September 2007

2007 09 30
Grammar (Who and That Edition)

Posted by in: Language

You would never write this, would you, dear reader?

Socrates was a philosopher that believed . . .

No, of course you wouldn’t. You would write,

Socrates was a philosopher who believed . . .

In such cases you use “who” or “whom” for people and “that” for objects, right?

I don’t think I’m being some fussy pedant here, the sort of prescriptivist bore who thinks he’s scoring points with God by insisting that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. This seems really basic to me: a grammatical distinction meant to mark an important difference in attitude depending on whether we’re discussing a person or a thing.

Anyway, my (entirely unrigorous) impression is that over the last few years my students’ grasp of this rule has gotten progressively weaker. I could swear I didn’t see this mistake as much even two years ago.

Manual trackback: Alif Sikkiin

Howls of outrage (14)

2007 09 30
Get the skinny on your zip

Posted by in: Maps and demography


I found mine fascinating.

Howls of outrage (3)

2007 09 29
Bonitz’s Index Aristotelicus

Posted by in: Aristotle, Books

A while back I complained that I couldn’t find Bonitz’s Index Aristotelicus anywhere on the internet, in spite of the fact that copyright on the work had long lapsed, the difficulty of taking a copy out of the library, and its real value to any student of Aristotle. I just noticed that a few months after my complaint, the wonderful Internet Archive obliged. Bless their generous hearts. They have done a very useful thing.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2007 09 23
Pictures not taken

The other day on the subway, I saw a man dash down a set of stairs and squeeze – just barely! – through the closing subway doors. He was alone, and there was no one to congratulate him on making it, so he was left to do the job himself, which he did with a quick but very satisfied little smile. I see this sort of thing every day, but for some reason the way he was just so very pleased with himself amused me.

It would have been nearly impossible to capture the moment with a camera. I would have needed the camera with me, out and pointed already in his direction, and even then I wouldn’t have taken the shot for fear of rudeness; because I wouldn’t have seen that great little grin coming; and because I would surely have botched the shot anyway. Still, I wish I had been able to take that shot because I wish you could see it too.

My all time favourite picture not taken was also not taken on the subway. It was an A train, I believe, on its way to Jamaica, Queens. I sat across from two 45 or 50 year old women, probably Russian, one of whom was showing quite a bit of cleavage. They were together, talking intermittently, but talking in a way that suggested they were perhaps colleagues rather than friends. At a certain point the busty woman looked down the subway car away from her companion, and her companion’s eyes traveled quickly down to the busty woman’s cleavage. I have a generally lousy visual memory, but I still have a reasonably clear mental image of the flicker of barely suppressed disgust and disapproval on the companion’s face.

I would have treasured a picture of that moment my whole life, but all I have from it is a fading mental image and now this little scrap of a blog post.

So, what are your favourite pictures not taken?

Howls of outrage (3)

2007 09 18

I wonder how the Iraqi government’s move to kick Blackwater security contractors out of the country is going to play out. My (rather hazy) impression is that while Blackwater contractors in Iraq only number about a 1,000 (nobody seems to know for sure, but that’s the number I’ve seen floating around), they do stuff that the U.S. considers pretty important. It therefore seems a bit much to believe that they’re currently packing up and preparing to go home, whatever the Iraqi government thinks it can order them to do.

My guess: The U.S. leans hard on the Iraqi government over the next little bit and a (secret, of course) “compromise” is reached according to which Blackwater will lease the very same contractors to another outfit, or will set up a dummy company employing the same contractors. This way everyone can claim that “Blackwater” no longer has contractors in the country, when in fact it does.

UPDATE: Wrong! I’m surprised at how quickly and publicly the Iraqi government capitulated. Wow.

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2007 09 17
Time and Place

Posted by in: Music

While you can, go listen to Lee Moses’s “Time and Place.” Go!

That’s a great site too, in case you’ve never come across it.

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2007 09 13
Sam Williams’s Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software

Sam Williams. Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software.

This is a quick, basic biography of Richard Stallman, the man responsible not just for some awesome programs (most awesomely, from my point of view, Emacs), but also the Free Software Foundation. Williams takes us through Stallman’s early life to his days as a hacker at MIT and then on through a lifetime as an advocate for free software.

The book’s title conveys the sense in which Stallman thinks software ought to be free: the issue is not money, it’s the right to see and modify the source code of the programs your computer is running. Stallman dissents from the Open Source movement’s emphasis on the practical benefits of having freely available source code. For Stallman the issue is one of freedom, and the right to modify that source code to suit your own needs. These would be important even if Open Source turned out to be an inferior model for software development in other respects.

