Sep 272003

Don’t you hate it when people tell you to read something, when what you really need is less to read, not more? This blog, as ever, is at your service.

First stop reading the newspaper. My grievances against Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes are many and serious, but I have always admired his steadfast refusal to read the paper. If yesterday’s paper is good for nothing but wrapping fish, what does this say about what you’ve retained from yesterday’s paper? Besides, the news is depressing.

I know people who have read five times as many introductions to works of classic literature as works of classic literature. Don’t be one of them. Forewords and afterwords are to be treated like dessert: read, if at all, after the book, never before, lest you read through the eyes of Professor So-and-So instead of your own. Professor So-and-So tends to natter pointlessly anyway.

Biographies are the scandal sheets of the literate. Great geniuses have the shortest biographies, said Emerson, incorrectly. Great geniuses now have 800-page doorstops memorializing what they ate for breakfast. If you are interested in a novelist, read the novels; in a jurist, the opinions; in a philosopher, the philosophy; in a painter, look at the pictures. Biography is gossip. Worse, it is disingenuous gossip, which you can read in the guise of acquiring an education. Kelly Jane Torrance, among others, beat me to pointing this out; bully for her.

As I grow older I find more wisdom in Ezra Pound’s stricture that the best reading program is to know a dozen good books extremely well. (Not that ol’ Ez followed his own advice.) If your experience is anything like mine you will reliably forget most of any good book the first couple of times you read it, and misunderstand the rest. Then when you return to it you will be astonished at what an idiot you were. Which is an education in itself.

You can cut down on blogs substantially. Female bloggers, for instance. Not all of them, of course: I read several, ranging from the marvelously surly Andrea Harris to the effervescent Sasha Castel to the brilliant Megan McArdle. They have one thing in common: to my knowledge, they are childless. Mother bloggers inevitably start writing about how the school bully is picking on little Eustace or how little Tiffany has been punished for posting nastiness in someone else’s comments section and it was really her who wrote it, not me, no matter what you think, and how dare you call social services on me, and you must be deranged to imagine that I would do something like that. Follow the links if you must. The point is, you need not.

The biggest spread on Wall Street is reputed to be between your current job and your next one. The biggest spread in the universe, mothers, is between your own and everyone else’s interest in the doings of your precious darling. As for the Father of all Mother Bloggers, am I the only one who skips the Gnat parts?

Finally, stop reading the ingredients on the cereal package. Yes, you. If you’ve reached ascorbic acid and trisodium phosphate you’ve gone much, much too far.

(Update: George Wallace dubs excessive child-blogging Lilexia. I like it. Rick Coencas co-sponsors Lilexia. It’s a meme! It’s a viral meme! Brian Micklethwait comments.)

Sep 242003

Friedrich von Blowhard is on about story structure:

My son loves to watch Stuart Little 2; consequently, I have listened to this film a large number of times while out doing errands. Hearing the movie all the way through repeatedly, it finally dawned on me that its basic story structure is broken up into four roughly equal parts:

Part I — Introduction to our hero/heroines inner, emotional problem

Part II — Introduction to our hero/heroine’s outer, practical problem and the explanation of the link between it and the inner problem

Part III — First round of engaging the practical problem

Part IV — Second round of confrontation with practical problem, culminating in ultimate success or failure

Friedrich applies this to The Great Gatsby and amusingly concludes that it is really a noir, which, considered from a certain angle, it is.

Let’s take Friedrich’s notion out for a spin with one of my favorite novels, Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.

Part I — Isabel Archer sails from America to England to visit her cousins, the Touchetts. She is young, beautiful, clever, proud, naive, and single. She begins poor, but James provides her with a fortune, in his usual way, to allow her maximal freedom of action, or to put it differently, enough rope to hang herself. Isabel resolves to tour Europe to gain an education.

Part II — She is also touring Europe to find a husband. Suitors present themselves. First is Lord Warburton, who, being handsome, kind, well-spoken, titled, and immensely rich, clearly won’t do.

