Monday, January 26, 2004

In Defense of Admiral Pointdexter: Admiral John Pointdexter was Ronald Reagan's National Security Advisor. He was implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 80's and was convicted of conspiracy, lying to Congress, and obstruction of justice. The conviction was later overturned on technical grounds.

The Pentagon hired him as a consultant soon after Bush was elected president. While at the Pentagon, Pointdexter came up with two controversial proposals.

i. The Information Awareness Office. Pointdexter's idea was to combine all existing government public record databases into one. Once this was done, you could search this database for unusual patterns -- such as 19 immigrants from the Arab world buying tickets on the same day to flights leaving the east coast and heading to the west coast.

ii. The Terrorism Futures Market. Some people argue that markets are efficient, i.e. that prices of stocks in the stock market accurately reflect the available information about these companies at any given time. Pointdexter proposed creating a market where 'terrorism futures' -- i.e. bets that the U.S. will be hit by a major terrorist act before a certain date -- would be traded. This would give the government a more accurate perspective on the risk of terror attacks.

Both of these are interesting and novel proposals -- and both are troubling to some degree. How can we make sure that the new combined database wouldn't be misused? How can we make sure that terrorists themselves wouldn't trade on the futures market? There should have been a measured, reasonable public discussion of the risks involved.

Instead, the Democrats had a hysterical fit. There was no discussion; there was no debate; there were simply hysterical allegations by Democrats that these proposals were part of the Administration's war on civil liberties. The Administration itself, which was only vaguely aware of Pointdexter's proposals, quickly backed down. Pointdexter was relieved from the pentagon.

Flawed as Pointdexter's proposals were, they were an attempt to stay ahead of the terrorists by adapting innovative tactics. Its too bad that no one will seriously consider them in the future.

More on the same topic: In the previous post, I quoted a portion of a story by Borges dealing with the various ways a book may be read. Borges illustrated in a humorous way the impossibility of separating previous perception from interpretation.

Don Dellilo touches on the same themes by writing about the impossibility of genuine experience in White Noise:

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides -- pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

"No one sees the barn," he said finally.

A long silence followed.

"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."

Another silence ensued.

"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura. We're here, we're now."

He seemed immensely pleased by this.

Take any author -- say Shakespeare. There are multitudes of monographs about him; there are multitudes of books written about his predecessors and his influence on subsequent literature. A lot has also been written about the Elizabethan time period when Shakespeare wrote his plays. You've probably heard the name 'Shakespeare' dropped quite a few times.

When you approach one of Shakespeare's books, all of these factors color your judgment. What was Shakespeare like during his own time? How was he similar and how was he different from the other playwriters? These questions are impossible for us to answer.

Pierre Menard is not actually my name -- it is a pseudonym derived from one of my favorite stories, Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote by the Argentine writer and philosopher Jorge Louis Borges.

The story is about a man named Pierre Menard who sets out to write Don Quixote . He does not want to write a modern adaptation or a new translation -- no, he wants to write Don Quixote itself, word for word -- not by immersing himself in the Spanish culture of the time, but by naturally letting it flow out of his own experiences.

Eventually he succeeds in writing parts of Don Quixote; the Borges story purports to be a review of his work. In a hilarious passage, the work of Pierre Menard is compared to the text of Cervantes :

It is a revelation to compare Menard's Don Quixote with Cervantes'. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):

. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time,
depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and
adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.

Written in the seventeeth century, written by the "lay genius" Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:

. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time,
depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and
adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases--exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor --are brazenly pragmatic.

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard--quite foreign, after all--suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

I have read this book more times than I have made love to my girlfriend of twenty years.

-- from a customer review of William Gibson's Neuromancer on

Ever wondered why Economics and Literature don't intersect more? I have. Which is why I was very excited to find

Decision-making under uncertainty as drama: Keynesian and Shacklean themes in three of Shakespeare's comedies

by F.J.C. De Carvalho

(Link via Crooked Timber)

Get your pdf copy of the paper [here].

Friday, January 23, 2004

A few years ago, Henry Blodget was in the midst of a securities fraud scandal. Blodget, an analyst for Merril Lynch, made an unprecedented amount of money -- high seven figures -- touting internet miracles. After the collapse of the internet bubble, Blodget was investigated for violation of conflict of interest provisions; he ended up giving up some of the money he earned and pledging never to work in the securities industry.

Blodget now works for, reporting on the Martha Stewart trial. And he's damn good too. Check out these three reports [1][2][3];

A gem from the first report is appended below.