What about the incentives for developing new software on the model Stallman favours? Stallman addresses this by arguing that programmers might reasonably charge clients for consulting on software, even if the code doesn’t happen to be proprietary.

As part of the effort to provide a legal basis for his ideas, Stallman was instrumental in the creation of the GPL, a version of copyright (called “copyleft”) that permits use of the original program and any derivatives created from it, so long as those derivative creations are similarly protected by the GPL. Whether the issue you care about is freedom or efficiency (or both), it’s hard to deny that we owe an incredible amount of great software to the GPL and the framework for software development that it helped support.

Williams tells his story with the occasional moment of humour, and as far as this newbie could tell, handles the ideas in his book fairly clearly. The book is also released under the GFDL, meaning that you can read the entire thing online here, which is a nice touch, and in keeping with the philosophical views of his subject.

Two complaints, however. First, Williams is not exactly the world’s greatest prose stylist. Here is an especially awful passage:

For Stallman, the months spent playing catch up with Symbolics evoke a mixture of pride and profound sadness. As a dyed-in-the-wool liberal whose father had served in World War II, Stallman is no pacifist. In many ways, the Symbolics war offered the rite of passage toward which Stallman had been careening ever since joining the AI Lab staff a decade before. At the same time, however, it coincided with the traumatic destruction of the AI
Lab hacker culture that had nurtured Stallman since his teenage years. One day, while taking a break from writing code, Stallman experienced a traumatic moment passing through the lab’s equipment room. There,
Stallman encountered the hulking, unused frame of the PDP-10 machine. Startled by the dormant lights, lights that once actively blinked out a silent code indicating the status of the internal program, Stallman says the emotional impact was not unlike coming across a beloved family member’s well-preserved corpse.

Forget the overwrought quality of the passage. What the fuck is a reference to pacifism doing here? Pacifism is a view about violence, typically political violence. It has nothing in common with passivity. That’s why you can be aggressive in promoting your pacifism without contradiction. And this quirk comes up again!

Whatever the outcome, the bickering solidified Stallman’s resolve. With no source code to review, Stallman filled in the software gaps according to his own tastes and enlisted members of the AI Lab to provide a continuous stream of bug reports. He also made sure LMI programmers had direct access to the changes. “I was going to punish Symbolics if it was the last thing I did,” Stallman says. Such statements are revealing. Not only do they shed light on Stallman’s nonpacifist nature, they also reflect the intense level of emotion triggered by the conflict. ((It’s true that the next bit of text goes on to discuss violence, but the reference to pacifism here is still inappropriate.))

The other complaint I had about the book is that at times I wanted Williams to push Stallman a bit harder on some basic concerns that even someone sympathetic to Stallman’s position might have. I was trying hard while I read the book to imagine an alternate history of software, in which the GPL was from start to finish the industry standard. I wanted to believe that this was a better world, but wasn’t sure about some of the details. And even if for Stallman the focus needs to be on freedom, rather than efficiency, anyone interested in evaluating his proposal needs to spend quite a bit of time worrying about the economics of software development, and whether the GPL could have met everyone’s needs equally well.

That said, I enjoyed the book and don’t regret the time I spent reading it.

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2007 09 13
Deeply unpopular proposed law mysteriously fails to generate support

This piece by James Glanz in the NYT on the attempt to get the proposed Oil Law through Iraqi Parliament has a rather striking omission: In 26 paragraphs I don’t see a single mention of Iraqi opinion on the subject, which was trending toward a very negative view of the proposed law the last time I checked. It seems to me that anyone trying to arrive at a sensible view of the proposed law, and a sensible view of the significance of the possible failure of the proposed law, would want to know that the proposed law is widely unpopular. I understand that Glanz is trying to write about political developments in the Iraqi Parliament. But to some extent perhaps Iraqi politicians are responsive to public opinion, in which case we won’t be able to chalk up the failure to get the law passed entirely to a refusal to “compromise” (which is good, right?) or a tendency to be “glacial” (which is bad, right?).

Indeed, if I recall correctly, when a draft of the law first appeared it was criticized as the product of secret negotiations dominated by foreign oil companies, yada yada. Is there any substance to these criticisms? Of course, I am a widely recognized authority on the subject of complex, Arabic-language foreign investment laws. But, sadly, today is a Thursday, and I make it a firm rule not to comment on such matters on a Thursday, so you’ll just have to look elsewhere for enlightenment.

