Aug 312002

In Hamlet the pompous old windbag Polonius sends his son Laertes off with this speech:

And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel,
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatched unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice:
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement.
Costly thy habir as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy; rich, but not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man;
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are more select and generous in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

This speech consists wholly of platitudes, platitudes intended by Shakespeare as platitudes, platitudes then and platitudes now. It’s kitchen-sampler stuff. It is delivered by one of the least attractive characters in all of the plays, one who lacks the virtue to be a hero and the brio to be a villain and can’t even manage to snoop without getting himself stabbed. Yet after “To be or not to be” it is probably the most often-quoted speech in Shakespeare, and always seriously. This is not a happy reflection on the state of literary culture.

Aug 312002

I oppose capital punishment on the grounds that the worst thing the state, with its monopoly on force, can possibly do is execute an innocent person. This, however, is the only argument against capital punishment with any merit. And of all the usual arguments, the worst is that to punish a murderer with death is “retributive” and “barbaric.”

Criminal justice does not operate on the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle. It operates on the “two eyes for an eye, full set of bridgework for a tooth” principle. If I hold up a gas station for $200, the judge doesn’t order me to give the $200 back, apologize to the attendant for sticking a gun in his face, and leave it at that. He puts me away for a few years. Otherwise there would be little disincentive to hold up gas stations.

The punishment, as any parent could tell you, must exceed the crime. Not grossly exceed the crime, of course — one doesn’t execute jaywalkers even though this practice would doubtless eliminate jaywalking — but exceed it nonetheless. This does get dicey with particularly heinous, violent crimes like murder, maiming and rape. Still, one cannot accept the principle of punishment in excess of the crime, as most opponents of capital punishment do, and still grow weak in the knees over executing a murderer. It just isn’t logical.

Aug 302002

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages; to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes…

What happened in the unseen labyrinth to which the pneumatic tubes led, he did not know in detail, but he did know in general terms. As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary in any particular number of the Times had been assembled and collated, that number would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead. This process of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, sound tracks, cartoons, photographs–to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance… All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed as often as was necessary.

I never found this passage from 1984 very convincing. Way too much clean-up involved. First you expunge the files, which is the easy part; but then you have to find everyone who might have a copy and confiscate those as well. This sounds like too much work for even “the largest section of the Records Department,” to which Orwell assigns this job, to handle.

But suppose documents were electronic, and that there were just one copy of every document, sitting on a server somewhere, that many people could access simultaneously from all over the world. Suppose Orwell had dreamt of The Internet, in other words. It certainly would have made life a whole lot easier for the Records Department. Change whatever you like, and no trace remains of what you had written before.

Richard Goldstein and Andrew Sullivan had a little dust-up about this a while back. Goldstein accused Sullivan of calling him a Marxist. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Goldstein is a Marxist.) Sullivan denied it and challenged Goldstein to search the archives. Goldstein countered that Sullivan deleted it from the archives to exculpate himself. In this case I’m quite sure Sullivan is telling the truth because Goldstein is a habitual liar, and Sullivan isn’t. But if you really do want to twiddle your archives and remove some inconvenient accusation, with decent blogging software, like, say, Greymatter, which I use, it’s trivial. You change the entry, rebuild and voila! the previous versions vanish down the memory hole. Web pages are mighty flexible, and flexibility, for obvious reasons, relates inversely to historical “stickiness.”

I’m willing to edit my archives, up to a point. If I find a grammatical error or infelicity in an old post I silently correct it. On the other hand, if I’m adding content or correcting a substantial error, I’ll add it to the bottom as an “update” so it’s clear what I posted originally. Of course I am also reasonably confident that the Rankes and Burckhardts of the coming century will not be counting on me for source material. (I’d be curious how other bloggers treat their archives.) I trust this explains why, if I were editing the Oxford English Dictionary, I’d insist on print citations too, even for a word like “blog.” Not that you asked.

