that we have fallen–
O how fall’n! how chang’d
From them, who in the happy Days of Rage
Cloth’d with transcendent brightness didst out-shine
All the other undergraduate programs on Campus
–even though the fall (a) stopped happening 20 years ago and (b) followed an anomalous high point in the history of American higher education, we keep playing into the hands of the people who want to cut us ‘til they kill us.

(Quotation from here; link via Gerry. The ellipsis between "totally in trouble!" and "except that" is Bérubé's, and does not signify an actual omission; all the other ellipses are mine.)

Update: See also Yglesias. I too have long thought that humanities were perfectly defensible in purely utilitarian, bottom-line terms of economic usefulness (although I also take very seriously the non-commercial, non-practical arguments for them too).

* And really, a name with two accents: how can he not be a communist? Or maybe French. It's all the same thing, right? Wasn't De Gaulle a communist? No? Then I guess he wasn't French, right?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

I don't know where Andrew Rilstone got this story, but I rather love it:
It puts one in mind of the French boy who fired his catapult at the English tourist 'because the English burned Joan'.

'Yes,' remonstrated his father, 'But that was 400 years ago!'

'I know,' said the boy, 'But I only heard about it this morning.'

All Best Wishes To Randall Munroe

This is sad. I hope things improve for him soon. Both because he's a human being in pain -- and, selfishly, because he's a brilliant !@#$%ing cartoonist and he enlivens my life and I want him to keep being brilliant and funny.

All best wishes to Randall Munroe & his family from everyone here at Attempts (that is, er, me).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Poem of the Day, Armistice Day edition

Before it was Veterans Day, November 11 was Armistice Day, commemorating the end of one of the most terrible wars in human history -- a judgment simply strengthened when you remember that so many of the horrors of the Twentieth Century sprang from it, including Communism, Fascism and the second and even more destructive world war. I prefer to recall the horrors of one war than to praise the service of those in all, if only because the former is the recognition of the horrors of war while the latter can slide all-too-easily into war's glorification. (Militarism must be eliminated also from the American mind.)

So here's a poem for Armistice day, about the beginning of the horrors which it remembers the end of.


Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

-- Philip Larkin

Update: According to Wikipedia, while the holiday is often spelled "Veteran's Day or Veterans' Day... [and] while these spellings are grammatically acceptable, the United States government has declared that the attributive (no apostrophe) rather than the possessive case is the official spelling". More here. I've altered this post accordingly.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Fair Results From a Biased Coin

This is brilliant:
To obtain a fair result from a biased coin, the mathematician John von Neumann devised the following trick. He advised the two parties involved to flip the coin twice. If it comes up heads both times or tails both times, they are to flip the coin two more times.

If it comes up H-T, the first party will be declared the winner, while if it comes up T-H, the second party is declared the winner. The probabilities of both these latter events (H-T and T-H) are the same because the coin flips are independent even if the coin is biased.

For example, if the coin lands heads 70 percent of the time and tails 30 percent of the time, an H-T sequence has probability .7 x .3 = .21 while a T-H sequence has probability .3 x .7 = .21. So 21 percent of the time the first party wins, 21 percent of the time the second party wins, and the other 58 percent of the time when H-H or T-T comes up, the coin is flipped two more times.

-- John Allen Poulos (via)
The rest of the article is fun too -- it includes another way to get fair results from a biased coin, a method for attaining a 1/3 chance from a fair coin, and other fun coin tricks.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Quote of the Day (Andy Warhol Never Saw *This* Coming)

...on the internet, everyone is famous for fifteen people.

-- Shaenon K. Garrity

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, by Barry Deutsch: a Review

Hereville is terrific. Stylish, entertaining, extremely well-done with an engrossing story and fabulous page-layout: plus, above all, Hereville is charming.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword is the first published graphic novel by Barry Deutsch, a political cartoonist and blogger that I've followed for a number of years. In fact, I was a reader of Deutsch's Alas, a blog (where he posts as "Ampersand" or, informally, "Amp"), before I realized that he was a cartoonist or interested in comics -- only to discover that he was not only a comics reader but a comics creator, which was a nice surprise. Eventually I realized that the fabulous little drawings on the blog were his; and even eventuallier I realized he drew other things, too. Deutsch even cross-posted one of my blog posts at Alas, which was nice of him (since his is a real blog with actual, y'know, traffic). All of which is to say that I was predisposed to be biased in Deutsch's favor, knowing him to be a thoughtful and interesting blogger and (in an internet-acquaintance fashion) a nice guy. So you should sprinkle this review with the salt of possible bias, to taste.