Anyway, I suspect that here Glanz has succumbed to the temptation to squeeze the story into the “stasis narrative” that is obligatory when writing about Iraqi politics. And no wonder it is obligatory: It’s hard to look at Iraqi politics these days and not think “Arrrr. That thar be stasis.” And of course the failure to pass such an important law, for all its imperfections and unpopularity, would obviously be a real setback at this point for someone hoping for a bit of momentum in the political process and the sort of stability that might allow for new development. But the situation is more complicated than that: there are actual people with actual opinions on the matter; they might need to be consulted on the matter; they might even have actual reasons for their opinions. And breaking the political stalemate will mean thwarting them, for better or worse. All this matters too.

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 09 12
Crazy talk

Posted by in: Anecdotal

A crazy man who lives down the street doesn’t like me. This fine morning, as I strolled along with my dog enjoying the sun and the crisp morning air, he broke my mood with, “Oh man, it’s skinhead city here. That’s some scary stuff, I’m telling you.” This is old hat from him; it cheers him up to abuse me this way from his stoop, from which he is rarely absent. It’s a stupid thing to say on any occasion, but it was especially stupid this morning, since I haven’t cut my hair in more than a week and it’s about a centimeter long now. In case you haven’t met me, I think it’s worth pointing out that I keep my hair short, but otherwise bear absolutely no resemblance to a skinhead. Also, I am the anti-scary. If you took a five year old child, kept him up past midnight, told him spooky stories around a campfire, and then had me jump out from behind a tree screaming and waving a flashlight beneath my face, that child would laugh.

I take it that he means to imply that I must be some sort of racist, which would be relevant to our interactions, since he is black and I am white. The funny thing is that I actually stopped acknowledging his presence about a year ago when I overheard him ranting to no one in particular about all the immigrants in the neighbourhood. Prior to that I would nod nervously in his direction when he started talking to me in his special crazy-talk. So if there is an actual cause of tension between us which has led to his calling me a skinhead, thereby intending to imply that I am racist, it’s the fact that I was offended by his xenophobia.

Howls of outrage (10)

2007 09 08
Aristotle on proper weightlifting technique

Commenting on an obscure point about connate pneuma in his 1912 translation of Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium, A.S.L. Farquharson writes that a comment of Aristotle’s is, “a reference perhaps to holding the breath when a weight is lifted. A[ristotle], like gymnastic teachers to-day, supposed it gave power.”

Interesting that Aristotle’s assumption about breath still held in Farquharson’s day. My understanding is that this is not a good thing to do, and the laziest of googlings suggests that the current consensus is that the proper technique involves breathing out as you work the muscle through its range of motion and in as you relax it. So, also, I was recently told by a rather large man at my gym who noticed that I was holding my breath a bit without noticing it, and who shouted, “Gotta breathe, baby, gotta breathe!”

Howls of outrage (2)

2007 09 07
Rant fizzles

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I wrote most of the following rant while on hold. I had intended to file it under “Consumer Complaints,” but no longer have the heart to publish the name of the company. I explain this uncharacteristic reticence, and the nature of the fizzling alluded to in the title of this post, below:

My internet connection went out around noon on Saturday, September 1st. I called to notify them, but nothing could be done that day. And of course no technicians were working on Sunday, so nothing could be done that day. And yet, I ask, did the internet rest on Sunday? Did no one write to me on Sunday expecting a reply? Did I not still have need for internet banking on Sunday? Did Yoon not need to run her business on Sunday? Did I not need to conduct research on Sunday? Did my heart not cry out that I might read Matthew Yglesias on Sunday, as a fitting rest for the spirit after long hours of toil?

And Monday came, but Monday was a holiday. But again, the internet did not cease from its activity, nor did my need for it diminish, though it was a holiday.

But when Tuesday came, then my heart leapt, for surely someone deprived of an internet connection on a Saturday could expect mercy from his internet provider by a Tuesday. And yet in spite of an hour of some of the worst muzak I have ever heard in my life, I could not convince anyone at Company X to fix my internet connection. That day, I stole a few moments with the internet in a shared office on campus. We had missed one another; our reunion was tearful, passionate, our emotions ragged and fierce.

Wednesday came, and I raged like Lear into the phone, starting early in the morning, scattering hapless call centre workers and their supervisors with my fury. Great was my vigilance, since I knew from experience that failing to call regularly would probably mean that my problem would be silently noted in the computer system as resolved by some anonymous fuckwit, ceasing all investigation into the problem.

The problem, I had been told on Tuesday, was far away from my building. But Wednesday morning brought news that the problem was specific to my building. I would need to be there the entire day. Could they tell me when they would come, morning or afternoon? No. No they could not.