Aug 302002

It might be wise for companies to consult a historian before naming new products. (Not to mention a linguist: remember how big the Chevy “Nova” went over in Mexico?) Calling a sneaker Zyklon really isn’t too bright. Nonetheless the Jewish organizations, predictably aghast, could put a sock in it once in a while. Or maybe they really believe that Umbro intended to cash in on gas-chamber chic.

Update: I am informed in the comments that I have fallen victim to an urban legend about the Chevy Nova. My thanks to my alert readers. It won’t happen again. Until it does.

Aug 292002

Danse Macabre

Who was who and where were they
Scholars all and bound to go
Iambs without heel or toe
Something one would never say
Moving in a certain way

Students with an empty book
Poets neither here nor there
Critics without face or hair
Something had them on the hook
Here was neither king nor rook

This is something someone said
I was wrong and he was right
Indirection in the night
Every second move was dead
Though I came I went instead

–Yvor Winters

Aug 292002

Looks like my “eight-page, ultrasuede-covered ‘photo album'” invitation to Puffy’s post-MTV Video Music Awards party got lost in the mail, although it’s not clear to me how even the U.S. Postal Service could lose an item like that. Damn, and I was stoked to bust out my flyest shit too:

The Dress Code Must Be Respected!

If your shoes are scuffed you’re going to have a problem. If you’re wearing jeans, you’re on the wrong track.

Pull out the flyest shit in your closet, or have your stylist pull something for you.

Definition of fly shit: The top designers i.e. Sean-John Collection, Gucci, Dolce & Gabanna, YSL, Couture, Versace.

Think the Oscars. Think the person you want to marry is inside; think of me at the GFDA Awards, Kentucky Derby, my New Year’s Eve party in Miami or my Hamptons White Party.


Fellas: Haircuts, Shape-ups and clean shaves are a must. Ladies: Hair-dos, waxing, manicures and pedicures are also a must.


OK, I won’t. But can’t I at least taunt the sexy? Or mildly irritate the sexy? Or have my stylist mildly irritate the sexy? Please?

Aug 292002

Someone said a very bright man invented poker, but a genius invented chips. In the same way, a very bright man invented the income tax, but a genius invented withholding. How else could the government take an enormous chunk of your money and pose as Santa Claus at the same time? Radley Balko says enough.

Aug 282002

Today Lileks has at some killjoy named George Monbiot, who’s arguing in The Guardian, where else, that money can’t buy you happiness. Actually he argues further, and rather less intuitively, that money buys you misery:

I hardly dare to mention this for fear of being accused of romanticising poverty or somehow conspiring to keep people in the picturesque state to which I would never submit myself. But it is impossible not to notice that, in some of the poorest parts of the world, most people, most of the time, appear to be happier than we are. In southern Ethiopia, for example, the poorest half of the poorest nation on earth, the streets and fields crackle with laughter. In homes constructed from packing cases and palm leaves, people engage more freely, smile more often, express more affection than we do behind our double glazing, surrounded by remote controls.

Well, Lileks can do, and does, more justice to this steaming pile of crap than I. But for my money it’s a sign of progress whenever this argument is offered seriously. Let’s face it, preaching poverty is not a winning strategy. (True, there was Jesus, but that rend-your-cloak riff was never too popular, even among the faithful.) If this is what the lefties have been reduced to then it’s sorry, game over, thank you for playing. Which is OK by me.

Aug 282002

Tim Noah is upset with The New Republic for claiming that Saddam has used “weapons of mass destruction.” Those pesky chemical and biological weapons with which he periodically massacres his own people aren’t nuclear weapons, so they don’t count. And after all:

If Saddam has already used “weapons of mass destruction” (and, moreover, suffered little for it), what deters him from using nukes in the future? They’re all “weapons of mass destruction,” aren’t they?

Good point. With America’s journalists standing sentinel, manfully withholding condemnation of Saddam for using “weapons of mass destruction” until the moment he actually drops a nuclear bomb, I feel safer already.

Aug 272002

Guess I won’t have to break the bank to pay British Telecom for that hyperlink license after all. “Everyone sues all the time in the States anyway,” said BT Chairman Sir Christopher Bland, blandly, when asked why BT was pursuing this absurd lawsuit. Yeah, but at least everyone doesn’t always win.