Sunday, July 31, 2011

If I Was On Twitter, I'd Retweet These

Re-Elect Obama: He'll agree to Republican demands, but only after prolonged negotiations!

GOP held up spending cuts as core value. Obama held up compromise. So we compromise on spending cuts.

- Both from Matt Yglesias

As the deal is being done...

More or less what Gerry said:
What worries me is that many progressives seem to have mistaken Boehner’s bad press in recent days for a reversal of results. Make no mistake: Republicans are still running the table, having somehow managed to transform what was once a purely pro forma vote into massive unilateral concessions. The final deal is much closer to Boehner’s than Reid’s, where Reid’s plan was a more right-wing version of McConnell’s, which itself was far to the right of where negotiations began, which itself is far to the right of just raising the debt ceiling without conditions, which is what was done the last hundred times this came up.... [I]t’s a testament to just how badly Democrats have been outplayed on the debt ceiling that some progressives seem to think our side is winning. In fact the Republicans won this game by a mile: they got the drastic, draconian spending cuts they wanted and total control over an automatic trigger for even worse cuts—all without any new revenue whatsoever. Democrats got the good sportsmanship award.
And, as Yglesias points out, this entire affair has most likely normalized taking the economy hostage as a future tactic -- at least for Republicans (obviously, if the Democrats did it, it'd be treason or something).

The only reason I say "more or less what Gerry said" rather than simply "what Gerry said" is because I think this underplays the degree to which the result is along the same lines as what Obama -- and quite possibly a lot of other Democrats too -- has been aiming for. There's every reason to think that Obama has wanted a center-right deal all along, one far to the right of what the majority of his voters want (and most of those that *do* want it did so because of the relentless disinformation and misinformation about what will and what will not actually help them and theirs find jobs). So some of what Gerry makes out to be the Democrats getting punked is actually Obama joining with the right to punk those who voted for him. Not 100% -- this is almost certainly will be a farther-right deal than Obama (or Reid, or Pelosi...) wanted; but Obama has clearly wanted to be forced to move right, and if the Republicans have made him move some degree farther than he wanted, well, that's just business. We all have to sacrifice, right?

And ultimately precisely what degree this is Obama being punked and what degree this is Obama joining with the Republicans to punk us doesn't matter: the long and the short of it is that we're going to get screwed -- not quite as badly as if default happens, I guess, but it's always harder when it's someone you thought was to-some-degree on your side doing the knifing

Oh, and in addition to the link above, another what Digby said bit here.

I suppose that the rumors could be wrong, and that no deal might happen... in which case, instead of Obama joining the Republicans to punk the country, they will have mutually driven off a cliff dragging us behind them. The results will be worse; but saying that shouldn't distract us from how very, very, very bad this deal was -- and how much responsibility Obama has for it. To what degree what was atrocious negotiating and to what degree it was deliberate betrayal can be figured out once the historians pick the documentary bones.

Update: Oh, and via Gerry: what Glenn said.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Foolin' Around With Chinese: Translations of Children's Classics

So I've been fooling around with Chinese. The difference between this and studying Chinese is that I'm not expecting it to go anywhere, that I'm not claiming (even, or perhaps especially, to myself) to have learned anything, that I'm not being systematic about it, and that it's just for the pleasure of discovery rather than for anything that may result from it (since probably nothing will). It's less about Growth, Self-Improvement and Opportunity than it is about idle procrastination and lazy curiosity.

But it's fun, at least for me, and so I thought that I'd share a bit of the fun with my readers.

For this initial post, I thought I'd share three popular English-language children's books which have been posted online in Chinese.

In ascending order of age-appropriateness, the first is Eric Carle's classic The Very Hunger Caterpillar, a book designed for the tiniest of babies -- and, thus, appropriate for those who have only achieved the level of, say, a fairly impressive beginner in Chinese. (It has to be fairly impressive because, of course, we don't expect the babies to read it to themselves!)

Anyway, it's online here, in a translation pieced together by the bloggers from various existing commercial ones, picking what they liked of each. (They don't include the pictures or anything like that, but some of us -- say, parents of young children -- will have read it so many times that it doesn't matter.) It's just in Chinese, but if you mouse over any of the text the pinyin (for pronunciation) and the meaning of the word are given. It's a lot of fun, and good for learning things like the days of the week and the names of various fruits.

