July 2008

2008 07 30
Recently read: Pinter’s “The Homecoming”

Posted by in: Books, Theatre

Harold Pinter. The Homecoming

The Homecoming referred to in the title of this play is that of Teddy, a philosophy professor, returned from America to his family home in North London, with his wife of six years, Ruth. As the play progresses, Teddy’s family behaves in increasingly sexually inappropriate ways toward Ruth, but neither Teddy nor Ruth respond as one might expect. And then the play ends.

According to the Wikipedia page for this play, “the play’s earliest critics complained that it (like Pinter’s other plays) was “plotless”, as well as “meaningless” and “emotionless” (lacking character motivation), finding the play “puzzling” and not “understanding” that it might have a multiplicity of potential “meanings”.” I think I can be safely counted among those who were puzzled by the play. It’s obviously not meaningless, though, since it has a sort of coherence, and even a sort of awful momentum to it. It’s obviously not inept, since the way that momentum, and the general mood of threatened sexual violence, is built is clearly skillful. But what it means, or why it’s good, if it’s good, is beyond this humble blogger.

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2008 07 28
Recently read: Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal

Posted by in: Books, History, India

William Dalrymple. The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857

The Mughal Empire in Northern India lasted several hundred years, but the final century saw a steep decline in its political fortunes. Although officially the British East India Company still served the Mughal Empire in the year 1857, collecting taxes and administering territory on its behalf, by that time the pretense of service had been almost entirely dispensed with. Still, the arrangement allowed the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, free to occupy his time composing poetry, practicing calligraphy, assembling a highly sophisticated and learned court, and trying, apparently against the odds, to stop other men from knocking up various members of his harem.

As the British consolidated power in India over the first half of the 19th century, their arrogance grew. Whereas an earlier generation of British traders and adventurers had been more ready to adopt local practices and customs, to intermarry, and even in some cases, to convert, by the time of the so-called mutiny of 1857, the British were increasingly distant from, and contemptuous of, the people they had come to live among on the subcontinent.

The mutiny of 1857 began within the private army of the British East India Company. The Company had recently changed the type of firearm carried by the sepoys, the privates in its employ. These were more accurate than the older kind of firearm, but the barrels required more lubrication. With a nearly total disregard for the sensitivities of the high-caste Hindus who made up much of its fighting force, or for the many Muslims who comprised the rest, the company distributed casings which used grease rumoured (accurately, it seems, at least at first) to be made from a mixture of cow fat and pig fat. This piece of stupidity came at the worst time, as the mood within and without the army had already been soured by a variety of recent British insensitivities, and especially by a new wave of British evangelists, eager to win converts among both the army and the civilian population.

The revolt began in Meerut, close to Delhi, and then spread over much of the subcontinent. But it was to Delhi that many of the rebels rallied, since they saw in the octogenarian Zafar a chance to restore the great Mughal Empire while giving the boot to the British. The rebels swept over the British, taking them quite by surprise, and massacring men, women and children who were unable to escape. In Delhi especially, there was a strong religious dimension to the killing, as the rebels tended to spare the British who had converted. It became the most significant uprising faced by any Western colonial power anywhere in the world in the entire nineteenth century.

Zafar hardly knew what to make of the mess. He was 82, indecisive, comfortable, and most alarmed by the undisciplined chaos that the rebels were causing in Delhi. But the British had recently informed him, against his entreaties, that he was to be the last of his line, unable to appoint a successor, as was technically his right. And he suspected, probably correctly, that the rebels would kill him if he didn’t agree to lead them. And so he did, in a manner of speaking.

The British besieged Delhi with a small force, but then quickly found themselves besieged by the much larger force pouring into the city from across Northern India. These numbers were swelled not just by troops formerly in the employ of the British East India Company, but also by Jihadis, looking to expel the Christians from the humbled Muslim kingdom. This made for a formidable opponent for the British, but hardly a unified one. The fundamentalism of the jihadis clashed with the gentle, open-minded Islam of the Mughal Court, and also with many of the Hindu sepoys alongside whom they fought. As the siege progressed, communal and social tensions ate away at the fabric of Delhi society.

