Jul 312003

“In the adversity of our best friends we always find something that is not displeasing,” La Rochefoucauld wrote in 1665, identifying Schadenfreude — “joy in adversity,” an almost literal translation of his aphorism — for the first time, although more general strictures against envy date back to the Ten Commandments and beyond.

The word, however, is inexact. Imagine one of your friends coming down with a terminal illness, or having a miscarriage, or being hit on the street by a falling piano. There certainly exist some people who are envious enough to wish, or bring, such catastrophes on others. Helmut Schoeck gives several grisly examples in his magisterial book Envy, like the German nanny who pushed a pram off a pier, drowning her charge because, according to her own account, she couldn’t bear the fact that she was childless. But I retain enough residual faith in human nature to doubt that the emotion is general, or even common.

It is failure, not mere bad luck, that universally gladdens the human heart. I have a friend who is a prolific and hopeless writer. Secretly I root for him to fail: his success would be further discouraging evidence of the inability of the world to distinguish bad writing from good. If he were a better writer I am sure I would root for him to succeed. I am rooting not for failure but for justice: the fact that my friend is involved is immaterial. Would I rather he fail then improve? Probably. Which is the ignoble part. Similarly, Michael Blowhard (yes, it’s all Blowhard all the time over here) marvels, with an unseemly touch of glee, in the improved attitude of waiters and store clerks in the wake of the dot.com crash. Mostly I think he just wants better service.

Schadenfreude runs especially high among professional colleagues, the best judges of what their fellows do and don’t deserve. On Wall Street hearts leapt when John Meriwether’s Long-Term Capital Management busted — and sank again when the government bailed them out. Other hedge fund managers rooted against Meriwether because he had been claiming to make 40% returns for years on virtually riskless bond arbitrage, which is impossible. In fact he had been gambling. To make 40% per annum you have to leave certain risks unhedged, and LTCM happened to be hugely exposed to the risk that a government would default on its own bonds. The Russians did so, and ka-boom. Now Meriwether was widely envied, among other things for being the hero of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker. (In the famous scene from the book, Salomon chairman John Gutfreund proposes a game of liar’s poker for a million dollars. Meriwether counteroffers a game for ten million, and Gutfreund folds.) But so far as I could tell, the Wall Street celebrations, though tinged with green, were mostly for his chickens finally coming home to roost. The feeling seemed to be that it was just that he finally went broke.

If we must import from the German, then, I propose Fehlschlagenfreude, or “joy in failure.” It would be more accurate, if less euphonious.

(Update: Craig Henry comments.)

Jul 312003

How do two arty Manhattan types like Michael Blowhard and me amuse ourselves when shorn of the wives for an evening? We go see Bad Boys 2, what else?

One can admire the movie, at a safe distance from the theater, for its systematic assault on the critical faculties. It ranges in volume from deafening to ear-bleeding, noise being well understood to interfere with thinking. The director, Michael Bay, a Simpson-Bruckheimer protegé, Michael helpfully informed me — who could have guessed? — favors a garish palette. Miami, once a pastel paradise, has apparently become the City of Primary Colors. Bay also sees to it that of every ten lines of dialogue (and never more than five at a time) at least one is a catch-phrase along the lines of “let’s roll” or “go! go! go!” or “bring the noise.” The villain is a Cuban Ecstasy dealer. Being Cuban, he is of course supplying Castro with drug money. For a touch of realism, we are treated to a gratuitous scene of a youth “overdosing” on Ecstasy; the gutters of Manhattan are littered with Ex casualties, I’m telling you.

In the first five minutes Bay burns a cross and shoots a few Klansmen. Then he blows some shit up, crashes a bunch of cars (and a boat), blows more shit up, crashes a bunch more cars, blows more shit up, dices up a Russian mobster, plows a jeep through a shantytown (miraculously killing no one), and blows still more shit up. The interludes, though short, are long enough to make you eager to see more shit blown up. Spoiler: at the end a whole lot of really big shit gets blown up.

Afterwards Michael and I killed a couple bottles of Israeli Sauvignon Blanc (obviously we were still addled) and settled several pressing questions. First, fifty people blog about politics for every one who blogs about culture not because people are more interested in politics than culture, but because, in a sense, they are less interested: one’s taste is a little too personal. There is also a well-established vocabulary for political writing; not for art. Second, Reason magazine has really started to suck since Gillespie took over. Third, great as Human Action is, the von Mises book for everyone is The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. And finally, the best writer in the blogosphere is not the vastly overrated Lileks, who can do quite a bit with nothing on his mind and usually does, not the equally underrated Alice Bachini, not Evan Kirchhoff, although he’s coming up fast on the outside and has been awesome of late, and certainly not Michael or me. It’s Colby Cosh. That this man is unemployed is as stunning a tribute to the impenetrable stupidity of big media as I can possibly imagine.