But for what it's worth, in my view, Hereville is a delight.

Hereville is, I think, a book that's well served by it's three-tiered title, so I'm going to follow that to introduce it.

Hereville is set, apparently, in the contemporary U.S., but aside from a few oddities such as electric lightbulbs, you'd never notice it: I think even a careful reader could go through the entire work imagining it in a small village in some unspecified Eastern European past. (There are lightbulbs, but no cars, no computers, no phones; the language spoken is called Yiddish (although the text itself is in English with only occasional Yiddish or Hebrew phrases.)) It's set in a remote village, one that is the entire world for its characters: no mention or thought is given to the outside world, save for the fact that one of Mirka's half-siblings seems to have been raised there (and, thus, unlike her siblings, knows what a pig looks like).* Everyone in the town is Orthodox Jewish (Hasidic, I think); at one point two of Mirka's sisters are shocked at the notion that the witch they've encountered might not be Jewish. So the setting of the town, it's feel, is very well captured by it's title: "Hereville". This is a village which is, to its residents, simply "here".

If the title captures the essence of the location (although no more than that: it is wonderfully evoked, with a real life breathed into the somewhat out-of-time setting), then the sub-title equally pithily captures the book's plot: How Mirka Got Her Sword is the tale of just that, how a heroine came by the sword that she will (presumably) use in future adventures. (I should say, however, that the story is a complete story -- sure, there are a few mysteries are left unanswered, and there are clearly room for many more tales staring Mirka, but you do get a complete story with an honest-to-Hashem ending and narrative closure.) Save for the name (and gender) of the heroine, it would have a familiar ring: lots of famous heroes got their swords in various oft-told ways, and this is how this particular hero got hers.

And that should give you some idea of the story, too: it's a fairy tale -- not a fantasy set in a complete secondary world, nor an invasion fantasy or anything like that, but simply a tale which takes place with trolls and witches and dragons lingering (initially) out of sight, off the margins and outside the town borders. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that it was based upon a Jewish folktale, although to my knowledge it isn't. But it has the rhythm of a retold fairy story, or perhaps two or three stitched together.

Finally, Hereville's sub-subtitle** -- Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl -- captures the protagonist as compactly as the title captures the setting and the subtitle the story. Mirka is an 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish girl, who wants to fight dragons -- although she hasn't yet met one; but in the meantime she has a troll (and other creatures) to contend with. The "yet another" might suggest a sense in the book that Mirka is one of a crowd (e.g. in a Buffy sense that, of course young girls fight vampires/trolls), but that's not how it's played in the work: "yet another" is a sly wink at the audience: why not write about a Troll-Fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl? -- although no one's done it before.

Pivoting off the protagonists' age, I should mention that Hereville is being marketed as a kid's book -- ages 9-12, I believe -- and that it certainly has the feel of a book aimed at that age group. And I would unhesitatingly recommend it for (and indeed buy it as a gift for) any kid in that age range -- or, indeed, old enough to follow the story: there's nothing objectionable here for younger kids, just possibly a bit complicated in spots. As for older readers, my only hesitation is precisely that it does feel like, well, a book for pre-teens: a witty, entrancing and extremely well done, but nevertheless not a graphic novel intended for a sophisticated, adult audience. If you think that reading a kids' book is going to disappoint... well, avoid Hereville.*** But for anyone who, as an adult, read Jeffy Smith's Bone or Harry Potter, Hereville is very highly recommended. (Oh, and if anyone happens on this post who's read and enjoyed Hereville but not Bone, go read Bone. Really. It's like what Hereville may be once Deutsch does another nine volumes or so.) Deutsch himself has said in an interview that he thinks of Hereville as "middle reader that anyone can enjoy"; I'd second that, save for adults who don't like to read middle reader books (you know who you are).

So that's what Hereville is; how it is is superb. It's elegantly written and plotted, and fabulously drawn. You'd never guess from reading Hereville that it's Deutsch's first book; it reads as if it could be the work of a far more mature artist (writing and drawing, of course, for kids). And, unsurprisingly, there's a reason for that. Hereville began life as a web comic, and it was published in a complete, earlier form on the web. Then Deutsch revised every page for the book version, and got another artist to do the coloring.

