June 2006

2006 06 30
A figure which includes the souls of the departed, along with all the heavenly angels

Posted by in: Music

Yoon noticed today that Johnny Cash’s Myspace page lists 83189 billion friends.

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2006 06 30
The best tragic style

Posted by in: Aristotle, Philosophy

From Aristotle’s Rhetoric, III.3:

As for what Gorgias said to the swallow which, flying over his head, let fall her droppings upon him, it was in the best tragic style. He exclaimed, “For shame, Philomela!” For there would have been nothing in this act disagraceful for a bird, whereas it would have been for a young lady. The reproach therefore was appropriate, addressing her as she was, not as she is.

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2006 06 30
Public Service Announcement: Netgear USB Adapter and ZoneAlarm

Posted by in: Software, Technology

This is for people googling for help with their netgear wireless USB Adapter (WG111v2). I googled in vain for help; this post is written so that you will not have googled in vain.
Continue Reading »

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2006 06 30

Reporters traveling with Condoleezza Rice briefly rebelled against their meaningless stenographic duties the other day after coming into possession of a tape of Rice sparring with the Russian diplomat Sergei Lavrov. The resulting story is a breathless account of Condi and Sergei’s bickering (“she said tartly,” etc. etc.), in stark contrast with official descriptions of smooth cooperation between the two.

God, it must be boring on those things. Anyway, here’s how the piece ends:

Reporters traveling with Rice transcribed the tape of the private luncheon but did not tell Rice aides about it until after a senior State Department official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity as usual, assured them that “there was absolutely no friction whatsoever” between the two senior diplomats.

Once the flabbergasted official learned of the tape, he continued the briefing. He paused repeatedly, asking before describing a discussion whether reporters had heard it.

Zing! They really got him, didn’t they?

Everyone expects official spokespeople to lie about these sorts of diplomatic matters. If an official came out and announced that Rice and Lavrov spent lunch sniping at one another, the official recognition of the tension would itself rachet up the tension – and it would be correctly interpreted by everyone as an attempt to do so. Official statements are moves in the diplomatic game, and everyone in that game interprets official statements as moves, rather than as attempts to make truth-functional assertions about reality. Spectators should do the same. (It follows that we reserve the right to laugh at anyone who expects us to believe anything that an official says in a diplomatic context.)

Anonymous briefings fall into a different category. Officials brief reporters on conditions of anonymity in exchange for more reliable information from those officials. At least that’s the theory. The statements issued off the record aren’t moves in a diplomatic game in the same way that official statements are. So there’s a slightly more realistic expectation that officials will tell the truth off the record. Or, at least, lying off the record ought to be seen as a different matter than lying in an official statement.

The author of the WaPo piece I just quoted, Glenn Kessler, seems to think he scored a really nice “gotcha!” on the anonymous official. But a really nice “gotcha” would have included the official’s name. Let me just quote Lindsday’s recent post on anonymous sources:

Journalists have a duty to expose anonymous sources who knowingly deceive them. Anonymity is a quid pro quo, and ethical journalists only offer it in exchange for valuable information that they can’t get any other way.

The promise of anonymity shouldn’t be absolute. Anonymous sourcing sacrifices some transparency for the sake of important information. A source who knowingly peddles forgeries under the cover of anonymity is abusing the reporter’s trust and the trust of his or her readers. That kind of behavior must have consequences.

The best remedy is to reveal the identity of the person who passed off the fraudulent information in bad faith. The only reason we tolerate anonymous sources is to get good information. By practicing deception under the cover of anonymity, dishonest informants thereby undermine whatever justification the reporter had for granting anonymity in the first place.

The public has a right to know who’s shopping bogus stories to the press. We also have a right to know who duped the reporter in question. Granting anonymity is a journalistic judgement call. When a source turns out to be a fraud, we need to know who that source was so that we can assess whether the journalist granted anonymity responsibly. If it turns out that the reporter has been granting anonymity frivolously, or to blatantly untrustworthy sources, he or she shouldn’t be allowed to simply blame the anonymous source and move on.

[. . . ]

Anonymous sourcing is a necessary evil. Enforcing consequences for those who abuse a reporter’s trust will improve the quality of anonymous sourcing overall.

I completely agree, and I think the point applies here.

It might be argued that anonymous briefings don’t fall into a different category, since if the U.S. press ran with a story about sniping between Rice and Lavrov, and attributed it to anonymous officials, the Russians would (correctly) interpret this as a quasi-official move in a diplomatic game. Otherwise, they might think, why would Rice have authorized the leak?

Notice that the anonymous briefer might simply have demurred from answering questions about the tone of the meeting, or might have noted that there’s a healthy back-and-forth that is always part of the process. Instead, the anonymous briefer actively lied to manipulate journalists’ perceptions of the meeting. At any rate, arguing this way is tantamount to accepting that anonymous briefings aren’t worth the cost of anonymity, at least in this sort of context, since they can’t be expected to yield any more truth than official briefings. If anonymous briefings are subject to the same rules rules of interpretation as official statements then they have nothing to do with the truth at all, and everything to do with diplomatic posturing, and they should be understood that way by everyone involved.

This leaves the press with a choice: It should either drop anonymous briefings altogether, or it should attempt to enforce the convention that anonymous briefings are more reliable. Journalists can start enforcing the convention by publishing the name of the lying anonymous official. They can continue to enforce it by explicitly noting the official’s tendency to lie in these cases the next time they get something on background from him or her.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 06 26
Like the anus of a starfish

Posted by in: Books

I’m reading Jonathan Ames’s extremely silly Wake Up, Sir!. This comes from p. 212 and 213:

I wasn’t looking at a man. Standing behind a large antique desk was some kind of hybrid of man, woman, animal, fruit, and vegetable. . .