(Update: Colby Cosh is understandably embarrassed. And no, the National Post, excellent though it is, doesn’t count as Big Media down here. David Artemiw comments. George Wallace comments. Alice Bachini comments, inimitably.)

Jul 292003

You might be a junk scientist if:

You prophesy disaster in some remote future. It is safest to choose a date in the long run, when we’re all dead, but even the less judicious have little to worry about: by the time D-Day rolls around people will have forgotten what you said. If someone does happen to remember, you can either issue a new report revising your predictions, or, as a last gasp, maintain that you were right in general, even as your every specific prediction has been falsified. Or both.

You deal in poorly-understood, multi-causal phenomena, traditional playgrounds for the scientific crank. Cancer and climatology are especially popular.

You have trouble with extrapolation, like Ralph Hingson of the Boston University School of Health, who concluded that college drinking causes 1,400 deaths annually, by taking the total number of alcohol-related deaths among people 18-24 and multiplying by, uh, the percentage of them in college. (Note that this is supposed to establish that college drinking is especially dangerous.) Social science: it’s easy!

You are famous for work outside your field, like Paul Ehrlich, a bug man best-known for speculation on overpopulation and global cooling (yes, cooling); Barry Commoner, the cancer-biologist-cum-nuclear-testing-authority-cum-geneticist; Rachel Carson, an expert on chemicals by virtue of her master’s in marine biology; and Stephen Jay Gould, another genetics authority, trained in paleontology. The press, notwithstanding, can be relied on to refer to you as “Dr.,” “Ph.D.,” or “distinguished scientist.”

You do a lot of testifying for plaintiffs in class-action suits. Extra credit if this is how you make your living.

Jul 262003

Dear Aaron,

I am hoping you can answer a quick poetry question for me. In the following poem by John Updike, what do you think “blither” means?

(Upon reading of the genetic closeness of mice and men.)

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
Braw science says that at the leastie
We share full ninety-nine per cent
O’ genes, where’ere the odd ane went.

O nibblin’, pink-tail’d, bright-ee’d sir,
We hail frae ane sma’ fearful blur
‘Neath dinorsaur feet, lang syne-
Na mair be pestie, cousin mine.

Stay oot my larder, oot my traps
An’ they’ll snap softer doon, p’rhaps,
For theft and murther blither go
When a’s i’ th’ family, bro’ and bro’.

Thank you,
Amy Greenwood

Dear Amy,

Updike is imitating Robert Burns here, so first I go to the Scots dictionary to find that “braw” is Scots for “fine.” This helps me understand the poem but does not answer your question. “Blither” is not a Scots word, but it is an English word, with two meanings. Usually it is a verb, but as a verb it makes no sense in the poem. It is also a comparative adjective, meaning “more blithe,” and this second sense clears the matter up. The last two lines mean: “theft (by the mouse) and murder (by the poet) are cheerier affairs when they’re kept in the family.” Unfortunately “blither,” following “murther” directly, sounds far more natural with a short than a long i, which compounds the difficulty.

There is a similar problem in one of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Farther in summer than the birds,” which has a line beginning “Antiquest felt at noon.” She means “more antique,” but many, many readers have read the word as “anti-quest.”

Pedantically yours,

Jul 262003

“To generalize is to be an idiot,” William Blake famously generalized. Blake has sympathizers at Crooked Timber, where Brian Weatherson and Henry Farrell, rake Randy Barnett over the coals for his j’accuse to “the Left,” which has apparently been “living a lie,” en masse, and now more than ever:

Since the 2000 election, however, I have begun to realize for the first time that the Left really and truly lives in a socially constructed world — a world where “truth” is their own construction. In their world:

Al Gore was elected president. Bush was selected. The Supreme Court “decided the election” (rather than reversed a rogue Southern state Supreme Court and restore the rulings of local, mainly democratic [sic], election officials). Bush is in the pocket of the oil companies. Dick Cheney really runs the country. Bush’s energy plan would destroy the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I could go on and on. These are not disagreements about “values” or ends, but disagreements about facts. Once you notice this phenomenon, you see it everywhere. Now the Left is lying about Bush to make him appear to be a liar because they cannot catch him in any actual lies.