"I really don't know," this prospective juror, No. 9, said, when Judge Cedarbaum asked whether he had seen or read or heard anything that might affect his judgment. "I'm not a news person. I'm a sports person."

"I see," replied Judge Cedarbaum. "So you don't follow the news?

"No. The news is depressing for me, so I stick to sports."

Prospective Juror No. 9 had another issue, too: He had answered "I don't know" to every question on the last four pages of the 35-page questionnaire. He explained to Judge Cedarbaum that he had done this because he just wanted to finish. Based on this and other factors, the defense moved to dismiss him for cause—arguing, effectively, that he couldn't be "fair and impartial" because he was brain-dead.

"He is a simple man who is interested in simple things," Judge Cedarbaum agreed. But she rejected the defense's contention that this meant he would spend the entire trial with his face buried in the sports section.

John Kerry, the new Democratic frontrunner for president, is making a great impression on voters in this picture.

At the beginning of each semester I go to my college bookstore to purchase my textbooks. As long as I'm there, I walk over to the English aisle and look at the books you have to read to get a degree in literature.

Some of the books used to puzzle me. I couldn't understand why Phillip K. Dick would be required reading.

Phillip Dick wrote cheap science fiction the seventies and early eighties. He did a lot of drugs; he had paranoid delusions; he often wrote to the FBI complaining about communist plots in his personal life.

His writing style is minimal and concise; a lot of his books were written while he was on drugs. He was obviously not in the mood for something ornate. Yet I was surprised once I began reading his books. This writing style sneaks up on you the moment you least expect it; once you get used to it you suddenly discover it is capable of communicating powerful emotions.

His books continuously slide into and out of incoherence. They reveal an obsession with the nature of reality, the impossibility of living a moral life, and the thin divide between sanity and madness. Dick once wrote that the biggest flaw of science fiction is its "inability to explore the subtle."

My favorite books are Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Man in the High Castle. The former is about a detective living in the 21st century whose job is hunting down human-looking androids; the latter explores what would happen had the US lost WWII and became jointly occupied by Germany and Japan.

Here is a small excerpt from The Man in the High Castle. Its about an American salesman, Robert Childan, who had tried to sell a piece of contemprorary American art to a Japanese official, Paul Kasouras. I've had to cut out some important parts to keep the length manageable, but I believe it conveys the flavor of the book:

"Charms," Paul said.
Childan stared.
"Good-luck charms. To be worn. By relatively poor people. A line of amulets to be peddled all over Latin America and the Orient. Most of the masses still believe in magic, you know. Spells. Potions. Its a big business, I'm told." Paul's face was wooden, his voice toneless.
"It sounds," Childan said slowly, "as if there would be a good deal of money in it."
Paul nodded.
"Was this your idea?" Childan said.
"No," Paul said. He was silent, then.
Your employer, Childan thought. You showed the piece to your superior...or some influential person over your head, someone who has power over you...

that's why you're giving it back to me, Childan realized. You want no part of this. But you know what I know ... I will lease the designs, or sell them on a percentage basis; some deal will be made...

Clearly out of your hands. Entirely. Bad taste on your part to presume to stop me or argue with me.

"There is a chance here for you," Paul said, "to become extremely wealthy." He continued to gaze stoically ahead.

"The idea strikes me as bizarre," Childan said. "Making good-luck charms out of such art objects; I can't imagine it."
"For it is not your natural line of business. You are devoted to the savored esoteric. Myself, I am the same...You and I -- we have no awareness of the vast number of uneducated."

"You wrestle with yourself," Paul observed...
"I have already decided."
Paul's eyes flickered.
Bowing, Childan said, "I will follow your advice. Now I will leave to visit the importer."

Oddly, Paul did not seem pleased; he merely grunted and returned to his desk. They contain their emotions to the last, Childan reflected.

Accompanying him to the door, Paul seemed deep in thought. All at once, he blurted, "American artisans made this piece hand by hand, correct? Labor of their personal bodies?"
"Yes, from initial design to final polish."
"Sir! Will these artisans play along? I would imagine they dreamed otherwise for their work."
"I'd hazard they could be persuaded," Childan said; the problem, to him, appeared minor.
"Yes," Paul said. "I suppose so."

Something in his tone made Robert Childan take sudden note. A nebulous and peculiar emphasis, there. And then it swept over Childan. Without a doubt, he had split the ambiguity - he saw.

Of course. Whole affair a cruel dismissal of American effort, taking place before his eyes. Cynicism, but God forbid, he had swallowed hook, line, and sinker. Got me to agree, step by step, led me along the garden path to this conclusion: products of American hands good for nothing but to be models for junky good-luck charms.

