April 2006

2006 04 28
On the ancient recognition of the problem of beer goggles

Posted by in: Classics, History, Sex

From the pseudo-Aristotelian Problems, Book XXX (on melancholics):

Wine also makes men affectionate; this is proved by the fact that under the influence of wine a man is induced to kiss one whom no one would kiss, if he were sober, either because of their appearance or their age.

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2006 04 27
100 000

Posted by in: Metablog

Some time in the next day or two, while I’m still ignoring you, the site meter will hit 100 000. You know, if you had told me back when we started this little blog that the site would have 100 000 hits in just over two years . . . I never would have believed it would take so long.

Tune in next week, when I return from a conference in Toronto and begin to procrastinate in earnest on a large stack of student papers that will be waiting for me.

Howls of outrage (3)

2006 04 25
Three shows

Posted by in: Music

Three shows this week in NYC worth mentioning. Sadly, I can only make the second. They’re below the fold.
Continue Reading »

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 04 25
On the account of the role of phantasia in human action found in Aristotle’s De Anima and his De Motu Animalium

Posted by in: Aristotle, Philosophy

What the fuck?

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 04 25
“You can’t make this stuff up.”

Posted by in: Left Blogistan

Dear Josh,

Please find a new stock phrase.


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2006 04 24
So very busy

Posted by in: Metablog

Talk to the hand.

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2006 04 22
Aristotle on menstruation and mirrors

Posted by in: Aristotle, Classics

The other day, “A” challenged me to think of one true thing that Aristotle said. She was just being silly, of course. Aristotle said lots of true things! But I’m not sure about this, from Aristotle’s On Dreams:

If a woman chances during her menstrual period to look into a highly polished mirror, the surface of it will grow cloudy with a blood-coloured haze. It is very hard to remove this stain from a new mirror, but easier to remove from an older mirror. As we have said before, the cause of this lies in the fact that in the act of sight there occurs not only a passion in the sense organ acted on by the polished surface, but the organ, as an agent, also produces an action, as is proper to a brilliant object. For sight is the property of an organ possessing brilliance and colour. The eyes, therefore, have their proper action as have other parts of the body. Because it is natural to the eye to be filled with blood-vessels, a woman’s eyes, during the period of menstrual flux and inflammation, will undergo a change, although her husband will not note this since his seed is of the same nature as that of his wife. The surrounding atmosphere, through which operates the action of sight, and which surrounds the mirror also, will undergo a change of the same sort that occurred shortly before in the woman’s eyes, and hence the surface of the mirror is likewise affected. And as in the case of a garment, the cleaner it is the more quickly it is soiled, so the same holds true in the case of the mirror. For anything that is clean will show quite clearly a stain that it chances to receive, and the cleanest object shows up even the slightest stain. A bronze mirror, because of its shininess, is especially sensitive to any sort of contact (the movement of the surrounding air acts upon it like a rubbing or pressing or wiping); on that account, therefore, what is clean will show up clearly the slightest touch on its surface. It is hard to cleanse smudges off new mirrors because the stain penetrates deeply and is suffused to all parts; it penetrates deeply because the mirror is not a dense medium, and is suffused widely because of the smoothness of the object. On the other hand, in the case of old mirrors, stains do not remain because they do not penetrate deeply, but only smudge the surface.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2006 04 21
Why diamonds are a sucker’s game.

Posted by in: History

I love the web. Just went from a story about an imagined .007 caper, to the Wikipedia entry about DeBeers, to Edward Jay Epstein’s 1982 article about the history of the diamond industry. Totally fascinating.

Diamonds are not intrinsically valuable and not actually made valuable by genuine rarity; they’re made valuable only by careful control of the supply from the DeBeers monopoly. The story describes the history of the marketing campaign that created, nearly from scratch, in the 1930s, the American psychological requirement of a diamond engagement ring that can then never be sold, but which is to be passed to heirs as a hyper-valuable investment. It is nearly impossible to re-sell diamond jewelry of this sort, and for good reason — DeBeers prevents there being a market for it. Partly this is to prevent competition for the dollars of men buying new engagement rings, but partly to avoid price fluctuations that might destroy the perception that diamonds retain their high value, which in turn would cause more people to panic and sell their old rings. So… they’re kept worthless on the secondary market, so that people don’t realize that they’re worthless.