Henry, in reply, takes a meta-approach:

Big Dumb Generalizations like Barnett’s have two dead give-aways. First of all, they talk in grand terms about the Left (or the Right) as if it were some sort of groupthink monolith, where all speak for one, and one speaks for all. This rhetorical trick allows them to take some fringe notion advanced by an Indymedia crackpot as incontrovertible evidence that everyone to the left of Barry Goldwater is living on Pluto. Second, as Kieran [Healy] makes clear, their tendentious generalizations are usually reversible so that its trivially easy to swap around the good Right and the bad Left. For example, a leftie could just as easily write an agitprop article about how the Right was living in a dream world in which the administration hadnt made false claims about Iraqs nukes and al Qaeda links, Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, John Lott had real figures to prove that more guns equal less violence, &c &c.

Henry first objects to “Big Dumb Generalizations.” Barnett’s is Big, certainly; Dumb, possibly, although neither Henry nor Brian deigns to say why; but mostly the trouble seems to be that it’s a Generalization. The objection is to generalization as such. One wonders exactly what kind of generalizations, if any, about “the Left” and “liberals,” or “conservatives” and “the Right” for that matter, Brian and Henry would consider valid.

If I were to claim that the Left supports more business regulation than the Right, I would seem to be on solid ground. Yet Marx, for one, vigorously opposed business regulation, which he thought would meliorate the harsh effects of laissez-faire, lull the proletariat into false consciousness, and postpone the glorious day of the socialist revolution. Have I, too, entered the Land of the Big Dumb Generalization?

And yes, such generalizations, like playground taunts, are reversible, in the I’m-rubber-and-you’re-glue sense. It does not follow, however, that their reverse is equally true. Randy says that “the Left” claims that Gore was elected and Bush was selected. You can quibble over how much of the Left is implied in “the Left,” but anyone who reads blog comments knows that some of the left claims exactly that. But if a leftie, by Henry’s hypothesis, wrote a mirror-article in which he claimed that “the Right” believes that Bush had won a majority of the popular vote, he would be laughed at, because no one, to my knowledge, has ever said any such thing.

Barnett has a real argument, which Brian and Henry do not bother to extract, that runs as follows: Leftists are apter to believe in “socially constructed” reality. (This much strikes me as obvious. Of course not all leftists believe in “social construction,” but everyone who does is a leftist.) People who believe that all reality is “constructed” are apter to construct their own. QED.

One could answer by claiming that few people on the left believe Barnett’s litany; this, alas, requires recourse to grubby facts. Or one could answer that “Left” and “Right” are essentially meaningless terms and ought to be retired, the way Jacques Barzun tried to retire “classic,” “romantic,” and “modern.” I’d sympathize with either approach. But to object to a generalization on the grounds that it’s a generalization — what are you guys trying to do, put us bloggers out of business?

Jul 242003

Public art usually manages to offend my aesthetic and political sensibilities at once. (My God, that’s hideous. And I paid for it!) But there are exceptions. A long, heavily-trafficked corridor in the Times Square subway station has eight metal signs nailed to the rafters, about fifty feet apart. If you happen to look up, instead of staring straight ahead as people are wont to do in subway stations, you will read the following, a line at a time:

So tired.
If late,
Get fired.
Why bother?
Why the pain?
Just go home,
Do it again.

I would be tempted to call this subversive if the word had not been spoiled. In any case it’s more entertaining than having Christo wrap Central Park, and a hell of a lot cheaper.

Jul 222003

(Two geeks are waiting for the elevator on the seventh floor of a seven-story building. The elevator ascends to five and then begins to descend.)

Geek 1: I hate when people do that.
Geek 2: Yeah. Why should they care where the elevator’s going when they’re getting out anyway?
Geek 1: If they have to press a button, they might choose four at least. That would make sense.
Geek 2: Not so fast. If we disregard the intra-building trips — which are probably negligible in a residential building — then half of the elevator trips will originate from the first floor and the other half will start at floors two through seven, randomly distributed.
Geek 1: OK, I see where you’re going with this…
Geek 2: So, if we take a sample of twelve trips according to the expected distribution, six will originate from the first floor, and one each from floors 2 through 7, which comes to [sums 2 through 7 using Gauss’s trick] 27 + 6 is 33, divided by 12, so in fact the optimal floor for the elevator to rest at, to minimize its travel time, is less than 3.
Geek 1: Immaterial, since floors are integral. But wait a second. Who on the second floor is going to use the elevator anyway?
Geek 2: Good point. So if we remove the second floor then we’ll add the floors for ten random trips, 5 + 25, divided by 10, looks like the third floor even.
Geek 1: No way it could be less than the third floor.
Geek 2: You live on seven. That sounds like special pleading.
Geek 1: Anyway the whole calculation is off. People tend to leave in the morning and return at night, therefore the optimal floor for the elevator is time-dependent…

Yes, it’s very, very sad.

Jul 212003

(With apologies to Flaubert.)