This was how the Japanese ruled, not crudely, but with subtlety, ingenuity, timeless cunning.

Christ! We're barbarians compared to them, Childan realized. We're not more than boobs against such pitiless reasoning. Paul did not say -- did not tell me -- that our art was worthless; he got me to say it for him. And, as a final irony, he regretted my utterance. Faint, civilized gesture of sorrow as he heard the truth out of me.

He's broken me, Childan almost said aloud -- fortunately, however, he managed to keep it only a thought...Humiliated me and my race. And I'm helpless. There's no avenging this; we are defeated and our defeats are like this, so tenuous, so delicate, that we're hardly able to perceive them. In fact, we have to rise a notch in our evolution to know it ever happened.

What more proof could be presented, as to the Japanese fitness to rule? He felt like laughing, possibly with appreciation. Yes, he thought, that's what it is, as when one hears a a choice anecdote...Too personal for narration.

In the corner of Paul's office a wastebasket. Into it! Robert Childan said to himself, with this blob, this wu-ridden piece of jewelry.

Could I do it? Toss it away? End the situation before Paul's eyes?

Can't even toss it away, he discovered, as he gripped the piece...

Damn them, I cant free myself of their influence, can't give in to impulse. All spontaneity crushed...Paul scrutinized him, needing to say nothing; the man's very presence was enough; Got my conscience snared...

Guess I've lived around them too long. Too late now to flee, to get back among whites and white ways.

Robert Childan said, "Paul--" His voice, he noted, croaked in sickly escape; no control, no modulation.
"Yes, Robert"
"Paul, I ... am... humiliated."
The room reeled.
"Why so, Robert?" Tones of concern, but detached. Above involvement.
"Paul. One moment." He fingered the bit of jewelry; it had become slimy with sweat. "I--am proud of this work. There can be no consideration of trashy good-luck charms. I reject."
Once more he could not make out the young Japanese man's reaction, only the listening ear, the mere awareness.
"Thank you, however," Robert Childan said.
Paul bowed.
"The men who made this," Childan said, "are proud American artists. Myself included. To suggest trashy good-luck charms therefore insults us and I ask for apology."
Incredible prolonged silence.
Paul surveyed him. One eybrow lifted slightly and his thin lips twitched. A smile?
"I demand," Childan said. That was all; he could carry it no further. He now merely waited.
Nothing occurred.
Please, he thought. Help me.
Paul said, "Forgive my arrogant imposition." He held out his hand.

This is the funniest book review I have ever read.

Recently, I've grown slightly obsessed with the work of Stephen Glass. Glass was a very well-read and respected journalist who wrote human-interest stories for The New Republic. He published pieces in many different magazines: Harpers, George, Rolling Stone, Slate, Policy Review. Recently, he was the subject of a minor movie called Shattered Glass.

In May of 1998, Glass published an article called Hack Heaven, describing how a teenage hacker was hired by a big-time software company after he managed to hack into their system. The story was further investigated by the now-defunct Forbes Digital Magazine which discovered that it was a complete fabrication, from start to finish.

The New Republic conducted a review of Glass's articles and found that, in fact, most of them were figments of his imagination. Glass was fired and disgraced; recently, he published The Fabulist, an autobiographical novel about a reporter who fakes stories.

For me, though, Glass' stories do not lose any value merely because they are inventions. I can't help but be moved by his account of his work as a phone-in psychic in Prophets and Losses. I can't help but laugh and shake my head at his portrait of a fanatical evangelist in Savannah Postcard. In fact, I only respect him the more for inventing the characters in his pieces, who are too good to be true on the one hand and too human on the other.

I'd like to close this post by quoting the first few paragraphs of Savannah Postcard:

Every Sunday evening, after a long and trying day of missionary work here, Jim Johansen drives 300 miles to Atlanta, where he lives. Along the way, he applies to himself the regimen he has developed over the years to restore body and soul after a tough stint on the conversion trail. He drives first to one of Savannah's Krispy Chic restaurants and orders the Better Deal Bucket, which consists of ten deep-fried drumsticks, plus a large side of mashed potatoes, although Johansen skips the potatoes. He puts the bucket on the car seat next to him, and, as he drives, he works his way through it, drumstick by drumstick. He doesn't gollup his food. He doesn't even allow himself the first drumstick until he has merged onto I-16, the road that connects Savannah to Macon, halfway to Atlanta. In between drumsticks and throughout the day, he smokes non-filtered Camel cigarettes, a great many of them.