In the end, the British won. But it was hardly a foregone conclusion, and there were a number of points at which they might have lost, or at least suffered significant set-backs. When they finally took Delhi, their revenge was absolutely savage. Untrue stories of the rape of British women during the revolt which had circulated for the duration of the siege were apparently inspiration for a number of incidents of rape during the capture of the city. Men, women, and children were massacred, and the women and children who were spared after seeing their husbands and children shot were robbed and expelled, often to die of disease as they searched unsuccessfully for refuge in areas surrounding Delhi. Most of the British were very pleased by all of this, considering the punishment in religious terms as something akin to divine wrath.

William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal is historical writing at its best. Dalrymple somehow manages to combine incisive character sketches of the central figures, grand historical narrative, and sharp moral judgment. He knows the archives well, reads a number of source languages fluently, and has a keen eye for the telling detail. This is a fascinating story with a great deal to tell us about the nature of colonialism, about human beings, and the justifications they offer for the wrongs they do. Before this book, I had never read a book about Indian history. Dalrymple has me excited to read more, and especially to read more of his own books.

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2008 07 28
Do you lack Imagination? Buy it today!

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Yet another awesome review!

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2008 07 27
The Monty Hall Problem

Posted by in: Math, Programming, Python

Thanks to a friend, this morning I learned about the Monty Hall Problem. As she remarked, it is counter-intuitive in the extreme. But I see from the Wikipedia article that even Paul Erdos got it wrong the first time, so I don’t feel too bad about being initially stumped. (If you’re having trouble getting it, I found it very helpful to step back and think about the related N doors puzzle discussed in the Wikipedia article.)

One of the wonderful things about picking up even the slightest bit of programming is that you can test and play around with things like this. The Python programming language makes it especially easy for a beginner to muddle through to a test very quickly:

import random

remainingchoice = []
carcount = 0.0
trials = 100000

for i in range(1, trials):
    possibilities = ['goat', 'goat', 'car']
    if possibilities[1] == 'goat':
for item in remainingchoice:
    if item == 'goat':
        carcount +=1    

print (carcount * 100) / trials

Somehow makes it all seem more solid. Except when I changed the trials variable to 100000000 and my computer was all like “What the fuuuu?” and then Python crashed hard.

Howls of outrage (24)

2008 07 25
G. Polya’s How to Solve It

Posted by in: Books, Math

G. Polya. How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method

This is a book about heuristic, the study “of the methods and rules of discovery and invention,” in which most (but not all) of the examples are drawn from mathematics. Polya is interested in the question of how we go about solving puzzles in general, and, having acquired a facility with problem-solving, how we then go on to teach others the same skill. There’s no straightforward algorithm for problem-solving, but there are general patterns. As Polya never tires of reminding us, we typically need to ask ourselves: What is the unknown? What are the data? Do we know a related problem? Can we use this problem in the solution of our current problem? And so on. These might sound obvious, but there’s a value in having them stated clearly, and significant value in some of Polya’s imaginary discussions with students who are walked through the solutions to puzzles by a teacher making intelligent use of Socratic questioning.

Since it’s about thinking in general, and not just mathematics, I think this book might be read with profit by most people. I imagine it would be especially useful for mathematics teachers, especially because the author clearly has a keen sense of pedagogy. Unfortunately, many of the mathematical examples were a bit over my head, since I’m awfully rusty these days. And the book is marred, in my opinion, by an unconscionable amount of repetition. Still, on the whole a decent book.

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2008 07 23
Pardon me

Reading this, it occurs to me, not for the first time, that the U.S. could benefit substantially by making a fairly minor change to the rules governing Presidential pardons: don’t allow outgoing Presidents to issue them. If Bush wants to pardon a bunch of people preemptively for torture and other war crimes, let him do it before the election and watch his party pay the consequences. Similarly, if Clinton had really wanted to pardon Rich, he should have been forced to do it before the public decided between Gore and Bush.