Part III — Next up is the young American magnate, Caspar Goodwood. Isabel, who by this time has fallen under the spell of the arch-European Madame Merle, refuses Goodwood because he is too good, too wooden, and just altogether too American. Instead she marries Madame Merle’s choice, the evil gold-digging aesthete Gilbert Osmond.

Part IV — Isabel realizes her error, which it is too late to correct, for super-subtle Jamesian reasons to which I cannot do justice in a sentence and to which James, in truth, doesn’t do justice in the novel either.

Well, it works, I guess. Yet it is too vague to satisfy. Friedrich deals in themes, when what we really need is a classification of plots.

Surely there are several plots even if there is only one theme. The Seven Plots (or however many there are, maybe fewer, certainly no more) is one of the desperately needed books that may never be written, along with Albert Goldman’s proposed Encyclopedia of Musical Plagiarism. One of the seven, I am sure, is the hourglass plot, in which two characters begin high and low, cross in the middle, like an hourglass, and swap positions at the end. Martin Amis, for one, can write nothing else. Success is quintessentially hourglass; and Money and The Information both rely heavily on hourglass elements.

Instructors in screenwriting are fond of talking about character arcs, and they may be on to something, much as it pains me to admit. Since all stories take place in time, make time the x-axis. Represent a character’s death as y=0. Graph the plot, with a single line if there is one main character, with more if, as in the hourglass, there is more than one. Zoom out and note the shape. There’s your plot type. A Greek tragedy would look like an upside-down hyperbola, the protagonist cruising at the peak of his powers until the sudden revelation, and disaster. Novels of descent — say, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — would look like straight lines with negative slope, with an occasional squiggle to keep the reader’s attention. Horatio Alger stories are the same, except positively sloped.

The Great Gatsby is another single-line affair, Gatsby himself being the only character who changes. It might be a skewed bell curve: Gatsby begins with nothing, reaches his peak with his affair with Daisy — “I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts” — soon realizes that nothing will come of it, and is shortly thereafter found floating face-down in his swimming pool. Tales of peril and redemption will be inverted bell curves, skewed right when the peril takes more space than the redemption, the usual case.

A book’s merit, of course, has nothing to do with its graph. If The Seven Plots is ever written, let alone read, it will serve the useful purpose of dispelling the notion that some types of plots are better than others, and refocus the reader’s attention on other qualities, where it properly belongs.

Stanislaw Lem once wrote a little collection of reviews of non-existent books called A Perfect Vacuum. Its unstated premise was that the review rendered the actual book superfluous, and the titles themselves were marvelous — Die Kultur als Fehler (Civilization as Mistake) by Privatdozent W. Klopper, Being Inc. by Alastair Waynewright, Toi, “a novel about the reader,” by Raymond Seurat. A collection of reviews of non-existent books that we actually need would be an equally profitable exercise.

Sep 212003

Alexander Pope is the most widely quoted English poet after Shakespeare. You know a good deal of Pope whether you realize it or not. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. A little learning is a dangerous thing. What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. To err is human, to forgive divine. Hope springs eternal. Damn with faint praise. Whatever is, is right.

At the same time he is now nearly impossible to read at any length. The reasons for this are related, and interesting.

The 18th century made a fetish of “correctness,” and Pope wrote the vast majority of his verse the heroic couplet, the preferred form of the time. Pope translated Homer, among the least correct of poets, into heroic couplets; it is excruciating reading. His couplets are invariably end-stopped; grammatical units rarely extend beyond the two rhymed lines. The accents are heavy. The caesuras fall mid-line, after the fourth, fifth, or sixth syllables, almost without exception. Enjambment, being “incorrect,” is out of the question. The effect, after thirty or forty lines, is deadly, and Pope’s poems run 500 lines or more. Here is an oft-admired passage, the introduction to Book IV of The Dunciad:

Yet, yet a moment, one dim ray of light
Indulge, dread chaos, and eternal night!
Of darkness visible so much be lent,
As half to show, half veil, the deep intent.
Ye powers! whose mysteries restored I sing,
To whom time bears me on his rapid wing,
Suspend a while your force inertly strong,
Then take at once the poet and the song.