Now, I understand that this is a common practice, but let us dream together of a more civilized age, when we will wonder at the memory of the barbaric practice of telling someone to sit at home all day while refusing to hint at when the call might come. “Ha ha ha”, we will laugh, in this more civilized age while we sip a delicious beverage of non-addictive opiates and watch the George W Bush trial on our high resolution holographic videomathingie, “can you imagine that in the past we actually paid people for services and they refused to tell us when they would be willing to provide them?” And then we will levitate and play with light sabers and do other cool things.

And again at 3pm I called, since no one had yet come. And long did I wait on hold, only to be told that someone would certainly arrive by 5pm, just wait for him, just wait for him, just wait for him. And so my dog went unwalked, and I waited by the phone. And at 5:30pm, I called and waxed wroth at both regular operator and supervisor alike. And lo the story changed once again: The problem had again removed to the central office, flitting away like a shade, no one would be coming, no one planned to come, and no one had bothered to tell me any of this. I might have sat by the phone for many hours longer, staring at it, like the teenage victim of a cruel prank by the coolest kid in the school who has asked the victim on a date with no intention of going on it and now the victim is sitting at home staring at the phone, with anger, longing, and confusion all mingling together, and the victim’s ears already beginning to fill with the vividly imagined sounds of mockery to be faced in the halls at school the next day.

But then the good news! The problem would be fixed by the evening! By Wednesday evening! But was it fixed by the evening, dear reader? Search your hearts. I think you already know the answer. In truth, I suspect the technician just lied so that he could go home without fixing the problem. Fucker. The supervisor swore that he would call me the following morning to confirm that my service had been restored, but of course he was lying, and the call never came. But he was lying from the safety of his anonymous perch somewhere on the subcontinent, since although he told me his name three times and I wrote it down, the operator the next day had not heard of him, and his name wasn’t in the file noting our conversation.

I curse Company X. May it’s stock wither and shrivel in the harsh frost of the competitive market. May the ship of its stock sail straight for the icebergs of bankruptcy and insolvency. May other mixed metaphors beset it in strange and contradictory ways, which you will understand to convey my contempt and anger even if no clear image forms in your mind.

And curse the consultants and executives responsible for the establishment and maintenance of such a stupid fucking system. Regarding the men among them, may their teenage children pluck the hair from their beards with a maximum of insolence, and their mistresses leave them for younger men with firmer erections. May the women among them suffer comparable tribulations, though I ask you not to imagine anything that plays into misogynistic tropes, which have done enough damage to our society already. Fuck them. Fuck Company X. Fuck Company X for wasting so much of my time. And last but by no means least fuck the moron who had the bright idea of forcing call centre workers to say repeatedly, right at the end of the conversation, when I was sunk in the dejected weariness that often follows rage, “Our goal at Company X is to provide you with outstanding service. Have I met that goal today?” Because at this point Company X could arrange to have me serially fellated by all the beauties of Hollywood past and present and I would not say – I could not in all honesty say – that I had been provided with outstanding service.

Now imagine in your mind’s eye, dear reader, a man who is stopped on the way into his favourite restaurant by a new headwaiter. The snub is deliberate, gratuitous, infuriating. The man rounds on the headwaiter, points to a table or two kept empty and launches into a magnificent speech. The headwaiter quails under the excoriating blast of righteous indignation. But halfway through his speech, the man reaches around and notices that he has forgotten his own wallet. Even if he had sailed past the headwaiter into the best seat in the house, it would have done him no good. He continues his speech. The principle is the same: The headwaiter could not have known the wallet was missing, and was the snub not deliberate, gratuitous, infuriating? Indeed it was; the offense is identical on either side of the unpleasant discovery of the missing wallet. But what a world of difference there is on the other side! A note of hesitation creeps into his voice. And now the worst dawns on him: so great was his surprise at the discovery that the headwaiter has noticed. The headwaiter stiffens almost imperceptibly. His apologies become unctuous, exaggerated; because at precisely this moment he has seen his enemy falter, no longer a threat. The man mumbles a half-hearted conclusion and backs away. He will never return to this restaurant.

So what happened was this: My internet service had gone out on Saturday. And I had been kept waiting pointlessly throughout of the whole of Wednesday without the courtesy of a call. And to this very moment, I do wish upon the men of company X the plucking of their beards with a maximum of insolence by their teenage children and the departure of their mistresses for younger men with firmer erections, and upon the women of company X comparable tribulations, though again request that you imagine nothing which would perpetuate misogynistic tropes which have done so much harm to society. But my rage is no longer pure, because company X had fixed the problem late Wednesday evening, and my internet connection was not working on Thursday because when I first spoke to them on the Saturday they had me run through a number of different tests with the cable to confirm that the line wasn’t working and at the end of the tests I had . . . left the modem cable not plugged into the phone jack.