Second in our ascending order of age-appropriateness we have this version of Beatrix Potter's Tale of Peter Rabbit. It is really a quite superb web presentation. They have many of the original illustrations (I think they have the core set; nowadays you can buy editions which include ones left out of the early printings, and that's the one I read to my son (thus the one I'm familiar with), but the ones they include are more than sufficient to tell the story). Each page has the same bit of text -- one to four sentences -- in both English and Chinese; you click one of the buttons at the bottom of the page to switch back and forth. Another button will play that snippet in whichever language is displayed (the English taken from the librivox recording). Hovering the mouse over the Chinese text displays the pinyin (just the pinyin, and the whole sentence in one lump, so that one feature's not quite as useful as the The Very Hunger Caterpillar presentation). All-in-all, a splendid version -- you could just keep it in English and let a child play with it, learning to play the text and go forward and back at will; or you can use it yourself to, well, fool around with Chinese. (Not, please, to learn: that requires textbooks and flashcards and furrowed brows; it produces Results.)

Finally -- and this is a book on a level that I am far beyond getting anything out of (just as my (two-and-a-half-year-old) son couldn't enjoy it, unlike the other two), but I mention it because I found it so why not -- is a translation of Alice in Wonderland into Chinese. This is at the same site as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, although the presentation is much less fancy. (The same site also hosts one of the best free online English-Chinese dictionaries.) I don't know anything about the translation -- for instance, I know there's a classic translation of Alice into Chinese that's supposed to be very well done, but I don't know if this is it or not. At any rate it is, as I said, way over my head -- well, all three are way over my head, but the first two are over my head in a it's-still-fun-to-jump-and-see-how-close-I-can-get-to-touching-them sort of way; the Alice is -- well, c'est du chinois. 'nuff said.

So there it is. If anyone else wants to try to fool around with Chinese -- or if you know enough to just read 'em -- or (in the case of the Beatrix Potter) you just want a good presentation of a marvelous children's book -- enjoy! And I may have more foolin' around with Chinese posts in the future -- keep an 眼睛 on this blog if you're interested.

Friday, July 29, 2011

File Under 'Unintentionally Humorous Juxtapositions'

The final sentence from Paul Krugman's (characteristically spot-on) column today, along with the editorial note that is appended to it:
The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse.

David Brooks is off today.
Yes. Right.

(Why it's funny, for those not following the story.)

Update: ...but I shouldn't stop with the funny. Scott Lemieux described a different section of Krugman's column as "the heart of the matter", and he's right that it's a key aspect:
The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.
We have been terribly failed by our political institutions, and terribly failed by the sociopathic madmen of the Republican party and the hapless cowards of the Democratic party, but we've been terribly failed by the media too. It's part of what is going on in our current national game of chicken.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Xu Bing's Book from the Ground

I'll get around to the explanation in a minute, but the main thing I wanted to do in this post is to quote the first paragraph of an avant-garde novel-in-progress, The Book From the Ground, by the contemporary artist Xu Bing. (The first name is pronounced -- very, very roughly -- like "shoe".*) So before I explain anything, let me quote the opening paragraph:

Go on. Read it. Yes, you can. Really. Just try. ... ... See? That wasn't that hard, was it?

-- that last of which is (if I understand it) precisely the point.

Xu Bing -- who was born in China, moved to the U.S. in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, but who seems to have recently repatriated to China -- is a conceptual artist. My experience of his work, however, differs from my experience of most conceptual artists in that I find that he's actually working with interesting concepts. The work which (as I understand it) really made his name was A Book From the Sky, which is described on the artist's site as follows:
An all-enveloping textual environment, "A Book from the Sky" is composed of massive sheets of Chinese characters, some left loose and some bound into books, which are suspended form the ceiling, pasted on the wall, and laid on the floor. Everything about "A book from the Sky" has the look of authenticity. Form its arrangement of headings and marginalia on the page to its string bindings and indigo covers, the work mimics in every detail the characteristics of traditional Chinese printing and book -making. While donning such a guise, however, "A book form the sky " is supremely inauthentic. Its characters are purely of the artist's invention and utterly without meaning. What is most [unsettling] perhaps is the way in which Xu Bing's characters approximate the real thing , for the artist has composed them from the variant parts that make up Chinese characters.**
The coolness factor here is a bit hard to grasp unless you understand the way in which Chinese characters are made from parts of other Chinese Characters, but if you do get this, it seems pretty cool indeed. (Or shocking -- apparently his work was very controversial when first displayed.)