F.R. Leavis comments that “this astonishing poetry ought to be famous and current as the unique thing it is,” which testifies only to Professor Leavis’s capacity to be moved by heavy rhythms and trite language. The passage is as far as possible from being “unique”; it is a formulaic invocation to the Muses. It succeeds to the degree it does precisely because the language is stereotyped. Here Pope mocks the convention, as in The Rape of the Lock; unfortunately ironical triteness is still trite, and still dull. And Pope employs the same procedure perfectly seriously in other poems, such as Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady, that Professor Leavis praises with nearly equal fervor.

Pope has better moments:

Beneath her foot-stool Science groans in chains,
And Wit dreads exile, penalties and pains.
There foamed rebellious Logic gagged and bound,
There, stripped, fair Rhetoric languished on the ground.
His blunted arms by Sophistry are borne,
And shameless Billingsgate her robes adorn.
Morality, by her false guardians drawn,
Chicane in furs, and Casuistry in lawn,
Gasps, as they straiten at each end the cord,
And dies, when Dullness gives her page the word.

The passage is energetic but trivial. It would not make the slightest difference to its meaning if Wit were gagged, Science exiled, Morality in chains, Logic stripped, and Rhetoric garotted. And the monotonous movement has begun to set in.

The heroic couplet is indelibly associated with Pope in the history of English literature, but it can be used very differently. Consider this passage from Pope’s near-contemporary, Charles Churchill. He is satirizing Wiliam Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester, a notable literary bully of the time.

Bred to the law, you wisely took the gown,
Which I, like Demas, foolishly laid down.
Hence double strength our Holy Mother drew;
Me she got rid of, and made prize of you.
I, like an idle Truant, fond of play,
Doting on toys, and throwing gems away,
Grasping at shadows, let the substance slip.
But you, my Lord, renounced Attorneyship
With better purpose, and more noble aim,
And wisely played a more substantial game.

The passage has a subtle and stately movement; Churchill achieves an especially brilliant effect by ending the self-description at line 7 while suspending the rhyme. One looks in vain for anything like it in Pope.

The 18th century loved its abstractions, large and capitalized. Yet reason, as we understand it, has very little do with Reason, morality with Morality, and science with Science. These facts can be put aside when reading short excerpts of Pope but quickly become impossible to avoid. Pope conceives of Reason as knowing one’s place in universe as the middle link in the Great Chain of Being. “To reason well,” he writes, “is to submit”:

In pride, in reasoning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.

Professor Lovejoy, whose book The Great Chain of Being is the best on the intellectual history of the century and a model for writing the history of ideas in general, properly terms this “rationalistic anti-intellectualism.” The Age of Reason turns out to be ironically named.

For all Pope’s apostrophes to Isaac Newton, his view of Science shows clearly enough in his lines on the microscope:

Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.

It’s poor flawed humanity jumping itself up again. True Science, intent, as Pope often writes, on seeing things whole, has no need for such artificial aids. Here Pope agrees with his friend Swift; Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, the voyage to Laputa, has much the same theme. It is anti-technology and at bottom anti-scientific. All told the microscope has had a rather more impressive career than seeing things whole has.

Ethics, similarly, is easily disposed of. If whatever is, is right, then what else do you need to know? “Equal are common sense and common ease.” Know and keep your place in the universe is what Pope preaches, everywhere and always. In practice this advice devolves into petty Toryism:

Order is heaven’s first law, and this confessed,
Some are, and must be, greater than the rest,
More rich, more wise.