< ...>: A form of emphasis employed by bloggers who wish to show that they understand HTML. The ellipses are usually replaced by “SARCASM” or “RANT” but anything will serve. Rendered as […][/…] by bloggers who do not understand how to escape characters in HTML.

: May be appended to anything except an actual trademark.

call your office: A directive not intended to be followed addressed to someone who will never read it.

cool kids: Other people.

crickets chirping: A colorful synonym for “silence.” Often set off in its own paragraph for extra color.

even the: Always succeeded by “liberal,” if you are conservative, or “conservative,” if you are liberal.

fascist: See idiotarian.

heh: The soul of brevity is to use one word where none will do.

idiotarian: A particularly dull-witted commentator, and thus deserving of special attention, who disagrees with you. Thunder against.

indeed: See heh.

literally: Figuratively.

meme: Anything that anyone else has ever referred to on the Internet.

read the whole thing: Always preceded by “As they say,” or “To coin a phrase.”

shocked: Always succeeded by (shocked!).

the “Q” word: Quixotic.

Jul 202003

I finally tired of my blogroll and thrashed it, with the results you see on your left. The “Now” category consists of people I check every day — which doesn’t necessarily mean they write every day, although it helps — while everybody in “And Then” I check at least once a week. I will say in defense of this scheme only that it’s an improvement.

To the nice questions of blogroll politics I have no satisfactory answers. If someone links to you, should you link back? It seems only fair that you should, somehow, and I’ve created a Hall of Reciprocity for this purpose. This will not quite do; it’s like inviting someone to the wedding ceremony but not the reception. But I can think of nothing better.

My blogroll exists for my convenience and your curiosity. The oft-seen enormous blogroll defeats both purposes. No one this side of Instantman reads 200 blogs regularly. Yet I understand how it happens. A link, once established, tends to linger like a British houseguest.

When it comes to cleaning house, big bloggers are no problem. I grew bored with Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus, where it’s all Times all the time, but they will not notice, let alone mourn, their sudden absence. Smaller bloggers are a different matter, and only a few, most of whom have posted so irregularly of late that their blogs are effectively moribund, have been demoted. I have also, at long last, buried the dead.

What to do, finally, about the blogs of your real-life friends? The usual solution, a “friends” category, smacks of favoritism. You may as well call it “Dude, your blog sucks, but you did bail me out of jail that one time, so here’s a link for you. Remember it the next time I call you at 3 AM,” except that’s a bit too long to fit nicely in the sidebar. Well, from now on my friends get the same treatment here as everybody else, and I’ll just have to raise my own bail money.

Jul 192003

Over at Crooked Timber Daniel Davies poses two related questions: why is snitching universally considered wrong, and why do moral philosophers have so little to say on the topic?

A great deal of the traditional antipathy to snitching is less toward the act than the actor. The snitch is personally nearly always an unpleasant character, currying favor with the authorities, whether it’s the Mafia snitch bargaining for immunity, the institutional snitch seeking glory in the newspapers, or the fourth-grade snitch after a little gold star. Still, this is not the heart of the matter.

Snitching involves a conflict of loyalties to the abstract — an external code of morality, or an institution — and the personal — your friends, gang, colleagues, classmates. (Or, to put it another way, to the larger group and the smaller.) The weaker the commitment to the abstract norm, the stronger the taboo against snitching. It is strongest of all in criminals, who have almost no faith in the abstract code and for whom the conflict therefore scarcely exists. Only if the behavior harms the gang itself, like skimming off the proceeds, does omerta go by the boards.

By the same token, the stronger the loyalty to the smaller group, the stronger the taboo against snitching. As one of Davies’ commenters points out, it goes harder for whistleblowers in Europe, where the bureaucracy is regarded as the Godhead, than in America, which is rather less reverential.

In some special cases of snitching there is also a knowledge problem, and moral philosophers tend not to interest themselves in knowledge problems. You don’t tell your best friend’s wife that he has been cheating on her partly because no one outside has been significantly hurt — the abstract loyalty is close to nil — but mostly because you don’t know enough about the complex, imperfect structure that is their marriage to disturb it. A man’s got to know his limitations.

All of this is less a topic for philosophy than literature, which has had more to say on the subject. The snitch-lit classic is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, an unregenerate celebration of the snitch. While in Ibsen’s play no one supports Dr. Stockmann except one friend and his family (and his wife only dubiously), in the American remake, Jaws (props to Ian Hamet for pointing this out), Mayor Vaughn, the town’s alleged representative, has the support of almost no one. America attenuates local loyalties, which attenuates the taboo against snitching.

(Note: Last paragraph rewritten, after rereading An Enemy of the People. The moral is not to discuss books you haven’t read in fifteen years.)