The Book From the Ground -- a project begun eight years ago and still ongoing -- is conceived as a sort of thematic sequel (sidequel? something) to the previous work. Here's how Xu Bing describes the origins of the project on its associated web site:
Book from the Ground is a novel written in a "language of icons" that I have been collecting and organizing over the last few years. Regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life... This project first began with my collecting safety manuals from a number of airlines... Then, in 2003, I noticed three small images on a pack of gum (they translate into please use your wrapper to dispose of the gum in a trashcan), and came to realize that in so far as icons alone can explain something simple, they can also be used to narrate a longer story. From that point on, through various channels, I began to collect and organize logos, icons, and insignia from across the globe, and I also began to research the symbols of expression employed by the specialized fields of mathematics, chemistry, physics, drafting, musical composition, choreography, and corporate branding, among others...
Xu Bing then connects this to earlier (in and of themselves false) descriptions of Chinese as a universal language:
In 1627, the French thinker Jean Douet, in an essay titled "Proposal to the King for a Universal Script, with Admirable Results, Very Useful to Everyone on Earth," first suggested that Chinese was a potential model for an international language. The word "model" is important here because Douet does not limit this "universal script" to the form of Chinese characters per se. He instead focuses on the universal potential of the system of recognition upon which the Chinese language is based. Today, nearly four hundred years later, human communication has indeed evolved in the direction predicted by Douet. We have come to sense that traditional spoken forms are no longer the most appropriate method for communication. And, in response, great human effort has been concentrated on developing ways to replace traditional written languages with icons and images. For this reason, among others, humankind has entered the age of reading images.
And lastly connects the project with his own previous work:
I have created many works that relate to language. This subject first took shape twenty years ago with a piece called Book from the Sky. It was called Book from the Sky because it contained a text legible to no one on this earth (including myself). Today I have used this new "language of signs" to write a book that a speaker of any language can understand; I call it Book from the Ground. But, in truth, these two texts share something in common: regardless of your mother tongue or level of education, they strive to treat you equally. Book from the Sky was an expression of my doubts regarding extant written languages. Book from the Earth is the expression of my quest for the ideal of a single script. Perhaps the idea behind this project is too ambitious, but its significance rests in making the attempt.
(Despite the length of those excerpts, the full essay is, in fact, much longer -- click through if you want to read more.)

Whether he's successful or not you can yourself judge. Certainly the above passage is comprehensible to me -- and, I suspect, will be comprehensible to many people who speak no English, so it's not that language that's clarifying it for me. (I have doubts about its universality -- it seems to me to be a sort of "language" of its own -- but I agree with Xu Bing that the attempt itself is worthy.)

I should forewarn anyone who wants to read more, however, that the web site's navigation is a bit counter intuitive -- I suppose Xu Bing didn't spend as much time clarifying that as he did trying to clarify his symbolic language. If you go to the web site and click on the "read" icon, you are directed to this page, which is called (in the web browser) "basic", which contains a six paragraph text (can I call it a text?) of which the above-quoted paragraph is the opening. This text is titled, appropriately enough, "". But there's no indication of any further text -- at first I thought that that brief passage was the entirety of the work. If you then click again on the "reading" icon, however, it takes you to this table of contents, which lists fourteen chapters (by number only), with a final page promising "to be continued". There isn't any indication (that I've seen) about the relationship between the initial text and the fourteen numbered chapters. I've only carefully read the former, so I may well be missing something, but a brief scan of the latter makes it seem like the original text is a sort of proof-of-concept sketch, which is then elaborated in (rather than continued in) the first chapter of the actual book.

Still, if you're looking to read more, you'll want to go beyond just the first page.

Since the table of contents lists only numbers, but the actual pages themselves have chapter titles (all in Xu Bing's symbolic language, naturally), I thought it might be of some small service if I were to provide a hyperlinked table of contents to the work as it exists so far:

Preface (?):
Chapter 1:
Chapter 2:
Chapter 3:
Chapter 4:
Chapter 5:
Chapter 6:
Chapter 7:
Chapter 8:
Chapter 9:
Chapter 10:
Chapter 11:
Chapter 12:
Chapter 13:
Chapter 14:

There it is, if you wish to read it. As with many tables of contents, I think you get at least a hint of the story's shape just from the titles. I can't recommend it -- again, all I myself have read is what I'm calling the "preface" -- which is interesting as language, but not so interesting as story. But it looks like the longer version may well improve on that latter score. Someday soon I hope to find out.

A post script: two categorical queries

Is The Book From the Ground a Oulipian work, i.e. a work of constrained literature?

I would say it is not. It is an experimental work, certainly, but not I think "constrained" in the sense that that term is used by the Oulipo and its adherents. I can imagine some disagreement on this point -- the Oulipo has done some work on altered languages, such as Jaques Jouet's "The Great-Ape Love-Song" (published in English translation in Oulipo Laboratory). Nevertheless, it seems to me that a newly-invented language -- particularly one not related to any existing language, but pictorial in origin -- while involving, as every task does, certain constraints, is clearly not constrained literature in any plausible sense.

Is The Book From the Ground comics under the McCloudian definition ("juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer"***)?

Again, I would say no. It's not that I am unwilling to apply McCloud's -- to my mind, extremely fruitful -- definition broadly. (In fact, I have been criticized for doing so in the past (see comments.)) But it seems to me that Xi Bing's work is clearly not comics in any plausible sense of the spirit of the term (again, in McCloud's usage).