The best poetry is rarely the most quotable; it derives much of its meaning from its context. Pope is highly quotable because he had a superb verbal gift; but the context is foolish. He is like an exceptionally brilliant student who has mastered his exercises and regurgitates them expertly. His poetry is unsatisfactory because the dominant ideas of his time are unsatisfactory. He might have written great poetry had he been born a hundred years earlier or two hundred later. Instead he was bequeathed a cheap and facile philosophy, lacked the intelligence to think his way out of it, and became a poet of glittering fragments, no more. His vices are those of his age; his virtues are his own.

(Update: Miriam Jones comments. Alex(ei) comments.)

Sep 192003

What goes around comes around. Carleton College, which tossed me unceremoniously twenty years ago, now wants to cash in on my international fame by interviewing me about blogging for their alumni magazine. Fine. I can afford to be magnanimous about these things. Here’s the Q&A.

1. I notice that your archives go back to June 2002. When did you begin reading blogs? Whom do you read? When did it occur to you to start your own? Did you model yourself on anyone in particular?

I began reading blogs three or four months before I started mine. It occurred to me immediately that I might be able to do that too; the lag was sheer sloth. At the time I was also making a scant living designing websites, and I thought setting up my own web server would be a useful exercise. I still run the whole enterprise, if that is the word, from a Linux server in my living room.

The people I read are the ones on my blogroll, which is more a convenience than an honor roll. Some are famous bloggers, some not. Bloggers who deserve a wider readership include Evan Kirchhoff of 101-280, Tom of Agenda Bender, JW of Forager23, and Eddie Thomas of One Good Turn. Like all bloggers, I have a particular weakness for people who read me.

2. Has anything about blogging surprised you? For instance, were there certain assumptions you made before you started—about audience, say, or time commitment—that turned out not to be true?

I was pleasantly surprised, and still am, by the number of highly intelligent and knowledgeable people in the world I’d never heard of. Many of the best bloggers are well-known in their fields — Eugene Volokh in law, Chris Bertram in philosophy, Dan Drezner and Jacob Levy in political science — but who, before blogs, knew of Steven Den Beste, Megan McArdle, or Colby Cosh? Of course most of blogging, like most of anything, is white noise. There are several million blogs in the world, of which maybe a couple thousand are worth reading. That’s still about eighteen hundred more than I’m ever likely to get to.

I’ve also been impressed by how far out of their way even famous bloggers go to make themselves accessible. I can personally testify that Eugene Volokh and Andrew Sullivan answer their email, pretty promptly. I wrote a piece recently taking Terry Teachout, a deservedly famous critic, to task, not very politely either, and he replied, in detail, on his blog. Before blogs talking to Teachout in this unmediated way was basically impossible. I’d have had to write a letter to the editor at Commentary or The New Criterion or wherever and hope for the best. If you write something worth reading, it will be read, and by the people you want to read it. That just amazes me.

3. On average, how much time do you devote to blogging? Do you find it rewarding?

I am embarrassed to admit the amount of time I devote to blogging, considering my paltry output. I find writing absurdly difficult.

I probably spend ten or fifteen hours a week actually sitting at the computer and writing, but at least twice that to thinking about what I’m going to say. Once you catch the bug everything becomes grist for the blogmill. At dinner I will often orate about something or other, and my girlfriend will listen for a while and say, “I think I just heard tomorrow’s post.” And so she has. This habit makes me unacceptable in polite company. Fortunately all my friends are impolite.

4. Do you have any thoughts on how blogging, as a form, might come to influence the outside world (i.e. the non-online world)? For instance, some bloggers have given themselves credit for bringing down a) Trent Lott, b) Howell Raines, c) various flawed academics. Jeff Jarvis is busy encouraging the rise of blogs in Iran. Some Congressman once read James Lileks on the House floor to underscore a point he was making. My editors are particularly interested in how the rise of blogs might influence established a) media, b) politics, c) academia, d) digital culture—and so on. What do you hear from others and what are your own opinions?