Read the whole article; there’s fascinating stuff all the way through. International intrigue: the Israelis stockpiled diamonds and to punish them, DeBeers changed its prices in a way that nearly collapsed the Israeli banking industry. Sexual metaphor: DeBeers makes it so that a woman wants a diamond, but can’t really say so in advance to her suitor, because it’s so expensive and impractical. But a real man knows that a woman wants a diamond even if she says she doesn’t — so he buys one, deferring the engagement until he can do so if he must, because you can’t get married without a diamond ring. And when he presents it to her, she is overcome, happy even though she might have protested if he had consulted her in advance, and accepts his proposal. Cultural imperialism: within 15 years, the Japanese go from having roughly no pre-engagement romance to having diamond engagement rings as standard requirement. Thwarted thieves: if they steal diamonds, thinking they’re valuable, they end up unable to resell them. It’s 30 years old, so I don’t know how much things have changed, but really cool article.

Two more recent sources: Why you should never accept a diamond ring, even if someone really wants to give you one. And this 2004 update on the threatened status of the cartel from The Economist.

Howls of outrage (7)

2006 04 21
Very busy

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Go get your news and commentary from Ze Frank (mov).

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2006 04 19

Posted by in: Pictures we took

Remember the view from my window two weeks ago?

There’s a bit of green now. This was taken yesterday:

Howls of outrage (6)

2006 04 18
North Korea, Iran

I’m busy but I do hate to disappoint my many fans. So, quick post, in the form of a question or two: What’s the deal with North Korea these days? When the administration was last starting to sound serious about North Korea, you could hardly hear a peep about Iran from anyone (except Michael Leeden, crying in the wilderness). Now Iran’s all the rage and you’d think that raising the North Korea issue would get you nothing but yawns and blank stares. What gives? Has the administration simply thrown in the towel on North Korea? Or is the next stage to turn away from Iran and start sounding all Churchillian about North Korea again? Granted, this might confuse the hell out of both North Korea and Iran. But what’s going on? Have I missed something? I had the impression earlier that the President was trying to mediate between competing factions in an administration divided between a party that wanted to engage North Korea and a party that wanted to get serious about military action. Did he forget to decide?

For the record, I think that a North Korea with nukes is a bit more terrifying than an Iran with nukes and that military action against either would be insane. It’s a tough call, but my vote for the crazier course of action goes to military action against North Korea.

Howls of outrage (10)

2006 04 17
Round up (risen from the dead edition)

Have I mentioned that the stomach flu isn’t any fun? I’m getting better, but I still feel like I have a shot put in my stomach after eating even the blandest foods. Luckily I can make a fine feast of self-pity in any situation. Anyway . . .

— Make sure to update your Mozilla products. Now.

— I used the time I was vomiting and then recovering from vomiting to reflect on my recent Iran predictions. One thing missing from it is a sense of grim foreboding, which I somehow neglected to include. You might get the false impression from my predictions that I’m more or less sanguine about the Iran situation, since I don’t think the U.S. is going to do the stupidest thing possible out of the range of alternatives they’re considering (tactical nuclear strikes, or even air strikes). But no. Of course it sucks that Iran will get nuclear weapons sooner or later, and U.S. bungling on the issue probably makes it sooner. Also, although I strongly suspect that Hersh makes too much of the contingency plans being drawn up by the U.S., if the plans do include a tactical nuclear strike, the wisest words I’ve read so far will have to be Henley’s:

Whether or not nukes get used, the whispering campaign still tends to normalize discourse advocating the first use of tactical nuclear weapons as a policy option.

That is a tremendous cost, a cost already incurred as a result of the debate so far. Matters aren’t helped when supposedly centrist commentators like Joe Klein speed that process along. A serious counterproliferation efforts requires, among many other things the U.S. has failed to do, a principled and highly public commitment to refrain from first-strike use of nuclear weapons.

— Speaking of that Hersh article, I think Umansky has the right instincts. It’s far too much “I spoke with the friend of a first cousin of a civilian who lives next door to a retired general who once met Bush at a luncheon when he was governor who has a great intuitive sense of the man’s next move, and he gave me this awesome tough guy quote that I pull out whenever I drink whiskey with someone I’m trying to impress about Bush thinking the stakes are really high on this one.” E.g.,

A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was �absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb� if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do �what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,� and �that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.�

How the fuck does he know? What, did he have a heart-to-heart with the Prez? Or with someone who had a heart-to-heart with the Prez? How many heart-to-hearts, exactly, is he removed from this insight? And how do the various and conflicting interests hidden in these hearts twist the original message? After all, in Washington, power is often very much a function of proximity to the President, and influence is very much a matter of how that proximity is represented to others. I know Hersh does some great reporting, but he also does lousy reporting. I just don’t know. But neither do you, chump.