This one modest change would curb most of the worst abuses you get in the current system. Indeed, the suggestion is so obvious that I’m almost embarrassed to post it here. And yet, go look and see: matters are still arranged in an obvious stupid way, and there’s little sign that things will change any time soon. So perhaps there’s a point in saying the obvious.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 07 23
Hey you, I know you

Posted by in: Psychology


In a report titled “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition,” which appears online in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Nicholas Epley and Erin Whitchurch described experiments in which people were asked to identify pictures of themselves amid a lineup of distracter faces. Participants identified their personal portraits significantly quicker when their faces were computer enhanced to be 20 percent more attractive. They were also likelier, when presented with images of themselves made prettier, homelier or left untouched, to call the enhanced image their genuine, unairbrushed face. Such internalized photoshoppery is not simply the result of an all-purpose preference for prettiness: when asked to identify images of strangers in subsequent rounds of testing, participants were best at spotting the unenhanced faces.


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 07 17
Prolific Roman Poet Knows a lot of Sh*t

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Similarly, I had a friend in college who, when we were seniors, remarked to me that this Ibid guy had an opinion on everything.

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 07 16
Recently read

Rory Stewart. Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

“Those hopeless clods, blundering into Iraq without knowing a damn thing about it. They botched an occupation which might otherwise have gone smoothly. Imagine if individuals of character and integrity, with a real understanding of the West’s colonialist history in Iraq, an understanding of Muslim sensibilities, and a bit of bureaucratic savvy to boot, had been a part of the occupation.”

Except that, of course, the incompetence of the upper management in Iraq notwithstanding, there were many people of real ability, depth and nerve involved in that adventure. Rory Stewart was one of them, and he served as deputy governor of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, both in the South of Iraq. He is also a writer of real ability. He has written a book about his experiences, the upshot of which is bleak for anyone inclined to lean heavily on the incompetence defense for the disasters of the occupation. For he seems to have gone at the work of reconstruction and occupation with great energy, skill and determination, and he left with virtually nothing to show for it. Prince of the Marshes tells his story, and tells it well.

Vera Brittain. Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925

Vera Brittain lost her young fiance in World War I, and then two dear friends, and finally her brother. In 1915, she left Oxford to work as a nurse, caring for wounded soldiers, first in Britain, then Malta, and finally France. Her account of the war, and its shattering effects on her entire generation, is powerful, bitter, and moving. At the close of the war, she resumed her studies at Oxford, and on graduating moved on to a career as a novelist, journalist, and activist for internationalism and feminism. The whole tale is engaging, and Brittain writes persuasively and incisively about her causes, especially feminism. But it is the four deaths, and the struggle that follows to accept and understand the senseless waste of talent and energy they represented, that are so moving, and that form the emotional core of the story.

This is a wonderful book, tying together the personal and the political together in way that illuminates each. I got it out of the library after reading about it here. I’m grateful for the recommendation.

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2008 07 13
Recently read: Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians

Posted by in: Books, History

Lytton Strachey, card-carrying member of the Bloomsbury group, mainly wrote biography. His smash hit was Eminent Victorians, a curious roundabout history-by-way-of-biography based around four Victorian figures. Declaring in the first line of his book that we know too much about the Victorian age to write a history of it, Strachey choses a different method: brief biographies of representative figures. The plan is to attempt a glimpse of a much broader whole, through the keyhole of a few dominating personalities of the period. And what a jaundiced view it turns out to be. Eminent Victorians was written largely during the first World War, and Strachey book is in part an attempt to discredit an entire scheme of values that he felt had culminated in the war.

Strachey’s Eminent Victorians is said to have helped shape the modern approach to biography. But I hope that the influence is selective. Go ahead and keep the style, or at least learn something from it, I think: Strachey’s writing is crisp and disciplined, the delivery nearly unerring. But there is little to learn from Strachey when it comes to fairness and accuracy. This is especially easy to judge in the “definitive edition” of Eminent Victorians put out by Continuum press, which is apparently so anxious to correct possible misunderstandings of Strachey’s subjects that it actually intersperses Strachey’s biographies with brief critical essays, rather than collecting the critical material together at the end of the book, as might have been more conventional. I would usually find an editorial intrusion like this annoying, but in this case I found it welcome and helpful. The critical notes make clear that the portraits of Florence Nightengale and Dr Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby, in spite of a few distortions, come closest to being fair, whereas the biographies of Cardinal Manning and General Gordon are clearly slanderous. Indeed, the afterward to the biography of General Gordon verges on open contempt for Strachey.