Whither blogs? I have no idea. What Mickey Kaus calls blogger triumphalism, the orgy of self-congratulation that ensued at the fall of Trent Lott and Howell Raines, sets off my bullshit detector. I know from reefer logs that by far the most loyal audience for blogs is bloggers. Still, other influential people read them too, and Michael Bellisiles, to take a famous example, would have gotten away with very sloppy work if bloggers hadn’t caught him out. In fact he did get away with it, for years. Mainstream journalists are lazy enough to piggyback happily on research that a blogger does for free. They often don’t credit that research, but that’s another story.

Blogs are a sort of Zeitgeist-accelerator. You find out what everyone is thinking, and thinking about, except right now instead of next week or next month. They also radicalize the discourse, partly because having comparatively radical opinions is what inspires many people to blog in the first place, and partly because there’s a lot you can say on a blog that you can’t say on The New York Times op-ed page.

All of this pertains strictly to the polibloggers. Belletristic bloggers like me have no hope of influencing the world. We don’t try, really.

I wish Jeff Jarvis all the luck in the world in his quest to free Iran through blogging, but I suspect the rise of blogging in Iran stems from the mullahs beginning to lose control of the country, not the converse. The Congressional speech that quoted James Lileks had, I am sure, as profound an effect on policy as any other Congressional speech.

More important, some genius will eventually figure out how to make money from blogs. If you happen to run into him, please give him my phone number.

5. Tell me about your life outside of blogging. You live in New York, I see. What do you do for work? For fun? When did you graduate from Carleton, and do you ever correspond with other Carls online?

I was thrown out of Carleton in 1982, my junior year. This was due entirely to my inadequacies as a student and is no reflection on the school, which is perfectly fine as liberal arts colleges go, although so left-wing that it made my teeth hurt. Or maybe that was the weather. Memory blurs.

I maintain no connections from school, virtually or otherwise, because I find the term “Carl” indescribably embarrassing. The last time I spoke to a Carleton alumnus, so far as I know, was about five years ago, when I had dinner with a friend of mine from school. He had become a partner at McKinsey, the management consultants, and grown rich, sleek, and dull.

By trade I write computer software. For fun I play games. It used to be pool — the one activity in which I distinguished myself at Carleton, where I was the straight pool champion two years running — now it is bridge. Recently I captained a team that defeated a world championship team from Poland in an online match, which was a pretty big thrill. That should give you some idea of what a thrilling life I lead. I live in Chelsea with my long-time girlfriend and an old, surly cat with a pronounced overbite.

(Update: Agenda Bender comments.)

Sep 192003

Will the Google madness never stop? I can only hope so; in the meantime, welcome, visitors from the exotic lands of

depression quitting pot
Tom Petty neither here nor there
critical tits 2003
I believe Michael Kelly
Ann Coulter mental illness
wheelchair bondage
pitchers of god
how do you kill the undead

and, finally,

libertarian wallpaper

I believe I could die happy if I were #1 on Google for “libertarian wallpaper.”

Sep 162003

Trading Spaces, as recent visitors from distant galaxies may not be aware, is the biggest hit show on cable television. Two homeowners, given a decorator, a carpenter’s services, and $1,000 budget, have two days to redo a room in each other’s house. I watch it for the same reason everyone does, because I find before and after pictures impossible to resist. It is also a fine piece of moral instruction.

Along with the glories of the division of labor comes, perhaps necessarily, the worship of the specialist. The deference accorded physicians, scientists, and experts of all sorts never ceases to astonish me. Of all specialists the artist gets the best deal: physicians lose face if their patients die, scientists if they produce bogus results, and artists never, so long as they can continue to intimidate their clients, which, aesthetic criteria being notoriously ineffable, is a relatively simple matter. Nice work if you can get it, and unsurprisingly sub- and sub-sub-artists, like interior decorators, have begun to muscle in on the racket.

As a rule, the worse the artist, the more insistently he drapes himself in artistic trappings. So it is on Trading Spaces. The decorators are “designers.” Talk of “themes” abounds and inevitably precurses disaster. Novels have themes. Does your bedroom? Would you prefer it if it did?