— A lot of the British lefties have their knickers in a knot over the Euston Manifesto. It’s a pity I’m really fucking busy over the next month. It’s just the sort of thing I used to love to blog about.

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2006 04 16
Stomach flu

Posted by in: Anecdotal, Health


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2006 04 13
Gladwell’s “Here’s Why”

Posted by in: Abortion

Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the New Yorker about some recent work by Charles Tilly on the subject of explanation. The basic idea is that there are different kinds of explanation, that they’re not necessarily competing, and that setting out the different types of explanation clearly provides a decent framework for sorting through a fairly wide range of social issues and disagreements. No comment on any of that. I just want to point out that Gladwell chooses a really lousy example to illustrate this point:

When we say that two parties in a conflict are �talking past each other,� this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate attachment to mutually exclusive reasons. Proponents of abortion often rely on a convention (choice) and a technical account (concerning the viability of a fetus in the first trimester). Opponents of abortion turn the fate of each individual fetus into a story: a life created and then abruptly terminated. Is it any surprise that the issue has proved to be so intractable? If you believe that stories are the most appropriate form of reason-giving, then those who use conventions and technical accounts will seem morally indifferent�regardless of whether you agree with them. And, if you believe that a problem is best adjudicated through conventions or technical accounts, it is hard not to look upon storytellers as sensationalistic and intellectually unserious. By Tilly�s logic, abortion proponents who want to engage their critics will have to become better storytellers�and that, according to the relational principles of such reason-giving, may require them to acknowledge an emotional connection between a mother and a fetus.

OK, I can imagine particular debates between particular people about abortion that turn on this sort of difference. But as an account of what is going on in the abortion debate in general, there’s not even a grain of truth to this. Opponents of abortion very often appeal to rights attaching to the fetus in virtue of the fetus’s status as a person, against the passionate narrative-based appeals of pro-choicers to the incredibly difficult situations that women find themselves in when they have unwanted pregnancies. The debate just doesn’t break down along these lines, and so the theory as applied here turns out to be completely useless.

I haven’t read Tilly, so I’m not sure if “Tilly’s logic” is Gladwell’s attempt to apply his theory to a particular issue or something that Tilly says himself. Either way, something, either at the level of theory or application, has gone badly wrong here, since this is a result that only takes a moment or two of reflection to disconfirm.

Howls of outrage (8)

2006 04 13
Iran Predictions

OK, how about some predictions? That way, if there’s a nuclear strike, at least you’ll be able to look back and have a laugh at my bad pseudo-punditry. Here goes:

1. The Bush administration will step up all kinds of covert silliness in Iran. This will include sabotage, along with support for various disaffected minority groups within Iran in the attempt to instigate a crackdown by the regime. In hindsight, this strategy will end up looking even stupider than it does now – and boy does it ever look stupid now.

2. The Bush administration will try, unsuccessfully, to get other countries signed on to its Iran Vilification Program. However freaked out these countries are by the thought of a nuclear Iran, they’ll be more freaked out by what the U.S. might do.

3. The Bush administration will never get anything meaningful through the Security Council regarding Iran. Note, however, that it is in Russia’s and China’s bests respective interests to pursue this route as long as possible because it increases Russian and Chinese bargaining power in their own respective bilateral dealings with Iran.

4. The U.S. will not be able to reach a deal with Iran that stops it from developing nuclear weapons. At best, there will be a face-saving deal, but it will be transparently ineffective. [Update: Of course, Iran is probably 5 to 10 years away from success on this front. So I don’t mean that Iran will develop nuclear weapons while the Bush admin is still around.]

5. The U.S. will NOT attempt to destroy Iranian nuclear sites with air strikes.

6. Israel will NOT attempt to destroy Iranian nuclear sites with air strikes.

7. The U.S. will most certainly NOT use (tactical, bunker-busting) nuclear weapons against Iran.

Alright, take it away, Reality! Show me I’m a perfect ass. And I’m sure readers will remind me as each of these predictions is overturned by events.

Howls of outrage (9)