You can still read the web comic version at the link -- but I actually recommend against it. It's similar enough that you might not want to read the better version -- and the latter version really is distinctly better. Good as the web comic is at times -- his layouts are already great -- Deustch just improved a lot, as a writer and as a comics artist, between his first two drafts.

If you want a taste of what the revision entailed, take a look at this blog post where Deutsch lays out two versions of the same page, earlier and later. It's the same story, and if you look quickly it might not seem that much different. But it's the difference between satisfactory prose and elegant writing, between a fine likeness and a great one, a rough version and a full one: the details are just much better, and it makes a cumulative difference in reading any narrative when this is the case -- even if only a subliminal one. So even if you don't notice it, you'll like Hereville a lot more if you read the book version. Use the web comics version to give yourself a taste, if you must, but then go buy the book.

(If you're interested in Deutsch's process, he has another great blog post where he walks the reader through the various choices that went into the composition of one of his panels.)

I would say that Deutsch's writing is elegantly simple, while his art his elegant, easy to read, and formally complex. Let's take the writing first. The story, as I've said, reads like a fairytale -- straightforward, compelling, with a marvelous social world in the background, but essentially a pretty simple narrative. The characterization -- primarily of Mirka and some of her siblings, although also of her stepmother, and of the pig -- is quite good, capturing their differences while making each interesting and rounded. The plot is quite well constructed, and is quite gripping. (And that very gripping nature is used, narratively, to convey the power of the Jewish Shabbat (sabbath): it interrupts the story, a moment of narrative stillness that makes the reader feel and not just see the way that the day works itself into the rhythm of the observant Jewish week. It's one of the best artistic effects in the comic. (And then, right after Havdalah -- Sabbat's end -- the story picks up and continues full pace.))

As far as Deutsch's comicscraft goes, it's also superb. His faces are very simple, Hergé-esque things, but (as simple faces in comics do (for reasons that Scott McCloud analyzes in Understanding Comics)) they work very well: usually the eyes are dots, save in close-ups when they become a bit fuller. Deutsch is expressive with figure, and very focused on making sure both the "camera" angle and the panel transitions are both varied and help push along the narrative.

But what stands out in the illustrations are the page layouts and the lettering. Deutsch uses all sorts of innovative and interesting layouts, which don't complicate the story at all -- they're not hard to read, the way good but challenging comics artists can be (e.g. J. H. Williams III, who for all I love his work sometimes makes you struggle to figure out the reading order). They're just rich and varied and delightful.

Here's an example of how one works. On the fourth page of the comic Fruma, the heroine's stepmother, is arguing with Mirka. Then, almost at the end of the work, on p. 131, Mirka's arguing with someone else -- and the precise same layout is used. This shows how she is modeling her argument after that of her stepmother without being heavy-handed about it: it's just a nice echo brought up by the page layouts. They're really quite close: the expressions and stances that the three overlapping figures in the top right-hand corner of the page are the same in both cases. It's a marvelous, subtle touch. (A very similar, but not quite identical, layout is used in a second discussion between Fruma and Mirka -- this time not an argument, but an informative lecture -- inbetween the two, on p. 69.)

Deutsch uses a rich variety of layouts, viewpoint angles, types of panel transitions, etc, to keep the art lively. It's obviously the work of a dedicated, careful comics reader as well as artist.

Deutsch's use of lettering and ballooning is also very rich. He uses them very expressively, giving the balloons cartoony shape and form that help convey meaning: in one place, a word balloon turns into a weight pressing on another character's head; in a second place, a word balloon physically pushes another character over. When Mirka tumbles down a cliff, her exclamation balloons turn and twist every which way, and the balloon's tails turn into a tangle. And so forth. It's not ostentatious, but its a rich narrative tool, one that works well with his generally cartoony art style.

In both his page layouts and lettering, the largest influence on Deutsch's work appears to be Dave Sim's Cerebus. I checked, and he admits as much in his post on the completion of Cerebus, but honestly I think I would have seen it anyway: the lettering and page-layout in Hereville is simply and unmistakably very Simmesque. But since Sim is a quite extraordinary cartoonist, one of the best to work in the medium (if also possibly the craziest and most misogynistic), this is by no means a bad thing: indeed, a fair amount of Hereville's stylishness and formal inventiveness can be traced to a thoughtful absorption of Sim's lessons. (Plus, y'know, it's shorter, and feminist rather than misogynistic.) Deutsch learned from Sim, but the work is his own, and is very well done.