Four of the show’s eight “designers,” as I suppose we must call them, are so out-and-out incompetent that their pretensions are neither here nor there. Kia is helpless in any style. She blows her budget on pointless and overelaborate creations that, fortunately for her clients, tend to fall apart, making them easy to remove. One might feel sorry for her were it not for her complete lack of self-knowledge. Confronted with the evidence of her latest trainwreck, she warbles “no problem,” often before she has been apprised of what the problem is. The hostess hates her, and liking people is her job. Watching a Kia episode is like rubbernecking; you can’t look, and you can’t look away.

Edward and Frank have been put in the wayback machine with the dials set to 1982 and 1992, respectively. No matter what the question, Edward’s answer is a high-gloss, “sophisticated” finish, while Frank puts his trust in hand painting. When all you have is a hammer then everything must look like a nail. Still, I could imagine either of them doing adequate work for a client whose sensibility dovetailed precisely with their own, whereas it is impossible to picture Kia performing competently for anyone, anywhere. The less said of giggly, jiggly Genevieve, the Princess of Distress, the better. Genevieve is to acid washes what Claus von Bülow is to insulin. Distressed baseboards. Distressed furniture. Distressed clients.

These four flail about entertainingly enough, but the meat of the show is the conflict between Good, represented by Vern and Laurie, and Evil, represented by Hildi and Doug. Vern especially, and Laurie to a lesser degree, listen to their clients, decide what the room needs, plan it in detail, and execute. They produce consistently pleasing results. Vern, an architect, appears to be the only one with any technical training, and it shows. The other decorators’ drawings for the carpenters, next to Vern’s, look like Nigel Tufnel’s efforts at scenery design.

At the other end of the spectrum are Hildi and Doug, who design the worst rooms on the show, Kia’s excepted. These two are the theme queens. No room is complete without one, preferably having nothing whatever to do with the interests of the client. Doug designed a “Brazilian” bedroom on one episode because he had just returned from a trip to Brazil. Hildi painted a room baby-blue with random white stripes in another because she liked the Tiffany box. Neither client had any connection to Brazil or Tiffany’s.

At first I believed they were just incompetent. Gradually it dawned on me that they are, in fact, actively hostile to their clients’ interests, lest they interfere with their own precious right to express themselves in other people’s houses. For some viewers the tip-off might have been when Hildi papered the kitchen of a teetotaling couple with wine labels, or when Doug framed an enormous drawing of a foot in the bedroom of a couple who had expressed a particular distaste for feet, saying, “They wouldn’t dare take it down.” (They did.)

For me it was Hildi’s hay and Hildi’s records. Hildi decorated the walls with hay in one episode and old records in another for no reason in particular. The homeowners had shown no interest in farming or music — not as if farmers would want hay in their living room, or musicians random records glued to the wall. These go beyond podiatric art, which you can easily get rid of. These are acts of wanton destruction that require stripping and repainting the whole room to repair. Doug, for his part, reliably paints his client’s furniture, provided they insist that it not be painted. To Doug also belongs the unique distinction of making a homeowner cry on camera.

In last week’s episode one couple specified that they hated pink and mauve, inspiring Hildi to paint their living room — surprise — pink! “Coral,” she insisted, as if to say it made it so.

For the most part the homeowners offer only token resistance to these catastrophes; the designers are artists, artists are experts, and experts know best. So any of you Trading Spaces guinea pigs, if you’re reading this, a few words of advice. Stop rolling over. If you think something will turn out hideous, it probably will. Remember that if you refuse to do the gruntwork it won’t get done. Hildi needs you to glue that hay on the wall. Demand Vern, settle for Laurie, and if you end up with Hildi, Doug, or, God forbid, Kia, hire an attorney to release you from the contract. It’ll be less work than redoing the room and possibly no more expensive.

(Update: Michael Krantz points out in the comments that the biggest hit on cable isn’t Trading Spaces, it’s Spongebob Squarepants. I should have said, the biggest hit on cable that is watched in my house. This blog regrets the error.)

