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.