I’ll start with the dimensions. Dr. Hibben was a seven-footer, if you can imagine a pear that big. He had unusually wide hips and unusually narrow shoulders.

At the top of the pear was an enormous head, in the shape of a rugby ball, and this rugby-ball head was disastrously covered with orange-brown freckles, like an overripe banana. Had the man never heard of skin cancer?

There were tufts of orangish hair on the sides of the head, and near the top of all this, high on the rugby ball, were two kindly blue dots – his eyes, I presumed. His nose was hard to make out, lost as it was in a galaxy of freckles. A small pink hole, like the anus of a starfish, opened, and from far away I heard a deep voice say . . .

That, I think, is all you need to decide whether you’d like to buy the book or pay to have the author knocked off so that he can no longer inflict this sort of writing on the world, or something in between.

Howls of outrage (5)

2006 06 25
10 years

Posted by in: Media criticism

I choose to celebrate Slate Magazine’s 10th year anniversary by pointing out that it’s really sucked the last few years, at least compared to the good old days. Say what you like about Kinsley, it was all downhill after he left.

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2006 06 20
Technical Difficulties

Posted by in: Anecdotal, Metablog

My beloved laptop is breathing its last, as it were. You, dear reader, are not my main priority at the moment.

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2006 06 16

Posted by in: Books

Chance discoveries in the library are so much fun. I came across the book, Forgers and Critics by Anthony Grafton the other day. And how was I to put it back on the shelf after reading the first page and a bit?

Sometime in the fourth century B.C., Heraclides of Pontus quarreled with another philosopher, Dionysius “the Renegade.” Heraclides was a dignified, respectable, and corpulent gentleman; a student of Plato and an expert on natural philosophy, he was known by the nickname ho pompikos, “the stately one” (a pun on his real title, ho pontikos, “the one from Pontus”).

Dionysius was more disreputable. Beginning as a Stoic who denied the existence* of pain and pleasure, he developed an acute eye inflammation which convinced him that his principles were in error. He left his old school (hence his nickname) and spent the rest of his life–apparently a long and happy one–as a Cyrenaic, haunting bars and brothels.

Dionysius forged a tragedy, the Parthenopaeus, and ascribed it to Sophocles. Heraclides, who had done some forgery of his own and should have known better, duly quoted it as genuine. And Dionysius in turn proclaimed his own authorship of the work. When Heraclides insisted that it must be genuine, Dionysius pointed out that the supposed tragedy was an acrostic: the first letters of the lines spelled out the true message (in this case, the name of Dionysius’ boyfriend, Pankalos). Heraclides replied that the appearance of the name could be accidential. Instructed to read on, he found that the acrostic continued with a coherent couplet:

An old monkey isn’t caught by a trap.
Oh yes, he’s caught at last, but it takes time.

Further initial letters spelled out a final, crushing verdict: “Heraclides is ignorant of letters.” When Heraclides had read this, we are told, he blushed.

* That’s an awfully sloppy way of putting it. A Stoic wouldn’t doubt the existence of pleasure and pain, he would doubt their relevance to our well-being.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 06 15

O! If only I weren’t spending all my time disagreeing with Matt Yglesias on this in my dissertation, I could spend time disagreeing with it here. So sad. I guess I’ll just have to insist that Rawls’s position is much more attractive than Matt paints it in his three sentence discussion.

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2006 06 15

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I have no interest in the subject of the post, but I must say, this is a great line:

Unable or unwilling to attack me personally, he is reduced to countering my arguments . . .

Howls of outrage (2)

2006 06 14
Hitchens and Zahawie

Posted by in: Political issues, Pundits

Wow. Wonder if it’s real.

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2006 06 14
The relevance of her pleasure

Posted by in: Aristotle, Sex

From a discussion in Book X of Aristotle’s History of Animals on the causes of infertility:

There are various signs by which you can tell that the man is not responsible [for a failure to conceive]; and it is very easy to tell this if he has intercourse with other women and produces children. And it is a sign that they do not keep pace with one another if, although all the conditions described are met, he does not produce children. For it is plain that this alone is the cause; for if the woman too contributes something to the semen and to the process of generation, it is plain that the partners must keep pace with one another. Thus if the man ejaculates quickly and the women with difficulty (for women are for the most part slower), that prevents conception; and that is why partners who do not produce children with one another do produce children when they meet with partners who keep pace with them during intercourse. For if the woman is excited and prepared and has the appropriate thoughts, and the man has previously been pained and has grown cold, they must necessarily then keep pace with one another.

I’m having trouble squaring that passage with Book II, chapter 4 of the Generation of Animals, where Aristotle says that conception is possible even if the female does not take the pleasure in sex that she typically takes.

Howls of outrage (4)

2006 06 13
Buddy Rich

Posted by in: Music

Go buddy!

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2006 06 13
Lasus and the Lipogram

Posted by in: History, Language

From Podlecki’s paper “The Peripatetics as Literary Critics”:

To [Heraclides of Pontus], too, is ascribed the observation that Lasus of Hermione composed his Hymn to Demeter without sigmas.

Hey, that’s like that French dude. Since Lasus was 6th Cent. B.C., I wonder if that makes him the originator of the lipogram.

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2006 06 13

Posted by in: tech-sci

Now this is cool: Cheap Drinking Water from the Ocean: Carbon nanotube-based membranes will dramatically cut the cost of desalination.

If the article is right, I imagine the development has all sorts of implications for both agriculture and international relations.

I am also gratified by the fact that the Slashdot discussion of the article contains an allusion to a scene in Top Secret:

Scientist: “Do you know what this [desalinization process] would mean to the starving nations of the world?”

Nick (in awe): “They’d have enough salt to last forever…”

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