(Further: James Joyner comments. Scott Chaffin comments.)

Sep 112003

MDMA, better-known as Ecstasy, has been shown to cause Parkinson’s Disease in monkeys if the monkeys had actually been getting MDMA. As it happens they were getting methamphetamine instead. Derek Lowe, himself a pharmaceutical chemist, eviscerates the authors politely, as a professional courtesy:

I’m sure that some people are going to point the finger at this group for not checking the samples of MDMA and methamphetamine. But I can’t fault them so much on that point. In vivo pharmacologists are not chemists, and aren’t expected to assay the samples that they’re dosing. In every drug research project I’ve been on, the animal folks make it clear that they depend on compounds being what the label says they are. They have no way to confirm it themselves. (In this case, Research Triangle Institute, the source of the samples, says that things were fine on their end, as you’d figure they would. Depends on where the label came from on that remaining methamphetamine sample, doesn’t it?)

But all that said, I have to then turn around and wonder why the original paper was published at all. I was surprised to learn that their results hadn’t been repeated beforehand. You’d think that this would be necessary, given the public health implications of the work and its variance with the results of others in the field. I can’t help but think that the researchers got their original data, thought they had a hot result that would make everyone sit up straight, and got it into publication as fast as they could.

I’m really taken aback to learn that they hadn’t looked at the original monkeys for MDMA levels before. Getting blood samples from monkeys is no easy task, but why wait until there’s a problem to do the post-mortem brain levels? Those numbers really would have helped to shore up the original results – and would have immediately shown that there was a problem, long before the paper was even published. I don’t like to sound this way, but it’s true: in the drug industry, we consider pharmacokinetic data like this to be essential when interpreting an animal study.

New scientific results are usually new because they’re usually wrong. Science approximates truth only because its results can be replicated. Scientists make mistakes and studies are shot through with error, though rarely so egregiously. You think science journalists might remember this tale next time they trumpet some “ground-breaking” result on the front page? Me neither.

There is a still larger lesson for my vast juvenile readership, who are possibly capable of learning something. Kids, this is very important: don’t do meth thinking it’s Ecstasy. For one thing, it means you got beat, which is embarrassing. For another, it’s linked to neurotoxicity and Parkinson’s Disease. In monkeys.

Sep 092003

Like all products of high school social studies classes (the day history became “social studies” was a watershed in American public education), I have been lectured on the evil of voting literacy tests and poll taxes. They are now against the law, thanks to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 24th Amendment, respectively, and invoking the specter of a “voting literacy test” remains a sure way to rouse the troops. Voting literacy tests often served as an excuse to intimidate blacks at the polls, and they are certainly objectionable if discriminatorily applied. Yet I see nothing wrong with such tests in principle. If someone is going to participate, albeit in a humble way, in the great affairs of state, ought he at the very least to be able to read? And how about a math test while we’re at it? Sample question:

If one million people are taxed $1 each, and the money is given to one of them, how much wealth has been created?

A. One million dollars.
B. Zero.
C. Are we counting transfer costs and malinvestment?

B or C, you get to pull the lever. If you answer A — well, thanks for playing.

Poll taxes I find no more noxious than any other tax. Supposedly the trouble with poll taxes is that they force a citizen to pay for exercising his fundamental rights, but the same criticism applies to property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, and most other taxes you could name, none of which were ruled unconstitutional on “equal protection” grounds.

The death of one man, Stalin said, is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic. This observation can be generalized into what I will modestly deem Haspel’s First Law: all crime ceases to be criminal when committed on a large enough scale. A liar is only a liar; a gigantic liar is the Minister of Information. If a man owes $5 million he is a bankrupt; if he owes $500 million he is a real estate developer. Giving a bum booze money in return for his vote is election fraud; giving thousands of people a permanent living at taxpayer expense in return for their votes is democracy in action.