Copyright on this work has lapsed, so here’s a little taste of the book. It’s a sketch of Lord Panmure, in charge of the War Office:

That burly Scottish nobleman had not, in spite of his most earnest endeavours, had a very easy time of it as Secretary of State for War. He had come into office in the middle of the Sebastopol campaign, and had felt himself very well fitted for the position, since he had acquired in former days an inside knowledge of the Army—as a Captain of Hussars. It was this inside knowledge which had enabled him to inform Miss Nightingale with such authority that “the British soldier is not a remitting animal.” And perhaps it was this same consciousness of a command of his subject which had impelled him to write a dispatch to Lord Raglan, blandly informing the Commander-in-Chief in the Field just how he was neglecting his duties, and pointing out to him that if he would only try he really might do a little better next time. Lord Raglan’s reply, calculated as it was to make its recipient sink into the earth, did not quite have that effect upon Lord Panmure, who, whatever might have been his faults, had never been accused of being supersensitive. However, he allowed the matter to drop; and a little later Lord Raglan died—worn out, some people said, by work and anxiety. He was succeeded by an excellent red-nosed old gentleman, General Simpson, whom nobody has ever heard of, and who took Sebastopol. But Lord Panmure’s relations with him were hardly more satisfactory than his relations with Lord Raglan; for, while Lord Raglan had been too independent, poor General Simpson erred in the opposite direction, perpetually asked advice, suffered from lumbago, doubted, his nose growing daily redder and redder, whether he was fit for his post, and, by alternate mails, sent in and withdrew his resignation. Then, too, both the General and the Minister suffered acutely from that distressingly useful new invention, the electric telegraph. On one occasion General Simpson felt obliged actually to expostulate. “I think, my Lord [he wrote], that some telegraphic messages reach us that cannot be sent under due authority, and are perhaps unknown to you, although under the protection of your Lordship’s name. For instance, I was called up last night, a dragoon having come express with a telegraphic message in these words, ‘Lord Panmure to General Simpson—Captain Jarvis has been bitten by a centipede. How is he now?’”

General Simpson might have put up with this, though to be sure it did seem “rather too trifling an affair to call for a dragoon to ride a couple of miles in the dark that he may knock up the Commander of the Army out of the very small allowance of sleep permitted him”; but what was really more than he could bear was to find “upon sending in the morning another mounted dragoon to inquire after Captain Jarvis, four miles off, that he never has been bitten at all, but has had a boil, from which he is fast recovering.” But Lord Panmure had troubles of his own. His favourite nephew, Captain Dowbiggin, was at the front, and to one of his telegrams to the Commander-in-Chief the Minister had taken occasion to append the following carefully qualified sentence—”I recommend Dowbiggin to your notice, should you have a vacancy, and if he is fit.” Unfortunately, in those early days, it was left to the discretion of the telegraphist to compress the messages which passed through his hands; so that the result was that Lord Panmure’s delicate appeal reached its destination in the laconic form of “Look after Dowb.” The Headquarters Staff were at first extremely puzzled; they were at last extremely amused. The story spread; and “Look after Dowb” remained for many years the familiar formula for describing official hints in favour of deserving nephews.

Funny! Anyway, I recommend the edition of this book I linked to above, since the essays are clear, readable, and, if you care about fairness, essential. I do think it’s odd that they don’t have footnotes translating little snippets of foreign languages. This surely would have been worthwhile in an edition into which so much thought was already being put. And it’s the sort of thing an editor might have accomplished by 10am on any given day by hauling an academic out of bed at 8am, sitting him at a desk, plying him with coffee, and shouting the occasional encouragement.

Anyway, I think Strachey’s idea that we can form a decent idea of an age by reading cruelly biased accounts of a few of its more interesting characters is obviously loopy. But as far as I can tell, the book does convey something of the feeling that swept over many thinking people in the dying days of World War I that the ideals and the values that people carried with them into the war were rotten. That, and the fact that it’s pretty funny, makes this book a good read.