In 1991, when Johansen was trying to convert Buddhists, he averaged two packs of cigarettes each Sunday and five drumsticks on the drive home from Savannah to Atlanta. In 1992 and 1993, when he was trying to convert the "miscellaneous," as he calls members of the smaller and more exotic sects, he increased his intake to seven drumsticks and a wing, and four packs. Now he is trying to convert Savannah's Jews, and, on each Sunday drive, he goes through a full Better Deal load of ten drumsticks. As for Camels, he claims to be up to a terrifying six and a half packs a day. The effects show. Johansen looks like Orville Redenbacher gone portly, and his white beard is stained nicotine yellow all around the rim of his mouth.

"It's hard work converting Jews, and that makes me hungry," Johansen says. He speaks in staccato bursts between puffs on his cigarette. Lighting a fresh cigarette off the butt of one that is guttering to its last gasp, he ruminates on the challenge. "Yep, they may be the hardest [puff]. They're harder than anyone [puff]. Harder than the Chinese [puff]. And the Chinese were hard." He shakes his head. "After these ten legs [puff] ten legs! [puff] I'm still [puff] still hungry."

Two weeks ago I bet that John Edwards will come in fourth place in Iowa, or, if he comes in third, he will beat the fourth place candidate by 2% of less. It seemed like a great bet: Iowa was to be a two-party faceoff between Dean and Gephardt and the latest polls put Edwards soundly in fourth place with 11% support.

Needless to say, I lost. I've been wondering ever since how conventional wisdom proved so misguided in this case. Before Kerry's and Edwards' last-week resurgence in the polls, every major newspaper concentrated its coverage on Dean and Gephardt and repeatedly characterized the chances of other candidates as marginal.

It seems to me that the all the mainstream reporters and analysts are terrible at predicting counterintuitive movements. Their role is fundamentally reactive - they comment on trends which have manifested themselves but never seem to accurately predict the trends that are about to happen.

Early coverage of Dean -- for example, this brilliant and quirky piece by Johnathan Cohn published before anyone had heard of the man -- tended to question whether Dean would be able to have any impact at all on the Democratic race. No one managed to foresee the legion of support Dean would be able to drum up.

Why is this? Are political movements really so difficult to predict? Or is this a culture problem in the media?

Who says Bush hasn't done anything for the economy ? From this Reuters report:

Bush's motorcade stopped at the Roswell, New Mexico eatery for lunch and Bush stepped behind the counter, threw his arm over the shoulder of the owner and said: "I need some ribs."


"This is my chance to help this lady put some money in her pocket," Bush said. "Let me explain how the economy works. When you spend money to buy food, it helps this lady's business. It makes it more likely somebody is going to find work."

Oh, so this is how the economy works. Mr. President, will it be too much to ask you to come along to my job interviews and explain this to my potential employers?

Next, the president came up with a new way to dodge questions:

When reporters began hitting him with questions, he declined to cooperate and challenged them to buy something since "you've got plenty of money in your pocket."

But, the trip was not a total waste of time:

[The President] bought a $42.95 takeout order of ribs, fried okra, cornbread and buttermilk pie for the Air Force One flight back to Washington.

Everyone critiques the Patriot Act -- see the Bush in 30 Seconds ads in the previous post -- but not too many seem to know what it actually says. Dahlia Lithwick has a good dry, technical four-part summary in Slate [ Part 1 ][ Part 2 ][ Part 3 ][ Part 4] .

Without endorsement, here are the finalists and winners of the Bush in 30 Seconds contest at

My first Dean party: My curiosity got the better of me. Along with my friend K., I looked up local gatherings on One seemed attractive: a large number of attendees, located only a few minutes from the campus where I live. I registered online and showed up fashionably late the next day.

Along with K., I walked in, said hellos, and sat down. One of the organizers asked if I wanted a Dean button. I said I did but was completely unprepared for the ensuing question.

"Do you want a gay one or a straight one?" he asked.

After dryly reflecting to myself that I wouldn't be asked this at a Bush rally, I said I wanted a straight one.

He rummages through has bag and says he has no straight ones. And so, for the rest of the party, I proudly wore an 'Out for Dean' button.

By the way, the Club for Growth -- a Republican organization -- is running a ludicrous ad ridiculing the makeup of Dean's base [real player][windows media].

Introduction: This blog will contain all sorts of unconnected ramblings, ranging from opinions on classics and contemporary writing to repeated rants on politics. I doubt it will have many readers; but I know some of my friends will read it, and I am grateful to them.

I have tried to keep an online journal before but ultimately could not because my updates were so scarce and irregular. Nevertheless, a small blog with rare updates is better than none at all. So, for better, for worse, here it is, my small claim to a piece of internet space.