Nine of the 27 Amendments to the Constitution deal with the mechanics and the limitations of the franchise, so there’s surely no harm in one more. Why not deny it to full-time government employees? These are paid voting armies, bribed not with liquor for a day but a sinecure for life, and not individually but by the thousands. They ought to be recused from elections, as judges recuse themselves from cases in which they are personally interested. One could extend the logic to argue, for instance, that we ought to recuse Grandpa as well, who has no business voting himself free prescription drugs out of the public largesse. The difficulty here is that in a welfare state, that fiction by which everyone maintains himself at everyone else’s expense, nearly all of us receive government benefits in some form, and the line becomes difficult to draw. If we restrict ourselves to people whose livelihood derives entirely from tax revenue, however, the matter stays simple enough.

Liberty in this country has declined as the franchise has expanded. In 1869 the 14th and 15th Amendments eliminated racial and property qualifications. Along with them came Reconstruction, a program of occupying the South with federal armies, which failed completely even from the point of view of the ex-slaves whose rights it was designed to protect, and was so resented that almost no Southern states voted Republican in a national presidential election for eighty years thereafter. You need not be from the South to regard the episode as less than a highlight in the history of personal liberty.

The immediate consequence of female suffrage was Prohibition; women had always led the temperance movement. In twenty years, with ardent female assistance — Roosevelt, like all Democrats, polled far better with women than men — the top income tax rate rose from 7% to 78%. Thanks, ladies!

In 1971 the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18, adding 11 million potential voters, not quite enough to elect McGovern. I attended a reasonably well-regarded liberal arts college. Out of its 1,000 students there were probably 50, assuredly not including me, who could be trusted with the franchise. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was the slogan, which had more force when there was a draft. “Young enough not to drink, young enough not to vote” is less catchy but equally logical. Youth must be served, just not liquor.

Next week: bringing back the property qualification. If I’m in a really bad mood.

(Update: Mg comments. George Junior dissents. Aaron Armitage comments.)

Sep 062003

I have at long last become a blogparent, courtesy of Forager23, a promising youth who is already listed in the blogroll. Congratulations are also in order for my co-parents The Blowhards, giving Forager, technically, three mommies. They are incidentally chock-full of excellent reading as usual, especially Michael’s two-part interview with intrepid sonneteer Mike Snider and Friedrich’s ruminations about IQ.

Forager’s proprietor, the mysterious JW, writes from Burlington, Vermont, literately and prolifically, on art high and low, with an emphasis on comic books and a sideline in NASCAR, of all things. His greatest hits include:

  • Letter from a Townie. Mind the fence.
  • Comics and opera, which have more in common than you might imagine. I can’t be the only person in the world who was introduced to Rossini by “Rabbit of Seville.”
  • The Couch Rule, and its political implications.
  • A running series on his 25 favorite comic strips. He’s only done four, which obliges him, I hope, to stick around for a while. Dick Tracy is my favorite of his favorites so far.
Sep 052003

The other night the girlfriend and I, as we often do, were eating pastrami at Katz’s on the Lower East Side, the last place in New York to slice its pastrami by hand. Katz’s, like many famous old restaurants, is decorated with photographs of the owner and various celebrities. Politicians flock to the place like moths to flame: Mayors Koch through Bloomberg, Al Gore, Soviet Premier-for-a-Day Konstantin Chernenko, and Bill Clinton, who receives the special commendation of a note saying what he ate. Two hot dogs, a pastrami sandwich, and fries, washed down, in a sudden show of restraint, with a diet ginger ale and a decaf coffee. For lunch. Now Katz’s pastrami sandwiches are not of the Brobdingnagian proportions one finds at Carnegie or Stage, but they are more than ample, and the dogs aren’t exactly anemic either. We watched a little girl wander over to the table, read the list with widening eyes, and return to her mother, gesticulating wildly. (“Mommy! Mommy, look what the President ate!”) I will leave to the polibloggers the question of Clinton’s rank as a policy-maker. His place as the most porcine President in American history remains secure.