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2008 07 10
The McCain campaign’s theme song: the obvious choice

What with all the jokes about bombing Iran and killing ordinary Iranians, I’ll be disappointed if McCain’s campaign doesn’t go with this classic tune.

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2008 07 09
Recently Read

Posted by in: Books

Carl Zimmer. Parasite Rex : Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures

What a strange, disgusting, fascinating book! Zimmer, a science journalist and blogger, writes engagingly about parasites and the bewildering range of adaptive behaviours that allow them to survive in their hosts. According to Zimmer, parasites have been relatively neglected by modern biology, and the lack of focus has impoverished our understanding of the host creatures which many biologists have preferred to study in isolation from the parasites that live in them. In fact, Zimmer argues, once we grasp the mechanisms by which parasites take control of host’s bodies, and the thoroughgoing changes they can force on them, we can begin to see that entire ecosystems look completely different than they otherwise would because of parasites. Great fun!

Alison Bechdel. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Thanks to Upyernoz for recommending this. Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel looks back at her father’s life, their relationship, his death, and her coming out. Totally engrossing. From start to finish, I could hardly put it down.

Jeff Warren. The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness

I’ve always thought of “consciousness” as referring to a waking state, but Warren clearly has something broader in mind – awareness or thought of any kind, I think. At any rate, his investigation takes him from the hypnagogic (the quasi-dream state we enter as we fall to sleep), different sorts of dreams, states of consciousness achieved in meditation and hypnosis, and more. Each of these subjects comes in for an interesting and articulate review of the recent scientific literature on the subject, along with some autobiographical musings and experiments of the author’s own. The author is quite funny at times, and at others he’s more than a little loopy. But he’s clearly a smart fellow who has done his homework. Philosophers and neuroscientists might groan over the odd passage, but this is a funny, intelligent book, and I’m glad to have read it.

Howls of outrage (7)

2008 07 03
Should have known

Posted by in: Odds and ends


In a highly unusual admission of error, the Justice Department acknowledged on Wednesday that government lawyers should have known that Congress had recently made the rape of a child a capital offense in the military and should have informed the Supreme Court of that fact while the justices were considering whether death was a constitutional punishment for the crime…Justice Kennedy’s conclusion about the absence of federal law was mistaken.

Surely there is reason to require the Justice Department to apprise the Supreme Court of relevant facts concerning existing laws when this information in relevant to a case. But does the Court always treat paradigm sources of expertise as the exclusive avenue through which they acquire knowledge of this sort? I find it hard to believe that not one amicus brief mentioned this, or that no clerk of Kennedy’s should have known the same thing the Justice Department should have known, especially since one crux of Kennedy’s argument reportedly was that since “child rape was a capital offense in only six states, and not under federal law, the death penalty for the crime did not meet the ‘evolving standards of decency’ by which the court judges capital punishment.” It’s just strange to me that this is being billed as a “Justice Department Fucks Up” story. But maybe there are elements of Supreme Court jurisprudence that supports framing the story that way.

And speaking of strangeness, on a strict reading of the Bill of rights, would any punishment be unconstitutional if it were unusual? The Eighth Amendment says “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” One might argue that the use of a copula entails that unusualness on its own would not sufficient for unconstitutionality; you’d have to have cruelty and unusualness. But it could be argued that this is the wrong way to read the copula. It could be used to express the dicta that no cruel punishments shall be inflicted and that no unusual punishments shall be inflicted. Or, if you didn’t go that route, you could argue that surely it would be sufficient to prove unconstitutionality that the punishment is cruel; it is no defense of a heinous form of punishment that it’s popular. And then if you allow cruelty to be determinative on its own, you should allow unusualness as well.

Basically I’m just talking out my ass. And I don’t care much for literalist interpretations of the Constitution anyway. So I can rest easy, not least because musings such as these are no longer unusual punishment for y’all.

Howls of outrage (14)

2008 07 01

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Today marks the release of Yoon’s latest CD. Listen to samples, and buy, buy, buy here.

Howls of outrage (12)