Again, I can imagine some disagreement here: one might say that Xu Bing's work consists entirely of "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer", so if it is not comics, then does it not represent a plain counter-example to McCloud's definition? I would say it does not, because what Xu Bing is doing ultimately is repurposing what were pictures and other images into a symbolic language, i.e. by the time he's "written" his "texts" what he's working with are no longer images in the sense that McCloud intends.

That said, I think that you could make a plausible argument to the contrary, and either understand what Xi Bing is doing as comics (it is derived, as noted above, from airline instruction manuals and the like, which McCloud does specifically include in his understanding of comics), or tweak McCloud's definition to exclude it (which risks accusations of monster-baring, but may be the best way to go). Alternatively, you could understand Xi Bing as taking comics and changing it into a textual language -- see it not as comics, but as a derivation of one particular form of them. This might be the most accurate approach.

Did you include this entire postscript just as an excuse to tag this post with "ou-x-po" and "comics", since you thought Xi Bing's work would be of interest to those interested in those categories, despite the fact that it isn't, basically, either Oulipian or comics?

We said just two questions.

* I haven't seen any site which prints that in proper pinyin, i.e. with tones marked, or I'd reproduce that. Without tones, the pinyin doesn't give sufficient information to pronounce his name. (If anyone happens to know, please leave the information in comments! If it helps, his name in Chinese (according to Wikipedia) is 徐冰.)

** Be grateful I cut off the quote before he started talking about "deconstructive bricolage".

*** Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 9.

Monday, July 18, 2011

"And the whole world was of one language and of one speech"

A fun site I found last night (via) has the bible in multiple languages, formatted in parallel columns. This is not itself so rare, but this particular site has the bible in both Chinese and Pinyin (the standard romanization system for Chinese), which I don't recall seeing before. And you can line those up with English, or French, or a number of other languages. Fun for those of us who don't know Chinese, but who enjoy lusting after it from a great distance.

Now, the English is that of the King James Bible -- which is to say, it's pretty but also pretty inaccurate as far as translations go. And I have no idea, really, what the provenance of the other translations are -- whether, for instance, they were translated from the original languages, or from other translations, nor how accurate they are.

Still, y'know, fun.
And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
Toute la terre avait une seule langue et les mêmes mots.
Nàshí , tiān xià rén de kǒuyīn , yányǔ , dōu shì yíyàng.
That's Chinese in simplified characters; they also have traditional. Furthermore, they also have an audio recording of the Chinese -- pretty cool, frankly.

The one thing they don't seem to have -- an odd omission -- is the Bible in the original, i.e. Hebrew for the Tanakh, Koine Greek for the new Testament.
On the other hand, you can find that a lot of places (e.g.). The site above seems really to be designed for the Chinese.

Oh, and this quote, of course, is Genesis 11:1 -- the beginning of the creation myth that this most excellent of myth collections offers for the multitude of human languages.

Friday, July 08, 2011

"America is not in decline, it has declined."

Timothy Burke had the terrible experience of getting Lyme Disease, and, in the process of telling us about it, presents some reflections that enlighten more than just his particular disease, or even the particular problem he applies it to: a matter of policy, the hospital was coping with a large number of local patients using its ER for ordinary medical care by passive-aggressive neglect. Unless you walked in with an immediately and obviously life-threatening condition, time would be your triage, not a medical professional. If you could endure waiting eight to nine hours, that was proof that your condition was sufficiently serious that you might need urgent care....

The basic problem faced by this hospital and many others is structurally serious and requires a strong nationally consistent solution. Given that one political party struggled to formulate a fussy, detail-strangled series of half-measures to address the problem and the other party apparently thinks there isn’t any issue in the first place, I’m resigned to this situation happening again to me, my loved ones, my friends, my fellow citizens, for the rest of my life.

This is where we are at now. Decline is not something we need to fear or forestall, it has already happened. America is not in decline, it has declined. A nine-hour wait at a well-built, well-staffed, well-resourced medical center for treatment of a serious condition is decline. As a traveller seeking urgent care, I’ve been seen more quickly in similar facilities in both Africa and Europe.
I've given a bit of the context so you can understand what he's saying a bit better, but let me highlight this part again:
I’m resigned to this situation happening again to me, my loved ones, my friends, my fellow citizens, for the rest of my life. This is where we are at now. Decline is not something we need to fear or forestall, it has already happened. America is not in decline, it has declined.
Yes: resigned. Because what can we really do? Politics seems hopeless -- and yes, I know, rage rage, the political Pascalian dilemma, and all that, but even if the rational thing to do -- even if the rationally irrational thing to do -- is to keep struggling, it just feels hopeless, a hopelessness that washes up and batters you like the sea.

Sometimes it's hard to feel like they've already knifed the country (if not the world) in the heart, and all that's left is the flopping around, the ugliness of blood, and a doctor's calling the time to make it official.