Another influence, I think, is manga: he uses a lot of manga-esque motion lines and the like to convey action. -- And actually, I'm guessing here -- or perhaps only showing my own limited cultural frame -- but I suspect that another influence was Scott McCloud: Deutsch's use of motion lines, of what McCloud would call aspect-to-aspect transitions, and the like, strike me as ones that betray the influence not only of the sort of comics McCloud talks about but McCloud's own specific analysis as well. (And this is not at all a bad thing, in my view.)

When discussing the art, I should make mention of the coloring. The coloring in the web comic was Deutsch's own; in this book he brought in an outside colorist, Jake Richmond, to re-color the art. It's a huge improvement. Richmond uses a subtle palette for most of the book -- not a two-color palette -- there are at least three or four colors he uses in addition to black and white -- but it's from a fairly narrow temperature range, with a rich, warm orangey feel, that gives the book the feel of a two-color work. Then, towards the end of the book, in the final climactic scene -- which, unlike most of the work, takes place at night -- he switches to a different palette with a similar range but this time in a cool, blueish zone. It's very effective. And the three-page transition at the end of the scene -- sunrise, plus one other page which I shan't spoil -- mix the two palettes in a very marvelous way, before ending the comic with a few pages in the main color palette used in the book. It's terrific, and adds a lot to the work.

I'd like to show some sample pages, just to give a sense of what I'm talking about, but Deutsch has only posted a few so far, and frankly, they're not my favorites. Still, here are a few pages from Hereville just to give you a sense of his artistic style:

I do have a few quibbles with the work, although only minor ones. Mirka's stepsister Rochel has what seems to me a very boyish face: I kept thinking it was one of Mirka's brothers in close-up shots (she dresses as a girl, and not at all as a young Orthodox boy, so it's clearly not -- but it's just a little bit off). And from a production viewpoint, the very end of the book is badly put together: the final page, while definitely an ending, is abrupt enough that one thinks there could easily be another page or two of denouement: but without any words such as "The End", or a blank page to signal a closing, or even the text acknowledgements page to signal an end to the strictly comics portion of the work, the text slides straight into two pages of DVD-extras. It's just a bit awkward -- like stumbling over an uneven pavement tile -- and could be easily fixed by doing any of the things I mentioned above.

But yes, these are quibbles. My main complaint, and it's a serious one, is that volume two is not out yet. I mean yes, I know that volume one's official publication date isn't until November and everything, but the story reads quickly, is engrossing -- and feels like the beginning to a long series (a la Bone or any number of manga). I was ready to set the volume aside and go on to Hereville: How Mirka Found the Time. Draw faster, Amp!

Highly recommended for any and all kids, for fans of virtuoso use of the comics medium, for fans of fairytales, and for any adults with enough of a taste for kids' books to read and enjoy a great one.

Update: This review was subsequently cross-posted at Berfrois.

* I don't really have any idea where Deutsch is going with his series, but I can imagine some very good narrative potential in letting the series age with Mirka (à la Harry Potter), showing her eventually leaving Hereville and having to confront different cultures, different people and different beliefs.

** Generally speaking, I think sub-subtitles are awkward (excepting things like "a novel" and so forth), but they are currently endemic to graphic novel publishing, and for a good reason: graphic novels are frequently published in series, so that the "title" of a volume is often the series title, and the "sub-title" is the volume title: thus if an author wants an actual sub-title, they need to enter into the swampy domain of the sub-subtitle. Thus, Hereville will be (I presume) the title of Deutsch's ongoing series; How Mirka Got Her Sword is the title of the first volume of that series; and its subtitle is Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-year-old Orthodox Jewish Girl. Excpet that it's a sub-subtitle, so we can have future Hereville books: and it'll be worth it, once we do.

*** Also: consider get your moods adjusted, lowering the seriousness and stuck-up-itedness somewhat and dialing up the fun-loving, delight-in-childish-tales settings.

**** A propos of nothing (hence, the lack of an upper reference for this footnote) here's a cute drawing Deutsch did of Kitty Pryde (of X-Men fame) putting an orange on a seder plate, which, if you know what the latter is supposed to mean, is really cute. (According to the linked article, the meaning that's come to be ascribed to it isn't what it originally meant... but that's another story.)