From Saturday to Wednesday evening, then, my internet outage was a classic case of what philosophers nowadays call “causal overdetermination.” From Wednesday evening to Thursday afternoon, however, my internet outage was a case of what philosophers who have been drinking heavily might call “dickwad-who-is-me-determination.”

And so when the technicians finally sauntered into my place on Thursday afternoon, they were quickly able to point with a laugh to the fact that the modem wasn’t even plugged in.

I wasn’t there. Or rather, I was and I wasn’t. Yoon called me, and I had to listen in horror to the scene unfold over the phone. There was a bit of joshing, oh yes there was, joshing of the poor woman, who surely knew that she was signing up for a bit of teasing when she married me but could not possibly have guessed how much, or how bitter it would taste. I was nearly doubled over with grief and self-loathing. Their laughter still echoes in my ears. I imagine it always will.

Much like Oedipus condemning the man who slew his father, when I denounced “the one responsible for my internet outage” on the phone throughout Thursday morning, I was unwittingly denouncing: myself – which just goes to show that you should never, even for a moment, turn your back on a definite description. And I would gouge my eyes out, just like Mr. Rex, you know I would, but at this point it wouldn’t do a damn bit of good. No. Such an enormity of suffering could only be redeemed by Art, and so I have written this post.

Howls of outrage (9)

2007 09 07
Self-created Omens

Posted by in: Odds and ends

After landing in Boston, we treated ourselves to a lunch at a nice local deli. The total came to $27.30, and being a good guy I rounded it up to $30, found 10%, and doubled it, for a tip of $6. But then I realized that if I added 3 cents to the tip, the resulting bill would be $33.33. What more auspicious total could one hope for in the land of the Leprechaun? I guess $8,184.86 would have been a more perfect number, but it’s not like I’m living in Beacon Hill.

Howls of outrage (4)

2007 09 07

Posted by in: Language

I find myself desperately wanting to form possessives of names ending in “s” the same way I do with any other names. E.g., just as I would write “Plato’s idea” I want to write “Socrates’s idea.” That’s even how it sounds, motherfuckers! Why in heaven’s name would I not treat it like any other name? What perverse impulse led someone to propose inventing an entirely new and unnecessary rule for such cases? And yet there’s so much pressure to write “Socrates’ idea.” Everywhere I turn I see the awful vision of style guide writers slowly shaking their heads and frowning at me. And yet! The other day, I noticed that no less an institution than the New York Review of Books was forming possessives of names ending in “s” the sane way. Is this the permission I need to start living my life the way I want?

Howls of outrage (7)

2007 09 04
Journalism and (an)onymous sources

Posted by in: Media criticism

This bit from a piece in the Washington Post, quoted in a recent post of Matthew Yglesias’, sort of jumped out at me:

“This is General Petraeus’s baby,” said Staff Sgt. Josh Campbell, 24, of Winfield, Kan., as he set out on a patrol near the market on a hot evening in mid-August. […]

Even U.S. soldiers assigned to protect Petraeus’s showcase remain skeptical. “Personally, I think it’s a false representation,” Campbell said, referring to the portrayal of the Dora market as an emblem of the surge’s success. “But what can I say? I’m just doing my job and don’t ask questions.”

No, no. It was his job. I imagine he’s peeling potatoes or something now, if he’s lucky.

Over the last few years, newspapers have responded to criticism of their use of anonymous sources by adding a little note explaining why the person quoted isn’t named (not authorized to speak, etc. etc.). The practice was originally introduced to curtail the unethical use of anonymous sources, but it’s pretty clear from the reasons that are typically given that journalists are making exactly the same decisions they always have. I have no idea how to sort through the various ethical issues involved here.

I’m interested in a different issue, which is that a lot of journalists seem to think that if someone agrees to be quoted on the record then there is nothing unethical about quoting them on the record. I’m not so sure about that. Mr. Campbell is surely in trouble now. At 24 years old, he ought to know that talking to a journalist on the record will get him in trouble. But he didn’t, and now he’ll pay.

Was it worth it? Well, on the one hand you’ve got a piece of journalism with an extra piece of supporting documentation, an actual name to go with the quote. On the other hand, some poor guy is fucked. It just doesn’t seem worth it to me. If I was a journalist I think I would essentially end up coaching less media savvy people to make their quotations anonymous when going on the record would hurt them and add very little to the story. As it is now, it seems to be standard journalistic practice to let a lot of dubious sourcing hide under the cover of anonymity while at the same time fucking over less media savvy people by attaching their names to quotations that will get them in trouble.

Howls of outrage (2)